Noel Gallagher, Chris Martin, Richard Hawley...Gordon White’s client list reads like a who’s who of the music industry. Catherine Scott talks to the guitar repairer to the stars.
Sitting in his cramped workshop above Dawsons Music Shop in Leeds city centre surrounded by rows of guitars and piles of cardboard boxes, Gordon White is hard at work.
For more than 20 years he has looked after the guitars of some of the music industry’s greats and as we chat he is busy working on one of Richard Hawley’s trademark guitars.
He has worked with the Sheffield singer/songwriter for years and still accompanies him on gigs, making sure his guitars are in top working order.
“Richard is great to work with. He just loves guitars.”
Over the years White has also been guitar technician to some of the music industry’s top names: Chris Martin, Noel Gallagher, Kaiser Chiefs, The Cure, the list goes on. Now when not touring with Hawley, he runs his business, Single Coil Guitar Repairs.
“When I got married and started a family I realised that I couldn’t be on the road living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle eight months of the year any more. So I decided to concentrate on guitar repairs.”
There was a time when White was the one performing on stage.
He moved to Leeds from his native Glasgow 30 years ago when he came to the city to study fine art at what was then the polytechnic.
“Like most fine art students I ended up playing in a band,” says White. “We’d find instruments in skips. Someone found an accordion and so he became the accordion player. We were called Ritzun, Ratzun, Rotzer and we were dreadful, really.”
But not everyone seems to have agreed with White’s condemnation of his student band.
Andy Kershaw, who was entertainment secretary at Leeds University, went to watch them play at a charity festival and liked what he heard.
“We did a couple of Radio 1 sessions for Andy. It was the 1980s and we saw ourselves as an antidote to the New Romantics. We played something we called punk skiffle – a bit like the Pogues, but we were rather arrogant.”
The band played the indie circuit up and down the country and paid to have an EP made.
“It cost us £2.50 for four tracks which we recorded on an old two-track recorder our accordion player found on Leeds Market,” says White, who played guitar and harmonica. “We were quite experimental and this racket came out which held together in some kind of form.”
Ritzun, Ratzun Rotzer started to get some coverage in the music magazines of the time and then the legendary John Peel picked it up and played it a few times on his show.
“He was an incredible man; he had a brain like a library,” recalls White. “I met him at a festival many years later and he not only remembered playing us on his show he remembered us on Andy Kershaw and said he didn’t like that session but he liked the EP.”
Although White doesn’t believe his band was destined for greatness, it was cut short after the accordion player was involved in an accident – the drainpipe he was climbing under the influence gave way and he fell, causing terrible injuries and putting an end to the band’s dreams.
“I realised that I wasn’t a great guitar player and I wasn’t going to be carrying on.”
So when White, who had finished his degree, was asked if he’d drive fellow Leeds band Cud to a gig in Preston he agreed.
“They paid me £10, and I couldn’t believe it.”
He started to help set up the band’s gear and helped to tune their guitars.
“Before I knew it I was doing quite a few tours with them, looking after their guitars as they played 2,000 capacity gigs across the country.”
The music industry is a small world and the more people White got to know, the more he was in demand from other bands. For 10 years he worked with chart toppers Embrace as they toured Europe and Japan.
“They were a great band to work with. All the band and the crew got on really well,” says White who lives in Burley in Wharfedale with his wife and two children, aged 11 and six. As the man in charge of the band’s guitars, White had a huge responsibility, which included setting up the amps and pedals, doing the sound check and ensuring all the guitars were in good working order.
“It can be very daunting walking out on to the stage and looking out at the massive audience. My job is the make they have the right guitar for the right song at the right time – and that they are in tune. Some musicians use a small number of guitars, while others can have loads.”
Richard Hawley has 150 guitars although he normally uses around 12 per gig. After every song White will retune the guitar, using an electric tuner, and make sure that Hawley has the right instrument for the right song. Any strings that get broken have to be repaired in time for when the guitar is next needed. Although according to White, Richard Hawley has never broken a string.
“Some people get through strings at a ridiculous rate and I have to make sure I have a big supply of spare strings with me. But Richard never breaks strings.”
Many of Hawley’s guitars are vintage instruments and worth thousands.
“He has just bought a 1956 Gretsch,” explains White. “It’s worth around £30,000. The first thing he did when he bought it was bring it round to me. I realised that it needed completely rewiring. Because of what they are you do get a bit nervous about working on them. Collectors want them to be entirely original, as it affects their value. But I had to explain to Richard that if he wanted to play it then I had to rewire it.”
In a testimonial on White’s website (www.singlecoil.co.uk), Richard Hawley writes: “He (Gordon) is an expert guitar repairer and all round guitar guru. Gordon has been all over the globe with me and I trust him completely with my vintage gear, I don’t say this lightly I would never recommend someone if they weren’t top drawer stuff.”
When White talks about touring in the 80s and 90s it reads like a who’s who of the music industry. Noel Gallagher, David Gray, Nick Cave, Joe Strummer, Duanne Eddie, Richard Hawley – the list goes on.
“It all came about from being around and someone ringing me up and asking me if I can do this or that and be at a particular venue at a particular time.”
As a result White has an endless supply of rock ’n’ roll stories. He recalls working with The Cure at a gig at the Royal Albert Hall.
“It was difficult because the way the Royal Albert hall is tiered. In the middle of one of the songs Robert (Smith) broke one of his strings and I had to go on stage and change one of the guitars.
“The embarrassing thing is that you are doing it in front of a crowd, sometimes at a festival as many as 10,000 people. If you mess things up you are messing it up in front of an audience.”
White recounts the time he gave one musician the wrong guitar for the wrong song and another time when the conditions at a festival had made the neck of one of Hawley’s guitar flatten out minutes before he was due to go on stage, making it out of tune. “I had to stop the band going on stage so that I could restring and then retune it. The audience had already seen the band and I really didn’t have long enough to tune it properly. When Richard started to play he knew it wasn’t tuned properly and he just stared at me. I felt terrible. We swapped guitars the next song change and that one was fine.”
When he was technician for Duane Eddy, when the 75-year-old American was playing Glastonbury it was uncharacteristically hot.
“The guitars were all going out of tune because of the heat,” recalls White. “I couldn’t see the tuner because the sun was shining so brightly. People don’t realise that the weather can have a real affect on the instruments.”
He also remembers being caught up in the Manchester IRA bombing in 1996 while on tour with the band Puressence.
“We were staying in a hotel close to the Arndale Centre right next to the van which had the bomb in. We were leaving the hotel going towards the police cordon and had just turned a corner when the van blew up. We were blown off our feet and then started running. But then we thought that people might have been injured so we turned round and tried to go back, but the police wouldn’t let us.”
Instead the band used their van to help ferry people from their hotel to another hotel in the city.
When you meet Gordon White, who is now 50, it hard to imagine the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle that used to be an integral part of his life. As he lovingly handles the guitars which are his livelihood he says although he wouldn’t push his own children into the music industry he wouldn’t put them off it either.
“I wouldn’t steer them towards music, but touring with a band is a great way to see the world and to meet amazing people from all walks of life. I have never regretted it for a moment.”