In this edition of Bought & Sold, Kavus Torabi checks in with Guitarist to discuss his life in gear – the acoustic and electric guitars that have meant the most to him and the ones that got away.
As guitarist for Gong and The Utopia Strong, Torabi needs a lot of sounds. But, as he confesses, he doesn’t stray too far from the marital bed when it comes to guitars. When you find one you like, you hold it close…
What was the first serious guitar you bought with your own money
“I was in a metal band [when I was a teenager] and I had this Kramer Focus, which was a one-pickup, slopey headstock thing with a Floyd Rose and a locking nut – but I never really liked it; I never really felt a connection with it. But it was my metal guitar because the bass player of the band didn’t like the idea of me playing a Westone Spectrum before that! So he bought this guitar for me and wanted me to pay him back, though I never really responded to it.
“When that band was over, I suppose I was moving away from metal and I loved the idea of having a 335 or something like that – I was really into hollowbodies. I found another Westone – a Westone Rainbow – which is a beautiful kind of birdseye maple guitar like a 335, although the horns are slightly pointier. It’s a really beautiful guitar and it was secondhand in this music shop but I had no way of affording it because I was on the dole.
“So with the aid of a friend of mine, who was working for the Prince’s Trust, I said I was going to need one of these guitars because I was going to start a new life as a guitar teacher. I put in the proposal and I got the funding for it. And so I got this beautiful Westone Rainbow, which I still have, and played that for about the next 10 years.”
What was the last guitar that you bought (or acquired) and why?
“I have to say, as a caveat, I really don’t need any more guitars. I have friends with lots, but I’m fairly monogamous when it comes to guitars [however] this is quite interesting… So Gong was playing at the Electric Ballroom last year, and after I came offstage, this guy called Alone Sage grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, look, I’m from Israel. I have a boutique company called Coils that makes pickups.’
“And then he said, ‘I’ve made this guitar... it’s the best guitar I’ve ever made and I’ve been looking for someone to give it to. And after I saw you play, I wanted you to have it. Give me your address and I’ll send it to you when I get back to Israel.’ It was quite ridiculous and I was very, very flattered.
“So we exchanged addresses, and I was in London recording with Gong when I got a message from the shipping company saying I needed to pay import tax of over a thousand pounds. So I had to get back to Alone with a copy of this receipt and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t pay for this guitar, I just don’t have that money.’ And he said, ‘Oh, this is a mistake. You shouldn’t have to pay a penny for it.’
“And he paid the tax on this thing! So it turned up and it’s in this beautiful case, and it’s made of a lovely piece of swamp ash and it doesn’t look like any other guitar I’ve seen.
“It sort of sounds a bit like a Les Paul and it’s got this lovely kind of Bigsby-style trem. It’s called the ‘Nilus’, which apparently is the God of the Nile. The body looks a bit like a cross between a Les Paul and an Iceman. I feel extremely fortunate that this happened to me.”
What’s the strongest case of buyer’s remorse you’ve ever had after buying a piece of gear?
“Years ago, when I was playing in Mediaeval Baebes, I didn’t have an acoustic and I was borrowing one. I needed one, so I went to Denmark Street. Now, I find guitar shops very intimidating – even then, when I was in my late-30s. So I went to Denmark Street and didn’t really know what I was looking for with an acoustic because I’d never had one before.
“There was this lovely-looking one and I was kind of wowed by the inlays on it. It was a busy shop and I felt intimidated being there, so I had a quick play on it and thought, ‘Yeah, this is great.’ I think it was about 350 quid… I don’t remember what the make was. But, yeah, I thought, ‘This is cool and it’s got a pickup… but then I got it home and really, it wasn’t a great guitar at all, you know? It didn’t sound good, it didn’t particularly record nicely.
“However, the good thing about it was I got to take it all around the world on tour and I wasn’t that worried. I didn’t have that anxiety about if I opened the case and the neck’s snapped. It was just like: ‘Meh! Well, you know… it’s not that good, anyway.’ But, later, when I bought myself a proper acoustic I spent a couple of hours trying out loads of them until I was happy. So I learned a lesson there. But yes, I don’t miss that one at all. In fact, I haven’t even thought about it until that question [laughs].”
Have you ever sold a guitar you now intensely regret selling?
“I’ve never really sold guitars; I’ve given them away. If people wanted to borrow them I might say, ‘Oh, keep it, you know?’ But no, I’ve never really sold them – I mean, just for the sort of sentimentality of it, my first-ever guitar, a crappy old Satellite, might be fun to still have because it was my first-ever guitar. But I think I gave it away.”
What’s your best guitar-buying tip?
“Oh, God, I don’t know. Because I sort of flippantly say: ‘All guitars sound the same and go for whatever looks good.’ But that’s not really true [laughs]. Actually, it’s so strange how even the same model of guitar will differ from one to another, as I found out when I bought my White Falcon – I tried a couple of the new Japanese ones in the early 2000s and one of them felt like ‘mine’ and the other didn’t – I don’t think it was just down to how they were set up.
“So the only tip I can think of is to really play any guitar you’re thinking of buying and give yourself at least a good half-hour… It’s almost like trying out a pair of speakers or monitors. Certainly with my current acoustic guitar, I went into the shop with about five pieces [ready prepared] that I would be playing on it live, to see how comfortable it felt.”
If forced to make a choice, would you rather have a really good guitar and a cheap amp or a cheap guitar and a top-notch amp?
“Oh, a really good guitar. Because in terms of amps, particularly when touring abroad, you’re always at the mercy of whatever is being provided for you. But the guitar itself, that’s always your instrument. I mean, I’m always happy to let people use my amp, you know, but I’ve only once or twice let people use my guitar. I’m not exactly at Steve Howe levels of guardedness about my guitars [laughs] but still, I’d much rather have a nice guitar.”
If you could only use humbuckers or single coils for the rest of your career, which would it be and why?
“I only got my first guitar with single coils – the Jazzmaster – in 2019. Prior to that I always had guitars with humbuckers and I got used to that sound. But I’m impressed with how punchy the single coils are. And apart from the hum that comes from them, I’ve really liked how creamy and direct they sound.
“If you’d asked me this question about five years ago, I would have just said, ‘Well, humbuckers’. But from this point onwards, I think I’m on a journey into the world of single coils. I really, really like the sound of them.”