Eavesdropping on all-guitar ensemble Gitbox Rebellion

An article about Gitbox Rebellion.
Cover photo by Sean Dominic Rundle

It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in Auckland, and I’m driving toward Point Chevalier along the north-western motorway. I’m travelling to check out Gitbox Rebellion, a group of musicians that I’ve heard bits and pieces about over the years.

A guitar-only group, Gitbox Rebellion is the creation of guitar maestro Nigel Gavin. He formed Gitbox in the late ‘80s, and after a lengthy hiatus, Nigel reformed the band one year ago with a mainly new line-up.

When I arrive at Gitbox’s rehearsal space, a garage belonging to a member of the band, I see the group seated in a circle playing one of their tunes.

After a few minutes, the tune is finished, and Nigel introduces me. Someone offers me a chair and apologises about its short legs. I tell him that I have short legs, too, so it’s okay.

At full strength, Gitbox Rebellion is 10 strong. Today, though, there are just seven guitarists present — one recently left the group, and two others couldn’t make it.

Members of Gitbox Rebellion rehearsing.

Practice is twice a week at various locations, so it takes plenty of commitment to be a ‘Gitbox Rebel’, particularly as many in the group also play for other acts. Sonia Wilson, one of two ladies in the group, for example, performs original songs as a singer/guitarist, and Peter Kirkbride, who built his own guitar, sings in a gospel choir.

Gitbox is about to begin another tune, and I ask if it’s okay to film them. “No problem,” they say, so I head to where I think the light will be best at the front of the garage.

To me, Gitbox fits comfortably into the world music genre — they remind me of Afro Celt Sound System without the drums. Nigel mentions gamelan (traditional ensemble music from Indonesia) as an inspiration, and with all Gitbox’s ‘moving parts,’ I know what he means.

Update: check out this review of Gitbox playing at the Bunker.

Gitbox is very much an organic thing, and there is plenty of eye contact and gesturing among members to indicate who’s to play what. In many of their tunes, they play, what I call, ‘musical tag’ (go to 1:42 on the video to see) where one guitarist plays a phrase and then turns to the guitarist sitting next to him/her to signal that they’re ‘it.’ This game continues around the circle.

Gitbox Rebellion during rehearsal.
Gitbox Rebellion performing at Artspace in Devonport, Auckland.

There can be as many as ten guitarists in Gitbox, so, as you’d expect, there is a lot happening simultaneously, which is fascinating. When, though, several guitarists play the same part in unison, the dynamics are awesome. If you’ve ever listened to the campfire classic Ten Guitars and mused about what ten guitars might actually sound like, I’m getting a pretty good idea.

A similar article you may enjoy: Jazzin’ on the blues: Q & A with Kim Simmonds

Once practice is over, I ask how someone gets to become a member of Gitbox. Nigel quips that they have to laugh at his jokes. However, it seems there are no hard-and-fast requirements  — one of the neat things about the group is that there is room for musicians of different skill levels.

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Sonia says that some very accomplished guitarists have shown interest in joining; however, many find it hard to “disappear into the group.” What she means is that there are no ‘rock stars’ in Gitbox — despite Nigel’s ability to foot it in ‘guitar gymnastics’ with any hard-rock shredder. Gitbox’s values are staunchly egalitarian.

Practice is over now, and I think how lucky I am to have been able to sit in on such an fascinating practice session.

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Andrew Healey

Editor

Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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