World Music Day: Meet the Guitar Geek architect who has collection of over 60 Vintage Guitars and amplifiers

Akshat Bhatt in his Music Studio

World music day is on 21st June. It celebrates music and people who celebrate music. Music is a passion that transcends boundaries and barriers. Akshat Bhatt, an architecture by profession, has a staggering collection of over 60 Vintage Guitars and amplifiers. From owning guitars as old as time to playing the ones that are as little as 5mm thick and play like a dream, living with Akshat can get really rhythmic and loud! All his instruments are rare collectibles and are very special to him. He says that each and every guitar that he owns has some story to tell, a story that is deeply connected to him. They all are unique and precious in their own special way. In conversation with Financial Express Online on the occasion of World Music Day, Akshat Bhatt talked about his abiding passion for Music, Design and Guitars and how he became an artist and a Guitar Geek. Excerpt:

When did you discover your love for the guitar?

I picked up the guitar at around 13, when we got cable TV. Before that, I used to play a couple of other instruments, shifting from a Hawaiian guitar to the bongo and then the keyboard. I remember the first moment when the guitar caught my fancy to this day — a Guns N’ Roses music video was playing on MTV, with Slash playing the solo to November Rain. He was standing in front of a chapel with the wind blowing through his hair — it was an absolutely glorious sight. I got immediately fascinated and told myself that I have to get a guitar.

So, I picked up the guitar and the Guns N’ Roses song purely because it looked cool at first. In time, I discovered other greats like Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dream Theater, Megadeth, and realised my first influence (Guns N’ Roses) was not good enough. In order to make up for lost time, I would spend a few extra hours every day practicing on the edge of my bed. That took my count to an average of 18 hours a day of repetitive scales, modes, and music theory, and resulted in a 5db hearing loss in my right ear (which is where I used my in-ear monitors; I can’t blame the drummer).

When did you begin collecting guitars and why?

I have been very lucky – sometimes when you want something, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. Rather than me finding them, guitars actually find me, often at the end of a long wild goose chase. There’s a guitar that I chased for 17 years, that I had sold in Delhi and found later in Germany. There is an instrument that my mother offered to buy for me in 1994, which I finally bought in 2013 after an eBay bidding war.

Then there are other pieces that I found by chance, like the Silhouette I mentioned earlier. Yet another guitar that I saw in Singapore in 2006 was found by a friend in 2012 in the very same store — six years later, preserved safely in their vault.

The oldest guitar that I have is 15 years older than me, but I also have pieces that are as thin as 5mm, play like a dream, and are the future. I have around 80 guitars, amplifiers, pedals, and all sorts of stuff (try living with me, it really does get loud)! Almost every instrument that I have is special. I found most of them by chance in random guitar stores or fairs, or through people who had a special piece and didn’t know its value.

Could you share an interesting anecdote about your guitar collection?

In 2009, I was in Hong Kong for work, and on my way back I chanced upon an instrument that I fell in love with – a Music Man 20th-anniversary Silhouette. I never thought that I’d ever get to play a Silhouette or even enjoy playing it, but it resonated with me in a way that no other instrument had. The salesperson offered to sell it to me for a princely sum, but he would only take cash in Hong Kong Dollars. As a money-changer converted my US dollars, I relayed my story to a friend who called up. She dissuaded me from buying the exorbitantly-priced piece because I was, well, broke, and I relented.

I went on my way without purchasing the guitar, hailing a cab to the airport to return to Delhi. She called me again, saying, “On the other hand, you only live once. This is something you’re really passionate about, so why don’t you go and get the piece?” But now, I was stuck in one-way traffic, really close to missing my flight, so I didn’t go back.

But I couldn’t get it out of my head – two days later, I called up a friend who went to Hong Kong, giving him the store’s address and the name of the salesperson and asking him to go look for it. I also called the store to let them know about my friend, which was when they told me that they couldn’t sell the guitar to him as the main salesperson wasn’t at the store. My friend had to leave for India the same day, so he too came back without the guitar.

Two years later, I was in Singapore to attend a friend’s lecture. I landed early and had a few hours to kill, so I headed to the Peninsula Plaza to browse through some guitars. Hanging on the wall in a store there was the same 20th-anniversary Silhouette. I was thrilled – I forgot all about my plans, and asked if I could buy the guitar. And I finally did – after waiting for two hours for the owner to show up, inspecting the piece, and giving every penny that I had to buy it. I walked all the way to my friend’s lecture with the guitar in my hands and no cab fare, but with a wide grin on my face.

How do you procure your guitars?

I have been very lucky – sometimes when you want something, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. Rather than me finding them, guitars actually find me.. They take years to find me, often leading me on wild goose chases. There’s a guitar that I chased for 17 years, that I had sold in Delhi and found later in Germany. There is an instrument that my mother offered to buy for me in 1994, which I finally bought in 2013 after an eBay bidding war. The oldest guitar that I have is 15 years older than me, but I also have pieces that are as thin as 5mm, play like a dream, and are the future. I have around 80 guitars, amplifiers, pedals, and all sorts of stuff (try living with me, it really does get loud)!

Then there are other pieces that I found by chance, like the Silhouette I mentioned earlier. Yet another guitar that I saw in Singapore in 2006 was found by a friend in 2012 in the very same store — six years later, preserved safely in their vault.

Almost every instrument that I have is special. I found most of them by chance in random guitar stores or fairs, or through people who had a special piece and didn’t know its value.

Who’s your all-time favourite guitarist?

To me, Eddie Van Halen is the greatest guitarist of all time. Ron Thal ‘Bumblefoot’ is my current favourite guitar player, as are Paul Gilbert, Mattias IA Eklundh, and Mika Tyyskä.

Could you talk about some of your pieces that are special to you?

The first guitar that I got, at the age of 13, was from an Indian company called Echo Music which doesn’t exist anymore. I got it and destroyed it pretty quickly, on stage or while playing it in jam sessions. The first real instrument that I got was from a junkie – it was a rare Gibson Les Paul, and I bought it for a handsome sum at that time after begging and pleading with my parents. It was a heavy instrument (around 15 kilos) and it was my main instrument from 1993 till the 2000s that I spent my formative years playing. I would sit in a corner and play for around twenty hours in a day on this guitar. It was a special piece to me, and much later, when looking up the history of this instrument, I discovered in 2000 that it was a very rare piece and had huge value in the collector’s market.

The most recent acquisition I’ve made is a Strandberg, a headless electric guitar which I acquired from the famed guitar maker Ola Strandberg in Sweden. I happened to be there one Christmas and I reached out to him, asking if he could spare me a guitar from his workshop. He left two guitars for me in a guitar store to try on my way to the airport. I went over, and had the privilege of acquiring a guitar which was personally dropped off for me by Ola Strandberg.

Yet another piece that is very dear to me is the Peavey Wolfgang. In the year 2000, I chanced upon it in a music store on Denmark Street in London – a limited release of the newly designed instrument which the world hadn’t really seen before. It was also understandably expensive, so I moved on and browsed the store for a different piece. In 2004, I saw a pair of the same guitar in Singapore, but I left the store again without buying the guitar.

In 2009, a friend of mine was in Singapore and asked what I wanted, and as a joke, I asked her to buy this guitar for me. I directed her to the store (the Swee Lee store in Bras Basah complex), knowing fully well that the guitar had not been in production for many years, and therefore had no chance of being there. The store manager also couldn’t find the guitar in their directory! But on opening the listening room, they found a black Peavey case with a gold Peavey Wolfgang inside, and a few Post-Its reading “Akshat’s Peavey Wolfgang”. That was a sign that it was meant to be – I finally purchased the guitar that I first saw in 2000.

How does music influence your work as an architect?

Music and architecture run side by side for me; I have a music room in my studio with my guitars arranged on the walls. I believe that beyond a point you don’t need external influences to feel inspired. You can engage in creative dialogue the moment you seek the impetus to start. For me, music is meditative, it cuts out the rest of the world. I don’t listen to music to get the creative process going; it has become a part of who I am.

When I was growing up, studying was limited to reading something and then memorizing and regurgitating it — you were never asked to analyse or post-rationalise it. Music allowed me to develop that habit, which is something that has carried through into my work as an architect. Studying music also gave me a certain resolve to get to an acrobatic level of excellence in everything that I do.

I have realised that my attitude to music and my quest for progressive expression was shaped by my engagement with the guitar as an instrument. Playing the guitar led me to progressive rock and metal music, which also shaped my socio-political views. Before I studied architecture formally, I was already studying music and it gave me an insight on how to use a universal language to create a regional or personalized expression. Over the years, it combined with my education in architecture to cement my beliefs on progress, optimism, sustainable development, and a strong work ethic.

I design in a stream of consciousness. It’s like playing the guitar — sometimes your instrument speaks to you, sometimes it’s your mood, sometimes it’s your body, sometimes it’s what you’ve heard, and sometimes it’s what you’re thinking. It’s a reaction to something.

What would your ideal wake-up playlist sound like?

i) Effortless by Mr. Fastfinger

ii) Passive by A Perfect Circle

iii) The Fountain by Pendulum

iv) Great Blue Waves by Mr. Fastfinger

v) Sex and Religion by Steve Vai

vi) Imagine by A Perfect Circle

vii) How Many Say I by Van Halen

viii) New Day Rising by Von Hertzen Brothers

ix) Creep by Scala & Kolacny Brothers

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