Canadian Musician


A Conversation With… Dan Kanter

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Justin Bieber’s guitarist & musical director Dan Kanter

Welcome to a new regular series from Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn. In addition to his own solo career and a line of guitar method books called Hidden Sounds, Jeff is also the guitarist for acts such as Emmanuel Jal and Kae Sun. In this edition of “A Conversation With…”, Gunn speaks with Dan Kanter, musical director and guitarist for international superstar Justin Bieber.

I clearly remember a conversation I had 10 years ago following a rehearsal when I posed a question to a young guitarist: “What are you going to do after university?” With absolute certainty, he responded: “I am going to be a rock star.”

The conviction in his voice stuck with me all of these years. That young guitarist was Dan Kanter, 10 ten years on, he has realized his dreams, playing the world’s greatest venues from Wembley Stadium to Madison Square Garden as both guitarist and musical director for Justin Bieber.

Kanter’s story is one of inspiration for the aspiring guitarist. Endless hours of practice, a passion for creating music, and fearlessly pursuing new opportunities resulted in Kanter landing the role as guitarist for Fefe Dobson back in 2002.  He had the opportunity to tour North America, Europe, and Asia, appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and opened for Justin Timberlake.  Next, he would become the musical director/guitarist for Canadian act Shiloh, all the while pursuing his Masters in Ethnomusicology at York University.  His experiences on the road and in recording studios garnered him a name in the Canadian music industry and would ultimately lead him towards his big break in 2009.

One day, out of the blue, Kanter received a phone call from a contact at Universal Records to perform with a teenage singer named Justin Bieber who was just starting to create a buzz back. During their first show together (a live performance on MuchMusic) Kanter and Bieber connected both musically and on a personal level; in Kanter’s own words, “a common love of hockey and Tim Hortons would mark the beginning of our friendship.”  By the end of that day, Kanter had landed the gig as Bieber’s guitarist and as their shows gained momentum moving from theatres to stadiums, eventually he would become musical director on Bieber’s 2010-2011 My World Tour.

Justin Bieber & Dan Kanter

Since 2009, Kanter has lived every guitarist’s dream – touring the globe while playing to tens of thousands each night. Some of the more memorable gigs have been performing on Saturday Night Live, The Grammy Awards, and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve musical extravaganza in Times Square. He appears in the film Never Say Never (2011) and has starred in Canadian TV series The Next Star (2011) producing songs and mentoring up and coming performers on the show.  Kanter is endorsed by D’Addario and Gibson, performing nightly on his Custom Zakk Wylde Les Paul Bullseye. Along the way, Kanter has met many of his musical heroes including Zakk Wylde, James Hetfield and Paul Shaffer, and has performed with everyone from Usher to Stevie Wonder.

Kanter is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, piano, and drums, and is also a producer. He produced Bieber’s My Worlds Acoustic album – acoustic renditions of Bieber’s songs in a similar spirit to David Matthews’ and Tim Reynolds’ acoustic albums (Kanter is a huge David Matthews fan).  In his spare time, he even helped program the lights for various opening acts on Bieber’s My World Tour.

What sets Kanter apart from other musicians I’ve interviewed is his attention to the theatrical nature of musical performance.  He regards lighting, backdrops, and wardrobe as quintessential elements of a great show that require as much focus and development as the songs being performed.

During our interview, I took the opportunity to pose several questions to Kanter about life on the road with Justin Bieber.

JG: What have been the highlights of performing with Justin Bieber?

DK:  For starters, Justin is just such a great kid – a great musician and performer to work with. To see him develop over the past several years has been rewarding and performing with him on tour is a highlight itself. As for gigs, highlights have included performing on Saturday Night Live, at Wembley Stadium, and with musicians like Carlos Santana – not to mention the ‘winging it’ atmosphere that characterized our [Kanter and Bieber’s] Christmas TV special performance at Massey Hall in Toronto [2011].  I didn’t know beforehand what songs Justin would call – I just went with him as he improvised the evening set! The greatest highlight of my musical career and life for that matter, tied only with my wedding ceremony, was playing “Hatikva” [the Israeli national anthem] to 70,000-plus fans in Israel in 2011.

JG: What does your typical day on tour entail?

DK: A typical day on tour with Justin includes hitting the gym, doing a sound check, and if time permits, exploring the city or perhaps recording before returning at 6 p.m. for the “family dinner” we have before each show with Justin and members of our team.

JG: Describe your warm-up routine before shows.

DK: Before each show Justin and I do 30-45 minutes of vocal warm-ups with my guitar in hand; that’s how we get in the zone. You can see our typical warm-up in Never Say Never.

JG: What is your advice for up-and-coming guitarists?

DK: Woodshed and work on specific techniques. For instance, spend a lot of time on slide guitar until the technique is mastered. Practice and learn as many styles as you can. Learn your musical part well and learn to work well with others; personality comes through in performance. Learn to take criticism and always be prepared for rehearsals and shows. Also, use social media to your advantage in order to gain greater exposure. Twitter is a great tool [Kanter has over 500,000 followers].

JG: Where do you see yourself in the future?

DK: I will continue to perform and record with Justin. The whole experience has been life changing and I am grateful for the opportunity. I also see myself teaching and developing the songwriting aspect of my career further.

Sitting across from Dan Kanter 10 years after that initial rehearsal and following his many successes, it’s clear that his passion for music and friendly personality remain stronger than ever. Kanter has achieved remarkable feats in the music industry and remains an inspiration for all musicians – showing us that the sky is the limit if we work hard and truly believe.


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