Entertaining students with his band at University of Waterloo’s on-campus pub helped launch the career of an engineering alumnus who is the musical director and lead guitarist for Canadian rock musician Shawn Mendes.   

Zubin Thakkar, now a platinum-selling producer, recording engineer and songwriter, formed Prize Fighter about 15 years ago with several other Waterloo students.

A fan-favourite at The Bombshelter, better known as The Bomber, Prize Fighter released its first CD at the pub, which closed its doors in 2018.    

“People were lined up all the way down Ring Road to get into the release party,” recalls Thakkar, pictured below.Zubin

His love of music began in the mid-1990s when he started watching MuchMusic with his sister in the family room of their Kitchener home.

It was the “mind-blowing” guitar playing by bands like the Smashing Pumpkins that led him to convince his parents to buy him a guitar for his birthday when he was in Grade 7.

Thakkar says he became obsessed with his electric six-string, a Yamaha Pacifica.

“I’d take it to school every day, put it in my locker and play it at lunch unplugged in the hallway,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily realize it would lead to something – it was just this awesome thing I was into.”

Mainly self-taught, he began writing and playing his own songs shortly after he received his birthday gift.  

High school directorial debut 

His musical interests expanded when he attended Kitchener’s Forest Heights Collegiate and became involved in Journey, the school’s annual talent show.

Thakkar, who performed a song in the production during his first year of high school, became the student-led show’s director starting in Grade 11.

He says his role as a director was similar to the one he has today with Mendes and many of the other artists he has directed musically.

“It’s obviously on a different scale but the core idea of seeing a production through from start to finish is very much the same,” he says.

After high school, Thakkar decided to pursue systems design engineering at Waterloo where he developed a strong work ethic and the ability to solve difficult problems quickly, qualities, he says, that have served him well with his musical career. 

Co-op job led to financial security while building music career

Thakkar spent one of his engineering co-op terms working on virtual piano modelling for Stephen Birkett, a Waterloo systems design engineering professor, and his final term at D2L, an online-learning software company founded by systems design engineering alumnus John Baker while he was still a Waterloo student.

After graduating from Waterloo in 2007, Thakkar worked part-time remotely for D2L while he pursued his musical career.

In 2009, the Canadian band Hello Operator contacted him when they needed a new guitar player for their cross-country tour. He continued to work for D2L between shows and afterward when he went on and played with different bands.

“I’d be working in the back of the van driving across Canada, in dressing rooms and in hotel rooms,” he says. “D2L was super supportive and let me make my own hours – it was really amazing.”

By 2012, he was earning enough from his music to quit working for D2L and focus solely on his passion.

Three years later, he received a phone call from former bandmate Dan Kanter, Justin Bieber’s musical director. That phone call led to a job as Mendes’ lead guitarist and musical director.

Zubin Thakkar and Shawn Mendes

Zubin Thakkar, left, shares the stage with Shawn Mendes.

During the past six years, Thakkar has directed performances and played with Mendes and his band on the Grammy Awards, The Tonight Show: Starring Jimmy Fallon, 2 appearances on Saturday Night Live (SNL), the American Music Awards, the Ellen Show, X-Factor and the Much Music Video Awards.

He has also been part of sold-out shows at Madison Square Gardens, Staples Center, Wembley Stadium and Rogers Centre in Toronto and three sold-out world tours.

While playing with Mendes, Thakkar has also shared the stage with John Mayer, The Roots, Ed Sheeran, Miley Cyrus, Zedd, Khalid and John Legend. In addition to his live music direction, he has also worked on studio releases with Camila Cabello, Taylor Swift, Boyz II Men, Tyler Shaw and Kira Isabella.

He was a vocal engineer on the Grammy-nominated song “Señorita” by Cabello and Mendes, which was  No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

Bubbling up in LA

During the pandemic last summer, Thakkar travelled to Los Angeles where Mendes and his band filmed several television performances to promote Mendes’ new album “Wonder”, on which he co-wrote the song “Always Been You.”

“Normally when someone releases an album, they’ll do a full promo circuit around the world,” he says. “Obviously, no one can do that right now, so we Zubinbubbled up in LA and shot all the shows in one location.”

Most recently his musical direction and guitar playing were featured in two Netflix specials “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder” and “Shawn Mendes: Live In Concert”, the latter of which was filmed during the singer’s sold-out show at The Rogers Centre in Toronto. He also worked extensively on the audio post-production and provided additional original music for both films.

Zubin Thakkar plays lead guitar at a pre-COVID 19 Shawn Mendes' concert.

A composer for film and TV, Thakkar’s music has been featured on television shows and networks such as Netflix’s “Black Mirror”, CMT, MTV, Nickelodeon, Family Channel, CBC, and by the NFL, NBA, Nascar and Tim Hortons.

Quintessential Waterloo experience   

While the past six years have included a heavy touring and travel schedule, Thakkar spent most of 2020 at his Kitchener home with his wife Tushara, an elementary school music teacher, and their two young sons.

He met Tushara, a Waterloo environmental studies alumnus, at The Bomber where, as a student, she also played as part of a band.

“Our bands would open and close for each other at The Bomber,” he says. “That place was so quintessential to my experience at Waterloo and everything that’s happened since then.”

All story photos by Josiah Van Dien