Colin Gatwood was born in Cleveland, Ohio but grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his father was principal oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and his mother, a violinist, was a freelance musician and teacher. He began his musical studies on the piano at age 5, but by the time he was nine, he had begun taking oboe lessons from his father.
Gatwood is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. His first orchestra job was with the Pittsburgh Symphony, playing second oboe for four years. From there, he went on to join the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra in Mexico, and in 1991, he won the position of second oboe with the Houston Symphony.