Interview: Wirebird Guitars, Best of London Art/Design

As part of RHA’s guide to London, we’ve caught up with Sam Walker; creator of Wirebird Guitars, a bespoke custom guitar shop in East London. Over an impressive career Sam has worked on unique guitars for a huge range of music artists and guitarists, including Gomez, Amy Winehouse, Supergrass and many, many more.

It's very apparent that you’re passionate about your craft: who was the first person to put a guitar in your hands?

I was actually a double bass player; I took a weird path. A music teacher asked if I wanted to try playing the double bass; later on I found out that she’d seen my mum driving a beat up old camper van and thought: “if anyone can move this around, she can”. I moved from there to the bass guitar, which is how I ended up around guitar music. That led to an informal apprenticeship at the Gallery in Camden: a bass shop that made high-end bass guitars. So it’s a weird love affair, I’ve always come at guitars more as a builder than a player. I can hold my own on a bass; still a bit of a beginner on the guitar.

You’ve successfully established and developed your own brand: what does Wirebird bring to the industry?

It’s really about the player in all aspects of design. I’ve been repairing and modifying guitars for a long time and you get a lot of guitars that do things they weren’t necessarily meant to do. Ideally, as a musician and as an artist, you don’t want to be fighting against your gear. You should be able to pick it up and feel like it will not only do what you need it to, but exceed what you thought you could do as a player.

Part of the appeal of my guitars is that you’re never going to run into someone with the same guitar as you; it’s special when you’re in an industry with companies that can turn out thousands of guitars a day.

What are the core values you adhere to in the design and development of your instruments?

I think you need to ask yourself: does this guitar fill a gap?, does it need to exist? I see a lot of companies making a lot of models but I’ve always thought; you should do few things, become good at them and do them very, very well. I’ve always loved early 50s guitar design, but I wanted to see if it was possible to make a traditional, simple, elegant-looking instrument that was technically capable of using new techniques.

It’s very hard to convince guitarists to break away from their preconceived notions of what a guitar looks like! But, feedback is incredibly important; you can be precious about your work and get to the point where ‘everybody loves this’, but it can be more rewarding when you’ve done 90% of the work and the musician has worked with you: ‘here’s how we get the final 10%’.

You’re the first to admit you have strong opinions on guitars, and even lose sleep over the finer details. What are the small things you worry about that other builders overlook?

The short answer is absolutely everything. It’s a bit of a nightmare, but it’s the same for any craftsperson or artist. You become obsessed with every aspect of making the instrument better, whether it’s an aesthetic tweak or a construction decision. It hits me at such weird times; I remember giving my son a bottle of milk at 3am then staring at a guitar bridge on the wall and thinking ‘I wonder if I could get a humbucker magnet diagonally through that hole?’, not ‘I should really get some sleep’.

Anything that you had to say ‘nope, that’s too crazy’?

Kind of - I remember having a conversation with Dez from The Safety Fire about the purple paisley guitar I did for him and trying to convince him ‘go for it, it’s going to work, trust me’ and looking at his face and thinking ‘ah, he’s not sure. I might have pushed this a bit too far’.

As a boutique guitar maker, you could have set up shop anywhere. Why London?

I was born here, but I’ve travelled and worked all around the world. I guess I came back because London has a real vibracy; a very creative atmosphere. The rent is about 10 million times higher than anywhere else and sometimes when I look at guitar builders on Instagram who have huge workshops in the countryside I wonder ‘why am I doing this to myself?’. But I’d miss the community and musicians; I’m very conscious of not moving away from such a source of inspiration. It gives you get access to those outside voices that say ‘it’s missing this’ and ask ‘have you tried this?’ and keep pushing you to improve.
There’s a vibrant and multicultural scene right on your doorstep; in a week I can see a rock show on Monday, catch up with friends playing jazz on Tuesday, then a punk show at the Underworld, hardcore in Campden; the next band to break America in a dive bar in Hoxton.

You have a very envious resume; you’ve worked with many notable musicians. What would you consider the highlight so far?

I’ve been very fortunate to tick so many things on the bucket list. I inlaid a guitar for Amy Winehouse that she used when she was headlining Glastonbury; that was cool to see. Years ago when I was at Gibson Jimmy Paige was in the workshop teaching me yoga; I had mentioned that my back was hurting. I remember coming home and thinking ‘that was not a normal day at work’.
And convincing Dez from The Safety Fire that a purple paisley guitar was a good idea when 90% of the band were playing pointy, black guitars.

Alive or dead, who would you want to build a guitar for?

It sounds obvious, but I would have loved to build a guitar for Prince. He was the whole package; with the aesthetic and the character, people overlook that he was an amazing, amazing guitarist. That one hit me hard.

Can you build us a playlist that you think says something about you and your inspirations? Songs that you like to listen to as you work; artists you’re proud of working with, or tracks with a bit of a story about them.

  • Elvis Presley - Suspicious Minds: the first time I fell in love with a Telecaster; James Burton's playing just blew me away, still unbelievably cool with Elvis.
  • The Band - Chest Fever
  • Radkey - Start Freaking Out
  • Steve Earle - Telephone Road: I am terrible in the mornings and gave up coffee a couple of years ago. This track always gets me going!
  • Beastie Boys - Super Disco Breakin'
  • Sam Cooke - Cupid 
  • The Safety Fire - Huge Hammers: I had worked with Dez and Jo for a long time before I heard their band; Dez told me he wanted a heavier sounding Telecaster build but I had no idea, its sounds absolutely massive to this day.
  • The Replacements - Bastards Of The Young
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band- Midnight in Harlem
  • Led Zeppelin - Ramble On: my first big job at Gibson was setting up 30 double neck guitars for Jimmy Page to come and check. He was such a gentleman; I’m a pretty good tech, but there's no way all 540 strings were in tune!
  • System Of A Down - BYOB
  • Punch Brothers - New York City: The punch bros are regularly on the workshop stereo as a reminder to aim high in any artform, in their case insanely high.