“We tried to sell it and the guy in the shop said it was the worst guitar he’d ever seen in his life”: The Pretenders’ James Walbourne on a shocking first guitar, gear regrets and the big sounds of single coils

James Walbourne
(Image credit: Al Pereira/Getty Images)

James Walbourne is one of his generation’s great rock ’n’ roll players, most notably found holding an electric guitar in the company of Chrissie Hynde with the Pretenders, but also now with His Lordship, who are about to drop their self-titled debut.

Here he checks in with Guitarist to talk about a subject close to his heart, the guitar, and all things gear. We’ll hear his biggest gear regrets, greatest finds, and what advice he has for the player who is looking for add to their collection.

What was the first serious guitar that you bought with your own money? 

“It was a Guild D-25 that I bought from Andy’s guitar shop [at number 27] on Denmark’s Street. I think it was £400 at the time. I learned quite a bit on that guitar – just acoustic, you know. I was very much into bluegrass and stuff back then, so I’d play a lot of that on that guitar. 

“But I eventually lost it a few years later. We were playing in New York and I left it in the back of a taxicab. It was the start of a tour – I was only about 20 or something and I remember feeling unwell and so I took Night Nurse in the middle of the day. Played the gig and left it in the back of a cab never to be seen again.”

What was the most recent guitar you bought?

“I bought two guitars off Fender recently: a Tele and a Strat. Chrissie [Hynde] gave me a ’50s Strat and I’d been using that for a long time. But I just got to the point where I thought if I lost that on the road, I just couldn’t deal with it. It became a thing that I was petrified about losing, you know?

“So I thought, ‘I’m gonna go to Fender and see if they’ve got anything…’ I bought a blue Strat and a yellow Tele – ’60s reissues. They’re great. I mean, I have to say, nothing compares to that ’50s Strat. It’s a beaten-up old Strat – it’s beautiful.”

What’s the most incredible find or bargain you’ve had when buying gear? 

“I would say it’s my ’63 SG Junior that I got from my friend Andy Hackett’s shop in Denmark Street [Angel Music], where I used to work. He had about four of them in the rack – this was probably in 2009 – and it was about two grand or two and a half grand and now they’re five or something. 

“The reason why it was the best find is that it’s my main guitar; it’s my number one. I play it all the time on loads of sessions from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Pretenders. And with my band, His Lordship, I just play this one guitar; it’s my main axe. 

“I feel very fortunate to have found it because I bought another ’60s SG recently and I thought it was kind of the same, but then it’s really not. So I consider myself lucky to be in possession of that one.”

What’s the strongest case of buyer’s remorse you’ve experienced? 

“My first-ever guitar my dad got me was an Encore when I was eight years old. That guitar was something else. It was a red heavy metal style guitar and it had fine-tuning things and Allen keys and a whammy bar – completely at odds with me trying to be Ry Cooder, you know? We tried to sell it and the guy in the shop said it was the worst guitar he’d ever seen in his life.”

Have you ever sold anything that you intensely regret letting go?

“My first nice electric was a G&L ASAT, a gold one. I went to see The Hellecasters [Will Ray, John Jorgenson and Jerry Donahue] a couple of times when I was a kid and they were fantastic. It was just a great guitar showpiece, those three playing together, and they all had Teles. 

“I know John Jorgenson probably used an ASAT and so did Will Ray, and I loved the gold sparkle on them and I thought I’d love one. So I bought one through a catalogue and that was my first proper electric, really, and for some reason I sold it for not much money. And I always regret not keeping it.”

What’s your best guitar-buying tip? 

“For me, it’s all about the neck. Obviously, it’s got to sound great as well, but, for me, the neck is the number one thing. I don’t like it too big and bulky, that’s why I like those old SGs. You have to fall in love with it in a shop, that’s the test for me. It’s very primal. Really, if it plays great and looks great as well – you’ve gotta do the mirror test – it’s all about that.”

When was the last time you stopped and looked in a guitar shop window or browsed online and what were you looking at? 

I’m not a big browser. If I feel like I want something, I will go for it

“I used to do a lot [of window shopping] on tour in the States, but there doesn’t seem to be as many shops about these days. You go to Memphis and there’s no shops. There’s like a Guitar Center miles away. But I’m not a big browser. If I feel like I want something, I will go for it. I think it’s a dangerous path to go down for me as well because I’ve barely got enough room to store anything in my flat anyway!” 

If forced to make a choice, would you rather buy a really good guitar and a cheap amp or a cheap electric guitar and a top-notch amp?

“It will have to be a cheap guitar and a top-notch amp. It depends how crap the guitar is, but I reckon you could get something out of a cheap guitar and a nicer amp, rather than the other way around. We have all struggled with bad amplifiers and you can’t get anywhere if you’ve got a bad amp.”

If you could only use humbuckers or single coil pickups for the rest of your career, which would it be and why? 

“Well, it’ll be single coils. It’s the simplicity of it. You can make a piece of wood sound great with just one pickup, like the SG Junior. For me, it was kind of a revelation, that guitar, you know? I can do anything from country to rock ’n’ roll to jazz; you can make it work for you with any style. Really, I find that with the SG it’s quite a big sound and I’ve learned to really use that.” 

James’s go-to gear

“I’ve got my ’63 SG Junior, I also use a black non‑reverse ’65 Firebird and I use the Tele and the Strat that I got from Fender. I use two Fender Deluxe Reverb amps – new ones – and they sound great to me.

“I’ve never taken an old amp on the road or anything; I actually own an old ’60s Deluxe, but it broke as soon as I took it in the studio, so I never take it out when I play live. I like to just take stuff that you can easily replace.” 

“On the pedalboard I’ve got a Strymon Mobius and the Strymon TimeLine because for The Pretenders there’s a lot of different delays for stuff. Something like Don’t Get Me Wrong, it’s got a specific thing and as soon as you start getting into specifics, I need some options. They sound really good, those pedals. I use a fuzz/wah for the fuzz and a Strymon Riverside. 

“I’ve also started to use an MXR distortion and boost [MXR Boost/Overdrive] for the real punky rock stuff like Tattooed Love Boys. It sounds kind of Marshall-y. So there’s that MXR and the Strymon. The Strymon I use for slightly less distortion and just more of a richer tone. And then the other one, the MXR, I just use to, you know, fuck the audience up!”

  • His Lordship is released on February 2 via Psychonaut Sounds.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

David Mead

With over 30 years’ experience writing for guitar magazines, including at one time occupying the role of editor for Guitarist and Guitar Techniques, David is also the best-selling author of a number of guitar books for Sanctuary Publishing, Music Sales, Mel Bay and Hal Leonard. As a player he has performed with blues sax legend Dick Heckstall-Smith, played rock ’n’ roll in Marty Wilde’s band, duetted with Martin Taylor and taken part in charity gigs backing Gary Moore, Bernie Marsden and Robbie McIntosh, among others. An avid composer of acoustic guitar instrumentals, he has released two acclaimed albums, Nocturnal and Arboretum.