Meet The Maker - Social Distortion to Luthiery, a chat Drew Walsh of Walsh Guitars
I began to notice a bit of a transition in the guitar market over over the last few years. One that saw guitar buyers yearning for something a little different to the norm. Instrument designs that perhaps break the conventional molds, and I think the times we are in at the moment, those alternative choices available have never been better.
The big names clearly spotted this transition too, introducing quirkier models to try and capture that market, some successful, others well, not so much, we won't go there.
But the success stories lie with the smaller workshop builders, mostly recognized as 'Boutique guitar makers' by the market. These are the luthiers that are pushing the boundaries, all whilst building guitars to the highest of quality standard. Although most certainly not a new thing, these types of makers have been around for a long long time now, of course, I do get a real sense from the everyday musician with their hard earned pennies in their pocket & ready to buy, that they are much keener to go down the boutique route now. The 'safe' big name purchase doesn't seem to be as much of a factor anymore. Perhaps this is because these luthiers are really hitting their stride and I honestly couldn't be happier about that. I am a true fan of innovation, skilled craftsmanship and beautiful materials. All of which are staple attributes of a 'boutique' guitar maker.
One maker that completely jumped out of the screen for me the first time I saw the work, was Walsh Guitars.
Owned & run by Drew Walsh, this Washington State, USA based luthier is 110% hitting his stride that I mentioned. I thought it would be cool to grab 10 minutes with Drew and find out a little more about his work, his passion for music and of course, the guitars he creates...
J- Let's start things off by going right back to the beginning huh! Looking back, what sparked your passion for the guitar? Was it a particular musician that inspired you early on or was it closer to home?
D- Well I picked up my first guitar nearly twenty years ago with the sole purpose of starting a band and being a rock star. The former happened, but the latter did not! At the time I was a big fan of ska and punk rock music (don't judge). Thankfully my musical tastes have refined over the years. I wish I could say I was moved by someone legendary like Hendrix, but as a kid Social Distortion and NOFX was all I had on my mind.
J- Do you think it was learning to play the instrument that developed an interest in how they're made, or did that come from another interest perhaps, like wood working?
D- My love for the instrument is definitely what drove me to learn more about it's make-up. I grew up with little to no knowledge of woodworking so my learning curve was high and time-consuming, and quite honestly the building didn't come till later in life. Pure love of the instrument is what drew me in.
J- Aside from your daily interaction with guitars by making them, how does guitar playing tie in with your everyday life, is it still an at home pleasure or are you out playing shows too?
D- In addition to building guitars, I am a full-time musician in that I oversee the music in several churches in the state of WA in USA. I play guitar A TON each and every week, arranging and playing music for the local church.
J- When did you start working on guitars? Repairs here and there etc, And did that give you the confidence to begin your luthier work from skills gained? How did guitar building start off for Walsh Guitars?
D- I first started working on guitars back in 2007. Back then I was just doing modifications and upgrades. It was a great way to begin as I quickly became familiar with all the inner workings of the instrument. In 2008 I started assembling whole guitars and doing final setups. That progression really gave me a more in-depth insight into the instrument; I then understood the what and why. After a bit of self-education and experimentation (and many large investments in tooling), I progressed to building and crafting the entire guitar, which has led to me understanding the "how." Its be a learning process, and, like anything, once you think you've arrived, your craft will start to stagnate and eventually decline. So I continually try to push toward a greater understanding of craft, which is hopefully always bringing a greater level of excellence.
J- A lot of your earlier builds were classic Fender or Gibson inspired builds, do you feel you learnt a lot from re-interpreting those styles of guitars early on, or was it restrictive as a guitar maker at all? And what do you feel lead you to step away from those type of builds?
D- I really feel like it was exciting early on doing those classic designs. I mean who doesn't love a good tele? But honestly, as I progressed in my skill and as a million other builders continued to work on those same designs (or very slight variants), I grew bored and restricted. I tried adding some unique flavor to those classics, and I feel like people lost it. Haha! The purists out there reacted like I had just slapped Leo Fender in the face! So the realization I came to was this: if I'm going to shed blood, sweat, and tears over a guitar I want it to be worth the effort and a true extension of my creativity. A true extension of my creativity is not another tele or strat or Les Paul. Occasionally I'll still say yes to one of these builds because there is some great nostalgia attached to those designs, but when a drafting pencil hits paper and creates something new and a day later sits in front of me as wood...that's is truly and extension of my creativity. That is what has led me to step away from classic designs.
J- You're now developing a wonderfully unique range of your own models, where did you look for inspiration on these designs?
D- Thanks man. I appreciate that! I have always been a fan of the weird, quirky Japanese designs of the 1960's and early '70's. Functionally speaking, they were a bit hit or miss, but they have so much vibe and character. In some ways, they really pushed the boundaries of guitar design and flipped the whole thing upside-down. I love that and the uniqueness that they brought to the market. That is perhaps what inspires me most as I hit the drawing board.
J- & With those new designs, how does your prototype process work, how do the ideas become a 'From Scratch' instrument?
D- It really depends on the design. There are a few in the stable that come into being by drawing on MDF followed by cutting to shape. Some of my other more complicated designs have needed more intricate attention via SolidWorks and CNC'd templates. But no matter what, each design has started with a pencil and paper. And each guitar is still made by hand/power tools along with templates to ensure some level of accuracy and repeat-ability.
J- Many of your builds feature high grade materials, it certainly comes across as a passion for the materials, the woods used etc. Is there more than just the aesthetics that makes it a staple in your work? Are certain grades of wood better to work with as a guitar maker?
D- A guitar is a sum of its parts. You can't skimp. And I wouldn't want people to pay what they do if I was cutting corners in order to save a dollar. That said, high grade materials, hardware, and electronics are of utmost importance. I hand select all my woods, excluding my roasted woods which are hand selected for me by a fellow luthier I trust. And those woods are chosen for their resonance and tap tone, figure, and weight. If people are investing in this guitar I want it to look as good as it sounds. Looks aside, though, tone is paramount, of course. This is a big reason for my use of roasted woods. I've found that not only do they lighten weight, but they also reduce dead spots and increase overall resonance. The wood is much more predictable, and that is key. Same goes for hardware and electronics. I have a few chosen companies that stand out in the constancy of their quality. Why? Because I want people to have the comfort of knowing that they will be investing in a predictably great sounding guitar comprised of predictably high end components and materials.
J- There are so many detailed stages in guitar making, are there any in particular you really love doing?
D- Carving and routing the wood - hands down. I love the process of seeing things take shape. Its incredibly rewarding.
J- With so many new ideas of yours coming into fruition now, are any future plans creeping into your mind? Where do you see your work taking you to next?
D- If I told you I'd have to kill you, and you're my sole UK dealer so I'd rather not go down that road ;) In the words of the famous Serenity Prayer (kind of), I'm just taking things one day at a time, one guitar at a time. I've got tons of designs swimming in my head so I'm trying to pace myself and do everything I do with excellence
Well I'm definitely going to continue to sit on the edge of my seat, awaiting the next unique design to step off Drew's workbench. There's an air of excitement around these styles of guitar makers at the moment, and it is very well deserved. The big names will always be there at the top of the pyramid, they've earned that place without a doubt. But they're surrounded by a sea of very talented & very innovative luthiers all awaiting their time to shine. It feels like now is that time, and with makers like Drew Walsh, it's very plain to see why that is the case. We're very proud to work with Walsh Guitars, and it feels like Christmas morning every time I get an email update with the next stage of each stock guitar being made! If you're interested in any of his guitars, or the models we have in stock, by all means get in touch! It'd be a pleasure to chat with you.
Thank you to Drew for his time answering my questions!