Meet the maker - Mike Wiltshire of Odessa Guitars
I've highlighted a few through this interview series who have certainly began to make their mark in the modern guitar world, and have helped fueled my passion and excitement for the business and industry currently. I'm happy to say that one of them, Mike Wiltshire of Odessa Guitars, has agreed to an interview here on the Home of Tone blog!
Odessa Guitars are simplistic in their beauty, with great lines, offset inspired shapes and display Mike's obvious love for guitar making. I'm really glad we could do this interview, and looking forward to learning more about his great, UK based guitar brand!
J - I'd love to hear about the steps that lead to luthiery. Does your interest in woodworking stem from making guitars, or did other skills/interests come first? If so, do you think translating those experiences to making guitars helped develop your own style?
M - My woodworking skills come as a result of my completing a carpentry & joinery apprenticeship immediately after school. It was a combination of site work and time spent in the joinery shop. During this period I became pretty adept at many aspects of woodwork, but the part I enjoyed the most was always the time spent in the shop. Then for various reasons I left woodwork behind for many years, but I think my time spent working as a carpenter on site during that period can be seen in my guitar designs in that they are very utilitarian. They exist simply as a means for the player to make music. A simple tool, no fuss. I want them to look cool, but not to distract too much from their purpose.
J - I'm always quite intrigued when guitar makers opt for a brand name as opposed to utilizing their own surnames which is commonly seen etc, and in particular found yours intriguing! Is there any back story or particular meaning that spoke to you when choosing Odessa?
M - My surname doesn’t lend itself to a guitar brand, so that was never a sensible option. Because of my stylistic inclinations - that of a very simplistic and brutalist design; I draw from, and I’m fascinated with the architecture of Eastern Europe, especially the functional, non-decorative period of the later twentieth century. So choosing Odessa as a name comes from its geographical location in Ukraine coupled with the aesthetic sensibilities I associate with the area.
J - There's a concise feel to your brand, from the clean logo design, the overall guitar's aesthetic style even to your instagram profile caption simply stating 'tools for guitarists'. What do you think influenced your clean, concise aesthetic to the brand and ethos?
M - The functionality of purposeful design is of great interest to me. I try to convey this through, not only my guitar designs, but I suppose, the brand as well. It’s honest and dependable, with no façade. Dieter Rams ‘Good Design’ principles is a list I return to time and again in the hope that I may be moving toward a more ‘honest product’.
J - It'd be great to hear about your personal music tastes and guitar playing interests/history. Do you feel either of these interests translate to your builds, methods & design?
M - It would be cruel and heartless of me to bore you with an endless list of my musical influences as long and varied as they are, however there is a musical connection I can highlight that played an important part in my evolution as a guitar builder. As a fan of the Montana band Silkworm back in the 1990s and the subsequent career of one of their three vocalists, Joel RL Phelps, I was thrilled when he and I eventually made contact back in the early 00s. Our contact was sporadic until seven years ago when he was kind enough to accept one of my earlier guitars and then as I hammered out another design, which ultimately became the DeadBeat, he was also kind enough to accept the first ever version of that guitar. His support and encouragement during that period are a big part of why I’m still here now, designing and building. I’m sure most guitar builders have one or two guitarists they dream might one day own one of their guitars, my list is ticked in that respect.
That said, some of my other musical influences would include D.Boon, Marc Ribot, Geoff Farina, Richard Thompson and Bill Carter (SBMs) to name a few.As for my own guitar playing history, I began playing in my early teens, graduating very quickly from acoustic to electric – because who doesn’t prefer the noisy squall of a too loud overdriven electric guitar?! I played in the usual assortment of mediocre bands until I realised playing in front of an audience wasn’t something I enjoyed and retreated to happily playing at home. I still love to plug in, but find myself enjoying the build process even more rewarding than the playing nowadays.
J - Certainly to me anyway, your guitars have a unique look, one that is pretty hard to pin-point to their direct influences. Are the designs influenced from outside of the luthier/guitar world? and who are your biggest influences within the guitar world too?
M - I am deeply uneducated in much of what passes for guitar history, embarrassingly so in fact. I used to own a Telecaster and I love that design and the genius that was Leo Fender, but if you were to ask me how I’d compare this guitar to that guitar, the chances are I’d have to look it up and cross reference before I could answer. This ignorance on my part is unquestionably intrinsic to the look of my guitars. Without a doubt I’m influenced subliminally but I try to avoid overly similar design similarities to other guitars.
I am influenced by things outside the world of guitars, be it cars, furniture design or Brutalist architecture. The more I build, the greater my admiration of design and designers. I find myself constantly looking at the simplest of products wondering how the finish was decided on, or how the different materials were fabricated and melded together to become the product they’ve become.
Influences within the guitar world would definitely include Florian at Millimetric, a massive innovator and generally lovely guy. Matt Proctor at M-Tone guitars has also been a long time influence as well. One of my closest friends within the business is Jon at Lateral Sound pedals. We live fairly close to each other here in the South West of England, so we actually get to see one another on a fairly regular basis. I love the pedals that Jon makes, and I love his constant need to push himself in developing new sounds and build methods. He’s very good at encouraging me to look at, and question what I’ve done in terms of design and process with my guitar builds. The voice of reason if you will.
There are lots of very lovely and supportive people in this business and I feel lucky to be a part of it, albeit in my tiny niche.
J - Your model range currently consists of the DeadBeat and Degenerate, two seemingly similar overall styles, what lead you to those designs, how do you feel they differ and perhaps if you could talk us through your design process too?
My design process is rudimentary in the extreme consisting solely of large sheets of paper, drawing curves and a pencil. I’ve tried to learn/make use of the many design programs out there, but in truth I cannot get away from this very simple method. In some ways putting pencil to paper is the very start of the build process, coming in just before the gluing together of the body blanks. Once my drawing is complete I simply transfer to a template and start chopping!
J - One thing I noticed from following your Instagram and also browsing the website gallery, is despite a concise model range, there is a huge variety to the custom builds you've created for you clients. No two really looking alike be it through finishes or hardware choices. Do you enjoy this variety and what are you favourite aspects of building custom guitars?
M - That’s a good observation. When I started building, my intention was to keep things simple and adhere to a uniform design on each and every guitar. People however, like to put their personal stamp on their guitars, which of course they should. Unlike a lot of builders who can, and do, offer endless custom variations, I’m a little more rigid in what I am able to offer. I have personal rules like no painted headstocks and no fingerboard inlays, just from an aesthetic point of view. Otherwise I’m usually game to try out different pickups and control layouts. I’ve lost a few builds over a refusal to include certain things, but that’s my loss I guess. Most people that come to me are generally on board with the Odessa aesthetic, so changes, as you mentioned are usually restricted to finish and hardware.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this whole process are the relationships I develop with customers. The initial exchange and discussion about what it is they’d like on their guitar is always an intriguing process. It’s a huge honour to have someone choose an Odessa as their next guitar.
J - I always like asking luthiers about their favourite stages and processes through a build, do you have a stage you particularly look forward to when beginning an instrument, and to the flip side of that, are there also aspects you'd perhaps love to further develop?
M - The early phase of having nothing more than a couple of planks of wood, gluing them together and cutting from that blank the initial shape of the guitar would be my favourite part of the process. For me that is the point at which the creating begins, the mining of what will eventually become an instrument. I’d really benefit from making more templates and jigs as this would make my building process easier; but I love the hands-on connection of creating an individual guitar every time I start a new build.
J - Where would you like to take the Odessa brand and are there any exciting things in development that you'd like to share with the readers?
M - I’d like to grow the brand (as they say) and develop my customer base. I enjoy the connection between myself and the people I’ve been lucky enough to build for and to increase that number would be the ideal. I’m looking at developing an alternative price range using the same models I’m currently building, but offering them at a considerably lower price, simply by switching out the brands of hardware I’d use. That, and the current design and prototyping of a new model is plenty to be going on with thank you.
A big thanks to Mike for spending the time doing this interview for the series, it's an honour to hear more about his brand and instruments!
If you're interested in Mike's work, you can check out his website and social media via the links below.
Odessa Guitars Website
Odessa Guitars Instagram
Odessa Guitars Facebook