The Collection: Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne
With 13 years as the lead guitarist in The Pretenders under his belt, James Walbourne has also played with Jerry Lee Lewis and The Pogues. We get up close with his well-travelled guitar collection.
All images: Eleanor Jane
Although officially a Pretender, Londoner James Walbourne is very much the real deal. Lead guitarist in Chrissie Hynde’s band since 2008, Walbourne is also one half of The Rails, a folk duo that also features his wife, Kami Thompson. We catch up with James in his local pub, The Boogaloo in Highgate, which isn’t simply a convenient location to talk gear, road stories and photograph his enviable guitar collection – it also played a pivotal role in his career.
“I met [Pretenders drummer and founding member] Martin Chambers in here,” James reveals. “I was playing in here with a little rock ’n’ roll duo most nights of the week. Martin liked my guitar playing and invited me down to the studio one day for the Break Up The Concrete sessions and we went from there. That would have been around 2008.”
James soon hit the road with the band and, opening up a road case with as many battle scars as the guitar itself, he tells us about the black Stratocaster that became his main stage guitar. “This guitar was a gift from Chrissie Hynde and I absolutely love it,” he says. “I think it’s a 1957 but it’s a bit of a ‘bitsa’ made from parts from various 50s and 60s guitars. It has that classic Strat tone: great clean and expansive when driven hard.
“One day at a rehearsal, Chrissie turned up with this black Strat that she got from her lockup and didn’t know she had – no idea where or when she got it. So I started playing it, and then started playing it more and more at gigs, and then one day there was a drunken sort of, ‘You may as well just have that Strat, I’m never going to use it!’
“I said ‘I can’t accept that!’ but one night after a few drinks I did. That was back in 2008 and we were on tour somewhere. Fair play to her, she did give it to me, and I cherish that guitar, it’s one of my favourites. For the Pretenders stuff like Back On The Chain Gang and the more Strat-y songs that Robbie McIntosh played on, that guitar really suits. Also some of the bluesier stuff like My City Was Gone I play on that guitar. I do change it around a bit but it’s definitely one of the main two guitars I use with The Pretenders, on stage and in the studio.”
When we enquire about his other main squeeze, Walbourne reaches for another road case that proudly bears the scars and airline stickers from countless world tours. Inside is a gorgeous 1963 SG Junior in Cherry.
“I never thought I’d end up with an SG as my main guitar,” he admits. “But after using one for the Break Up The Concrete sessions in 2008, I felt I had to have one. I found this particular guitar on Denmark Street and it’s really become my number one. One P-90 pick-up, tone and volume – what could go wrong?”
When playing live with The Pretenders, Walbourne’s rig is as unpretentious as the music it fuels. His stage amps of choice are a pair of modern Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverbs. “Straight out the box I thought they sounded great,” he says. “In recent years I much prefer using smaller amps and driving them. My Marshall days might be behind me!
“These are just like 20 watts each but sound fantastic cranked. I use a 1965 black-panel in the studio but these reissues – a gift from Fender – are fantastic. I use them on pretty similar settings but we pan them for stereo sounds live so I can be loudest of all!”
When it comes to pedals, James tries to use as few as possible. “I need something that breaks the sound up a little bit, a distortion maybe,” he says. “I really like the Z.Vex Box Of Rock. Then for something that makes it maybe one louder than that, I’ve got the Strymon Riverside. What I like about Strymons is that you can program it all in there, and every night it’s the same sound. Other than that, I use just a subtle bit of delay on some stuff.”
To recreate the iconic tones of early Pretenders cuts also requires use of what James describes as the “dreaded” chorus pedal. “I use the Strymon Mobius, which I actually quite like now,” he admits. “A guilty pleasure. There you go – sue me!”
On stage, The Pretenders have a very simple setup. “Guitars, bass, drums, keys, that’s it,” says James. “Chrissie uses her blue Telecaster into a couple of Ampegs or Fenders that are placed offstage. She has a chorus pedal her tech sometimes hits but her rhythm sound is very clean, punchy and dynamic.”
“It’s all her fantastic rhythm playing. It’s the engine! Without her we can play, but it’s nothing without her driving force.”
When asked about the key ingredient to the band’s sound, James is quick to give credit to Hynde. “It’s all her fantastic rhythm playing,” he says. “She doesn’t realise it but she just makes it go. It’s the engine! Without her we can play, but it’s nothing without her driving force.
“As a songwriter she’s so prolific. When we wrote [2020 album] Hate For Sale she’d email me lyrics which are her own unique take on the world – her worldview in song – and I’d plug in a guitar and come up with different musical ideas and send them back to her. Then we’d get together afterwards and sort of polish it up.”
In addition to The Pretenders, James has performed with a dazzling list of artists over the years. As well as working with the likes of Peter Bruntnell, Pernice Brothers, Son Volt, Ray Davies, Uncle Tupelo and Edwyn Collins, he even recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis – “that was an amazing experience, it was all live, he’d just nod at you when it was time for a guitar solo and you’d better not mess up!” – and toured with The Pogues. “I met Shane [MacGowan] drinking in this very pub,” he reveals. “We’ve had some great times, but I won’t go into too much detail…”
As you might expect, one of the results of such a diverse CV is that James has amassed a fascinating array of instruments along the way while searching for different textures and tones. “My friend Creston Lea made me this guitar” he tells us, pulling out a florally adorned 2009 T-style electric equipped with P-90s and a Bigsby. “The paintwork is by the artist Sarah Ryan. Definitely the coolest looking guitar I own and it plays great.”
He also owns a 1965 Non-Reverse Firebird refinished in black that was bought from former Oasis guitarist Gem Archer. “We used to work in the same music shop many years ago,” James explains. “He keeps trying to buy it back it’s going nowhere! He modified the pickups somehow, I don’t know how, but it just sounds great.
“I love the tremolo on this one and it’s great fun to play, it actually sounds amazing clean as well as driven. It’s a versatile guitar, I played it on a bunch of country stuff. I was playing with a band called Son Volt in North Carolina somewhere, and sort of halfway through the set the guitar tech said, ‘It’s not great news, the Firebird’s had it, headstock clean off!’ I think I played the rest of the set in shock! But some guy fixed it up the very next day with some mystical boat glue or something, and it’s been amazing ever since”.
Another favourite that James describes as “amazing for early rock ’n’ roll stuff” is his Harmony Roy Smeck 7208 model, sold through Montgomery Ward mail order catalogues in the early 1960s. Featuring a beautiful maple top, a pair of DeArmond pickups and a very distinctive lightning bolt pickguard, it’s retro chic at its finest with, James notes, a “surprisingly playable and great-feeling neck.”
Further highlights include a couple of vintage-reissue Fenders that James uses as his backup guitars, again kindly gifted to him by Fender. “I was sceptical of reissues for years as I never thought they matched up to instruments made in the 50s and 60s,” he says. “But Fender have really gotten their act together in recent years and my 1958 reissue will give most old Teles a run for their money. I put a couple a couple of Tom Brantley custom pickups in this one to give it a slightly beefier tone. There’s also a 1965 Stratocaster reissue which is my main backup for the black Strat. Like the Tele, it’s a great guitar.”
On the rails
James met Kami Thompson (daughter of folk-rock royalty Richard and Linda Thompson) following a chance meeting at a recording session. The pair went on to marry and formed The Rails in 2013, blending intricate dual vocal harmonies with James’ swashbuckling rock ’n’ roll guitar playing.
“We recorded the first album at Edwyn Collins’ place,” he says. “It’s very much a sort of 70s folk sound. The second album we went to Nashville and worked with a bunch of top musicians over there, and the latest album [2019’s Cancel The Sun] we did with Stephen Street in London.”
With three albums under their belts, The Rails continue to tour around other commitments. James admits that creating music alongside such a rich vein of familial talent is rewarding but playing guitar with father-in-law Richard Thompson is an equally enriching and grounding experience: “He’s simply just utterly amazing, incredible touch,” says James. “He’s just superb.”
Like all working musicians, for James, the effects of the pandemic have been challenging. “We were just about to go away on tour up until Christmas,” he says. “It all got cancelled, everything just stopped!” While others may have spent lockdown catching up on boxsets, James and Chrissie Hynde recorded a series of Bob Dylan covers, recently released as an LP entitled Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan.
“I met Shane MacGowan drinking in this very pub. We’ve had some great times, but I won’t go into too much detail…”
“Dylan released Murder Most Foul out of nowhere, and that totally blew our minds,” says James. “We decided to put something together. I’ve got a basic Logic setup at home so it would usually start with me playing either a guitar or piano track and sending it to Chrissie. As she doesn’t have any sort of recording setup at home she would just listen to the track through headphones on her iPad, then use her iPhone as a microphone to record her vocals! Talking about it now, it sounds ridiculous that we managed to do it! It was an eye-opener as to what you can achieve at home. We sent it to master mixer Tchad Blake to add some magic and it sounds amazing.”
On the Dylan covers LP, James plays mainly acoustic guitar and piano, along with some mandolin. “Guitar-wise I used what I had at home, my 1952 Gibson LG-2, and my 1948 Martin 0-18 which my mother-in-law bought for me. An incredible ‘welcome to the family’ present! Those two guitars sound old, woody and small. I did also use my 2009 J-45 which works for everything really, it’s just a road warrior, a cannon!”
Quizzed about future plans, James remains philosophical. “I don’t think you can look back,” he says. “The interesting thing about this pandemic is it makes you reassess a lot of things. What are you in it for? Do you want to go on tour for eight months? The hamster wheel of recording and touring is huge fun but can be tiring.
“I love going out with just the two of us with The Rails, and I’m getting together a little rock ’n’ roll duo with a drummer friend of mine called His Lordship, for which I’ll use the Roy Smeck guitar exclusively. That’ll be loads of fun, it’s just got the perfect vibe and sound for that kind of music! We’ve a track coming out in the next few months called I’m So Bored Of Being Bored.
Ultimately, James is in it to make new music: “I’m really excited about the Dylan album coming out, and The Rails have got some great gigs supporting Robert Plant coming up soon too. I can’t wait to get back to playing live.” Neither can we.
Visit jameswalbourne.co.uk for more.