For guitar lovers Denmark Street in central London is something like a Mecca. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix recorded in its basements; Elton John wrote Your Song on its rooftops, and Bob Marley bought his first guitar here. With its extraordinary musical history and over half-a-dozen guitar shops in one small street; what’s there not to love?
Guitars Exchange went to explore the street in mid-July 2021, and daydream a little. We met and talked with staff who told us about, for example: Billy Gibbons popping in to shop, what customers should look for before buying, and the revolutionary transformation of the street that is taking place now. We also talked to customers, one of whom is a 15 year old who is frantically saving up to buy that extra special American Fender Strat he’s seen…
The journey for most looking to discover Denmark Street in some ways begins at Tottenham Court Road underground station, which is just around the corner. It takes just a minute to get there from that train stop, and I am immediately struck by how small this legendary street is. One of the best-known guitar shops, Wunjo’s, seems closed on the corner, there is very little traffic, and a few passers-by wander up and down. I notice a blue plaque on the wall above a shop explaining this was ‘Tin Pan Alley’, which was the ‘home of British songwriters and publishers’, and recall that the NME and Melody Maker once had their offices here. The small-scale and the calm however belies the incredible history and ‘secret’ that lies behind these facades.
But where to start? I decided to write an email to all the stores I could find on a Google search and go to visit them. This was not a scientific exercise, as emails can go missing, but I received just two replies - from Hanks Vintage guitars and Wunjo’s - so decided to explore those.
Hanks, at number 27, advertises itself as ‘London’s most famous guitar store’, and with its four decades of experience and over 10,000 clients on its database, including Dave Gilmour, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, it certainly has a fair claim to the title. Its imposing red shopfront is packed with sunburst acoustics and electrics, and its three stories of brick building above certainly makes it stand out; but not in a showy way. As I enter I notice a slightly musty smell that I associate with vintage wood, a bank of guitars behind a glass cabinet on the right, and a large poster signed by Elvis Presley at the top of the first flight of stairs.
I turn to my left where Shane Gilliver is today managing the shop. Shane is from Yorkshire, and took up the job 10 years ago after seeing the post advertised in the window. “I was buying and selling guitars before I came here, and now I do it as a job,” he explains with a smile. It can’t have harmed his application that the owner of the shop, Justin, hails from the same part of the country and the main office, which sometimes buys and sells vintage guitars before they ever see the shop, is based there.
Shane adds some colour to the bare bones of the history: “In the 60s there were guitar shops on Shaftsebury avenue and Charing Cross road, but the rents became too high so they moved to Denmark street, and that’s when the focus on guitars really started. From the late 70s this was Andy’s, and then next door was the 12 bar, quite a famous club, but I remember it being a curry house before that in the 90s.” I read later that artists who played at the 12 bar, before they became famous, included Jeff Buckley, Adele and The Libertines. When the 12 bar was forced into closure in 2015 people who felt passionately about the club occupied the building and reopened it to live music, before the evictions took their inevitable course…
As Shane is working in what he describes as ‘the best vintage guitar shop on the street, probably in England to be honest’, I can’t resist asking about his own guitar history. “My first guitar was an S200 Epiphone by Gibson - it was like a superstrat with a pointy top -, but now I have a Telecaster 58 reissue,” he replies.
Has the street changed in recent years? I enquire. “The difference is 100% - it is nothing like it was - there is a lot less variety,” he says. [However] we’ve been open over the last 18 months, when we’ve been allowed to, and because we sell a lot of vintage and second-hand guitars, we weren’t too affected. Our clients have changed over the last year because there are no tourists; that’s huge, but we evolve...”
Sometimes Shane will see 50 people pass through the shop and not sell a thing, while on other days two will call in, and both will leave with a guitar. Stars sometimes drop in unannounced, and when I ask who, Shane recalls Jack White, David Rhodes (of Peter Gabriel fame) and Roy Harper. His eyes light up though when he recalls Billy Gibbons’ visit: “he is the nicest man I’ve ever met. He came in just before lockdown. He is so into gear and guitars; it was really nice to meet him,” he says.
What should a customer look for? “When you are looking to buy a guitar you have to ask yourself: ‘Does it feel good? Does it sound good? And trust your instinct, feel the instrument; the physicality of the instrument is key,” he explains. I ask him to highlight a few guitars he particularly likes in the shop and he points to a 1957 Fender Esquire behind the glass cabinet, which has a 20,999 pound price tag attached to its neck. Next to it is a Capri 61: “I have never seen another like it, it is really rare,” he says. “This is the original advert from the 1950s – it was an amazing Fender ad campaign; I love it. And this Wurlitzer belonged to the Rolling Stones…,” he says pointing to one of the few other musical instruments in the shop.
Sitting by the counter is Sam Bushell, a singer-songwriter, from Biggin Hill in Kent, who is playing some pretty handy guitar on an acoustic. “I am browsing today”, he explains. “I haven’t been up for a while, I usually go to Brighton, but there are far more options here. I have got a Martin John Mayer model, but I just thought I’d try out the Clapton version, which is 3,200 pounds, and see the difference”. Sam is just buying some strings and a tuner as I leave the shop but he likes the Clapton model: “I’m gonna think about it,” he says, “it’s in the running...”
The closed Wunjo shop on the corner is currently at number 5; as during these years of heavy construction many of the shopowners have had to move as they adjust to the demands of the building work. It is at the entrance to Wunjo’s where I meet Connor Lee, from a band called Rev John H and the Revelations, who had a problem with one of his guitars. It is here I learn that Denmark Street is also well-known for providing an outstanding repair service. “I have come to replace the pick up on my Guild” says Connor. Why come to Wunjo’s? “I bought this here four years ago because I thought this was the best place to come in southern England. I spent a whole afternoon here years ago on my 19th birthday trying out a whole bunch, but as soon as I picked up this guitar I knew it was the one for me…”
Nearby are 15 year olds Luka and Jack, from Essex, who play together in an indie rock band.“The offer is great on Denmark Street; it has taken us about an hour to get here but it is completely worth it,” says Jack. There is a whole bass section downstairs, and Wunjo’s has good prices. You pay for the experience: online maybe you could find things a little bit cheaper, but you can’t have this. I have a bog standard bass but I have always wondered what the acoustics are like on an acoustic bass. You wanna know what you are signing up for.”
Luka is planning to buy a chorus pedal today, and looking to pay 80 pounds, but long term he is saving up for an American Performer Strat, which is around 1,000 pounds. “I am going to be a long time saving, but it will be worth it in the end,” he says.
The noise levels are now rising in the shop as I turn to chat to Marc Hayward, who is one of the nine core staff at Wunjo’s. “You never know how busy the shop is going to be,” he says with a grin, as he responds to customer questions. We head downstairs where it is cooler and quieter, as Marc explains that he has been working here for around 15 years. How did you get your job? “I had a Fender jaguar that I was always breaking, and I got to know Brian [the founder] through that,” he explains.
Why buy at Wunjo’s? I ask. “We are all musicians here and when people come in we try to make them feel as relaxed as possible,” he says. “But we are also aware that we are talking with musicians and everyone has different needs. Also, nothing really replaces picking up an instrument in a shop. Perhaps you’ve lusted after a particular guitar for years but it doesn’t sound like you think when you actually come to play it - but you find another one nearby that does. Here you can plug in five or six different pedals and see how they sound. We encourage everyone to try things out and enjoy it.”
Why have you had to move shop? “The street has been going through a major redevelopment over the last few years,” he says. “There was an article in the Telegraph around five years ago about the ‘death of Denmark street’, which said that it was getting flattened, and that idea almost passed into folklore - but it is not being flattened!” he says. “We have rolled with the punches and now we are looking forward to the next phase of it…”
What is that? “There is a 2,500 capacity venue right underneath your feet,” he replies, “which puts the building work into context. These buildings are very old, so they need structural strengthening. It goes down four floors; I’ve been into it with one of the developers. It has a ‘box within a box’ structure for soundproofing. Where the 12 bar was they have preserved the old forge, and that will kind of shimmy up to the main venue. There is another 350-500 seater that can be used as an overspill for bigger artists, or alternatively sectioned off and used as an independent venue. Then there is going to be another acoustic lounge and a couple of boutique hotels with rock n roll themes – you will be able to stay in the old Sex Pistols’ flat, and then there will be record shops and tattoo shops – it is going to be huge, and a really cool thing.”
What is going to be at the Wunjo shop on the corner? “There is going to be floor-to-ceiling interactive Led screens that you can walk through, as you pass another events stage, that will lead directly to the tube station,” Marc explains. “The footfall will be amazing and there will be a real buzz that will put the focus back on music. People have been putting together long shopping lists; it is going to be fantastic.”
As I leave I can’t help notice a 63 Telecaster, three Rickenbackers and a series of pastel coloured Vox guitars on the wall, which Marc says were salvaged from a disused factory. A group of builders are huddled nearby and I call across the street to ask them when all this building work is going to end. “Later this year…” they shout back, “that’s the plan!”