I’ve been pondering this interview with Earnie Bailey for literally years. But before I get into that, I wanted to give a brief introduction of who Earnie is. Earnie Bailey is the owner/operator at Wire Instruments and is making some amazing guitars and basses in Seattle, Washington. Before that, he was one of the guitar techs of the Foo Fighters primarily working with Dave Grohl’s rig. And before that, he was the guitar tech for Nirvana working with Kurt and Krist (as well as others). But one of the biggest things about Earnie Bailey – he is one of the nicest guys on the planet, and I have the privilege to call him a friend.
I first communicated with Earnie way back in 2001 when I started the TravisBeanGuitars.com website, where we both shared a mutual love of the aluminum neck guitar. On and off throughout the years, we would trade information about the instruments, etc. In 2011, we finally met in person when Earnie came to Missoula, MT for a Foo Fighters’ concert – and he kindly took me along for a crazy experience (read about it here). I’ve been kicking some questions around and thought it would be a good time to feature him on Effects Bay. So here we go!
Earnie Baily – Guitar Tech of Nirvana / Foo Fighters, Owner of Wire Instruments and One Fine Gentleman!
The Early Years
What were those adolescent music years all about? What were you into?
American top 40 radio, then finding a copy of the Kinks Greatest Hits at a yard sale. That opened the door to music from the 60s, and fr
om there chasing anything recorded throughout history.
What got you into the world of guitar?
I spent most my days as a kid building science fiction models until meeting a friend in high school named Glen Josund, who had a nonexistent ego, and prodigy level guitar playing ability. Experiencing that, and in one life changing moment he handed me a mid 70’s Stratocaster and several big decisions happened at that instant.
After that, another friend named Rick Saunders spotted a 70’s Ibanez Destroyer for 200 dollars, that I bought and spent my time disassembling and modifying when I wasn’t playing it. From there, I started building guitars in high school woodshop using leftover parts given to me by a guitar repair shop in Spokane.
After high school, I worked in a guitar repair shop, mentored by John Saba while attending college to study electronics, graphic design and photography. The repair shop was next-door to a record store that several friends had opened, and from there we were starting punk/weirdosurf/new wave bands and discovering music that was otherwise challenging to find in the Inland Empire.
How did you end up in Seattle?
In the mid-1980s there were several Seattle bands that would play in Eastern Washington. One of them was a group called the U-Men, who made Seattle appealing to us naive townsfolk. I received a job offer in Seattle, and a few other pieces fell into place, so I loaded up the amplifiers and headed across the state.
What were some of your fondest memories of pre-grunge Seattle?
Primarily the disappointment of moving to Seattle, and finding out that all the bands I liked had moved to New York or broken up. When I got there, Seattle was momentarily pronounced dead by the older Seattle punkers, and the next wave which was beginning, had this retro 70’s hippie, punk and metal influence that took a while to solidify, and with the Sub Pop label, become viable.
How would you describe the Seattle music scene back before the explosion?
Um, wholesome fun and pretty funny. For a moment in time, the bands playing in the local venues we’re making music that the outside world was watching closer than the locals were. From my perspective, it appeared that even a lot of musicians and artists were oblivious to it.
One memory is going into several Seattle guitar stores as late as 1991, and day-glo hair metal was still being played on the intercoms. If you mentioned Mudhoney or Nirvana, the salespeople would often promptly leave you alone.
How did you first meet the guys in Nirvana?
In the late 80’s to early 90’s, I became known in Seattle as someone who knew too much about weird guitars, amps & pedals, could fix almost anything, and was pretty lax about charging money for it.
I often worked two or three jobs, and while running a guitar repair business out of my apartment, I also oversaw the west coast espresso bars for the retailer Nordstrom. One of my coworkers, Rob Kader, was a roommate and close friend of Jason Everman, who was playing guitar in Nirvana at the time. Rob was in knee deep, as the band referred to him humorously as their first, and number one fan. He convinced me to stop working 24/7, and join him at several shows in 1989. It was through him that I first met members of the band.
How did you land the guitar tech gig with the band?
In January of 1992, I saw Kurt at the Vogue in Seattle and we discussed guitars, fuzz pedals and Sunn Beta Lead amps for a half an hour. That same week Dave & Chris came over to a pinball machine I was playing at The Crocodile and asked if they could join. That was the first time I met David, and there was some guitar chatter going on. Not long after that, Chris moved from Tacoma to the neighborhood where I had opened a cafe/coffee shop and lived nearby. We struck up a close friendship, and I was soon busy helping him fix broken stuff, from cars to the destroyed stage aftermath of the band’s homage to Pete Townsend.
Didn’t they already have techs?
At that moment they did not. Nic Close from Sonic Youth had been working for both bands, who were each very hard on equipment, and with modest budgets. How he kept that show on the road for so long is a modern marvel. When nirvana and sonic youth stopped touring together, he continued on with sonic youth.
With that, both Big John Duncan and I were hired around this time, with him looking after the group & gear on the European shows, and myself handling US dates, doing repairs, modifications, and studio work. On the South American shows and following dates, Big John and I began working as a team covering both sides of the stage. For the In Utero tour, Jim Vincent worked my spot while I took care of the cafe in Seattle, and I was flown out for Unplugged, Roseland, and several others for added insurance, and to help catch up on repair work.
What was your state of mind at that time? Single? Any life responsibilities?
Before working as a professional technician, I believed they were these ninja masters of guitar repair and electrical knowledge . After I took the job, I soon discovered that most guitar techs were friends of bands who knew how to live on the road and change strings, and that several of the technicians that I had read about, did no repair work. Only a small subset had advanced level skills, and were willing to leave home and the workshop to practice their craft with limited tools on the road.
As well, I was newlywed at the time, and we had recently opened a cafe at Greenlake in Seattle. So, there was a lot going on.
Was it hard to drop everything and hop on the Nirvana whirlwind?
Not really. From the outside it looked like a great adventure, and it was in many ways.
You were tech for both Kurt and Krist?
I worked for all four of them, Pat and David as well, fixing and rebuilding guitars and amps, car radios, jukeboxes, repairing and building custom pedals, and making cable looms.
By the time Kurt moved from LA back to Seattle, he would not set foot in a music store. Typically, I got a phone call asking if I would locate some piece of obscure/obsolete equipment, and handed his credit card for the day to go locate it and sign on his behalf.
So I was finding & buying guitars, amplifiers and pedals for them, and keeping a level head if we were out too late.
What were some of the gear challenges you had to deal with on a daily basis (besides the nightly smashed guitars and punctured speaker cones)?
Primarily just readjusting guitars and inspecting cables for potential trouble. The band were thankfully low tech in ways, refusing things like wireless and pedalboards. In 1992, most of the equipment was reinforced and rebuilt to be more stable. Nirvana weren’t touring as much, and time was invested into the backline and making improvements where they were needed.
For people interested in acquiring the basics of Kurt’s tone – what would be some essential pieces of gear?
A Boss DS-1, the EHX Small Clone into a clean amp will get you the fundamental sound of his live setup. In the studio, there were more random choices that differ from track to track on Nevermind and In Utero. Guitar-wise, he was all over the place. I had had good results with the Duncan JB pickup, and after installing a few of them in his guitars, those became a relatively standard piece of equipment.
I’ve always seen techs do pre-sound checks, etc. How was that with left handed instrument?
That was a challenge at first. I remember learning a few of their songs upside down, in the event that Kurt skipped soundcheck, so the front of house engineers could get something to work with.
Was it challenging to work on left handed guitars in general? Stringing? Setting up, etc?
No, it’s essentially the same physics, although you are less inclined to play it for ten minutes after it’s finished, as it’s not as intuitive.
Did you ever deal with persistent gear gremlins? If so, what were they usually?
No. Fix it once, fix it right, as the saying goes.
What were some of the personal challenges with being on the road?
As there is so much travel involved, at times you have to stitch together enough sleep to make 8 hours. Living in buses, airplanes, hotels and airports, you spend a lot of time in confined spaces. Getting a cold or flu on the road is no fun because you don’t take the day off if you get sick, so you pay better attention to nutrition and sleep.
Did you love tour life? Did it wear you down?
Yes and yes. Nirvana did not tour much from early 1992 to fall of 1993, but the Foo Fighters virtually lived on the road. Most tours typically are very fun. More so, if you are active in getting out and seeing the sights and learning the culture. That said, a three month tour will typically have everyone on board so ready to go home in those last weeks.
How did you hear about Kurt’s suicide?
Chris had just received a phone call from management and was down at his farm near the Oregon border. He called me up to relay the news, and asked us to head over to his house to be with his wife Shelli until he got there.
I remember you mentioned you were involved with a restaurant before his passing. Did you think you would be working with another band in the future?
After Kurt passed, I quickly declined an offer to be a bass technician for The Rolling Stones. Unsure if I ever wanted to look at another guitar again, I focused on work at the cafe.
With the loss of a colleague who is a public figure, which also coincided with the loss of my father in a similar manner, 1994 was a difficult year. The grieving process is difficult enough, and these two losses were surreal in their scope.
What was the situation when you began working with Dave of Foo Fighters?
Chris and I had formed a band to get ourselves through 1994, keep the mind occupied, and provide some creative escape. David had just passed up an offer to play drums in REM, and soon called to see if I was interested in being a third touring guitarist for them, which I declined as well.
After later deciding to sell the restaurant, I had planned to take some time off. Three days into it the phone rang, it was David, calling to see if I wanted to jump in the van to work for his new group, Foo Fighters on the Mike Watt tour in 1995.
I would be working for him, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel and Ed Vedder, as well as being a van driver, tour photographer, and fill-in guitar player for Mike Watt’s band before Nels Cline showed up. With no hotels booked, we would drive late, after shows, sharing campfire stories and playing scrabble until we found a Motel 6 or a Days Inn to rest at. In those few months of playing small bars and tiny theaters, we managed to outrun the dark cloud of Seattle 1994.
It seems like a lot of the crew came from Nirvana crew eventually – very family like. Was that just a natural progression or very intentional?
Intentional I believe. In the beginning it was Pat and myself, then several tours into it, we added Ian Beveridge, Jimmy Swanson, and several others.
Seems like the early days with Foo was so much different than Nirvana – starting from scratch with a van, etc
Nirvana spent far more time in the van getting to the point where the Foo Fighters began. FF still began with a van, modest budget, and ambitious work ethic, but the industry was watching from day one. David owning his own label was one of the best things you could ask for, in terms of business priorities.
Did that take some getting used to for you and Dave?
I don’t believe so. At that point and Dave had spent more of his professional life living in a van than he did buses and hotels. It was laid back compared to the Nirvana orbit, so adaptability was easy.
Was it an easy transition teching for Dave?
Very. He’s a great communicator.
What were your day-to-day challenges with working with Dave’s gear?
He’s a physical player to the extreme, so sweat would be the easy answer to your question.
What was the typical set up for Dave in those days?
A ProCo Turbo Rat into a 100 watt Marshall JCM800, a black Gibson Explorer, an 80’s tobacco Sunburst Les Paul Standard and a white Les Paul Custom is the earliest setup I can recall. A Boss DM-2 delay and MXR Micro Amp were added around the time of the second album.
What prompted you to leave the Foo Fighters and when was that?
There were several factors. We toured nonstop in those early years, and living in airports can wear you out. Pat and I would spend our days going to guitar shops in every city. He left the group for several years, and being an early riser I found myself walking solo around crowded megacities, which gets dull after a while. Back home, we had been postponing plans to start a family, so the timing was right.
When did you start Wire Instruments?
In 2007 I started work on several designs and had a prototype guitar completed by years end.
What was your goal with Wire – from the stand point of what you wanted to create.
For creative people, if you’re not occupied making something, that part of the brain starts getting involved with doing things like the laundry and it gets ridiculous. So being productive is good, and in the process you become surrounded with others who make things, and though competition and info sharing, our work improves.
As for the designs,
Are there any guitar designs that have inspired you?
So many of them, but more so specific designers. Ray Dietrich, Dave Bunker, Roger Rossmeissl, Freddy Tavares, Raymond Loewy, Marc McElwee, Jeff Hasselberger and Jeff Levin are several that I learned from.
If so, what way, examples ?
Who knows. The process is a cacophony of symmetry versus asymmetry, curves, materials, and colors, 24/7 in the imagination. You like what you like, and that’s what you wind up with.
What really catches my eye is your choice of electronics – for example, can you talk about the electronics set up for Concord VI?
The concept behind that guitar was to create the Swiss Army knife of guitars, something you could take to a job that could be a chameleon for any track.
The upper toggle switch is a standard pick up selector. On the control plate is a switch that defines pickup modes HH/HS/SH/SS. The second blade switch in stock configuration assigns master tone control, high pass filter, low pass filter, or neck pickup cancellation. It’s also viewed as open real estate for mods, or special requests.
Also, talk about the trem bar on the Concord!
The trem version of the Concorde uses the Stetsbar tremolo, designed by Eric Stets. So the bridge and tailpiece move horizontally towards and away from the nut in tandem, rather than lifting up on a fulcrum pivot. Very fluid and unique, with no string friction across the bridge saddles.
It seemed like originally, it was all about the Sleepwalker line and the last few years, you’ve branched out. Was that due to demand? Or wanting to explore different styles or both?
It’s more about building whatever you feel like making at the time. There are days when you want to build something high functioning and populist, and other times it’s about designs that invoke a visual sense of wonder or awe. It’s staying productive, keeping the job fun, and not building the same thing over and over.
Are you working on any new designs?
Yes, and there’s a backlog of designs waiting to be built. Several surreal ideas are rolling around the imagination, wondering how and what materials to get them to the next stage.
I saw some photos of a fuzz pedal build? Is pedal development going to be a thing?
Possibly. I’m fascinated with early fuzz pedals, and they provide some necessary escape from guitar making. This week I started building a small run of 30 pedals based on the ’67 SupaFuzz circuit. The big challenge is understanding how different gain structures in aging germainium components affect each other based on location. Not unlike tube technology, but it’s it’s own thing.
Any notable players using wire instruments?
Jason Meahger with Steve Gunn, the Foo Fighters have a handful of them, Bobby Anderson with John Legend, Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam & Soundgarden, Macklemore recently bought one, I’m not sure if he plays guitar but I do know he supports local businesses.
Where can you purchase your instruments?
There are several dealers in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m lining up a few more across the US. I build a few dozen of them each year, so keeping them in stores is a challenge. The best way to locate one is to look on Reverb, or contact us through the website to see what’s available, and where.
What are your thoughts on the current trends in guitars / basses?
The bigger corporations play it relatively safe reinventing the old standards, and this leaves a lot of playing field for the small builders who don’t want to build Strat, Tele, Les Paul copies, etc. I find that the independents are fun to follow, with less interference to impede the flow of creativity. So it’s small businesses taking chances, coming and going, and occasionally something radical will appear.
When I was young and first learning to build, PRS, Travis Bean, Hamer, BC Rich, Schecter, were these small startup companies that were blowing minds and taking names. That’s a good place to be. Somewhere beyond that, the monster grows many heads, and creative direction requires a vote.
The explosion of offsets?
Signature runs from Fender including the Cobain…
Another case of history repeating. Something worth noting, is that in the mid-1960s the Jazzmaster and Jaguar were Fender’s top-of-the-line guitars. The Stratocaster and telecaster we’re reportedly both on the chopping block when Rickenbacker was the heavy hitter.
Hendrix, who previously had been playing a jazzmaster, switched to a Strat shortly before becoming a big deal. He was influential, and went so far as to make fun of surf music. He was followed by the next wave of guitar heroes that included Blackmore, Beck, Clapton & EVH, who kept Stratocasters prominent for the next few decades.
I remember buying a 1964 jazzmaster that was virtually unplayed for $225 in 1984, and it sat in the classified section of the local paper for several weeks. That’s how unpopular that guitar was at that moment in time, but in punk culture, surf guitars had relevance.
In 1991 a different guitar hero arrived, bringing the offsets to a different generation. I like the signature models, as the vintage offsets have held areas for improvement, and the Johnny Marr Jaguar for example, makes great use of that real estate.
Where do you think the future will take us with guitar design? It seems like we’ve been in quite a rut for years.
In the future guitars will be inflatable, and will fit conveniently in your swimsuit pocket. Well, strike that. I’m currently seeing designs that are truly innovative. Whether or not they make an impact, has a lot to do with what kind of chances musicians are willing to take.
How does the future look for Wire Instruments?
It’s a company with zero debt, and no outside ownership. Set up as a means to build guitars until my hands and back say no more sir. As it began, available to run with an idea, while we celebrate our second decade.
Thanks Earnie! Please take a moment to check out Wire Instruments, very cool stuff. Let me know what you think by commenting below!
4 years ago
Earnie, thanks for all the great stories and insight. Your guitars look awesome, and I’m sure they sound at least as good as they look. If you have some time one day I was wondering if you could tell me the difficulty of upgrading a Tele like you did for Mr. Cobain. Thanks, Clinton WayneReply