"There is something about the clean sound on a Fender. I just don’t think it can be touched" – Samm Henshaw on embracing the guitar for his next record and being inspired to play by John Mayer (via Michael Jackson)

Samm Henshaw
(Image credit: Fender)

The son of a reverend, Samm Henshaw grew up on gospel music and began penning his own worship songs for church when he was just a young teenager. Now, at 29 years old and with an album, two EPs and a generous handful of stellar standalone singles under his belt, Henshaw has made a name for himself as a singer, songwriter, keyboard player, performer, producer, and now – more so than ever – an ace guitarist. 

He’s toured with the likes of James Bay, Allen Stone and Chance the Rapper and collaborated in the studio with Maverick Sabre, EARTHGANG and even Pharrell Williams

But, as his Instagram bio will assure you, the South London boy is very much still “Henny From the Block,” and he imbues all of his musical creations with his naturally warm and infectiously upbeat personality – with smatterings of humour and depth of meaning in equal measure.

Recently, we reported on Henshaw’s Fender Session, in which he showed off the cool, clean tones and aesthetics of the Fender Player Series Duo-Sonic in a performance which saw him rearrange a pair of songs from his acclaimed debut Untidy Soul for a two guitars and a bass, and another for solo electric guitar. 

The imaginatively produced studio album itself draws strands from R&B, soul, hip-hop and mainstream pop, but Henshaw is the first to admit that guitars took something of a backseat role on the project. He even had a “rule” against writing on the instrument too much, so as to differentiate the Untidy Soul sound from that of his first two, more predominantly guitar-based, EPs. 

But, Henshaw’s recent Fender performance is a sign of things to come, and we’re reliably informed by the man himself that he’s been brought “out of public guitar retirement” by the experience.

With a little encouragement from the axe manufacturing giant, and a psychedelic rock playlist or two for inspiration, Henshaw’s interest in all things six-string has been well and truly reignited. 

Samm Henshaw

(Image credit: Fender)

At the time of our call, we find him out in LA, where he’s headed to spend time in the studio working on new material, guitar in hand. 

While reclining in the sunshine, with the unusual sight of snow-capped Californian mountains in the background, the talented young musician gave us the low down on where it all began for him with guitars, his current infatuation with “tremolo flange-type sounds” and what it’s like to have been officially inducted into the Fender tribe… 

To hear that song be played on guitar in the way that he did it, there was just something about that. It was exceptional.

Who or what first inspired you to pick up a guitar?

"I always actually had one, weirdly. I always had some version of a guitar in my house, or some version of an instrument in my house when I was a kid. But, I think the first thing that really made me go, “Okay, I’m actually going to try and play this instrument,” - that I remember, at least - was seeing John Mayer playing Human Nature at Michael Jackson’s funeral. 

"I don’t know what it was. I think it must have been the song itself because that’s one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs, but to hear that song be played on guitar in the way that he did it, there was just something about that. It was exceptional. 

"I think even the emotion of it, obviously, with MJ being gone and it being his funeral. There was just something about that and all the emotions combined together. 

"Watching this man come up on stage and play that song was like, 'Wow.' Then, after that, I was like, 'Alright, I guess I want to play guitar.'

What was the first good guitar you got and do you still use it?

"The first one that I bought for myself was a Jaguar. I unfortunately don’t still use it - I actually have no idea where it is! I might have lent it to someone and then they just didn’t give it back, or I might have given it to them because they probably needed it or something. 

"But yeah, that was the first guitar I ever bought. I bought that when I was about 19 or 20, I think. That was my first 'official' one that I owned, and at that point I knew how to play guitar and I was like, 'This is mine!' It wasn’t a borrowed guitar.

So, you’ve been 'Tribe Fender' from pretty much the beginning then? 

"Yeah, a hundred percent. I always kind of associated guitars with Fender. I played other guitars as well. I played a Gibson for a minute, but it didn’t feel the same as a Fender. 

"My view of guitar, or my perception of what guitar was, was also based off of Fender because of people like Jimi Hendrix - and that was really all I ever saw of the guitar. 

Is it the single-coil sound that particularly appeals for the style of music you play?

"Yeah, there is something about the clean sound on a Fender. I just don’t think it can be touched.

"The dryness of it has something really warm about it as well. So it’s just a warm, thick, rich sound that you can put on anything and I love that. 

"I don’t know why, I don’t know what it is. I think I love warm sounding things, but the idea of being able to play that on almost anything is so sick to me." 

Samm Henshaw

(Image credit: Fender)

In your recent Fender Sessions video, you showed off the Duo-Sonic, which is a bit of an under-celebrated model from the Fender catalogue. For you, what sets that guitar apart from Strats, Teles or even that long lost Jag?

"I hadn’t played too many Duo-Sonics, and so I think there was something about the tone again on that one. It’s got a lighter tone, which I think is really nice. It’s weird because it’s lighter, but it’s still rich and it’s still warm. 

"I don’t know how Fender does it. It’s pretty incredible that they manage to find these tones. They’ve managed to make it lighter – not just in tone – but in feeling as well. It’s not a heavy guitar, which I thought was really nice as well.

"With that one, it wasn’t even a case of thinking it was better or worse. It was different, which I thought was really cool – to have a slight difference, but for it to still feel like the same guitar. It adds variety to the sounds and tones you can play with, as opposed to a Strat."

Samm Henshaw

(Image credit: Fender)

I think a lot of the new stuff that I’ve been doing has been going a little bit in an alternative route. Weirdly, I think it’s because of Fender

Right now, from guitar to amp and anything you put in-between, what’s your setup for playing? 

"I have not played around with a proper amp for a very long time! It’s been plugins. I’ve just been playing around with plugins and, up until this point, the most I’ve been doing is just recording from home, or being in sessions. That’s the most people have seen me pick up a guitar. 

"So yeah, it’s just playing with different plugins, distortions and stuff like that. At the moment, I’m really into tremolo flange-type sounds with guitar. I think a lot of the new stuff that I’ve been doing has been going a little bit in an alternative route. Weirdly, I think it’s because of Fender. 

"They’ve kind of made me pick up the guitar again, so the new music I’ve been working on has a lot of that sort of sound on it, where it’s a bit more flangey and a bit more reverby, distorted stuff. 

I’m kind of going – not entirely – but listening to a lot of psychedelic rock type-stuff and funk as well. The way that they use guitar in those worlds is so fun to me. So yeah, just been playing around with loads of random different things – wah wah as well. It’s been a tonne of fun to play around with. 

"I think that’s what’s been coming out of me a lot recently - this weird mesh of soul, funk psychedelic stuff."

You’re many things as well as being a guitarist – a singer, songwriter, a keys player and so on – but do you think this session really marks the start of a new, more guitar-orientated chapter in your sound? 

"Definitely. I don't know what came first. I don’t know if the music was guitar-led until Fender came in, or if I was actually kind of going in that route musically before Fender approached me. 

"But, either way, I know that I’m definitely going to start playing live again. I keep saying to Kym [Thomas, from the Fender’s Artist Marketing team] that she got me out of public guitar retirement! It’s been fun."

How did the opportunity to work with Fender actually come about? 

"I think a friend of mine might have mentioned my name or something. I remember Fender sort of saying, “Yeah, we want Samm to come in, come play some of the guitars and pick one up.” 

"I was like, 'Oh God! Why?' because no-one’s seen me play guitar in ages. Why would they want me to come and do this? 

"Then we went in and it was amazing. We sat in the Fender office/studio space for like, two or three hours. I brought my guitarist and my bassist to come through, and we just played for ages. It was a tonne of fun. 

"Then we did the interview, and that was kind of what triggered something in me and I was like, 'Okay! I think I love guitar again!'"

Will there be more partnerships with Fender to come and is there anything cooking at the moment that you can tell us about? 

"At the moment, no. But, Kym and I have been talking a lot about stuff and I’ve built a really great friendship there, and I genuinely just love her as a person. She’s just incredible. 

"So, once the new stuff comes out, and everyone hears that, then you’ll probably see a bit more from me with Fender.

Is the new material you’ve alluded to the makings of album number two? 

"I think this is the thing just before album two. I’m out here in L.A., and I just needed to make some music again because I felt like I was touring all of last year, and doing anything but making music. 

"I think I had three or four months off and just wanted to gain some new experiences, live life and all of that sort of stuff. Then, the year started and I was like, “Do you know what? Let me just go to America and start working on music.” 

"We ended up making a really small record, or we’ve kind of started the making of a small record. I think I’ve been at it for about a month and a bit. I think we’re pretty much, well, it’s just a whole new record, basically. I don’t know if I’d call it an album…"

Now, the first thing I'm picking up is a guitar or a bass guitar, and I’m actually not sitting on keys really at all on this one

Compared with how you were writing songs for Untidy Soul, what kind of role is the guitar playing in your songwriting process right now? 

"It’s quite a heavy one actually, quite a prevalent one. With everything that I was doing before, I actually had a rule on my last record that I didn’t want guitar because I used to write on guitar so much. 

"So, with that one, I was like, “Alright, we’re going to lead everything on keys, and if it has guitar in it, great.” 

"I wanted to lead everything on keys, which I think we mostly stuck to. There’s about two or three songs on the album that have guitar in it, but we didn’t actually write anything on that. 

"Now, the first thing I'm picking up is a guitar or a bass guitar, and I’m actually not sitting on keys really at all on this one. So, there’s a lot on this one!"

It’s a revolution… 

"Yeah! It’s weird because I think it’s just an interesting way of creating - going back and forth between different instruments. 

"I was in the studio with Syd [Tha Kyd] from The Internet the other day. I walk in and we’re chatting and she’s like, 'So, I feel like everything’s more guitar-led now, huh?' And I was like, 'Yeah, sure!' 

"She’d seen the Fender thing, and - weirdly - she just could tell that I was going into a guitar space. So, it was amazing."

It’s so much easier on keys! Guitar is not an easy instrument

One of the things that’s so great about seeing you play those songs from Untidy Soul in the session on guitar is that it really shows off the tasty chord voicings you’ve got in your repertoire. What would you say are some essential shapes people need to get a grip of if they want to get that authentically soulful R&B sound? 

"I’m getting much better with chords, because – again, when I stopped [writing on the guitar as much] - I just ended up just not practicing, essentially.

"So now, the most fun thing is learning chords, or learning different shapes of chords and the different sounds you can get out of it – learning 7ths, 9ths and diminished chords. 

"It’s so much easier on keys! Guitar is not an easy instrument. So, if I was asked what to learn to play first, it would definitely be keys because it’s way easier to get those voicings and the shapes and patterns. 

"Now, learning all that stuff, I either watch friends - like my friend Gaeton [Judd] who was playing guitar in the session. He’s incredible with the R&B stuff and he adds a big part to a lot of that sound. So, I’m learning little things off him, like different ways to play minor chords, major chords. Even if you’re going to do a 7th or a 9th – and I think there’s a lot of 7ths in what I do – adding those little bits just makes a difference to everything." 

I’ve noticed that you don’t tend to use a pick that often. What do you think playing with your fingers brings to your sound or the feel that you have on an electric guitar? 

"Again, it’s probably a John Mayer thing that I saw. But, I do notice that there’s a warmth that comes from it. 

"I will say this: it’s not always deliberate! It’s usually because I forget my picks! But I do like that there’s a warmer tone. I love warm tones and I love that feeling when anything that I’m hearing from the guitar makes me feel like I’m in a really big blanket, or – I don’t know – in a warm marshmallow or something! 

"I have no idea what I’m saying, but I love the idea of feeling like the sound is just rich and warm. For some reason, I always get that a little more when it’s fingerpicking or I’m just playing with my fingers and I’m not actually holding a pick. 

"If I’m gonna go hammering on strumming or whatever, and I want to hear something that’s a bit lighter – almost building it sonically – having a pick always makes sense. For soloing, a pick makes sense. 

"But, for the most part, I don’t really notice if I have a pick or not anymore."

Samm Henshaw

(Image credit: Fender)

On the subject of soloing… with this new found enthusiasm for the guitar, are we going to get to hear a bit more ripping lead work on any of the new material, or when you’re playing live? 

"There’s a song that I did where I do solo, but it’s quiet and it’s more atmospheric. It just adds to the overall sound of the song. But maybe! There might be a moment where I choose to do that. 

"It’s been a while! I know I did it on the Fender Session, but I messed up, so that was annoying. I shouldn’t have said that, but I watched it and was like, “Argh, I cocked this up!” 

"But, yeah, maybe. I’ve definitely thought about it. I think it just needs to make sense, otherwise I’d probably just shred for no reason." 

Have you got some shredding style chops up your sleeve? 

"Yes! That was one thing I always really liked more than anything else – watching people solo. I went to college with a lot of guys that played heavy metal, and that was their first thing. 

"Being around people like that actually taught me to appreciate heavy metal and that sound and vibe, but also the technique and the ability that those guys have to be able to work their way up and down the frets is insane. 

"So, yeah, I definitely learnt a few things…"

Ellie Rogers

Ellie started dabbling with guitars around the age of seven, then started writing about them roughly two decades later. She has a particular fascination with alternate tunings, is forever hunting for the perfect slide for the smaller-handed guitarist, and derives a sadistic pleasure from bothering her drummer mates with a preference for “f**king wonky” time signatures.

As well as freelancing for MusicRadar, Total Guitar and GuitarWorld.com, she’s an events marketing pro and one of the Directors of a community-owned venue in Bath, UK.