A Brief History of Suhr Guitars

For many guitarists, an all-original 1950s Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster is the ultimate instrument in terms of sound and vibe. John Suhr is not among this devoted contingency.

In his four decades in the guitar business, Suhr has approached vintage Fenders with scientific rigor, quantifying what gives them that vibe and, in building his own interpretations, rejected what makes the originals problematic, such as their notoriously finicky tuning systems and small neck radiuses. He’s repaired and made guitars for greats like Mark Knopfler and Peter Frampton and, if that weren’t enough, he’s also given sound reinforcement a similar treatment in his line of tube amplifiers.

"Suhr has fixed all of Fender’s mistakes, and believe me, there were a lot of them"

“Suhr has fixed all of Fender’s mistakes, and believe me, there were a lot of them,” says Scott Henderson, the jazz-rock virtuoso who puts his roasted-neck Suhr Classic through its paces on Vibe Station, his latest self-released album. “I’ve always hated the small frets and clunky neck radius [on vintage Fender guitars]. Notes are hard to bend and they fret out unless the action is kept really high. My Suhrs sound like vintage Strats, but they play so much better. They use the right wood, their pickups sound amazing, and the guitars are built better than any other on the market. I’m only limited by my own chops.”

Repairs and Research

Suhr grew up in New Jersey and, like many teenagers in the mid-1970s, picked up a cheap electric guitar, a Les Paul copy, to play songs by Led Zeppelin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. He eventually upgraded to a real Stratocaster but grew frustrated by the way that it fretted out and its tendency to slip out of tune. And so he had a local luthier Bob Benedetto, one of the world’s premier archtop builders, make him a new neck. Hanging out in Benedetto’s shop, Suhr was inspired to make his own guitars, mainly in the style of Gibson’s Les Paul Junior.

Suhr Carve Top Standard Mark Knopfler

In his 20s, Suhr moved to New York City. To make the rent, he worked as a cook and played in bands in New Jersey clubs. While flipping omelets, Suhr learned that a food-service colleague had gotten a job in sales at Rudy’s Music Stop, on New York’s famed Music Row. Through this friend, Suhr was hired to start the repair department at Rudy’s, on a bench in the building’s closet-sized boiler room.

In his subterranean quarters, Suhr got to know hundreds, if not thousands, of electric guitars, many of them prime vintage examples. In the process he learned what worked on these instruments, and what didn’t. Demand for his repair services grew and he served as a personal in-studio technician for Mark Knopfler when the guitarist recorded Bob Dylan’s Infidels album in 1983, and Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album in 1985.

At Rudy’s, Suhr also began making guitars from Schecter necks and Tom Anderson bodies. Though Suhr’s boiler-room shop expanded to take up a few floors of the store, there still wasn’t enough space for the machinery needed to make guitars from scratch. The first Pensa-Suhr guitars — high-performance instruments with modified Stratocaster silhouettes — were offered around 1984. In ‘87, the instruments earned great visibility through the introduction of a Knopfler signature model.

Amps

In the late 1980s, Suhr was gigging in New York with a band that required he use the broadest assortment of guitar tones, so he bought a Bob Bradshaw–made switching system along with the recommended amps, figuring if the rig were good enough for a player like Steve Lukather it’d be good enough for him. But he was unsatisfied. And so he delved into technical literature and dissected amps until he finally modded a Marshall head to his liking.

Suhr Custom Audio OD-100

Bradshaw was blown away by the modified Marshall, and so was Lukather. Bradshaw then commissioned Suhr to design a three-channel rack-mounted preamp, and in 1991 he prevailed upon Suhr to move to California to work for his company, Custom Electronics. The timing was perfect. Tom Anderson had stopped making guitar parts the year before to focus on building his own custom instruments; Suhr was frustrated that he didn’t have the equipment at Rudy’s to make his own bodies, and he wanted to escape New York. And so he jumped ship. In California with Bradshaw, Suhr designed the OD 100 amp while also wiring rack systems, modding amps and designing circuitry, among other projects.

The Fender Years

By the mid-’90s, rack-mounted systems were beginning to fall out of favor and Suhr starting repairing and designing guitars again. Then, in 1995, he was offered a job as senior master builder at Fender’s Custom Shop. Once again, the timing couldn’t have been better. Suhr and his wife had an infant son at the time and the job security and benefits of working for a large company, and such an important one at that, made it the right move.

At the Custom Shop, Suhr enjoyed some cool projects. He made from scratch a quartet of low-power tweed Twin amps for Eric Clapton, built custom guitars to order, and was deeply involved in R&D for the shop’s pickups and finishes. But working for a large company was not without its drawbacks, and after a couple years, Suhr began craving a situation with more autonomy.

While working at the Custom Shop and advocating for new CNC machinery, Suhr encountered the usual red tape. Then in yet another fortuitous encounter, he met Steve Smith, a software representative and CNC programmer. Smith put a bug in Suhr’s ear and he and Smith joined forces and started Suhr Guitars/JS Technologies in 1997.

Suhr Guitars/JS Technologies

The early days were exciting but not easy. Suhr did all the finishing touches: sanding bodies, fretting necks and finishing the guitars himself, working as many as 20 hours a day to satisfy customer demand. He and his wife hand-wound their own pickups at home. But Suhr’s efforts paid off. The company grew and now employs 100 people at its 27,000-square-foot state-of-the art facilities, in Lake Elsinore, California.

Suhr Classic Antique HSS
Suhr Modern Satin Cherry HSH
Suhr Pro Series Classic Pro

Suhr’s production lines include the Professional, Antique and Satin series. All of the guitars are made to impressively consistent levels of craftsmanship, thanks to the use of CNC machinery and a Plek (computer-controlled) fret treatment. They incorporate vintage-approved specs like nitrocellulose lacquer finishes and modern touches like compound-radius fretboards and stainless-steel frets.

Suhr Bella 1x12 Combo
Suhr Corso 5-Watt Recording Amp
Suhr 212-HL Hedgehog 2x12
Suhr Badger 35 Combo

In addition to six-string and bass guitars, effect pedals and pickups, the company also now produces a wide range of amplifiers, including the portable American-voiced Bella; the multi-channel, MIDI switchable PT-100; the all-tube variable wattage Suhr Corso Recording amp; the Hedgehog, a modern all-tube, 50 watt single-channel amp that features a cascaded overdrive section, four voicings and a series/parallel effects loop; the Badger and Hand Wired Series; Custom Audio Amplifier line and the Jim Kelley Amplifiers line.

comments powered by Disqus