Reverb Interview: Joe Knaggs of Knaggs Guitars

There are guitars, and then there are works of art. During his tenure as a designer at Paul Reed Smith, Joe Knaggs helped push their models firmly into the latter category. In 2009 he partnered with marketing/branding guru Peter Wolf to form Knaggs Guitars, a small team of builders and luthiers who are blazing new ground in the world of hand-made, boutique guitars. One look at their models and your idea of what a finished top can look like will be entirely rearranged. These are guitars that beg close inspection. Your eyes want to endlessly take them in, the way hands love stroking velvet.

And yet, for all their visual pop, these are still unbelievably playable guitars. Joe Knaggs never intended them to be case-and-stand queens. He obsesses over the tonewoods used, not for their look, but for their natural resonant frequencies. He uses the quiet stillness of the shop in the morning to really explore the way his guitars respond and what tonal information they're capable of giving. This is not the behavior of someone who's merely interested in turning heads. This is what you do when you're chasing perfection.

We recently had a chance to chat with Joe Knaggs about his vision for the company, what he learned at PRS and how to make sure your guitar doesn't sound like an obnoxious restaurant patron.

Reverb: Which Knaggs model are you most excited about right now?

Joe Knaggs: I really like all the models we are doing right now. We have spent the last five years getting all the models into a productive system, so I really appreciate the full line we've developed. We are making some models with a stone inlay [in the crevices of the body wood], which I find very interesting because you're going with the flow of nature. What people consider flaws, cracks, and imperfections work as a starting point in making a truly unique one off piece.

It's great to make a guitar out of wood that otherwise would be considered useless. It allows me to treat the guitar like a canvas. There certainly won’t be another one like it. The unique double stain jobs allow that same kind of creativity. I check guitars early in the morning when the shop is quiet. During this time I get to hear the individual nuances of the different models. I seem to lean towards the Severn HSS since I play mainly single coil pickups as a musician. I do love that combination, but they all have nice qualities.

R: Within the whole guitar ecosystem, where do you see Knaggs Guitars fitting in? What sort of players are they best for?

JK: We make so many models that we truly have something for almost every kind of player, from acoustics to serious rock and roll guitars like the Steve Stevens models. I feel the guitars have a certain sound with extra harmonic levels and lasting sustain you don’t necessarily hear in a lot of electric guitars. There are guys like Doug Rappaport who are able to take that quality and get a unique sound and quality to their playing and writing. That is what I love to see out of our instruments.

R: Your guitars do a great job of highlighting Maple and other tonewoods. What goes into your wood selection process?

JK: We are using some traditional combinations of woods because they have worked well in the past and will continue to work well. As a luthier you are looking for combinations of woods that give you a desired harmonic level. You may want highs and lows without a huge midrange or vice versa, so you combine the different woods that ring at those different frequencies to the best of your abilities. This - along with design elements such as body size, scale length, neck rake, fret height, and bridge engineering - shapes the sound of the guitar.

I was at an exotic wood supplier and I looked at some Brazilian Cherry and thought it might be good for fingerboards. The owner told me it doesn't ring much. We both concluded that's why they use it for flooring so much. You don’t want the floor to be loud because it will make the house loud. It is the opposite with stringed musical instrument making, but you also don’t want one of the wood's frequencies to outshine the others too much. I personally like strong clear lows, warm highs and a lower midrange. I don’t like a lot of high-mids as they tend to sound nasal, much like an obnoxious human voice. You know...the guy or girl in the restaurant that you can hear over everybody else.

R: Both you and Peter worked for Paul Reed Smith, for over twenty years in your case. How did this extensive experience influence you as a builder and your goals with your own designs?

JK: The single biggest factor that Paul brought to the industry was an extremely high level of attention to detail and quality. That has certainly transcended into what we do. PRS made great guitars, but they were never my cup of tea as a player. As far as my designs go, they lean more towards the traditional guitars because that is what I played from eleven years old until I made my original Choptank some 26 years later. I was a very serious musician, practicing six to eight hours a day, much like many people in our industry that now build or sell.

When I designed at PRS, I always tried to design what I believed fit the PRS template, but even there I leaned towards making a more traditional type of guitar. Obviously, I learned a lot at PRS about guitar construction in general. That was where I began making guitars. I did not make guitars prior to that. I taught myself how to carve. I had the freedom to create at PRS, which was great, and that also benefited the company greatly. I came up with finishing techniques there, like the double stain jobs that enhanced the curly maple tops and set some new standards in finishing. I designed inlays for runs of models, took the Private Stock program from conception to having $3 million of product on backorder, organized the R&D department and managed as an executive. It was really a win win. Danny Dedo and I figured out how to make a guitar very quickly from drawing to finished prototype to production with the rest of the crew at a very rapid pace.

For Knaggs Guitars, this ability to create and produce has played a huge part in allowing us to pull off so many different models in such a short amount of time. A lot of things I did at PRS influence what we make now, but a lot of those elements have also been changed to better fit what I want in an instrument. Our bridges are a great example. They are hugely different than anything we did at PRS and have a completely different sound. People seem to fit you into a mold of where you came from. With the exception of some similar looks, I can honestly say the guitars are very different from PRS guitars and lean more towards the traditional guitars we grew up with, only with more harmonics and sustain.

R: Many of your models are named after the Native American names of local rivers. What led you to choose this theme?

JK: I began thinking about making my own guitars in 2000. I love the outdoors, and the Chesapeake Bay area where we grew up is a very special place, so I was originally going to name the company Chesapeake and have all the models be named after the tributaries that feed into it. All my first prototypes had a hand painted Chesapeake logo on them. We even built some Severn, Choptank, Patuxent, and Potomac specimens at PRS when we were trying to bring these models into their lineup under a sister brand of PRS called Chesapeake.

When we started the company, we decided we should offer shorter scale, three-on-a-side guitars as well. I wanted to name that side of the product line Influence since it was a very different animal than the original guitars I designed. I came up with four models under the Influence line – Peter’s wife Sylvie gave us the idea to name this different line from the Native American river names, so we named them Kenai, Keya, Chena, and Sheyenne. Then Markus Kaez - our web designer, ad expert, and dear friend from Germany - insisted the name of the brand be Knaggs. Traditionally, guitar companies have done best when they are named after the luthier because people can identify with one builder more easily than a group of people. Markus also thought the name was very unique.

This was nice because it allowed the different lines to be categorized under the main name Knaggs with two separate subcategories: Chesapeake and Influence. Ironically, the word Knaggs means crazy in German, though it's spelled differently. That's probably fitting, considering it was pretty crazy to start a business during that time [ca. 2008] when the economy was so down.

R: Looking ahead, are you hoping to keep Knaggs small scale with high levels of customization, or do you see the company growing to include more accessible standard models?

JK: The ideal business model to us is a small production company that makes about 2000 guitars a year under the Knaggs name. As far as customization goes, we offer enough models and options you don’t have to customize. Internally, we want everyone to understand what making our guitars is all about while making a nice living. We want to make and market super high-end guitars. We want to keep the tradition of really great guitar-making alive. It's so much nicer to eat in a great restaurant that is owned and operated by individuals rather than a restaurant that is a chain. Not that the chains don’t make great food, but there is something special and more rewarding about the owner coming out and saying hello, how did you enjoy your meal? [End]

There's a direct line of mentorship from Ted McCarty to Paul Reed Smith to Joe Knaggs. Regardless of how you feel about the guitar industry or how sentimental you are for the good old days, Knaggs reminds us that we are living in a blessed age where guitars are not yet 3D-printed, where people still remember the classics and have the moxy to take them to the next step without compromise, where guitars can still cause grown adults to grow weak at the knees and ask, how did they do that?

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