In the mid ’80s, Joe Knaggs, a guitar
enthusiast and painter, started his
lutherie career in the finishing room at
Paul Reed Smith, gradually working his
way up to become Smith’s right-hand man
as director of R&D and Private Stock.
Knaggs helped PRS stake out new territory
beginning in the late ’90s by designing
such innovative models as the McCarty
Archtop and Hollowbody, as well as the
Mira and the Starla—guitars that were at
once futuristic and retro.
In 2009, Knaggs amicably went his own
way to create his own guitar company.
With former PRS associate and guitar industry
veteran Peter Wolf handling
marketing, branding, and design input,
Knaggs recently introduced a series of
boutique guitars that use classic Fender,
Gibson, and Martin designs as points of
departure. Knaggs’ instruments include
solidbody, hollowbody, flattop, and bass
guitar models. Each is available in one of
three packages—from the more spartan
Tier 3 to the opulent Tier 1. We checked
out two Knaggs models, the Chesapeake
series Electric Choptank (Tier 3) and the
Influence series Electric Kenai (Tier 2).
With its single-cutaway, contoured swamp
ash body, trio of single-coil pickups, and
25 1/2"-scale maple neck, the Choptank
clearly nods to both the Telecaster and the
Stratocaster. But it also has a glued-in neck,
an 8 1/2" fretboard radius (which is more
hospitable to bending than the 7 1/4"
radius traditionally associated with vintage
Fenders), and a proprietary 6-saddle
bridge designed to more directly transfer
string vibrations to the body.
Our review Choptank guitar looked
awesome—a little like a piece of mid-century
Danish Modern furniture with striking,
wavy grains. The plastic pickup covers, control
knobs, and selector-switch tip were
ivory in color, which was offset nicely
by a dark brown pickguard, crafted
from tropical wenge. The reddish-brown
rosewood fretboard possessed
an attractive swirling grain pattern,
and the rock maple neck had a
warm amber appearance, thanks to a
judicious use of aging toner.
It was difficult to find fault with
the craftsmanship of our Choptank. The
22 tall, thin frets were meticulously seated
and polished, and the nut and saddles were
perfectly cut. The glossy nitrocellulose finish
was evenly applied and buffed, save for just
a hint of unevenness on the back, where the
body meets the string ferrules—admittedly, a
very minor complaint.
The Choptank is a light guitar—a little
over seven pounds on a digital scale—and
equally comfortable to play when seated or
standing. The guitar’s C-shaped neck was
ample, but not too full, and its profile was
a sort of cross between early ’50s and ’60s
Telecaster necks. The guitar was very comfortably
set up too, though the action was
slightly elevated for my taste.
In terms of playability, the Choptank
has a great broken-in quality. Chords
and single-note lines were easy to play in
all registers. Big bends that might have
fretted out on other guitars rang true.
And the Choptank had a lively acoustic
resonance, as well as plenty of snap and
sustain when unplugged.
The Choptank’s electronics are Strat-like
in configuration: three Seymour
Duncan SSL-1 single-coil pickups,
controlled by a 5-way switch, one Volume,
and two Tone controls. But as on a Tele,
the guitar’s 1/4" output jack is located on
the lower bout’s treble side.
I’m presently on a small-amp kick, so I
plugged the Choptank into a recent-vintage
Fender Pro Junior and was impressed right
off the bat by the guitar’s tonal versatility.
It was easy to dial in that classic Tele twang
on the bridge pickup. The middle pickup
had a bit more bark, and the neck pickup
delivered darker tones that would work well
for modern jazz. The two in-between settings
had a complex chime that was perfect
for sweetly voiced arpeggios.
The Choptank has a bit more sustain
than a typical Fender, probably thanks in
no small part to the glued-in neck and
bolted bridge. The sustain turned monstrous
when I introduced a NerFuzz distortion
pedal into the equation. On the neck
pickup, the guitar sounded awesomely
thick and creamy, while with a bit of extra
gain the bridge pickup sounded surprisingly
aggressive and nasty enough for punk-rock
you’re looking to get a wide range of useable tones in a single, extremely playable, collector-grade guitar.
you’re either exclusively a Tele or Strat player.