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Joe Knaggs sanding the sides of a Chesapeake series acoustic.
Yeah, but I’m so entrenched in getting the guitars built that I haven’t even really thought about going there [laughs]. That happens when you’re trying to get things done and working 10, 15, 16 hours a day. You can’t even think that much about what the next week is holding.
Before we talk about your new guitars, I wanted to get a feel for the type of guitarist you are. What were your formative influences— as far as guitarists and bands, as well as instruments?
I listen to everything, but I really come from a jazz background. I listen to George Benson, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Larry Carlton, Larry Coryell, and a lot of those kinds of players. But then I also listen to bluegrass—I enjoy Tony Rice. One of my favorite guitar players of all time is Jeff Beck. In my opinion, he’s the Miles Davis of guitar. I also listen to flamenco music—y’know, Paco de Lucia. Steve Howe from Yes was a big influence. Another one was the Allman Brothers—I always loved the way Dickey Betts and Duane Allman played. Neil Young was a huge influence, one of my first. Frank Zappa, too—Apostrophe was the first album I ever got.
What was your first guitar and amp?
My very first guitar was a Nagoya acoustic. My sister and her husband at the time matched the money that I put into it. It’s actually a pretty good guitar. My second guitar was a Fender Jaguar, but I got rid of that because it went out of tune all the time. My third one was a Gibson L-5, a big archtop, and that thing was not a very good guitar—it was actually a very not-good-sounding guitar. Not that they didn’t make great ones, but that particular one was really bad. I remember watching a video of Adrian Belew playing “Elephant Talk,” and at the time I didn’t know he was playing a Mustang—I thought it was a Stratocaster—so I traded my L-5 in for a 1961 Stratocaster. And that’s what I played my whole life. I played everything on that guitar, whether it was jazz, rock, or whatever. The first amp I ever played through was a little transistor Ampeg bass amp, and then I got a Fender Twin—but those are a little too harsh, so I got a Fender Vibrolux.
Lead me down the path that culminated in you establishing Knaggs guitars.
I never dreamed I could be a guitar builder. But I’d have to say it came from my artistic background. I was an artist ever since I was a little kid. I would do paintings in junior high school— they used to pull me out of English to go do paintings on the walls and stuff like that. But the beginning of Knaggs guitars, for me, would be the Chesapeake guitars that I was building on the side when I worked at PRS. I would get off work and go to my buddy’s house on the weekends and work on instruments that I was building for myself. I’d played a Strat all my life, so I was starting to build some guitars that were leaning more in that direction. I also wanted to build an acoustic guitar that was a bit smaller than a dreadnought but a little bigger than a Collings C10, so I kind of mixed those two together. My buddy Eric Johnson— not the Eric Johnson—showed me a lot about building acoustic guitars. So I was building that and the Choptank and the Severn. They were guitars really built for what I wanted to build a guitar as. When I designed for PRS, I designed what I thought Paul would be interested in. And I’m not saying PRS guitars aren’t great. I’m just saying these were more toward what I like: single-coils, a longer scale length, higher fretwire, all that stuff.
So why did you decide to make the jump and start your own line?
It was twofold. One thing is that there was this inner drive to design and make my own stuff. That started with making the Chesapeake stuff. We were kind of starting to bring it into PRS, but I think Paul knew that I wanted to go out on my own—I think that was always in the back of his mind—and it didn’t seem like he really wanted to embrace that project as a different entity. So that kind of made my mind up to go do my own thing, but I’d say the biggest thing was that inner drive. I was ready for a new experience, and it’s been a great one. With your own business, you create your own destiny. I had a lot of dealers and other people telling me I should go out on my own and do my own thing because my name was big enough and I was known for making quality instruments. A lot of people wanted to see me do it as much as I did. My wife, too. She said to me one day, “You know what, you’re never really going to be happy until you do it.”
Before we get into your new line, what would you say was your biggest impact on PRS?
The first thing I did that really made an impact on the design level was the archtop and the hollowbody [the McCarty Archtop and McCarty Hollowbody]. Like Paul said at the time, that was my pinnacle. And then I designed everything from the Starla to the Mira to the Gary Grainger [Private Stock] bass. But I also did things like figure out stain jobs and that kind of thing. But if I was to say what my biggest impact was, it would be leading people—because I had a great team of people under me—and the ability to draw, design, and know all the different things you’ve got to do from that stage all the way into production. I was able to draw something on paper and then oversee it through all the other great people I had working with me to put that guitar that I drew into production. Not very many people can do that. People like Larry Breedlove know how to do it, but not many can draw something and know how to make it, too.
OK, Tell me about the Knaggs guitars. Let’s start with the necks—the profile, the radius, etc.
Radius is a good one to start with. I’m doing an 8.5" on the Chesapeake electrics. I’ve always thought a 7.25" radius was the thing that made a Fender feel the way it does. I’m talking about the old ones, because they changed some of that later on. But, the other side of it was that the old ones had a tendency to fret out when you bent the strings. To me, the 8.5" radius is right on the verge of fretting out but still has the nice feel of a round neck. The nut specs and all that lean more toward a vintage instrument. I combined the neck shapes to have maybe a tiny little bit more of a V to them than the older ones. I’m kind of combining some things I did at PRS with some of the vintage Fender feel—on the Chesapeake electric side.
Will there be different neck options on each model, or are those standard?
The neck shape and design will be specific to a model. So if you order a Keya, you’re going to get a neck shape that’s specific to the Keya. If you order a Chena, the neck will be specific to the Chena. For instance, the Choptank has a deep neck, front to back, but a narrow nut. It’s bulky, but it doesn’t feel bulky. The Severn is a little thinner, but with the same nut specs, so it feels a little smaller.