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Hot-Rodder to the Stars: Inside Performance Guitar

Hot-Rodder to the Stars: Inside Performance Guitar

In the 1980s I was an obsessive guitar freak who not only played guitar more than a normal human being should, but who also read every guitar magazine I could get my hands on. I loved reading about my heroes, their guitar techniques and what kind of gear they used. I lived in Chicago at the time and there was nothing more geek rewarding than coming in from the cold to read the latest interview with Edward Van Halen, Yngwie J. Malmsteen, or Steve Vai. Aside from learning hot licks, I would pick up on things like what kind of gear they used and what kind of guitar modifications they had done. After a while I noticed there were a handful of players that kept bringing up the same name over and over again: Performance Guitar.

I eventually figured out that Performance Guitar was the place where some of my favorite guitarists got their gear modifications and custom guitars made. I remember reading interviews with artists like Frank Zappa, Warren DeMartini and Steve Vai, who dropped the name of guitar builder Kuni Sugai in reference to their custom guitars. When I later moved to Los Angeles, I made it a point to go on a mission to investigate this place for myself.

The first time I visited the Performance shop was back in the early nineties. At the time, they were located in the upper section of Hollywood right near the corner of Yucca and Vine. You could see the Capital Records building right across the street and infamous B movie film director Ed Wood used to rent an apartment just down the street. It was a small shop with lots of activity and the smell of fresh cut wood. The walls were adorned with custom guitar prototypes that looked like the kind of stuff Steve Vai was using with Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth.

Unpainted traditional Strat and Tele bodies hung from the ceiling and the front counter was stocked full of every kind of guitar pickup imaginable. Photographs were posted everywhere with unknown players and celebrities alike grinning and holding custom guitars built by Performance. Seeing rock stars wearing street clothes and having amateur photos taken of them holding their new custom instrument, gave the shop an unpretentious appeal. You could say I was pretty much in guitar heaven. It got even better when on subsequent visits I’d walk in and hang out to wait my turn behind guys like Paul Gilbert and Michael Schenker. Performance Guitar was and is the place to be.

Tokyo-born Kuni Sugai has been making hand-built custom guitars and basses since the early 1960s. He started Performance Guitar out of his garage and later built a company with a roster of clients that includes some of the biggest names in the music industry. Fleet-fingered icons such as Frank Zappa, Warren DeMartini, Steve Vai and Joe Walsh have all come to Performance Guitar to turn their ideas into reality. Their custom necks, bodies, pickups and electronics are of the highest quality and cater to the guitarist with the most persnickety tastes. Sugai, along with in-house builders Yasuhiro “Yasu” Yokote and Masahiro “Mark” Koyama, work one-on-one with clients to select the best materials, oversee manufacturing and supervise final production. Building the most vibrant instruments in the world with incredible tones and accurate string alignment, is what Frank Zappa use to call “The crux of the biscuit.”

Sugai worked very closely with Frank Zappa for fifteen years right up until the artist's death in 1993. During his illness Zappa confided in him. “I am very sick and I need three kinds of doctors; one for my health, the second for my recording studio and third is you as my guitar doctor.” Sugai and Zappa were friends and business associates who learned much from each other. It was from this relationship that Sugai’s reputation as a great custom guitar builder was spread by word of mouth.  He became very popular among artists such as Warren Cuccurullo, Steve Vai, Warren DeMartini and Joe Walsh.

Sugai’s products and workmanship is grounded in the exemplary Japanese traditions of a strong work ethic, quality and consistency. He’s a humble, quiet gentleman with a thick Japanese accent and a no nonsense temperament. Sugai doesn’t take shit from anybody and is known for getting things done. His guitars and basses provide a seamless conduit between the musician and the creation of great music. Many of the hardest-to-please professional musicians have given Performance Guitar the "thumbs up." On stages the world over, their custom guitars and basses play with the perfection that Performance Guitar is known for.

Hit page 2 for our interview with Sugai.

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