Premier Guitar

Knaggs Guitars

April 15, 2010

Knaggs Chesapeake series Potomac flattop and Severn double-cutaway, and Influence series Keya carved top.

For any serious luthier, the opportunity to help redefine modern guitarcraft while working alongside the most influential builder of a generation is the stuff of dreams. And for Joe Knaggs it was, too. But he was just getting started.

Growing up in Maryland, Knaggs had two passions—playing guitar and painting. “They used to pull me out of English to go do paintings on the walls,” he recalls. “But I was also totally into music—I played guitar six, eight hours a day.” His first electrics were from the two biggest brands of the era—first a Fender Jaguar, then a Gibson L-5, then a Stratocaster. He couldn’t have known that the slightly older guy who lived down the street, one Paul Smith, would later bridge the gap between those two vastly different schools of guitar building. And he certainly couldn’t have had any idea that he’d become a huge part of that picture himself. Because at that point he hadn’t the slightest inclination to become a luthier.

But then it happened. A few years later, Knaggs was working in a shop that refinished just about anything you could put paint on, and one day he was inspired to apply blue lacquer to a Strat body. Like a lot of guitarists around the planet, he was also moonlighting to make a little extra cash, so he decided to head over to Smith’s shop across town and show off his handiwork. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll bring that guitar body over there and see if Paul has any side work for me.’” Smith didn’t have any jobs for Knaggs at the time, but approximately a year later he called to recruit Knaggs for a full-time position in the Paul Reed Smith finish room. Over the ensuing years Knaggs was promoted from finish-room manager to production manager, then builder of PRS prototypes and endorsee guitars, overseer of the Private Stock program, and, finally, director of R&D. In the process, he brought the world the legendary PRS McCarty Archtop and McCarty Hollowbody—guitars that took the company in a whole new direction and earned it rave reviews (not to mention tons of sales). Knaggs was also the primary designer behind the Gary Grainger bass and the Starla and Mira guitar lines, both of which not only helped make PRS appealing to players looking for a funkier, vintage vibe but also further cemented its reputation for quality and innovation.

Throughout his years at PRS, Knaggs worked with another prime mover behind the brand’s meteoric success, a former instrument dealer from Germany named Peter Wolf. “I met Paul Smith and the PRS guys back in 1986,” Wolf remembers. He went on to become one of the company’s three German dealers, and eventually became the exclusive PRS distributor for Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg. By 1996, he was talking with the company about coming aboard full-time. “At that point, their export sales were really small—they were only working in 13 countries.” The next year, Wolf joined the PRS team as international sales manager. Like Knaggs, he moved steadily up the chain of command, and as director of sales and marketing from 2004 to 2009, he was instrumental in taking the company through a period of extraordinary growth and visibility.

But 2009 was a year of change for both Wolf and Knaggs. The former left PRS that February, and the latter struck out on his own in June of that year. Wolf went on to establish a marketing services firm called BrandWolf Consulting, while Knaggs says he just wanted to get back to his roots.

“If you were an artist painting all the time but someone else’s signature was on the bottom, at some point you’d want to make sure you were signing your own paintings,” he explains. “That’s the main reason I left. Maybe I was ready for another challenge, too. I’d kind of done everything there that I wanted to do. The next step would’ve been to become some kind of executive sitting in an office, and that’s not me.”

Before the year was through, Knaggs and Wolf had joined forces for what very well may be 2010’s most intriguing guitar story—the creation of Knaggs Guitars. For both men, the partnership seemed an obvious fit. “I’ve known Joe pretty much since the middle of the ’90s… and not only were we colleagues, we also became close friends,” says Wolf. “I took him around the world—I brought him to Japan, I took him to Europe. We did Private Stock carving sessions and stuff like that. I thought he was an extraordinary designer and builder. He’s one of these people who can do it all: he can draw, he can carve, he can design, he can build. There aren’t that many people out there who can do that.”

Unveiled at the Musikmesse 2010 trade show in Frankfurt, Germany (see our show coverage), Knaggs Guitars features three lines of jaw-droppingly gorgeous instruments, including solidbody and hollowbody electrics, a series of acoustics (with or without cutaway), and two basses. All are available in three different “tiers,” with tier-1 axes being stuffed to the gills with eye-popping goodness and tier-3 guitars being geared more toward working guitarists. Prices range from $2900 to $7000 for 25.5"-scale Chesapeake series electrics, $4500 to $10,500 for Chesapeake acoustics, $3000 to $10,000 for 24.75"-scale Influence electrics, and $3000 to $4500 for Chesapeake basses.

We spoke with Knaggs to get the story behind his new venture with Wolf just prior to the worldwide debut of Knaggs Guitars at Musikmesse.




Joe Knaggs sanding the sides of a Chesapeake series acoustic.
Are you guys getting excited for the Frankfurt show?

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.



Tell me about your new bridge designs.

That’s one of the most unique things about both electric lines. They transfer the sound into the guitar like no other bridges I’ve heard. That, to me, is a big, huge impact on the sound of a guitar. On the Influence series—which has shorter scale lengths, three-on-a-side headstocks, and carved tops—I actually put a Tune-o-matic on top of a plate that holds the strings, and that’s screwed down to the top. The bridge on the Chesapeake Severn Trem model is really a pretty big deal. It’s a steel bridge with brass saddles, and I’ve basically combined a Telecaster bridge with a tremolo—it’s all one piece. The bridge plate is bolted to the top of the guitar, and then the tremolo is on a hinge. So you’re not counting on these knife-edge screws to hold the pressure of the bridge going back and forth. It’s stable. Another unique thing we’re doing is bluing the steel on the bridges of the Chesapeake electrics. Bluing is a process that uses black oxide to change the chemical makeup on the outside of the steel. It has this bluish black tint to it, and they’ve been doing that with rifle and gun barrels forever.


Intricate inlay work on a Knaggs acoustic headstock
How about electronics?

The electronics are pretty standard: Three-way toggles, five-way blade switches, volume, tone. Pretty basic, but stuff that people have always loved. The Chesapeake electrics will have Fralin pickups in most of them, Peter Wolf has more than 35 years of experience in the music industry, including working as director of global sales and marketing for his last five years at PRS. He now heads up all facets of sales and marketing for Knaggs Guitars. Here he reflects on how—and why—he and Joe Knaggs became partners.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind about Joe when you think about working with him over all these years?

He’s just a normal guy who has respect for people. He’s easygoing. He doesn’t let it hang out—he’s just a regular guy. He’s appreciative of people and has respect, and that was something I picked up on. That’s really what struck the friendship and kept us connected all these years.

What were the first conversations between you and Joe like after you decided to become partners?

I think it was early July when we went down to North Carolina with our families for about a week, and we really dug in to what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. One of the very important things that made me think this was going to be something important was the fact that Joe is one of the few people who is capable of designing in different directions. If you look at the guitar designs of the last 60, 70 years, the market is dominated by two or three major camps: The Fender camp, the Gibson camp, and the Martin camp. All of them adapted designs that were invented back in the 1700s and 1800s in Italy—when there was no trademark law. But none of them has been able to break into each other’s camp. Fender has never really built a guitar with a set neck or a carved top that has been successful. And Gibson never really came up with a design with double-cutaway with a bolt-on neck, six-on-a-side headstock, and a scratchplate. So what I really found interesting and unique about Joe was that he was able to come up with designs that weren’t copies. Yes, he adapted from the past, but he didn’t copy anybody. He can do that in all directions. He can design and build acoustics, he can design and build six-on-a-side-headstock guitars that look awesome, and he can do everything that is part of the G camp and the PRS camp.

I understand there are some legal restrictions—Knaggs guitars can’t initially be carried by PRS dealers—so I imagine it was tricky to figure out which design features Joe came up with at PRS could be incorporated into his new line.


Not really. That part of it is pretty simple. The Chesapeake line— which is basically the Severn, the Choptank, and the Patuxent and Potomac acoustics—are guitars that Joe designed on his own when he was at PRS. The original idea, or at least my original idea, was to bring these designs in and sell them under the brand name of PRS—or maybe create a second brand name of Chesapeake. But that was not something other people wanted to do. So when Joe left, the Chesapeake designs and all the drawings and all the trademarks went over to him. So that’s completely clean and there are no restrictions on that end. And the Influence line—the Kenai, the Keya, the Chena, and the Sheyenne—are completely also his own designs, so there are no restrictions there, either.

That was a pretty magnanimous gesture on Paul’s part to allow him to take those designs.

Yeah. That was definitely nice of him and cool that he was fine with Joe taking these designs with him. I have a lot of respect for him, and so does Joe. He’s been a big part of our lives, and we’ve been a big part of his life.

Business-wise, what’s your vision for Knaggs Guitars?

Well, the vision is basically to build the best guitars that we can without taking any shortcuts—doing what’s best for the sound and the instrument and the looks—and to start slow and small, and then build it up over the next five to seven or ten years to become a respectable company that hopefully comes out with designs and instruments that one day will be called classics. Or at least appeal to the guitar-loving sector of that market that we’re trying to get a little piece of, which is the very high-end market—top-notch guitars—and do that in a way that we’re not stuck going in one direction. Build acoustics, build electrics, build mandolins, build basses, and see what else comes to mind.



Peter Wolf: Knaggs’ Biz Guru Outlines the Master Plan


Peter Wolf (left) and Joe Knaggs
Peter Wolf has more than 35 years of experience in the music industry, including working as director of global sales and marketing for his last five years at PRS. He now heads up all facets of sales and marketing for Knaggs Guitars. Here he reflects on how—and why—he and Joe Knaggs became partners.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind about Joe when you think about working with him over all these years?

He’s just a normal guy who has respect for people. He’s easygoing. He doesn’t let it hang out—he’s just a regular guy. He’s appreciative of people and has respect, and that was something I picked up on. That’s really what struck the friendship and kept us connected all these years.

What were the first conversations between you and Joe like after you decided to become partners?

I think it was early July when we went down to North Carolina with our families for about a week, and we really dug in to what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. One of the very important things that made me think this was going to be something important was the fact that Joe is one of the few people who is capable of designing in different directions. If you look at the guitar designs of the last 60, 70 years, the market is dominated by two or three major camps: The Fender camp, the Gibson camp, and the Martin camp. All of them adapted designs that were invented back in the 1700s and 1800s in Italy—when there was no trademark law. But none of them has been able to break into each other’s camp. Fender has never really built a guitar with a set neck or a carved top that has been successful. And Gibson never really came up with a design with double-cutaway with a bolt-on neck, six-on-a-side headstock, and a scratchplate. So what I really found interesting and unique about Joe was that he was able to come up with designs that weren’t copies. Yes, he adapted from the past, but he didn’t copy anybody. He can do that in all directions. He can design and build acoustics, he can design and build six-on-a-side-headstock guitars that look awesome, and he can do everything that is part of the G camp and the PRS camp.

I understand there are some legal restrictions—Knaggs guitars can’t initially be carried by PRS dealers—so I imagine it was tricky to figure out which design features Joe came up with at PRS could be incorporated into his new line.

Not really. That part of it is pretty simple. The Chesapeake line— which is basically the Severn, the Choptank, and the Patuxent and Potomac acoustics—are guitars that Joe designed on his own when he was at PRS. The original idea, or at least my original idea, was to bring these designs in and sell them under the brand name of PRS—or maybe create a second brand name of Chesapeake. But that was not something other people wanted to do. So when Joe left, the Chesapeake designs and all the drawings and all the trademarks went over to him. So that’s completely clean and there are no restrictions on that end. And the Influence line—the Kenai, the Keya, the Chena, and the Sheyenne—are completely also his own designs, so there are no restrictions there, either.

That was a pretty magnanimous gesture on Paul’s part to allow him to take those designs.

Yeah. That was definitely nice of him and cool that he was fine with Joe taking these designs with him. I have a lot of respect for him, and so does Joe. He’s been a big part of our lives, and we’ve been a big part of his life.

Business-wise, what’s your vision for Knaggs Guitars?

Well, the vision is basically to build the best guitars that we can without taking any shortcuts—doing what’s best for the sound and the instrument and the looks—and to start slow and small, and then build it up over the next five to seven or ten years to become a respectable company that hopefully comes out with designs and instruments that one day will be called classics. Or at least appeal to the guitar-loving sector of that market that we’re trying to get a little piece of, which is the very high-end market—top-notch guitars—and do that in a way that we’re not stuck going in one direction. Build acoustics, build electrics, build mandolins, build basses, and see what else comes to mind.


Peter Wolf: Knaggs’ Biz Guru Outlines the Master Plan


Peter Wolf (left) and Joe Knaggs
Peter Wolf has more than 35 years of experience in the music industry, including working as director of global sales and marketing for his last five years at PRS. He now heads up all facets of sales and marketing for Knaggs Guitars. Here he reflects on how—and why—he and Joe Knaggs became partners.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind about Joe when you think about working with him over all these years?

He’s just a normal guy who has respect for people. He’s easygoing. He doesn’t let it hang out—he’s just a regular guy. He’s appreciative of people and has respect, and that was something I picked up on. That’s really what struck the friendship and kept us connected all these years.

What were the first conversations between you and Joe like after you decided to become partners?

I think it was early July when we went down to North Carolina with our families for about a week, and we really dug in to what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. One of the very important things that made me think this was going to be something important was the fact that Joe is one of the few people who is capable of designing in different directions. If you look at the guitar designs of the last 60, 70 years, the market is dominated by two or three major camps: The Fender camp, the Gibson camp, and the Martin camp. All of them adapted designs that were invented back in the 1700s and 1800s in Italy—when there was no trademark law. But none of them has been able to break into each other’s camp. Fender has never really built a guitar with a set neck or a carved top that has been successful. And Gibson never really came up with a design with double-cutaway with a bolt-on neck, six-on-a-side headstock, and a scratchplate. So what I really found interesting and unique about Joe was that he was able to come up with designs that weren’t copies. Yes, he adapted from the past, but he didn’t copy anybody. He can do that in all directions. He can design and build acoustics, he can design and build six-on-a-side-headstock guitars that look awesome, and he can do everything that is part of the G camp and the PRS camp.

I understand there are some legal restrictions—Knaggs guitars can’t initially be carried by PRS dealers—so I imagine it was tricky to figure out which design features Joe came up with at PRS could be incorporated into his new line.

Not really. That part of it is pretty simple. The Chesapeake line— which is basically the Severn, the Choptank, and the Patuxent and Potomac acoustics—are guitars that Joe designed on his own when he was at PRS. The original idea, or at least my original idea, was to bring these designs in and sell them under the brand name of PRS—or maybe create a second brand name of Chesapeake. But that was not something other people wanted to do. So when Joe left, the Chesapeake designs and all the drawings and all the trademarks went over to him. So that’s completely clean and there are no restrictions on that end. And the Influence line—the Kenai, the Keya, the Chena, and the Sheyenne—are completely also his own designs, so there are no restrictions there, either.

That was a pretty magnanimous gesture on Paul’s part to allow him to take those designs.

Yeah. That was definitely nice of him and cool that he was fine with Joe taking these designs with him. I have a lot of respect for him, and so does Joe. He’s been a big part of our lives, and we’ve been a big part of his life.

Business-wise, what’s your vision for Knaggs Guitars?

Well, the vision is basically to build the best guitars that we can without taking any shortcuts—doing what’s best for the sound and the instrument and the looks—and to start slow and small, and then build it up over the next five to seven or ten years to become a respectable company that hopefully comes out with designs and instruments that one day will be called classics. Or at least appeal to the guitar-loving sector of that market that we’re trying to get a little piece of, which is the very high-end market—top-notch guitars—and do that in a way that we’re not stuck going in one direction. Build acoustics, build electrics, build mandolins, build basses, and see what else comes to mind.