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.