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Knaggs Guitars Choptank and Kenai Electric Guitar Reviews

Two solidbody boutique beauties from the former PRS designer''s new line of classic-inspired instruments

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).

Download Example 1
Bridge Pickup
Download Example 2
Neck Pickup
Download Example 3
Middle Pickup (with distortion)
Download Example 4
Bridge and Neck Pickups
Clips recorded with a Fender Pro Junior mic'ed with a Shure SM57 into ART Tubeamp studio into GarageBand. Distortion courtesy of The Tone God NerFuzz pedal.
The Choptank
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 rhythm work.
Buy if...
you’re looking to get a wide range of useable tones in a single, extremely playable, collector-grade guitar.
Skip if...
you’re either exclusively a Tele or Strat player.

Street $2900 - Knaggs Guitars -

Download Example 1
Bridge Pickup
Download Example 2
Neck Pickup (with distortion)
Download Example 3
Both Pickups (with distortion)
Clips recorded with a Fender Pro Junior mic'ed with a Shure SM57 into ART Tubeamp studio into GarageBand. Distortion courtesy of The Tone God NerFuzz pedal.
The Kenai
While the Choptank bears an unmistakable Fender influence, the Kenai uses classic Gibson design cues as a springboard. The single-cutaway mahogany body with maple cap, 24 3/4"-scale mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard, and twin humbuckers are all Les Paul hallmarks. Unlike a Gibson, though, the Kenai has details like a body that is comfort-carved on the back and a custom all-in-one bridge and tailpiece. Like its cousin, our review Kenai model was a looker. The flamed maple top was positively striking in a finish called Winter Solstice—a pale blue stain with a clear coat that brought out a three-dimensional quality in the grain. In contrast, the neck and back of the guitar were a rich natural mahogany. Subtler wood flourishes included maple body binding and an ebony headstock overlay and matching truss-rod cover.

Plugged into the Fender Pro Junior, the Kenai offered
old-school, PAF-like warmth and tons of body and
sustain for both lead and rhythm riffing.

The Kenai’s all-gold hardware lends a regal appearance to the instrument, and the three-in-line open-geared butterbean tuners— accessories more commonly seen on ancient Martins and Gibsons than on modern electrics—were a nice touch, as was the headstock’s “Morning Star” motif, repeated nine times in progressively smaller fretboard inlays. I only had one small complaint regarding the design: on a high-end instrument like this, it seemed a bit odd to have an unbound fingerboard. (Binding is included, though, on a Tier 1 version.)

Craftsmanship on our Kenai was topnotch. As on the Choptank, the fretwork, bone nut, and saddles were flawless. The inlay work, neck joint, body binding, and nitro finish were all perfectly done, too.

Right out of the box, the Kenai felt just right, with a totally agreeable action. Its neck, based on Gibson’s famously hefty 1959 profile, felt authentic—unlike many of the exaggeratedly large necks claimed to be inspired by ’59s that are so popular these days. Although I am accustomed to slimmer necks, I had no difficulty adjusting to the Kenai—I was able to play for a stretch without developing any fretting-hand fatigue. And the 22 medium-sized frets were ideal for bends and legato effects.

Well balanced between neck and body, our Kenai was a joy to hold. Thanks to the weight saved in the body contouring, at 8.75 pounds our Kenai was pretty light for a guitar of mahogany and maple construction. And I was able to play it standing for a good while without feeling overburdened. Like the Choptank, the Kenai was fun to play without amplification. Unplugged, it’s a bit louder than the average solidbody, with a thick, crisp tone and a short natural reverb—a good indication that the guitar would really come alive when plugged in.

The Kenai was decked out with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover neck and bridge humbuckers, with Volume and Tone controls for each pickup and a 3-way toggle switch. Plugged into the Pro Junior, the guitar sounded remarkably old-school, with PAF-like warmth and tons of body and sustain for both lead and rhythm riffing. On any pickup setting, the guitar sounded vivid and detailed, with complex overtones. And it proved super-responsive to picking nuance and dynamics.
Buy if...
you love Les Pauls, but want a more updated axe with a luxurious appearance.
Skip if...
you think little of electric guitar design after 1959.

Street $5500 - Knaggs Guitars -

The Verdict
Borrowing elements from Fender and Gibson, Knaggs has created a new line of superbly built electric guitars that are both familiar and fresh. The Choptank combines the best elements of Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster in a highly playable and fine-sounding instrument that boasts a distinctive appearance thanks to its updated contours and wooden pickguard.

The Gibson-inspired Kenai provides a richly detailed, classic PAF sound in a comfortable modern package. Deluxe touches like maple body binding and an ebony headstock overlay lend the Kenai a touch of exclusivity.

Both guitars are refreshing takes on classic electrics, impressive both sonically and aesthetically, and totally gig-worthy instruments that will most likely get even better with age. Call ’em keepers!