by Steve Rider
Republished from our “John 5” Spring 2018 Issue
Joe Knaggs is an industry powerhouse with twenty years at PRS under his belt and now a decade of his own signature brand. He approaches his work with the eye of an artist and the mind of an engineer. The Honga is the newest addition to the Knaggs line, blending classic and innovative styling with superb tone and response.
Guitar Connoisseur: I like to begin these interviews with some deep background. When did you first become interested in music and at what point did the idea of building guitars come to you?
Joe Knaggs: Hi Steve, I like to begin these interviews by saying thanks! It’s always an honor –
My first memory of music was my sister playing a “45” of Good Vibrations – I think I was 5. What really got me into music though was a time at my friend house, shooting pool. I was probably 10 or 11 years old – I heard a 12 string acoustic guitar and it really caught my ear- I think it was the Eagles or America. I was hooked on music for some reason. My friend’s father was a concert violinist, so they always had good music playing – Robby Izzi played in a band that did Chicago tunes, horns and all! I started playing guitar at 11. I bought my first album – Neil Young “After the Gold Rush” then my second album, Zappa’s “Apostrophe”…. I then started listening to jazz and got really hooked, but I also listened to Rock like Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, ELP, Yes etc…. I would go to the Public Library and check out Jazz albums. They had everything from Miles to Pat Metheny.
I thought about the Honga, and why I was interested in making that type of guitar. I went to see Zappa when I was 11 years old with my older brother and his friends ( I looked at my boy when he was 11 … I would have NEVER let him go to a show like that) – It was the “Apostrophe” tour – It was insane… Somehow we got to sit in the front row! I had never been to anything like it. I was 11 years old! The smell of hash all around and a bunch of freaks. Zappa came out and hit the harmonics to tune up – Speakers stacked up on each side of the stage to the ceiling, loud as shit, and they immediately broke into Montana from Overnight Sensation! It was that SG he played – that was the first guitar I ever heard at that kind of volume with that kind of power! That memory stuck like glue. What a fucking band!
I did not think about building guitars until I was about 25 years old when it became my career. I only played and played a lot like so many others in our industry.
GC: How did you end up at PRS all those years ago, and how did that time shape your approach to design and production?
JK: I was working in a finishing place – We sprayed and finished everything you could think of from furniture for the White House to hospital ductwork. Paul and I knew each other from growing up on the same street in Bowie Maryland. He was 6 years older than me, but we knew each other. I refinished a strat body and brought to his West street shop to see if he needed finishing work done on the side. He had Bud Davis at the time doing his finishing work, so it did not happen. About a year later he started the business and he called me. They were having a lot of trouble with their finishing. I started working there as the finishing manager, then a year later production manager, then started building all the prototypes and artist guitar, then started the Private Stock line, and finally ended up running R&D, Private Stock and was head of getting new models online. During this time I was also one of the top executives in the business. I designed the Mira, Starla, Singlecut, SCJ, Hollowbody/ Archtop, mandolin, and Gary Grainger bass… along with designing the Private Stock guitars. I was an artist all my life, and somehow designing body shapes, headstocks came naturally to me… It’s not easy to come up with really good shapes. Somehow it comes easily to me. Must have been from looking at all those “girly” magazines when I was a kid!
GC: Mahogany and Maple look to be a favorite combination for your guitars. What is it about these two kinds of wood that keep you coming back to them?
JK: They sound good and look good. Curly maple is a freak of nature, so it has a mysterious quality to it as far as looks go – Also, Mahogany is a great wood to work with. That is why the furniture makers used it. It carves nice and is very stable. We use other woods as well – Swamp Ash, Alder, Spruce, etc… They all have their own sonic qualities. The combinations of the woods make the guitar as well. For instance, an acoustic has Spruce for the top – This wood has nice highs and lows, and some midrange, the neck is made of Mahogany for mids, the fingerboard is ebony for highs, the back and sides vary depending on what you want to add as far as highs, lows, and midrange. That is a very “basic” way of describing it.
GC: Knaggs guitars use unique styles of bridges. How did you develop these and what were you looking for in a bridge that led to the reinvention of the classic styles?
JK: I designed the Choptank Hardtail bridge first. I looked at a Tele bridge and wondered why they did not screw the front of the bridge plate down. My Dear friend Eric Johnson (not the guitar player) and I made a prototype version of the hardtail bridge plate out of tool steel. I put it on my Choptank I had just made and it sounded really unbelievable. The guitar rang forever. We then decided to make a trem version by cutting the front of the plate off and putting a pin between them. The pin did not work well so we developed a ball bearing system. It worked great. This “Chesapeake” bridge – trem and hardtail, drive the sound farther into the middle of the body. I like that sound because there is a lot of warmth and sustain in that area and makes for a very “even” sound in the guitar.
The influence bridge has the same theory in mind. I wanted the sound that is generated behind the saddle break to be part of the overall sound. By combining the stoptail and bridge all in one you get these upper harmonics driven into the middle of the body more. I also wanted the string posts to be screwed into the bridge plate first, before being driven into the wood. I wanted the bridge to ring as “one”. Again, this adds sustain and more harmonics (which create the sustain). If the initial energy created by plucking the string is uninterrupted, the guitar can ring longer and you can hear more harmonic levels. More overtones. The way we make our necks also adds to the sustain.
GC: The Honga is part of your Influence series. Could you describe what sets this series apart from some of your other offerings?
JK: The Honga is of course based on an SG type guitar. This type of guitar has the bridge located in the waist area of the guitar. This, along with the body being very thin make this type of guitar what it is. It also pushes the neck out further, so your hand feels farther out. I always played a strat, so an SG felt very natural to me. You get the feel of a longer scale guitar with the shorter scale length. The Honga has that low midrange “honk”. That low midrange “honk” is clear as day. Of course, there are other things that make the guitar what it is, but this sound is what makes it. P90’s and Humbuckers have a very different sound coming out of this type of guitar.
GC: I see that the neck shape is described as Honga. Do all your guitars get a specific neck shape, and if so, what is the impetus behind it?
JK: All of our guitars have their own neck shape. I based the Choptank off an old 52 tele, the Severn off my old 61 strat, the Kenai, Chena, and Sheyenne off 59 LP, etc…. I then put my own twists on the necks, like taking the shoulders out a bit to make them more comfortable… I did the same with the Honga. The impetus is a comfortable neck that feels somewhat like home.
GC: What does the Honga model offer that differentiates it from the other guitars in the Influence line?
JK: Again, the feel and sound. 24 frets as well. A different look as well. Maybe a bit “retro”?
GC: For pickups, you are offering Seymour Duncan SH-1, Seth Lovers, or Lollar Imperial PAF. How did you decide which pickups would be offered in this model?
JK: We picked the pickups that we felt best suited the instrument, as well as the maker’s reliability. Just like guitar makers and amp makers, there are 100’s of pickup makers out there. There are guys like Jason Lollar, Tim Mills, Lindy Fralin, and of course Seymour Duncan that has studied pickup making the way we have studied guitar making. We believe in taking advantage of that knowledge, and we believe in them! As long as they deliver, we will be proud to put them in our guitars and basses.
GC: You offer a great variety of options on the finishes and materials for the Honga, it almost seems like every guitar is, in some respect, a custom model. Was that your intention for Knaggs?
JK: We came up with an entire line of guitars so hopefully, we would have something to offer everyone interested in a “top-notch”, quality, professional guitar or bass. When I play our guitars, I hear sustain and harmonics I don’t usually hear in most guitars. I am not saying that the other guitars are not good, I just hear this difference in our guitars. I would play a Severn over my old 61 strat, and the strat was my go-to baby when I played seriously. I hear a different tool to use. As far as each one being custom – we offer tons of different items on our price/options list. We could build guitars for 2 years if we did one of each model and option, so yes, each one has its own thing going on.
GC: Laminate tops are starting to become widely used by boutique builders. Do you feel that Knaggs was ahead of the pack on this particular design?
JK: Yes, we have come up with many different, innovative looks. We wanted our guitars to stand out when someone walked into a sea of guitars on the wall. Something different, but not different just for the sake of being different. We wanted these guitars to have their own identity and beauty. I think these things add to that identity.
GC: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers: anything more about the Honga model or upcoming news?
JK: I would always like to give a shout out to our wonderful artists and customers. Thank you, EVERYONE! Peter Wolf has worked extremely hard getting these new artists like Doug Rappaport to play our guitars, along with all the other things he is dealing with. I truly feel that when these working musicians play one of our guitars, they hear what we hear. Hopefully, they are turned on by that sound, feel and looks. We have a crew of guys, with years and years of experience. Peter, myself and all the guys here are working extremely hard to put out the best instrument we can.
We are building guitars for a lifetime – Play One!
To learn more about Knaggs Guitars please visit: knaggsguitars.com
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