By Kelcey Alonzo
Peter Wolf is one of the music industry’s hardest working people. He played a key role in introducing PRS Guitars (Paul Reed Smith), on a global scale to guitarists, and has done everything from distribution, to artist relations to brand building. And he continues to do so consistently after 25 years. In 2010 he joined forces with master luthier Joe Knaggs to launch their own company simply called “Knaggs Guitars”. Joe Knaggs has created a line of exquisite instruments, which are all built by hand, and to a very high standard… That’s right, no offshore budget lines here! And Peter Wolf is standing with him to help ensure that Joe’s vision does not get sidetracked, and emphasis on craftsmanship is always the priority. In just 2 short years, Knaggs has secured their spot as a top contender in guitar innovation, global sales, and artist acceptance. As always, Joe Knaggs and Peter Wolf are about obtaining big results.
GC: With a business and marketing background, how did you end up in the music industry?
PW: I got into music and playing instruments early on as a kid, although I never had lessons. Growing up in a musical household certainly helped. My Dad was a self taught piano and violin player, and my sister and brothers all played instruments. There was always music in our house although soccer was probably more of a passion of mine growing up. After high school, I did an apprenticeship at a local insurance and banking company while attending business school. I got drafted into the German army when I was done with my education, while friends of mine had started Prosound Music Center in Koblenz, Germany, which was a 1500 square foot store in the beginning. We had made plans for me to join the company once I was out of service, and I started as a partner in 1978. I had been playing drums and guitars in bands for a while, but becoming a partner in a music store made me take musical instruments more seriously. I started practicing and paying attention to what other people were doing. Since I was the guitar sales guy, I had to learn everything about the gear I was selling, which also included being able to play at a reasonable level.
GC: Why was PRS the right company to work with at the time?
PW: By 1980 we had moved to a fully fledged 10,000 square feet facility, and things were going really well. We would find and import US products and put them on the map in Europe. It was the time of wild colors, graphics and pointed headstocks (laughs)! I had already successfully been importing and marketing Hamer guitars and other US brands in Central Europe for almost a decade when one of our customers made me aware of PRS. So I flew to Chicago to attend the Summer NAMM Show 1986, introduced myself to Paul and got the line as one of three exclusive dealers in Germany. About a year later, I was doing most of the business and was granted exclusive distributorship for Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. Another three years later, I founded PRS Guitars Germany, and solely focused on distribution, brand building and marketing of PRS, Soldano, Lakland and other high-end US products. Our relationship and friendship got deeper, and eventually led to my direct engagement with PRS, USA in 1997, first as their International Sales Manager and later as their Director of Global Sales & Marketing.
GC: Having gained a significant amount of experience in both the European and American markets; what are some of the differences you’ve noticed between consumers of high-end musical instruments in the two markets?
PW: I don’t think there are main differences as far as consumers are concerned. People who appreciate quality and well made instruments live everywhere. The individual market size, though and the number of people who can afford high quality, more expensive instruments, are mainly a question of disposable income, which has traditionally been higher in the US, Europe and Japan.
GC: Working side by side with Joe for so many years what were your PRS days like?
PW: Between 1997 and 2003 (Peter moved to the US in July 2003), I was going back and forth. I would be in town for several weeks or months at a time and then go back to Europe or travel to other parts of the World to find potential distributors and dealers, and create substantial relationships.
Joe and I were part of PRS’ senior executive team and worked together closely on different projects, and eventually we became friends and hung out whenever I was in town. We would attend trade shows together and travel the World to promote sales. We also started clinics and seminars, in which Joe would carve guitars and talk about every aspect of designing and building instruments. I learned a lot about guitar making from him, and he probably learned a few things from me as well. We have a similar approach when it comes to working with people.
GC: Since the launch of Knaggs in 2010, we’ve seen Knaggs grow exponentially from the expansion of the product line, artists, and dealers. It takes some luthiers 10 plus years to get to where you have taken Knaggs in only 2 short years. Can you elaborate on the secret sauce here without giving away your recipe?
PW: It always starts with a vision. Joe’s vision was to design and create his own line of instruments and focus on his preferences and ideas. As a designer and builder- as an artist- at some point you want to sign your own paintings. I have worked with most high-end guitar makers of our time in the past decades. Joe is certainly one of the best. He’s totally hands on, can do it all and is involved in every aspect of creating and building great instruments. He is also humble, moderate and easy going, which always helps.
My vision was and is to making Knaggs Guitars a respected, honorable and profitable company, to getting our creations out there in working with artists, dealers and distributors, and to build strong relationships with everyone who’s part of the journey. I like communicating with people on all levels in our industry. The rest is hard work and persistence.
GC: Speaking of hard work and persistence, What were some of the challenges you and Joe faced when launching Knaggs from the ground up, and how did you overcome them?
PW: We started Knaggs Guitars at the end of 2009, in the midst of a really bad economical climate. I’m not going to talk much about financial institutions, banks and what caused the mayhem. We all know, more or less what happened and how it happened. However, it really affected start-ups and smaller companies. You couldn’t get a loan to save your life. But… we knew good people who were willing to help; who liked and believed in what we had to offer and who wanted to be part of it. They still are part of the tribe and have become good friends and associates in the mean time. Besides financials, literally everything had to be done. We had to find a building, get machines, tools and equipment, purchase wood, materials, build benches, create work space, tables, racks, and everything else you need when you are trying to make guitars. It was a huge undertaking, and Joe and Danny and later Dean and the rest of the team did a phenomenal job in getting it going.
I was mainly focusing on getting the word out, building networks, engaging individuals, distributors, dealers, players and media and making everyone aware who we are and what we are doing.
GC: Do you have a hand in the design process of Knaggs– or is it all up to Joe?
PW: A little bit. I’m not good at drawing, you know. I find it very difficult to draw what I call ‘classic shapes’. I could probably draw some outside stuff (laughs) but when it comes to shapes that have potential to become classic shapes, you need someone who knows what they are doing. I always provide input and my take, though for what it’s worth. I have a certain view and perception when it comes to lines or proportions. I may not be very good in coming up with designs but I’m usually doing okay in evaluating their potential.
GC: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here as to how Knaggs may be perceived…ready? How different are Knaggs from PRS guitars? I mean c’mon really, it’s the private stock guy with a few new shapes and a different name…no?
PW: I’m sure there are people out there who think or say that. It is fairly known that Joe designed a number of models at PRS and has been instrumental in getting them into production. As Director of R&D and Private Stock he certainly had his hands in pretty much everything that came out of there in the past 2 decades.
Our line is very different, though. First of all, we are using classic scale lengths (25.5 inch for Chesapeake, 24.75 inch for Influence line instruments). All of our guitars have set necks. We offer both 3-on a-side as well as 6-on-a-side headstocks. The Influence line consisting of single and double cutaway guitars with humbuckers including hollowbodies, features carved mahogany backs and carved maple tops. We also offer single coil equipped guitars with the Chesapeake line, single and double cut, with flat or beveled tops and wooden pick-guards. Last but not least, we have been building some amazing acoustics and basses as well. To me, there is a good variety of body and head stock shapes and models, appointments and different tones within our line. I feel our bridge designs are unique and special and have a lot to do with how our guitars sound. Plus there are few conceptual innovations and ideas that make a difference.
GC: So let’s talk about proof of concept to a full line model roll out. What kind of research went into the Knaggs line? Why did these shapes work? And finally how different were the prototypes to what we see today?
PW: Well, keep in mind we have been around high-end guitars for a long time. I guess what I’m trying to say is there is a level of experience and knowledge that comes with the years. We had many conversations over a period of 2-3 months and really dug into the history of guitars and what we were into. The Choptank, Severn and Acoustic Patuxent already existed when we started drawing the other models. When I say we, I mean Joe drawing and me watching him lol! We both felt it was important to add a line of carved maple top instruments, which led to the Influence line Kenai, Keya, Chena and Sheyenne models. Joe just drew them. I know it sounds funny but he did. He drew them and we kept looking at the drawings in his workshop for weeks, and made minor changes here and there until we felt we got it right. It took several months to get all designs and drawings completed, and then Joe and Danny built each one by hand. I remember thinking a few times while we were at it that I’m watching birth. The initial prototypes we made and introduced in March 2010 in Frankfurt, Germany were all part of our current line. I think we used a medium rubbed out (nitro) finish for the 9 instruments we took to Germany, though.
GC: I read an interview with you where you clearly stated “We are not reinventing the wheel here” yet, looking through the shapes, the designs are different enough for any avid player to feel at home with them, yet they possess a fresh approach to something new. Were the guitars designed to be functional and that is what determined the shape, or where the shapes done first and then you guys went to work making them functional?
PW: Well, most shapes that have caught on were designed back in the 17th and 18th century in Italy. There aren’t many shapes left to be drawn that can make it into the hall of fame in my humble opinion. I think Joe is somebody who can. When it comes to guitars, I think it is looks and sound, in that order. If I’m not attracted to a specific shape, or dislike certain lines, I won’t pick it up. Once I do pick it up, I get the feel for the neck, fret work, ergonomics, balance and weight, and then at some point how it sounds acoustically and amplified. For me, it always starts with the shape. Making it functional and great sounding is part of the process, although it is a huge task, too. On that end, Joe and the team have a very good track record.
GC: Walk us through the quality assurance at the Knaggs factory…
PW: We have good people with a lot of experience in making great guitars. Everyone knows what they are doing. Plus, Joe is there every day and works closely with everyone.
GC: Any plans for an overseas line?
GC: You will be launching a Steve Stevens signature Kenai model at Musikmesse Germany next month. Tell us about this guitar and how this collaboration came about?
PW: I had known Steve since the early 80s when he had his signature models with Hamer. I always thought he was one of the best players out there, and somebody who really appreciates and understands guitars. After we had started the company, we first had to find a shop and get all the needed equipment, which took a while. I think I contacted Steve late 2011 and we started talking. Joe had made him a few PRS before so Steve was very familiar with Joe and his work. We first sent him a double cut Keya, which he liked but Steve preferred a single cut with a thicker body and a slightly narrower neck since he has been playing Les Paul’s in recent years. So we built him a guitar based on our Kenai model, incorporating his preferences and specs. And he used the guitar on Billy Idol’s 2012 European tour. That led to us talking about a signature model.
GC: Why is Steve Stevens the “right” candidate to endorse a signature Kenai?
PW: Besides being one of the most talented and respected players, a Grammy-Award winning Artist, writer, composer and major collaborator, Steve is a total gear head. He really cares about his instruments, amps, his equipment and his sound, and he knows all about it. For us, it is a big deal to work with someone of his caliber and to be put to his test.
GC: Where do you see Knaggs in the next 10 years?
PW: I don’t think that far lol … I’m taking it day by day. I hope we are still around making instruments, playing music and hanging out with our friends and associates. Everything else is a bonus.
GC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us Peter.
To learn more about Peter Wolf please visit: www.brandwolf.net
To learn more about Knaggs Guitars please visit:www.knaggsguitars.com
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