Nik Huber: “I basically grew up eating sawdust…”

By Jon Bloomer

Republished from our “German Issue”

I first discovered Nik Huber Guitars in December 2007. The model that caught my attention was the “Redwood”, and it immediately made my wish list. I hadn’t seen a guitar with this kind of fluidic grain pattern before, that was further accentuated by the single piece of curly redwood rather than a book matched top. The Redwood is one of eleven models available from the small Frankfurt-based company, founded in 1996.

The Nik Huber Range

Nik Huber’s guitars are basically divided up into three body types with variations on each. Huber’s own unique shape combines the curves of a Les Paul and Telecaster and is available on five different models. The carved top versions of this shape are the Dolphin II, Redwood and Blue Whale Ltd – each with a figured top- the latter two using the more traditional quilted maple. The Redwood uses a lightweight chambered mahogany body, the Dolphin a solid mahogany body, and the luxurious Blue Whale Ltd uses a figured/curly mahogany body. This guitar also uses master grade one piece quilted maple and a 50-year-old Brazilian rosewood fretboard.

In contrast to these models are the Junior and Twangmeister. The Junior is a nod to the Les Paul Junior with its simple flat top Korina body, single P90 pickup, and a Tortoiseshell pickguard. You can, however, choose to upgrade this guitar with various options including gold hardware and a Brazilian rosewood fretboard. And if the natural Korina is too plain for you, you can choose from a number of finishes such as tobacco sunburst or cherry red. The Twangmeister, on the other hand, is another carved top version of this shape– but this time using a very traditional combination of tonewoods in order to create something similar to a Telecaster. The body is available in either swamp ash or alder. The bolt-on maple neck is available with either a maple or East Indian rosewood fretboard– and the pickups, made by Häeussel, are a T90 (Häeussel P90) in the neck and an A5 single coil in the bridge position. Again, if bling is your thing, there are plenty of upgrade options for this guitar including dolphin inlays, birdseye maple neck, and gold hardware.

The second style of guitar shape is Nik Huber’s take on the Les Paul; available in five different models: The Orca, Orca 10th Anniversary, Orca ‘59, Krautster, and Krautster II.

The Orca ‘59, as the name suggests, is an homage to probably the most desirable guitar of all time, and features a full thickness mahogany body, eastern curly maple top, and either a faded sunburst, tobacco sunburst or gold top nitro-semi-gloss finish. The fretboard is Brazilian rosewood, and the humbuckers are Häeussel’s aged nickel covered 1959 pair.

The standard Orca model adds some modern appointments to this classic solid body single cutaway, including a slightly thinner body, longer 25″ scale length and black pearl and mother of pearl orca whale inlays. The 10th Anniversary is a special edition version of this guitar using high quality figured wood selections.

Finally, the last variation of this shape is the Krautster and Krautster II; essentially the same guitar– only one has a different pickup configuration. So the main difference with this model is that it is a flat top, solid mahogany body guitar with cream binding featuring a solid color satin finish top and an open pore satin back. The neck is constructed from curly maple rather than mahogany, as used for the Orca models, which I find really interesting. It is like an exotic secret that only you as the player see.

Guitar Connoisseur: You are following a tradition of woodworking that has been in your family for over 100 years, were any of your ancestors’ instrument builders?

Nik Huber: My family has a woodworking tradition going back four generations… but not necessarily in guitar/ instrument building. I was the first who became a professional instrument builder, though my dad built me electric guitars while I was a teenager.

GC: Can you tell me a little about your father and grandfather’s work? Did you learn your craft directly from your father?

NH: My great grandfather, grandfather and father have been cabinetmakers and carpenters, wherefore I basically grew up eating sawdust, and was lucky to be hanging out in the shop, watching them work and building my very first rudimentary toys. Dad and (during holidays) Grandpa were always very present and took the time to explain things to me – how to use the tools in the proper way, etc.

GC: When did you become interested in building guitars?

NH: As a young kid of 11 years, I started to play the guitar in local bands. My first custom guitar, incidentally, was built by my father because the one he had purchased for me in his opinion was not worth the money he laid down for it. When I finished senior high school I did an apprenticeship in cabinetmaking. I was thinking of a career as an interior designer or architect, maybe even as a professional musician, but a couple of years later (1993) I discovered the guitar building school in Formentera (Spain) where I later joined as a teacher between 2001 and 2004. This school really infected me with the guitar building bug and I started to devote all of my time working on guitars.

GC: What was the first guitar you built?

NH: The first guitar that I built was a thinner Les Paul with an oil/wax finish, in 1993, while attending the guitar building school (www.formentera-guitars.com). Mahogany body & neck, maple top, maple bound ebony board, matching headstock.

GC: How long after that did you start building professionally? Did you work as a builder for anyone prior to starting Nik Huber Guitars?

NH: After I scrapped the idea to become an architect and kissed college goodbye, I did open my first little shop (1996/ 1997) where I did both – guitar building and repairs. At this time many repairs… Later, my shop became an authorized repair center for PRS as well as for Godin and Valley Arts. That was the time I learned a great deal in terms of experience and hands-on know-how from dealing with guitars of this caliber. Paul Reed Smith has been an extremely important person in my life. He really thought of me a lot, and without him, there would be no Nik Huber guitars!

During all this, I also kept on playing paying gigs in bands, which is something I still love and do. The bottom line is, my interest really comes from both sides, as a player but also as a “wood nut”… I have not built for another company.

GC: Were there many electric guitar luthiers in Germany at that time?

NH: Well, not as many as we have now. But for example, Ulrich Teuffel and Jörg Tandler started earlier than I did and have already been known in Germany. Of course, bigger companies like Warwick and Höfner where always there. A few small company builders stopped their business since that time.

GC: What sets your guitars apart from other boutique guitars?

NH: It took me a while to find the way I wanted my guitars to look and be like…I think the biggest difference is always the builder himself. I am good friends with amazing builders (Claudio Pagelli, Juha Ruokangas, Jens Ritter, Uli Teuffel – just to name a few) and we do exchange know-how quite regularly which I enjoy a lot. I think the fact that every talented boutique maker puts all his passion and therefore his very own personality into his work… that makes the biggest difference. We all know how to glue up wood and spray a sunburst, but somehow these guitars get very different! This is the fun part. We all look at things a little different and are different human beings. I mean this without saying better or worse… We have great builders out there!

GC: You are known for using beautifully figured woods and exotic inlays. What prompted you to design the stripped back Krautster?

NH: The Krautster is a guitar I wanted to see for myself for a while since I started playing in a new rock band. I just wanted a matching guitar for that. The guitar was meant to be different from what we already had. I always wanted to build a player’s guitar, with no super fancy tops and no need to care about scratches or dings and dongs. The Krautster almost comes in a used look right away, and after playing it for a while, it looks like an old pair of worn jeans we all love. Don‘t get me wrong, all our guitars are good instruments. The Krautster is just stripped down to the roots– and of a rock guitar without the cosmetics, which are not influencing the guitar’s sound. Still, the guitar gets the same attention to detail and the same quality of woods we use on all our guitars. For years we‘ve been reduced on beautiful high gloss guitars, wherefore the Krautster shows another side of Nik Huber Guitars: The Essence of Rock N‘ Roll music we all care about.

GC: Have the Krautster and Junior opened your guitars up to a wider audience?

NH: Definitely, the Krautster did. Besides the lower price point, we reached quite a good number of touring and recording musicians with it, as they really appreciate the stripped-down appearance. On the other hand, a lot of Krautster customers come back and order Orcas or Dolphins as well. In addition to that, a lot of younger players seem to like the guitar. We are transferring more and more the satin finishes and aged parts on our other models and do very well with this.

GC: Tell me a little about the Twangmeister. At first glance, it appears to be a traditional T Style guitar, but on closer inspection, I noticed some modern appointments? Can it still sound like a traditional T Style guitar?

NH: It absolutely can. I did follow Leo‘s recipe. Not only because of the bridge and pickup designs, but also due to the wood choice (swamp ash or alder body), the pickup-setup (single coil + special shaped P90 by Harry Häussel) and the bolt-on construction of course. I wanted to stick to a carved top and our neck joint, as we already have so many flat top T-Style guitars out there on the market. The 3/3 angled headstock also makes the guitar different.

GC: The Redwood guitar is what originally made me look you up years ago. It has an incredible look! How did you discover this wood? You don’t see many other builders using this wood…

NH: The Redwood is a very special guitar, and probably one of the most unique sounding guitars in our model range. It was an experiment. A good friend gave me a board of beautifully flamed redwood in 2001 as a gift, but I was not sure what to do with it. When I finally made the first prototype in 2003, I was extremely impressed by its wonderful, almost “acoustical” tone. Redwood can be as curly as it gets, but the wood is not so easy to deal with– especially on carved tops. Good quality is also not easy to find. This might be a reason for some (bigger) companies to not use it. But meanwhile, I have seen some small company builders using it as well — also in the color, we started out with.

GC: Am I right in saying all of your guitars share the same heel and cutaway design?

NH: This is right (except some older custom orders). I came up with our heel design during a very rainy vacation in Holland in 1994, where I had a lot of time to draw. The Dolphin was the first guitar featuring this heel and was designed at the same time. Since it makes practical sense and looks unique, I decided to stick to it on all our models.

GC: Do you fabricate any of your own Hardware?

NH: The bridge on our Dolphin, Redwood, Junior and now the non-adjustable version on the Krautster is our own design. We have it carved by a small metal shop here in Germany since we don‘t want to deal with metal dust in our rooms. I am quite sure to be the first using the curved look on the bridge, which now has been taken on by other companies. The studs and saddles are machined by another small company in Germany. The neck and control plate on the Twangmeister is our own version as well. We do our wooden pickup rings, some of our knobs… my dad makes our truss rods.

GC: Do you use modern technology such as CNC machines? If so, how does this enhance your luthiery?

NH: I have built many, many guitars without the help of CNC. Now, that we build around 250 in guitars in 2012, I see the CNC as an essential tool and help. THE big reasons for CNC are the accuracy if you have the right guy telling the machine what to do. Some inlay work and binding designs where almost not doable without it. So yes, it even can inspire. We are currently working on some hollow body projects, where we intensively use it to carve the tops and bodies with belly cuts from the inside. Just amazing possibilities! Besides that, boring steps such as cutting truss rod channels or electronic cavities are off my shoulders, and I can have fun with more skill-required steps. I have no reasons to hide that we are using CNC.

GC: You use Häeussel pickups. Have you ever been tempted to wind your own?

NH: Harry does an awesome job! He is our friend and is always up to design new pickups with us. He is open to any idea or change – just a great human being. Therefore we don‘t see the need to try (our own) pickups. Besides that, it would take a very long time to get such a big know-how and experience Harry has. I have many guitars on order (ordered with Häeussels) – no time and need for that!

GC: What is your most successful model?

NH: Right now I would say the Orca and Krautster. It really depends on the market. Especially the Asian countries seem to prefer our Redwood and Dolphin, models. We are extremely back ordered with pretty much every model. But Orcas (and Orca 59) and Krautsters lead right now.

GC: Why whales (and dolphins)?

NH: My wife Ingrid has been a dolphin maniac ever since. I just love the sea and its animals, feel very connected to the ocean, and try to be at the sea as often as possible. We traveled a lot, swam with dolphins in the wild and so also got involved with their protection. When I started my guitar company, I thought it would be a nice logo to have, since we really love aquatic mammals. We have many many dolphin things in our house.

GC: The Orca 10th Anniversary model looks fantastic. Do you plan to do any other anniversary models?

NH: Certainly yes! Our fist Ltd model was the Flying Dolphin, then the 10th Anniversary, now the Blue Whale Ltd (my latest charity project). We have some time left to come up with something new and special for the 20th and 25th Anniversary. I have many ideas floating around. I skipped the 15th but we just released our Blue Whale series.

To learn more vist: nikhuber-guitars.com

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