Roger Sadowsky: Repairman, Innovater & Master Luthier

Originally Published in our Perfect Pair Issue

By Antoine Gedroyc

The accomplished musician, Roger Sadowsky started playing the guitar in his junior year in college—learning to fingerpick and jamming on Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot songs. In 1972, he was halfway through a Ph.D. in psychobiology—studying animal behavior (I’m sure that helped him understanding musicians’ behavior)—right when President Richard Nixon was cutting funding to the sciences. The future of science academia didn’t look very promising, so it was time for a career change: while in grad school, he joined a band. There, Sadowsky says he admired and drooled over other players’ vintage Martin guitars, and became even obsessed with them. In 1979, he started a company building his own electric guitars and modifying vintage basses—improving their sound by adding preamps and noise reduction technology and adding active electronics. He was primarily doing repairs and restorations for all the top studio players in New York. Then, when vintage instruments prices started to climb higher and higher, he started building his own basses in 1982. Today Sadowsky Guitars employs over 10 people and also has a line of more affordable instruments manufactured by Sadowsky Tokyo (under the name Sadowsky Metro Line). Roger says: “I worked alone for many years, but Sadowsky guitars could never have become what it is today without the great crew that works with me.” Sadowsky’s guitars—solid bodies and arch-tops—started in 2003 and are nothing short of a sum of innovation and amazing craftsmanship. The list of artists that are using their guitars and basses speaks for itself.

Guitar Connoisseur: While attending school—working on a Ph.D. in Psychobiology—you said you were, “obsessed with becoming a guitar builder;” where did that dream/itch come from?

Roger Sadowsky: It started with the 1971 Last Whole Earth Catalog (if you are younger than 55, you might need to Wiki this).  They had four pages devoted to guitar making, with sections on builders, books on guitar making, and sources for materials and supplies. It was like a Rosetta stone for me—something just grabbed me and imposed a lifelong passion in me.

GC: Is there a different hormone that differentiates bass players from guitar players’ behavior? Why do you think that active electronic has been an amazing global success for bass, but remained more confidential for guitars?

RS: When I began exploring active tone circuits in the late 70’s, I did find that they appealed much more to bass players. It gave the bassist a much better ability to “cut through the mix”—both live and in the studio—a problem that guitar players really didn’t have. Guitar players still cling to passive electronics, even though as soon as they go through their first pedal, their signal becomes active. I am one of the few electric guitars makers to use an active circuit but it has a total bypass.

GC: I have several friends who still own some of your VERY early preamps; can you tell us a little more what you were using back then and how you started developing them?

RS: My first circuits were made by Stars Guitars from San Francisco. They were one of the first companies in the 70’s to offer preamps as “mods” for guitars and basses. They went out of business in the early 80’s.  My friend, Ron Armstrong, who was one of the partners and my electronics mentor in those days, suggested I switch to the Bartolini TCT circuit for bass.

I used the Bartolini TCT until 1990 when I had Alex Aguilar design my own circuit. I have always preferred the tone of FET circuits as opposed to Op-Amp circuits. That is why my bass circuit is boost only with no mid control. On a FET circuit, you cannot play with the ‘mids without affecting the treble and bass curves.

GC: Many may not know that you’ve been building a lot of different types of guitars—from archtops to semi-acoustic nylon strings (i.e. Keith Richards); what lead you to start building Strat and Tele solid body instruments?

RS: From 1974 to 1980 I focused on repair, restoration, and modification. I always found that Fenders lent themselves to upgrades and mods much more so than Gibson guitars. So when I began building electric instruments, I found the Fender platform more suitable to incorporate the type of mods I had been doing for many years. Also, one of the issues I had with both my own guitars and basses were the fact that most of my clients in the ’80s were the top session guys in NYC. A lot of the session work was jingle dates which lasted around 45 minutes. Engineers did not have the patience to dial in a sound for a new instrument they were not accustomed to. The guitar players had a Strat, Tele, Les Paul, and a 335; bass players had a J bass and a P bass. If you did not bring these instruments to your jingle dates, you probably would not be asked back.

GC: Is there anything in particular for you that defines the Stratocaster? What is the essence of that instrument? How far can you go with a build before it’s no longer a Strat but turns into something else?

RS: To me, the essence of a Strat is a guitar with a bolt-on maple neck, 25.5″ scale, and 3 pickups.

GC: You don’t seem to be a big fan of neck through nor set neck on a solid body instrument, can you tell us why?

RS: I love set neck instruments. I just prefer to build in the Fender style due to its versatility and repairability.

GC: You started working on old pre-CBS basses and guitars way before it was trendy and even called “vintage,” just because they were better builds than their contemporary counterparts; what is your take on the evolution of the vintage market and on the replica/relics trend?

RS: Prior to the mid ’80s, I would advise my clients to purchase a good 50’s or 60’s Fender and let me upgrade it. They could get a used Fender for no more than $800 and I would resurface the fingerboard and refret, shield the electronics, and do some other mods. So for $1500, the player would end up with a great “working man’s instrument.” When the vintage market took off, I realized that the work I was doing to these guitars would actually “de-value” them, so I thought it best for me to start making my own instruments at that point.

GC: From a builder standpoint, pretend there is no “vintage collectible market,” what in your opinion made the older pre-CBS better instruments?

RS: They were better primarily due to better woods and workmanship. The ’70s were the “dog years” of US guitar manufacturing. All the companies—Fender, Gibson, Martin, etc.—were making garbage that decade. So I cringe when people even consider 70’s instruments to be desirable, collectible, or vintage. One of the first signs of a turnaround I saw was the Gibson 335 Dot Neck Re-issue in the early ’80s, Fender with the American Standard Strat, and all Martin’s following their labor strike in the late ’70s.

GC: I see builders like you keeping the true innovative spirit of Leo Fender alive, never getting disconnected from their clientele and listening to the musician’s valuable input; how do you approach working with them when building their signature models?

RS: It is amazing how many home runs Leo hit in guitar and bass design. All I can do is continue to refine his work. I really do not do many signature models. Right now, I only have the Jim Hall archtop and the Will Lee bass. Sometimes, it is a matter of recreating their favorite instrument and adding some refinements. Other times, it is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.

GC: If you had ONE Strat to build, with no limit in budget or materials, what would it be?

RS: Often, the options that make an instrument “more expensive” do not necessarily make it a better instrument—inlay work is a good example. Other than offer beautiful premium tonewoods, I do not lean in that direction. Right now my focus is on exploring “roasted body woods” to evaluate their effect on tone. I began using roasted maple for necks a few years ago.

GC: How would you define your own building style in a few words?

RS: My primary building style is to work in the Fender style and continue to add the refinements that come with my decades of experience and my relationships with working musicians. Even though the number of working musicians shrinks on a daily basis, they are still the benchmark for me regarding “what works.”

GC: How do you see the future of the evolution of the Stratocaster and guitars and basses in general?

RS: If you look at the evolution of guitars and basses over the last 50 years, there are really very few innovations, and those do not appeal to everyone. I am talking about the Floyd Rose bridge (which I haven’t used in 25 years) and headless design (Steinberger, etc), which has never appealed to me. When you talk about the big companies, it has primarily become all about marketing. They crank out new models faster than I can keep track. For builders my size, it is primarily about materials and workmanship. All of the top small builders work in the Fender, Gibson, or Martin style. Anything else is just a variation on a theme.

GC: Is there anything that you have never built, instruments, electronics or materials that you would want to experiment with? Is there anything you’d like to add for us?

RS: If I won the lottery, I would probably go back to being a one-man shop building acoustic guitars.

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