By Adam Perlmutter
Boutique guitar companies don’t usually emerge fully formed, with a comprehensive line of instruments. But this has certainly been the case with Knaggs Guitars and its top-shelf offerings, which are at once traditional and modern, and thus able to serve as high-performance tools for the most discriminating player.
Knaggs is the brainchild of Joe Knaggs, a 25-year veteran of Paul Reed Smith who designed that company’s McCarty Archtop and Hollowbody, Singlecut, Mira, and Starla models, among other guitars of distinction. Also instrumental in the new company is Peter Wolf, a longtime guitar-industry player who pitches in with design input.
The Knaggs line comprises the Chesapeake Series of steel-string acoustics, three-pickup solidbody electrics with a 25 1/2–inch scale, and 34-inch-scale basses; the Quebec Series of steel-string acoustics; and the Influence Series of 24 3/4–inch-scale, twin-pickup solid- and hollowbody electrics. Each instrument is offered in three cosmetic treatments, from the no-frills Tier 3 to the ultra-fancy Tier 1.
For this review, I chose the single-cutaway Kenai solidbody, from the Influence Series. The Kenai features mahogany-and-maple construction and a three-per-side headstock. The back is carved to sit comfortably against a guitarist’s ribs, an aspect that also reduces the instrument’s weight. Instead of the customary separate bridge and tailpiece, the guitar has a single Tune-o-matic–style bridge that is mounted on a plate that holds the strings; the plate screws down into the maple cap, a design that imparts distinct and favorable sonic characteristics (more on this below).
My review model was a Tier 2 Kenai with a transparent faded onyx finish, a gorgeously figured AAA maple cap, and gold-plated hardware. The nitrocellulose lacquer finish was flawless, the frets impeccably dressed, and the bone nut and bridge saddles meticulously cut. In any of its three versions, the Kenai has natural maple body binding and an ebony headstock overlay, lending the guitar a refined, high-end appearance.
Playing open-position chords on the unplugged Kenai, I found the tone uncommonly rich in harmonics as well as resonant and long on sustain, attributes due in part to the bridge-plate design. The guitar played extremely well, too. The neck profile, a faithful recreation of that on a typical late-Fifties solidbody, is ample without feeling cumbersome. Straight from the factory, the action was low and fast, from the lowest portion of the fretboard to the highest.
The Kenai comes equipped with a duo of Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickups and the standard control configuration of tone and volume knobs for each pickup, along with a three-way selector. I tested it with a recent Ibanez Tube Screamer re-issue and a mid-Sixties blackface Fender Vibrolux Reverb. On a clean setting, the guitar was warm and creamy. Complex jazz chords had great definition and note separation on the neck pickup, and Travis-style fingerpicking sounded snappy, not harsh, on the bridge pickup. With both pickups engaged, the tone was rich and vivid, and the guitar was highly responsive pick attack and fret-hand pressure. The Kenai really shone with the Tube Screamer engaged. It was easy to coax out classic sounds in the manner of old-school Eric Clapton or Billy Gibbons, and single-note lines dripped with excited overtones.
Joe Knaggs has put his own imprint on classic designs in a meaningful way. This is especially apparent in the Kenai, which takes the best features of a Fifties humbucker-equipped solidbody—no-nonsense build and superlative tone—and brings them to a special place with its distinctively modern look and playability.
List Price: From $3,800; as reviewed, $5,500
Knaggs Guitars, knaggsguitars.com