+ By Matthew Buckley-Smith + Photos by Larry Melton
What Joe Knaggs and Peter Wolf did five years ago took more than guts. In 2009, at the pit of the recession, the two men left top executive positions at PRS (Paul Reed Smith) to open a business making artisanal guitars that retailed for about the price of a decent used car. Just a year later, in Frankfurt, Germany, the partners unveiled three original lines of instruments at the international trade show MusikMesse, and Knaggs Guitars became an industry reality.
Today, Joe Knaggs is still happiest working in the shop. Peter Wolf spends much of his time there too, although he’s principally the business mind in the partnership. He commutes daily across the bay, from his home in Annapolis to Greensboro, where the guitars are made by a small, comradely team, each a former PRS employee. When I ask about the challenges they faced getting started in the early days, Wolf gives a clipped laugh and says, “It’s a long process from a couple pieces of wood to a guitar.” Or from a guitar to a guitar maker.
Wolf came to the business from a different background––and a different country. Born in Koblenz, Germany, he grew up in a house full of musicians, where he learned to enjoy classical music, jazz, and of course rock ’n’ roll. Having completed his compulsory military service––including, apparently, a stint intercepting Cold War radio transmissions from the Soviets––he played in local bands while getting a handle on the distribution end of the music business. In 2003, he moved to the U.S., eventually becoming Director of Sales and Marketing at PRS, where Knaggs had been working since the early days. The two men learned that they shared an enthusiasm for soccer as well as rock ’n’ roll, and eventually grew to be good friends. Along the way, Wolf says, “I realized who the real design force was in the company.”
Both Wolf and Knaggs like to say that the luthier left PRS because “eventually the painter wants to sign his own paintings,” but the truth is that the company was very nearly called Chesapeake Guitars. It was only at the prompting of the graphic designer Markus Kaes that Knaggs first considered branding the guitars with his own name.
The more one learns about Knaggs and Wolf, the more both men seem motivated not so much by hunger for personal glory as by devotion to an almost platonic ideal of beauty––both in the thing made and in the making of it. When asked about his long-term vision for the company, Wolf’s aims are both high-minded and touchingly modest. “Twenty-five, thirty people,” he says, “that’s the goal. I personally would like to know everyone’s names, their children’s names, their girlfriends’ names.” What drives him today is the same thing that drove him as a salesman in Koblenz. “Taking something that nobody knows and turning it into something a lot of people know.” Knaggs, he believes, is a talent to bet the ranch on.
Asked whom he’d most like to see playing a Knaggs, Wolf is quick to name the artists who’ve already collaborated with the company. Most recently, they put out a limited-run, black-and-pink, Kenai guitar designed to the preferences of Steve Stevens, long-time guitarist for Billy Idol, and as Wolf says, “one of the greats.” But Wolf also insists, “I’m trying to look at younger players, female and male.” Just this week, he’s going to hear a few of them play at the Metropolitan Kitchen and Lounge here in Annapolis. But he won’t rule out a couple desert island picks: “If Jeff Beck would pick up a Severn, maybe a Choptank,” he muses, naming two guitars from the Chesapeake series, “that would blow my mind. And Jimi’s not around anymore, but if he were, I would definitely give him a Severn.”