Meet John Suhr
In Guitar.com's new column, Mothers of Invention, we'll be spotlighting the scientists, the inventors, the innovators, the industry figures, and the players whose inspiration and perspiration have conspired to bring us the modern guitar as we know it. We hope to provide technical insight on their innovations as well as introduce you to the hearts and minds behind the work.
Our first subject is John Suhr, a longtime builder who, in the 1980s, crafted guitars for Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, and others and who now runs his own custom shop, Suhr Guitars, in Lake Elsinore, California. Suhr Guitars combines hand-craftsmanship with modern technology, using CNC routers to cut their own necks, bodies, and pickguards. In a recent chat with Guitar.com, Suhr discussed the evolution of his guitar-building methods and speculated on future trends in design and manufacturing.
Guitar.com: What's your first guitar-related memory?
John Suhr: I remember listening to Paul McCartney's bass lines-- how cool they were and how they fit into the music. I actually wanted to be a bass player; I didn't want to be a guitar player.
Guitar.com: Which bass lines impressed you most?
Suhr: I don't really remember. I think it was the Revolver album that I was listening to a lot. [The Beatles] were the first semi-cool band that I was listening to, as opposed to other commercial stuff around. I remember listening to people like The Animals. My brother had records lying around that I listened to. Things were a lot harder to get a hold of back then than they are today.
Guitar.com: Did you actually ever get a bass? Was that your first instrument?
Suhr: I went to a music store looking to buy a Beatle bass, a Hofner bass-- I wanted to take lessons, and the guy talked me out of it. He said that I needed to learn to play guitar first, that I couldn't just get a bass. So I started playing guitar, and I just never put it down.
Guitar.com: What was the first guitar that you owned?
Suhr: An Ibanez Les Paul. At that time, I was so naive, I didn't even realize there was a Gibson Les Paul. I just thought that was it. I started listening to Led Zeppelin and stuff like that, I had a friend in school who was a great bass player and basically told me that I couldn't play it, that I had to get a real guitar. So he took me to a music store, and I got a Les Paul Junior. He kind of educated me on what the good guitars were.
Guitar.com: How old were you then?
Suhr: Probably about 16 or 17.
Guitar.com: Who were your guitar influences outside of Zeppelin?
Suhr: Probably some of my biggest influences were Mountain, Cream, The Who, and Hendrix. I started to drift away from my friends when I started to listen to bands that were a bit more progressive. Bands like Queen and things like that.
Guitar.com: Were you in bands yourself?
Suhr: I actually started playing in bands pretty early because of that friend-- the bass player. He got me into a band with some older people. There were some great guitar players [in the band]. There was this guy Dave Johnson, he also went by Davis James. He used to play with Leslie West (Mountain), and he had this band called Wintergreen [as well as] some other bands. So, I started with them, playing rhythm guitar. I really got an education playing with those guys. Eventually, I started playing in club bands and on the Jersey shore for probably a good ten years. I pretty much made my living playing in clubs.
Guitar.com: I heard that the impetus for building your first guitar came from your frustration with the tone of your own guitars.
Suhr: It had more to do with the fact that somebody had butchered a guitar that I had made [for me]. I had hung out with Bob Benedetto for a couple of days, and he had made a new neck with my design on a Stratocaster.After Bob made that neck, I made a body for it at a place called Time Electronics in New Jersey I kind of worked there as an apprentice. I made the body and glued on the neckalmost like a Les Paul Junior guitar. Then, I decided I wanted some fingerboard inlays and took it to New York, where this guy did such a bad job. I got so pissed off after trying to plane the inlays out of it- - -I got frustrated and smashed it on the ground. That's the time I pretty much swore no one would touch my stuff again.
Guitar.com: Was it after this experience that you started working at Rudy's [Music in New York]?
Suhr: Before that, I did work in a couple of [other] stores, like Time Electronics. I had worked for a guy named Tommy Barth in Ledgewood (New Jersey), who actually fired me because he said it took me too long to do a grain and polish. They would be charging like $20 to level your frets, and I was re-crowning the frets, making them look really nice, and he basically fired me for taking too long to do that, which I think is pretty funny because he mentions me on his website [laughs].
Guitar.com: How did you learn the tricks of the trade?
Suhr: I learned a lot from Bob Benedetto, basically from hanging out in his shop for a couple of days. He was real nice and would explain things to me. When I asked him if I could hang around longer, apprentice, or do something else, he basically said no. He said, "If you want to do it, you're just gonna do it. You're just gonna have to start taking apart guitars and figuring it out." So, no, I never got any books-- everything I've learned, I've pretty much learned by myself.
In the later years now, I learn from other builders. It's nice that the builders-- like Tom Anderson, Jim Tyler, Don Grosh, Terry McInturff, myself-- we're all pretty friendly with each other and talk about things. Somebody runs into a problem, you can talk with the other guys, see what they're doing about it. But back in the early days, I had no one to turn to except Rick Koerner from Time Electronics, who showed me some cool things.
Guitar.com: How did you hook up with Rudy Pensa?
Suhr: I was cooking in New York, playing in bands on the Jersey shore and commuting. Eventually, I got to the point that I didn't want to play in bands anymore because it was too much of a commute. I didn't want to cook anymore, and I wanted to get into original music with some people I was playing with in New York. I needed a job that was a little closer to what I was doing, and cooking left you so beat by the end of the day.
One of the guys who worked for me in one of the restaurants knew that I did work [on guitars] and basically talked Rudy into hiring me. Rudy put me into a boiler room where I would start doing repairs. Rudy's was a Schecter shop, so he had necks and bodies lying around. We just kind of kept expanding the repair department until it took over a couple of floors. It grew from there by word of mouth
Guitar.com: And among those who heard about you were Mark Knopfler and Peter Frampton
Suhr: Knopfler had bought some Schecters from us and wanted different things worked on, so I would do it for him. He liked it, and I would do more and more work for them. I went in the studio a few times for Knopfler to take care of instruments and be on call.
Guitar.com: What albums were being recorded when you were in the studio?
Suhr: Infidels [ed. Note: Bob Dylan's 1983 album on which Knopfler played guitar]. Also, [Dire Straits'] Brothers in Arms.
Guitar.com: What was that like?
Suhr: Mark was a wonderful guy. I had no problems working for him. He knew what he wanted. It would be my job to make it feel right for him. Sometimes it would be a little sketchy that way. He would just hand me a guitar and say, "It's not feeling good." It was up to me to figure out why.
Guitar.com: How about Frampton?
Suhr: I might have done some repair work and he might have bought some other guitars, but I really remember making one of our first instruments for him. It had an old Schecter neck that I had re-built. When the original Schecter folded, they had a bunch of necks left over, so Rudy bought all those unfinished necks. We took those necks and converted them into our headstocks, instead of the Fender headstock. Also, since Schecter had shut down, Tom Anderson had left [the company]. He bought a pin router and started cutting bodies for people, so I had Tom cut the bodies for me for our first guitars, and we'd use the old Schecter necks.
We also did work for Lou Reed and Jamie [West-Oram] from The Fixx. A lot of guys would come in and out John Oates (Hall & Oates), G. E. Smith (Hall & Oates, Saturday Night Live band). Also, Victor Bailey and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol).
Guitar.com: Was the Pensa-Suhr guitar a particular model or more of an approach?
Suhr: It started out being basically kits that we put together.Rudy's wasn't set up to do production. There was no place in that building to manufacture guitars. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't have gotten a pin router in there-- it would have gone through the floor, so we pretty much had to rely on getting parts made for us. That's the way 75% of the guys making guitars did it. You didn't have the modern CNCs that you have today. Now, for a reasonable cost, you can actually go into production making your own parts. Back then, you either had to have big pin routers and big clunky machines or you had to buy from people that did.
Guitar.com: At this point, you transitioned into amp work. Why the move away from guitars?
Suhr: During the guitar thing at Rudy's, after Tom Anderson started making necks and bodies for people, everything was fine and rosy. Soon after, Tom started to do his own guitars and stopped doing parts for everybody else, so it became more and more difficult for us to make nice guitars. At the same time, I was getting really involved with amplifiers because I really wasn't happy with the amps that I owned. About the same time, I met Bob Bradshaw because I had purchased one of his switching systems to control all my gear. He had suggestions for amps and pre-amps. They were nice but they weren't really quite my cup of tea. That really gave me the fire to get into it.
I started taking apart everything I could get my hands on to see how it ticked. I probably spent more time tweaking my amplifiers than I did playing-- that's probably where I started to separate from my playing. It got to the point where I told Bob that I really wasn't thrilled with some of the things, but that I'd modded a Marshall that I actually kinda liked. He asked me to send it out to him so he could hear it. He liked it a lot and asked me to make a three-channel pre-amp for it. He told me the layout of the controls and basically left everything in my hands. So I made the pre-amp and shipped it to him. He liked it; Steve Lukather liked it; Michael Landau liked it. [Bradshaw] sold enough of them that he got scared and said, "You'd better get your ass out here." About that time is also when I met my wife, and I was looking to get out of New York. I felt like I was chained to the bench at Rudy's-- kind of like I was never going to see the light of day. It gave me the perfect opportunity to escape. Somehow I thought that making amps would have less variables than making guitars.
Guitar.com: And that turned out not to be the case?
Suhr: Guitars were just second-nature to me, since I'd always been working with them. Amplifiers, I had to learn a lot of electronic knowledge before I felt that I was worthy to get involved in that industry. It took a lot more brainpower to get involved in amplifiers.
I don't know how to put it. Amplifiers, you can copy, which is the drag. Somebody can take my design of an amplifier and copy it. Somebody can take a Soldano and copy it. Providing you get everything right, you can come up with something pretty close. A guitar, however, is really difficult to copy because just the way you crown the frets-- it's all an art. So I think guitar-building is more of an art form than amp-building. Amp building is all about finding the right components, the right layout, the right construction-- it's a bit more cut-and-dry and easier to reproduce. It's easier to go into production with amplifiers than it is to go with guitars. I would have stayed with amplifiers, but basically at that point we were just making a pre-amp. The rack business was starting to go down, and Fender offered me a great job. I had a new baby, a wife, and I just decided it was time to go back to building.
Guitar.com: What were your official responsibilities at Fender?
Suhr: I was a master builder. Myself and Jay Black were senior master builders. They told me that I was a senior master builder because I wore more than one hat. I was involved with electronics and building. Basically, I built custom guitars for anybody who would throw down to get a master-built guitar. We got handed a lot of the more peculiar jobs, things like five- and six-string basses that were not in production at the time.
Eventually, I did some pickup R&D, but that was self-appointed. I also did some paint & finish R&D. I wanted to move into the R&D department, but there were [issues]. I had already been working with Dan Smith-- I did the pickups and electronics for some of the Deluxe series-- actually, that was my first project when I got there. They basically said I was the only one with time to do it so, Tag, I'm it. They knew I did bass electronics, so they said I got to do the bass electronics and pickups.
Guitar.com: At what point did you leave Fender to found Suhr Guitars?
Suhr: About five years ago.
Guitar.com: How big is your shop at present?
Suhr: Eight employees.
Guitar.com: And how many guitars do you guys produce a month?
Suhr: Between 40 and 50.
Guitar.com: What kind of manufacturing equipment do you have?
Suhr: We have just about everything. We have two CNC routers; we have spiral-head jointers, planers, re-saws, band-saws, a dust collection, of course; we have a wide-belt sander; we have a kiln where we dry all our wood. We also have a laser, so we cut all our pickup parts on the laser. We actually do some of the operations on the wood with the laser as well, cutting f-holes and five-way slots through the paint after the guitar is buffed. We have a spray booth. The only thing we don't do here is make the hard metal parts, like bridges and tuners. Everything else is done here.
Guitar.com: Describe your typical customer.
Suhr: I think they're looking for classic designs, but want to get real particular about construction and attention to detail. And they don't mind paying for it. They want to make sure there's nothing that's forgotten about; they want to make sure their frets are dressed nicely. I want my guitars to be able to go from the shop to the stage. If you send us your strings, you'll get it intonated with those strings. You won't have to re-setup everything, especially if you tell us how you like you action and other particulars. These guitars are ready to go onstage and go to war.
Guitar.com: Your guitars fall into three categories: Classic, Standard, and Classic T. Can you walk us through the stylistic differences between those guitars?
Suhr: The T is sort of like a modern Tele. It's got the tummy cut, an arm cut, and a heel cut, so you have good access to the upper frets. You don't have to order them that way-- you can order them as stock planks with no comfort cuts on them at all. Even with the comfort cuts, they tend to sound pretty fat, those guitars-- I think it has to do with the shape of the body. There really isn't much more mass to the body, but they just sound thicker.
The Classic is the old classic shape, but it's a little streamlined. I just dialed in some of the arm and tummy contours so that they look sleek like some of the old Fenders did. And it also has the heel contour.
The Standard is a down-sized Strat-style shape that I've been doing since 1985, back when I was at Rudy's. I made little tweaks and straightened out the curves as I learned how to get around cab systems more, so basically it hasn't changed all that much. I think that the Standard lends itself to looking better with things like quilt tops and more modern-style wood combinations, while the Classic looks best with old classic colors, Pickguard H, and single coils. I don't think there's really any tone difference between the Standard and the Classic. The T definitely has more of a meaty tone to it.
Guitar.com: Do you have any artist models?
Suhr: The ones for Reb Beach and Scott Henderson, they're the only models that we have. I love working Scott and Reb, they're both great guitar players. I've known both for years. I met Scott at Fender. I did some work for him there as well. Scott was going to be a Fender endorser, but he found it tough to get the time of day sometimes, even though they wanted him. Then, when I left Fender, I talked to Scott, and he said he'd love to keep working with me. Actually, Scott plays my amp too, which is the OD-100. That's the amp I designed just before I left Bradshaw's and went to work for Fender.
Guitar.com: How did the Reb connection come about?
Suhr: I knew him back from the days of Rudy's, where he was just a studio kid who came into the store. This was before Winger. I made him a guitar then, and he still plays it today. Actually, the Reb Beach model we're making now is a reproduction of that guitar. Reb, I've known for many yearswe lost touch, but then he found out I was making guitars again.
Guitar.com: What are the specs on their models?
Suhr: Reb, we've done a couple of different things for, but he's settled on a Pau Ferro neck, which is basically like his old guitar. Scott has an official model, which has two humbuckers and a single coil, but he plays his blues guitar more than that. It's a Classic, which is a Strat body. He has our V60 low-peak pickups in it and certain things like fingerboard radius, fret size, and shape are particular to him, but they're pretty much a guitar anyone can order. His model guitar is the same guitar except it has a hum single Hum in it. The tough thing with artist models is that everything we do is custom-order. If you told me you wanted this, this, and this, we'd do it. So there's no difference between an artist model and a custom order. Reb did come up with his own unique pickguard, but it didn't sell all that well because it was a little unique.
Guitar.com: What woods do you generally use for your necks and bodies?
Suhr: I try to feel out the customer to see what he's going for. People are accustomed to listening to guitars that are built in the way that companies such as Gibson and Fender made them. Those tones have been drummed into our heads, and they're stuck-- they're what we expect to hear when we pick up guitars. We're best off sticking to the woods traditionally used like, alder bodies go well with a rosewood fingerboard. Sometimes, I use Brazilian rosewood, but Fender didn't always use Brazilian rosewood. To me, some of the warmer guitars were Indian rosewood.
I think that people need to understand what their wood will do to their total sound. The fingerboard wood, the neck wood, the body wood, all these things are an issue. Some people ask me, "What body wood should I use?" And I say, "What neck wood are you going to use?" It's all one complete marriage in the guitar. Even the bridge. All the bridges weve offered all sound different. Some people can say tuning gears sound different-- that's beginning to stretch it for me, but I can understand that they might influence the tone. It would be very difficult to prove any of these things as you'd have to have the same guitar with different parts on it and have some way of recording it-- something that wasn't dependent on your memory.
Generally, I recommend the standard woods. I like swamp ash with maple or alder with rosewood. You can also go to the extreme-- like basswood, which has got a lot of mid-range to it-- you can put a maple cap on itour tops are 3/16ths, so they do affect the tone, they broaden the frequency response. There are harder fingerboard woods like Brazilian rosewood, which has more clack and upper presence. African rosewood is that way too. Pau Ferro tends to have more mid-range. To me, it sounds a little bit more like maple. I don't think one-piece maple necks are all that bright sounding. Usually when people come to that conclusion about maple necks, they were listening to the finish of some of the older guitars, more so than the wood. If you put enough hard finish on a neck, you're going to start hearing the finish, not the wood. Our finishes are very thin so you can really hear the wood.
Guitar.com: Why do you guys prefer vintage truss rods over two-ways?
Suhr: I dont like the sound of two-way rods. They sound different to me. They sound deader. What we do is build under-bow into our necks, so you need to tighten the rod just to make them straight. Whereas a lot of companies will make their necks straight with no string tension, if you take the string tension off our guitars and loosen the truss rod, you will have an under-bow in the neck. [As a result] they do go both waysits just not a two-way rod. [With] a two-way rod, you build the neck straight and then you can put under-bow or back-bow into it with the truss rod. We design the neck so it has a neutral point when the truss rod is tightened up a little bit. The main reason is because it sounds better.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the Buzz Feiten Tuning System and why you use it.
Suhr: He's basically tuned up the guitar like a piano. He's taking into consideration the idiosyncrasies of playing guitar, how imperfect of an instrument it is, and balanced the whole thing out so it plays in tune nicer. The Feiten thing, to me, is not something that you will pick up and say, "Wow, this is flawless." Once you start to get used to playing a guitar with the Feiten System and you try to play guitar without it, you have a hard time tuning up the guitar without it. Buzz dialed the whole thing in and made it more in tune with other instruments. After I tried one, I was sold. I had [originally] fought it tooth and nail. I was like, "No way. We're not trying that." And then I tried one and I was like, "Wow."
It allows you to get the intonation more dialed in so the chord sounds more natural to your ears-- like a piano. You can't take a strobe tuner to a piano and tune up every note on perfect pitch it isn't going to work- it's going to sound different. So, Buzz took the same type of method that people use to tune pianos and applied it to guitar, but he did it more mathematically so you don't need to use your ears, you can use good strobe tuners to dial the guitar in and then you know it's good. I've got artists like Scott Henderson live, it's not such a big thing for him, but, in the studio, he really notices the difference and starts to appreciate the Feiten System.
Guitar.com: Where do you see the shop in ten years?
Suhr: I wouldn't mind eventually doubling. Right now, we do about 40-50 guitars a month. I wouldn't want to get more than twice that big. It might not even be with guitars. Right now, we've added basses. We're also working on a set neck-- 24 and inch scale with tilt-back headstock and three and three gears. We're working on that one right now. The basses are being well-received. And we're working on amps too. I don't know if we're going to increase our number of guitars, but we're going to expand our offerings.
Guitar.com: What trends do you anticipate in guitar manufacturing and design in the long-term?
Suhr: I still think that the people who are going to enjoy the most success are the ones who are conservative in their designs. Even though it's not the most original thing to come up with something that's been done before, it's what people want because they're going back to sounds that they grew up with, looking at people who made those sounds. Basically, if you want to bark like a dog, you have to look like a dog. They just have to follow that tradition. You're not going to make some space-age guitar and make it sound like Hendrix. It isn't going to do it.
Where I think we're unique is that were taking designs that are very traditional, not unique at all, and we're trying to make them better than anyone else. We're putting all our effort into playability, choice of wood, the attention to detail, finish, setup, pickups, hardware. We're trying to make guitars that will last a lifetime. If you had to buy a cheaper guitar, you might have to buy five or six of them to last as long as one of ours is going to last.
I don't think there's really going to be that many major advancements. I'm just hoping there continues to be more and more small builders that compete with the big builders. I think that's where technology is helping us. A small builder can now go out and buy a CNC at a monthly payment of less than an employee would cost. He can produce very high quality parts coming out of that machine if he knows what he's doing. But you also have to get involved in the technology-- CNCs do not just spit out guitars. It takes more work to program and learn to program a CNC than it does to build a guitar by hand. Some people say that CNCs are the devils work and that they take the artistic challenge out of guitar-making. I disagree 100%. I think that it's much harder to dial things in on a CNC. The advantage is that, once you've dialed it all in, you can reproduce quality guitars consistently, so your consumer is going to get the same quality, the same neck shape as the one he tried and liked. It's not going to be potluck. It's like some of the old collectible guitars-- some are great, some are hideous. But with CNC and technology, you can make them all great guitars.