For any serious luthier, the opportunity to help redefine modern guitarcraft while working
alongside the most influential builder of a generation is the stuff of dreams. And for Joe
Knaggs it was, too. But he was just getting started.
In TERvIEW b Y shAWn hAMMonD
Pho ToGRAPh Y b Y lARRY MElTon
Growing up in Maryland, Knaggs had two passions—playing guitar and painting. “They
used to pull me out of English to go do paintings on the walls,” he recalls. “But I was also
totally into music—I played guitar six, eight hours a day.” His first electrics were from the
two biggest brands of the era—first a Fender Jaguar, then a Gibson L- 5, then a Stratocaster.
He couldn’t have known that the slightly older guy who lived down the street, one Paul
Smith, would later bridge the gap between those two vastly different schools of guitar
building. And he certainly couldn’t have had any idea that he’d become a huge part of that
picture himself. Because at that point he hadn’t the slightest inclination to become a luthier.
But then it happened. A few years later, Knaggs was working in a shop that refinished just
about anything you could put paint on, and one day he was inspired to apply blue lacquer
to a Strat body. Like a lot of guitarists around the planet, he was also moonlighting to make
a little extra cash, so he decided to head over to Smith’s shop across town and show off
his handiwork. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll bring that guitar body over there and see if Paul
has any side work for me.’” Smith didn’t have any jobs for Knaggs at the time, but approximately a year later he called to recruit Knaggs for a full-time position in the Paul Reed Smith
finish room. Over the ensuing years Knaggs was promoted from finish-room manager to
production manager, then builder of PRS prototypes and endorsee guitars, overseer of the
Private Stock program, and, finally, director of R&D. In the process, he brought the world
the legendary PRS McCarty Archtop and McCarty Hollowbody—guitars that took the company in a whole new direction and earned it rave reviews (not to mention tons of sales).
Knaggs was also the primary designer behind the Gary Grainger bass and the Starla and
Mira guitar lines, both of which not only helped make PRS appealing to players looking for
a funkier, vintage vibe but also further cemented its reputation for quality and innovation.
Throughout his years at PRS, Knaggs worked with another prime mover behind the
brand’s meteoric success, a former instrument dealer from Germany named Peter Wolf. “I
met Paul Smith and the PRS guys back in 1986,” Wolf remembers. He went on to become
one of the company’s three German dealers, and eventually became the exclusive PRS distributor for Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg. By 1996, he was talking with the company
about coming aboard full-time. “At that point, their export sales were really small—they
were only working in 13 countries.” The next year, Wolf joined the PRS team as international sales manager. Like Knaggs, he moved steadily up the chain of command, and as
director of sales and marketing from 2004 to 2009, he was instrumental in taking the company through a period of extraordinary growth and visibility.
But 2009 was a year of change for both Wolf and Knaggs. The former left PRS that
February, and the latter struck out on his own in June of that year. Wolf went on to
establish a marketing services firm called Brand Wolf Consulting, while Knaggs says he
just wanted to get back to his roots.
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