From his striking visual image to his soaring, rough-and-tumble tones, to his memorable licks with Billy Idol, Steve Stevens is one of those guitarists who just oozes rock star. So the man’s signature model is certainly not going to evoke a middle manager wearing khaki Dockers on casual Friday. As you can see, there is nothing humdrum about Knaggs’ interpretation of Stevens’ “Rebel Yell” elan. This guitar is simultaneously sophisticated (opaque black finish), whimsical (ray guns on headstock and pickup covers), and androgynously macho (pink acrylic binding).
Our test model was handcrafted in Greensboro, Maryland by Joe Knaggs and his team— Danny Dedo, Dean Nitsch, Lukas Fronzoli, Steve Baumgardner, John Ingram, Nick Ralph, and Peter Wolf—and was completed on April 30. It was already sold when we received it for evaluation, so I apologize to the rightful owner for torturing the guitar in studio sessions, rehearsals, and gigs. I plugged the Stevens into a Vox AC30, an Orange Tiny Terror, a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto, and a Marshall half-stack. I also ran a few fuzz pedals in the signal chain, including a Tech 21 Boost Fuzz, a Celestial Effects Wah The Fuzz?, a Nocturne Fuzz-Ray, and a Prescription Electronics Yardbox that belonged to the late Ronnie Montrose.
The SS Signature is a classic single-cut design, and, as Stevens likes the sound of solid solidbodies (as opposed to chambered models), it’s heavy, but well balanced. I didn’t experience weight-related fatigue in the studio or onstage, or find the guitar uncomfortable in any way. (Although guitarists who perform all-nighters may need a couple of “relax the back” breaks.) The gleaming nickel hardware, morning-star fretboard inlays, and hand-cut bone nut are exquisitely rendered. The chromatic tuner set into the bridge pickup ring is a very thoughtful, user-friendly addition to the guitar’s feature set. (Isn’t it funny how tuners are everywhere these days—pocket-sized minis, headstock types, and apps on smartphones—but I always manage not to have one when I need it most?)
Every element of the SS Signature is as uptown as you’d expect from a premium, USA builder who charges thousands of dollars for its instruments. That said, our test model displayed admittedly super-finicky imperfections in the paint edging against the pink binding (body and neck). There were also two visible miter cuts in the binding itself at the middle of the cutaway and near the bottom strap button. Obviously, a binding needs to be formed and attached to the guitar body in some way, but other bindings we’ve seen on expensive instruments “hide” any cuts/joints. [Knaggs states, “The only binding we were able to source in pink is more of a glass-like acrylic. It is much harder than regular binding, and needs to be cut with a CNC. It is also not flexible enough to wrap around a whole guitar in one piece unless you are okay with producing a lot of waste. We are trying to be as resourceful as possible with any materials we are using.”]
Playability is outstanding—even with the SS’s big, high jumbo frets. Warp-speed soloists will find that this guitar is no fretless wonder, but you have unfettered access to all frets, and there’s a reassuring girth factor to the ample neck and “speed bump” frets that delivers plenty of tactile feedback for hammering riff s and blasting out chords. And while I’m hardly a shredder, I could easily play fast passages without any impediments. The SS almost invites ferocious playing. You may suddenly find yourself balancing on the stage monitors (or jumping around the house) in full pummel, groove, and take no prisoners mode. My only ergonomic quibbles are that it’s a bit of a reach to work the Volume and Tone knobs while playing, and the classic “top hat” knobs are a bit slippery for pinky manipulations (a shame, because the frequency sweep of the Tone knobs is wide enough to do some very cool manual “wah” tricks).
In an impressive alliance of luthiery and rock-and- roll mojo, Knaggs nailed the Stevens sonic vibe. There’s definitely a rock machine focus here—you don’t get subharmonic lows or shimmering highs, and there’s not enough twang for country, or subtle warmth for dinner jazz. But this sucker can bark and roar and explode out of a band mix like a wounded, pissed-off Berserker. It’s articulate in the extreme—even when using super-saturated tones. (Tip: Avoid sloppy technique when playing the SS, because the audience will hear your biffs and clams.) Midrange frequencies snap and pop with crackling presence. Lows are tight and tough. There’s no God-of-Thunder bass resonance, but there’s also no mud or wobble. The high end is airy and transparent, adding a nice shimmer to balance the taut lows, while letting critical mids punch and breathe. But the SS isn’t just an aggro enforcer. Performance dynamics are captured brilliantly, so gentle attacks produce some gorgeous clean and overdrive timbres, and you can almost switch between rhythm and lead volumes simply by bouncing between soft and fierce string attacks.
Signature models are obviously marketed to those who love the style and sound of a particular artist, and anyone who adores Steve Stevens will find their money well spent on this guitar. For the rest of us, while good rock guitars at all price points are plentiful, this is an awesome, limited-production, American-made guitar from a small shop that struts enough attitude to transform even the meekest of string benders into a raging rock star. Try it and see!
STEVE STEVENS SIGNATURE
PRICE $4,544 street
NUT WIDTH 1.6875"
NECK Mahogany, set
FRETS 22 jumbo
BODY Mahogany with carved maple top
BRIDGE Knaggs Influence Series two-in-one
PICKUPS Bare Knuckle Steve Stevens Signature humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORYSTRINGS Cleartone, .010-.046
WEIGHT 8.34 lbs.
KUDOS Rock looks. Rock sounds. Plays great. Far from your average single-cutaway.
CONCERNS Extremely minor cosmetic issues.