By Richard Bienstock | Photos by Paul Haggard
Over the past half century, Howard “Buzz” Feiten has played guitar for dozens of the greatest rock, pop, and soul artists. His credits include stints as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with whom he appeared at Woodstock) and the Rascals, as well as session turns on albums by Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Gregg Allman, among many others.
But for all his credentials as a player, Feiten is best known in guitar circles as the inventor of the Buzz Feiten Tuning System, a revolutionary tempered-tuning system that, through the deployment of patented pitch offsets, corrects intonation challenges innate to stringed instruments, like guitar and bass. For Feiten, the development of the tuning system stemmed from his desire to offer musicians an improved playing experience. “If I think that something’s not as good as it can be, it drives me crazy,” he says. “I can’t sleep. It messes me up completely and I have to try to fix it. That’s just my nature.”
That mindset fuels his latest endeavor, Buzz Feiten Guitars. The brand currently offers five models, including the top-of-the-line Signature Elite shown here. Feiten designed each guitar with an eye toward maximizing comfort, tone, and playability, “employing ideas that address a number of issues,” he says. Some of these ideas, as displayed on the Signature Elite, include a unique rhythm/lead switch, G&B-designed hum-canceling pickups, and a custom top-loading bridge.
In conceiving the guitars, Feiten drew from his own history as a musician, beginning with the woods used in their construction. Each Feiten model is built from an alder core with a top of a complementary tonewood. On the Signature Elite, the top is beautiful flame maple.
“It’s the perfect marriage of woods,” Feiten says. “My love for alder comes from my experience with great guitars from the past, especially Fenders. Alder has this gorgeous low midrange, and it’s tight on the bottom. Flame maple tends to be brighter sounding. You start with those low mids from the alder, and then you add this great transparent sparkle on top from the maple.”
Fender guitars, particularly Telecasters, influenced other key design features on Feiten’s models. The rhythm/lead switch—essentially a series/parallel pickup wiring control—is connected to the Signature Elite’s bridge humbucker and features a Feiten-conceived high-end roll-off circuit that gives the pickup some Tele-like snap. In addition, he turned the humbucker 180 degrees, with the exposed screw pole pieces positioned on the neck side of the pickup, and set it in an angled pickup ring “so that it stands taller on the neck side than the bridge side,” he explains. “That way you don’t hear as much of that rear coil nearest the bridge, which further enhances the single-coil effect in parallel. Essentially, you’re getting two pickups in one.”
Other features on the Signature Elite include crème binding, Sprague Orange Drop capacitors, a comfort bevel on the body’s back, a two-way adjustable truss rod, and a choice of fingerboards: either maple with block abalone inlays, or rosewood with block pearl inlays. The top-loading nickel-plated bridge offers a wide, custom-designed 2 5/32–inch string spacing. According to Feiten, this results in less stiffness across the strings and imparts a vintage, worn-in quality to the instrument. “It makes the guitar feel soft and buttery in your hands,” he says.
Interestingly, one feature you won’t find on the Signature Elite—or any Feiten guitar, for that matter—is the designer’s famous tuning system. Explains Feiten, “About five years back, I started experimenting with alternate ways of accomplishing the same thing, basically by cheating the fret location a little bit. I used that method on these guitars. It’s the next logical step.”
Feiten says that improving the guitar’s design remains his driving force. “Basically, I’m always trying to identify areas of the guitar that have been underserved and figure out how to make something better,” he says. “When it comes to the instruments themselves, I’m in a unique position because I’m a designer, but I’m also the perfect end user because I’m a guy who actually plays guitar. When I’m putting a guitar together, I already have a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t going to work.”
LIST PRICE: $4,295
Buzz Feiten Guitars: buzzfeitenguitars.com