A world-famous and highly renowned luthier who made an impassioned, conscious decision to follow his true calling while pursuing a completely different one, Roger Sadowsky and his work have clearly had a massive impact in the solid body electric guitar and bass worlds. We chatted with him a bit about his equally impressive archtop models and the special correlation between one of these and the Henriksen JazzAmp.
1. Coming from an academic background in the sciences, how did you start building instruments, and were archtops always a part of the picture?
I started playing guitar towards the end of college, and it became a progressive obsession for me through graduate school… it got to a point where it overtook my interest in graduate school studies. I left school in 1972 and got a job building flat top acoustic guitars with a gentleman named Augie LoPrinzi for two years. Then I devoted the next 5 years to repair and restoration, opening my own shop in NY in 1979. I started building electric guitars in ’80 and electric basses in ’82. I actually never made archtop guitars, but I had been taking care of Jim Hall’s guitars ever since 1982. I’d been mulling over the fact that the Gibson 175 was probably the most played archtop guitar in the world, and that there was definitely a place for a laminated archtop; that began my quest to do something in that area.
After some difficulty and frustration sourcing laminate plates that I liked in the US and Germany, I settled on a place in Japan that was making exactly what I was looking for – but they were only interested in making the entire instrument; not just selling me the plates. So we started a project together. The instruments are made in Japan, but we make the tailpieces and the compensated bridges and supply all the US electronics. I design them all, of course, and we started initially with the Jim Hall model. The instruments come in and we do the fretwork at the shop as well as the final setup, and that’s pretty much the history of my archtops. We started that in 2003 with the Jim Hall model and we currently offer 5 different models of archtops.
2. How were you first introduced to Henriksen Amplifiers?
This is a wonderful story! So again my first model was the Jim Hall guitar, and one of the first people to buy one was Bud Henriksen. Bud and I became really good friends, and he called me and said “I love this guitar but I’m unhappy with the amps I’ve played it through; I think I’m gonna make my own amp.” Peter Henriksen later on basically told me that that was the genesis of what became the JazzAmp. Bud felt he could make a better amp than anything he’d tried my guitar through, and that’s how the JazzAmp got started.
3. What style of guitar do you enjoy building most?
Honestly, for me, my first love is still flat top acoustic guitars. I was never looking to go after or compete in the archtop/carved market; that’s not what I do. But I think where I came into play in the archtop market was as a designer, and I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to achieve. Fortunately I have a luthier in Japan named Yoshi Kikuchi that I trained in ’92, who worked with me for a year before returning to Japan, where he heads up all my manufacturing projects there. Without him, I never could have even done the archtop project.
4. As a builder of fine instruments, what is key for you in an amplifier?
Number one for me, is that an amp should sound great with all the tone controls set flat. If it doesn’t sound great like that, then I’m not even interested in playing with the EQ. Number two, I can explain with a story: Jim Hall used to comp acoustically on his guitar when he was performing, and then slowly bring up his volume so that you were hearing his amplified tone rather than his acoustic tone, and for me that should be a seamless transition. You basically want the amp to mirror from the guitar what you’re hearing acoustically. Bud sent me a JazzAmp and it was really one of my go-to amps. I did find that there was a divide amongst archtop players between solid state and tube amps, though. The guys who liked the solid state amps liked the very immediate response to their attack, and the guys who liked the tube amps liked the warmer bloom to the note. So initially the Henriksen JazzAmp and Bud fell perfectly into that solid state category, but now with the Forte and its tube preamp, I think that Peter has just checked all the boxes. We had one at the booth at the recent NAMM show for a couple of days and I thought it was great!
5. For archtop electrics, what type of pickup system do you consider the ideal interface between instrument and amp?
We use a PAF style pickup that’s custom wound for us by DiMarzio. The Jim Hall model’s pickup had its origin with Jim’s laminate D’Aquisto, which had an old Guild DeArmond humbucker in it that we sent to DiMarzio to spec out and replicate for us, so that’s unique to the Jim Hall model. Our other archtops also have custom wound DiMarzio pickups, and again – they’re all in the classic PAF range. I don’t see where anybody would want anything hotter in that kind of guitar, and for the most part I’ve always favored neck position pickup-only archtops. Only two of our five archtop models have two pickups.
6. What’s the most noteworthy custom feature a player has requested on one of your instruments?
Billy Idol once requested for me to make him a guitar that looked like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek; I refused that commission, telling him “you need a prop maker, not a guitar maker!” The other request that we did fulfill was making 6 instruments for Prince, for the Purple Rain tour. In the movie, in one of the final scenes, he jumps up to the top of a very tall stack of speakers on a dark stage and puts the guitar between his legs, and he starts rubbing the neck like he’s masturbating, and the guitar ejaculates into the crowd. That was a total prop guitar, but what he asked me to do was make him two replicas of his Hohner Mad Cat Tele, which were not only functional guitars, but also ejaculated; I called them the Ejacucasters. The guitars were connected by hose off stage to a vat of ivory liquid! We ran tubing all the way up the neck, next to the truss rod, that terminated at the headstock. We also built a compartment in the back of the guitar for them to mount their valve, which controlled the pressure from the hose.
7. If you could step into the shoes of any musician for a day, living or not, who would it be?
Part of me would say James Taylor or Paul Simon; I love the singer/songwriter genre, and I love the ones that are also very accomplished guitar players. I’ve always admired both of them for their guitar chops. But, stepping back, in terms of my whole archtop situation, it’s still Jim Hall. I love Jim’s early work with Paul Desmond – that’s my favorite period for Jim, in the ‘60s. For me to be in the studio with Jim and Paul playing together, I think that would probably be, for me, as great of an experience as I could imagine.