He’s become one of the great American guitar builders of recent gear history. John Suhr has decades of guitar building under his belt, with the last thirty years of those spent at the helm of Suhr Custom Guitars. These days, you’ll find the name Suhr embossed on the headstocks of artisanal, master-crafted electric guitars, delicately brilliant stompboxes such as the Riot, Rufus, and Shiba, as well as upon tube-driven masterpiece amplifiers. In many ways, however, the shared pulse of all of these comes from John’s persistent denial that it’s some mystical “mojo” that makes gear great and his relentless pursuit of research and design that accounts for those seemingly undefinable experiences, feel, and sound of gear at its best.
In 1973, John gigged the New York scene by night and paid the bills by day working in restaurants. When the chance came to bridge between his nocturnal and daytime pursuits, he lunged at it. Rudy’s Music Shop in New York City was in need of a guitar tech, and John found himself in a cozy boiler room nook of the shop where he set to repairing and, in short order, building guitars under the Pensa-Suhr emblem. Some of these early builds found their way into the hands of the likes of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and Peter Frampton, to name a few.
At this time, John not only became acquainted with famous guitarists, he developed a deep understanding of both the potential and problematics of some of the most classic designs by Fender. Reflecting on these early days, John relayed to Premier Guitar that, “This is the period when I was able to begin dialing in what I did and didn’t like about Fender guitars.” In due time, these observations would fuel some of his best builds on the other side of the country.
As John’s success as a guitar repairman and luthier grew, in 1991 he made an unexpected but eventually celebrated move. Partnering up with celebrated engineer, Robert Bradshaw, the two developed, designed, and launched the Suhr Custom Audio OD-100 out of their newfound California base. This would be the first of an ongoing lineup of Suhr amps that continues to this day.
As the 90s rolled on, John’s decades of experience has found a new outlet. In 1995, he took a post at the Fender Custom Shop. As the newly appointed Senior Master Builder, John hoped to find a space to draw on his decades of Fender tinkering to enhance and extend the brand’s heritage. Some of his projects there included low-powered tweed amps for Eric Clapton and a ream of built-to-order electrics. By 1997, however, John’s regular encounters with the red-tape that comes with working in a bigger company caused him to spread his wings yet again, making once more a seemingly risky but genius maneuver.
In 1997, John and Steve Smith set up Suhr Guitars/JS Technologies. The brand was built on long hours spent hand-finishing, hand-wiring, and hand-just-about-everything on a lineup of Professional, Antique, and Satin series guitars. Eventually, the company grew in offerings, employees, and fame. While John started off tinkering away in the boiler room turned repair shop of Rudy’s, these days you’ll find more than 100 employees crafting John’s designs in the Suhr facility out in Lake Elsinore, California. While this new home is worlds away from where John Suhr started out, its right at home with the sounds he sought out in New York years ago.