Jeff Senn Interview: An Amazing Journey...
To mark our new Custom Shop collaboration with Jeff Senn, The Continental, we talked to the celebrated guitar designer, who's also responsible for one of our biggest hits from the past 12 months, the Jeff Senn Model One.
(Jeff Senn pic by Eric England)
It's not often you find a guitar builder like Jeff Senn, who's also a dedicated live performer and is regularly out there, test-driving his gear in front of an audience.
Those familiar with our previous Jeff Senn project, the Model One, will know that he's able to design guitars which feel instantly familiar, as if they've been around for years, but which still remain very unique and original - and this is in no small part due to the fact he's an active, gigging guitarist: Jeff knows what guitarists need, but he also understands what they want.
Based in Nashville since the mid-Nineties, Jeff plays in instrumental band Crazy Aces, and opened his own guitar repair shop business in the city, before starting to focus on guitar building. Today, he's without any doubt one of the most respected guitar builders in America, so let's hear from Jeff!
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN PLAYING GUITAR?
I’ve been fascinated and moved by the instrument as far back as I can remember. My Dad always had one laying around that he would strum on occasionally so there was that influence but there was never a time that I wanted to do anything else, even back when I was three or four years old. My friends wanted to be firemen or pilots or paleontologists, I wanted to play guitar.
WAS BUILDING GUITARS SOMETHING YOU WERE INTERESTED IN FROM THE BEGINNING? HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
No, playing the guitar was all I was about in my early years but I came from a family of Machinists, Plumbers, Carpenters, etc. We were the typical, old school DIY (do it yourself) blue collar culture. We fixed or repaired things ourselves because we had to. Cars, electrical appliances, and household maintenance, you name it. This “can do” philosophy mixed with a healthy curiosity of what made my guitar function and how to make it function better led me into repairs and building. I started on my own at first, taking things apart, pulling frets, etc.
A few years later, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I began working for renowned bass (and guitar at the time) builder Joe Zon and did an apprenticeship of sorts with him but even then I hoped and planned on playing for a living.
DOES THE FACT YOU'RE A WORKING MUSICIAN, PLAYING WITH A BAND, INFLUENCE YOUR WORK AS A LUTHIER? DO YOU EVER GET INSIGHTS & NEW IDEAS BECAUSE OF THIS?
Being a working musician definitely influences my work as a builder and designer of guitars. I was a guitar tech on the road for about ten years, working with many wonderful and talented players. The daily demands of the road on the instrument allowed me to observe what lasted and worked well and what didn’t. As a player I can field test designs, ideas, or hardware in live situations, touring conditions, and recording environments.
I believe that this helps me to keep a realistic and functional outlook on whatever I’m working on or to be able to set focused goals as to what the instrument should and can be. Cool and new designs are fun and aesthetically enjoyable, but practical aspects help to make that unique looking guitar an actual instrument.
With our hand builds it can be something as simple as installing knobs with sets screws facing the player in the “full up” setting so there is a quick visual when playing onstage, the ergonomic placement of the volume knob for swells and adjustments and even new, in house designed hardware like our DRB2 - Danelectro Silvertone Replacement Bridge.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF PRIMARILY AS A GUITARIST WHO BUILDS GUITARS, OR AS A LUTHIER WHO PLAYS IN A BAND?
That would depend on the day and how I feel I’m succeeding at one or the other, LOL.
ARE YOU EVER ABLE TO JUST ENJOY A GUITAR AS A PLAYER, NOT PICKING IT UP AND THINKING “OH, I COULD IMPROVE THIS OR THAT...?"
Yes and no.
In the affirmative - I play a lot of old, quirky, oddball guitars that to many other players may seem to have a lot of flaws, uneven frets, strange electronic orientations, low output. I seem to be able to overlook these things If I like the way the guitar sounds and often I do not “correct” or fix the flaws.
In the negative - If I put too much work into a guitar for myself (a 1951 Gibson J-45 re-build comes to mind) I never seem to be able to stop criticizing the work or results long enough to enjoy the guitar.
Because of this, when I shop for a guitar I try to find examples that do not need work for me to enjoy them but truthfully, my mind does wander sometimes, especially if I have a natural instinct for a particular way to improve performance capabilities of an instrument.
IT SEEMS A DIFFICULT JOB TO BE ORIGINAL WHEN IT COMES TO GUITAR DESIGNS, BUT THE MODEL ONE AND THE NEW CONTINENTAL MANAGE TO LOOK UNIQUE... WAS IT HARD TO REACH THAT POINT? TO DO SOMETHING THAT WILL BE RECOGNISABLE AS “A JEFF SENN GUITAR"?
It’s easy to be inspired and create something original. The difficult part is creating something that has appeal to others. Guitar players can be very stubborn or set in their ways when it comes to guitar design.
In it’s basic form, a guitar just needs to be practically functional to make music and in this philosophy many great designs have set a standard over the last sixty years. Moving outside of this standard can be risky for a designer or luthier. The like minded thinking of Mike Robinson, Eastwood Guitars, and the fans of Eastwood/Airline guitars allow me to draw from my quirky vintage tastes and apply them to an aesthetic that reflects my inspirations and this freedom of expression with the luxury of a built in audience makes it easy to create guitars with my own imprint.
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE PICKUP CONFIG OF THE NEW CONTINENTAL? IT’S NOT VERY USUAL TO SEE THAT COMBO...
At heart, as a player I’m a single coil kind of guy or at least pickups that are very clear and articulate, allowing the player to control the timbre and tone with their hands. When I was building the original Continental for myself it was built with a vintage Supro pickup in the bridge position and a vintage Guyatone pickup in the neck position. When we decided to make The Continental available as a production instrument I chose pickups that evoked a similar tonality but were easily accessible.
It’s a very versatile combination as the guitar can twang, growl, sparkle and cover many genres of music from Punk to Western Swing, Blues and Jazz. I’m personally drawn to guitars that I can take on almost any gig without worrying if they will fit the style of music. Versatility is a good thing and this is what I had in mind for The Continental. Another aspect of the pickup choices is that they are easily replaceable with a plethora of choices should the player want a different sound or output. By mounting the mini-humbucker in a P-90 rout the mini can be traded out easily for a P-90 should the owner wish to, which would be another great version of the instrument.
HOW INSPIRING IS IT TO LIVE IN SUCH A MUSICAL CITY AS NASHVILLE?
It’s insane how many truly talented players there are in Nashville. What we get to hear in our shop on a daily basis, the customers stopping by to try out a guitar or pick up an instrument …it’s so inspiring!
A general misconception is that this town is all about country music and, while it made it’s fame as such, it’s grown and diversified to include Rock, Funk, Pop etc.
Producers and artists from all genres come here to record because of the high level of musicianship and professionalism that the players have.
What we can hear right here in our shop or in a small club setting is more than enough to inspire one to be a better player but also a great inspiration to create tools that help these amazing players unlock their talents and potential.
WE LOVED YOUR CHUCK BERRY TRIBUTE (watch it here) . WHAT DOES CHUCK MEAN TO YOU? IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT HIM... HE’S ALWAYS BEEN THERE!
Thank you, the tribute was off the cuff and sincere.
Even as a small child I was drawn to older music from the 1930’s through the 1960’s and as such Chuck Berry was/is the architect of Rock'N'Roll guitar, plain and simple.
There are others before him such as T-Bone Walker that began the movement towards Rock'N'Roll but Chuck put it all together, the showmanship, the teenage themes and he did it with an electric guitar, singing and stabbing out those rebellious fanfares. So many aspects of pop music culture would adopt those signature licks and rhythms, Punk, 60’s British Rock, Surf, Glam, Southern Rock and even Country music from which Chuck originally drew much inspiration. For me and I’d imagine for any electric guitar player, he will be cherished, respected and remembered forever.
(Jeff Senn pic by Eric England)
FINALLY... WHAT MAKES A GREAT GUITAR, IN YOUR OPINION?
Truthful and philosophical answer, based on my years of experience? A great player.
That being said I think a great guitar is one that allows the specific player to express their musical ideas and inspirations easily and reliably. This criteria is different for everyone and I’ve always respected that.
I struggle with Les Pauls. Can you imagine that? One of the most beloved guitars of all time, memorable and wonderful music made with them…and I can’t figure out how to play one effectively!
A great guitar should be one that has aesthetic appeal, resonates in a pleasing way, has easy access to controls, a good feeling neck, and plays easily…for the specific player who likes or plays it.
A great guitar is one that you just can’t put down, walk away from, or can’t look at it across a room without wanting to grab it and play it.
This can be a journey and quest for many and why shouldn’t it be? That’s what life and art is... What an amazing journey!
- by Ivan S.