Turning beautiful pieces of wood into excellent guitars.
by Luke Shields
Nik Huber often refers to his chosen profession of guitar builder extraordinaire as nothing less than a calling; a Zen, ultimately gratifying act of soul-nourishment that gives his life and the lives of his crack team of experts meaning and purpose. This is true for so many of us who have chosen to pray at the altar of St Joe Strummer, but for the holy ones who’s hands craft these instruments of worship for us laypeople the workshop must feel like a monastery and the end result a guaranteed ticket to one of Odin’s famous fondue parties.
The man who’s name is expertly inlayed on the headstock of these often blingy instruments has a familiar enough back story. He is one in a line of wood workers, his father and grandfather both fostering an obsession with only the choicest cuts of timber in basement workshops throughout his youth in one of Germany’s idyllic small towns in southern Bavaria.
As a teen, partying and listening obsessively to bands like Die Toten Hosen, his passion for playing in front of audiences quickly morphed back into a deep desire to trade plectrum for chisel and sticky carpet for sawdusted shop floor.
Several years of craft-honing culminated in him presenting an early prototype to one of his heroes, Mr Paul Reed Smith, at Musik Messe ’94 at which point Smith’s notorious honesty and the comment ‘this is good but not good enough’ opened up a transatlantic line of dialogue that impacts positively on both master craftsman’s work exponentially each year.
Huber’s MO for his instruments is as altruistic as his reasons for choosing his path in life. The mission as he sees it is to make not more but better guitars out of the most aesthetically and musically beautiful materials in the world. Upon first glance there is an obvious correlation with PRS, both builders make visually stunning instruments with an eye on innovative ergonomics and a totem chosen from the natural world. Some of Huber’s Orca and Dolphin builds are as awe-inspiring as the ocean that houses their namesakes with rich azure and ochre tones undulating through burl caps so deep and complex that only Gaia could’ve come up with them on one of her good days. The Krautster, with its tongue-in-cheek moniker and expansion on classic Les Paul styling, is the flagship of the catalogue and has landed in the hands of players like the Hosen themselves, Russian Circles, Red Fang and any number of riff warriors the world over.
Being a wood obsessive, the bodies of many of these guitars are hewn from timbers usually reserved for the ancient art of classical guitar craft. Spanish Cedar features in select Krautster and Surfmeister models and offers a startlingly light but richly resonant counterpoint to the carefully hand picked mahogany that is standard to these designs.
Velvety looking Curly Maple necks sport midnight black ebony or chocolatey East Indian Rosewood finger boards and are gently carved with a soft D shaped curvature pitching ever so slightly towards the low side of the road. This will feel a little alien at first for those used to the standard symmetry of most other makers but two trips up and down the fretboard and you’ll wonder why this effortlessness isn’t an industry standard.
Sonically, I’d defy you to find a guitar that sounds even half as unique as one of Huber’s. Most builds come loaded with pick ups designed and wound by fellow Deutschlander H. Häussel, who’s Custom P90 has to be one of the most broad spectrum variations on that much attempted theme without sacrificing any of the vintage warmth and charm that said magnets are famous for. All are imbued with enough power to burn buildings but simultaneously the right kind of delicate, subtle articulation to lull that buildings ex-residents to calm in their new digs. There is a jazziness even in the humbucked bridge that takes little effort to come down to, which makes these guitars actually ready for anything.
I know this sounds suspiciously like a puff piece that the Murdoch press would be ashamed of but I’m being as even headed as I possibly can.
Working in a guitar shop, you play a lot of sticks that promise absolute individualism yet lean a little too heavily on tradition to get their point across to the masses. Huber is different. This is a man at the helm of a team that is earnest in their quest to build better guitars.
Strip away the boorish, American antagonism of some of their contemporaries and replace it with some quintessentially European worldliness and class and you have the essence of a Krautster, Twangmeister or Blue Whale. In a market populated by heady, over-proof bourbons designed specifically to get you plastered Nik Huber and his team are a cluster of monks quietly crafting drinks to savour long into the evening.