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While companies run amok selling $4000 dollar mass produced versions of their signature guitars – FNH guitars has been quietly perfecting custom hand-made electrics in the Northeastern USA at a price-point normally associated with Asian imports. I recently caught up with Chris Fitzpatrick and John Harper (the F and H in FNH guitars) and found out more about the concept behind both FNH and their instruments.




How did FNH guitars get started?

John: FnH arose out of a musical partnership between Fitz and myself. We had been playing music together in a variety of settings and developing a friendship with a deep focus on what makes good tone. As an attendee of the Apprentice Shop in Spring Hill, TN, I had been repairing, designing, and building all sorts of guitars and stringed instruments for about 20 years. As a player, Fitz had been taking apart and rebuilding all his gear in a quest to make his guitars more user friendly and reliable. Essentially, he was just trying to make his guitars sound really good. One day in 2002 I built Fitz a guitar based on a model I had been tinkering with. This would become the basis for our Ultrasonic model. Fitz was taken with the overall design but felt there should be some significant alterations.


The Ultrasonic, seems to come from a certain 60's guitar aesthetic with a contemporary update – what were you going for in the design?

John: The Ultrasonic is much more Fender-esque than our other models. It is a very comfortable, deeply contoured solid body with a bolt-on configuration.

Fitz: We tried to come up with a design that was...different. I wanted something that I could call my own. The first time that John handed his first shot at what would later become the Ultrasonic, I dug it. When I played it out for the first time, It turned a lot of heads and I knew then that we might be on to something neat.

John: We decided to combine our efforts, redesign the instrument, and try our hand at producing 5 of them. That was a hugely different task! Building one guitar is very different than building many of exactly the same proportions. Once we saw our models all completed and together, we felt we truly had something and we decided to go for it. This was around 2005 or so. After we finalized the jigs for the Ultrasonic we turned our attentions to other cool designs and started to branch out a little.



Like your bass which seems to utilize some elements of the Ultrasonic.

Fitz: A friend wanted a bass and in a need to come up with a design, we came up with one in a week by building off of the Ultrasonic platform and then tweaking from there. We stopped tweaking when we thought that the aesthetic was there. That's it...and that's design 101 to 401....tweak until your inner designer says 'Yup, that's it'.



What guitars are currently in production?

John: We’re currently producing Ultrasonics, Beaumonts and our electric mandolin, the Mandolectro.


What design factors went into the Beaumont?

John: The Beaumont came out of a desire to perfect my glued neck techniques. It’s a semi-hollow, glued neck design. I've always liked certain Gibsons and Gretsches and I felt I could add my own fingerprint to the style. The semi-hollow style is unique in how we chamber the body. The body size is also unique - a little rounder than a Gibson. The use of a Bigsby was just fun - we can easily retro fit or build with a stop tail bridge. I happen to think that on hollow body guitars, wrap-around bridges with fewer parts are ideal for tone transfer. The Bigsby saps some string energy but it adds its own accent to the tone. Again, high quality pickups and good tone wood is the key here, as the electronics are very straight forward. We want to have fewer wires between the musician and the amplifier.



I see a theme developing here; the Mandolectro is semi-hollow as well isn’t it?

The Mandolectro is just cool! It, too, is semi-hollow and roughly follows a classic "Neptune" building style. The idea is to mate a traditional configuration (8 strings rather than 4 or 5 in modern electric mandos) with cool electronics. The lipstick tube pickup really is killer! You can sound very traditional or, through a stomp box or overdriven amp, go to completely new sonic territories.

Fitz: I concur, the electric mando through an overdrive is killer!



An Electric mandolin doesn’t seem like a traditional addition to an instrument line, how did the Mandolectro come about?

Fitz: Ooh, that's Harper again...

John: There was a store on West 48th St. in NYC called simply "We Buy Guitars". It was an absolute candy store for a teenager wondering about guitars. They always had Danelectos hanging in the window and back then they were about the only "real" guitar I could consider buying because they were so cheap. I always thought they were really cool. Years later, while I was working in a music store in Cambridge, MA, I paid a lot of attention to mandolins and banjos and the idea just progressed from there. I mean, really, how cool is an electric mandolin modeled after Jimmy Page's Dano?


The music store brings up an interesting point to me - you both have been involved in guitar repair / modification for a number of years – what affect does that have on your designs?

Fitz: For me, after years of ripping these things apart to find out what makes them sound better and work longer, I found things that I felt were key to that target, and what I liked in a guitar...and John and I talk about this a lot and we happen to agree on most points. It's not rocket science: good wood, tight neck to body joints, good quality mechanical components, pickups, etc...

John: Our repair experience infuses just about everything we do. At this point, I probably have taken apart just about every style of guitar made. In some cases I have even put them back together again (ha!). I have seen many ways to put together a guitar. Some really well thought out and some totally questionable!  Taking apart another person's work gives one a true perspective of how to build an instrument that will leave the confines of one's life to be used and abused by other users. The idea is to be smart and simple - to make the platform one that will always produce good music, whatever that may mean! However, building and repairing are very different experiences. In building, one has total control. In repairing, one must carefully follow paths laid out by others before.


How did previous instruments that you built factor into current FNH Designs?

John: I find the more I build the more ideas I get. It can become really problematic! I tend to get an idea stuck in my head and can't get it out until I actually build it. Some ideas have been rattling around literally for years before they see the light of day. FnH has enabled me to get these ideas into reality. I am happy that I have many more ideas. Fitz and I are always thinking of guitars, but Fitz tends to be a grounding factor in the design process as he is very adept at vetting out what works and what is truly "iffy". A big bottle neck is not making a guitar but making a guitar that can be replicated over again... that is a skill in itself.


It’s nice when the decision process only involves approval from two people - who does what at FNH guitars?

John: Both of us do just about everything - design, build, set-up, and repair. The thing that Fitz has really taken a shine to is finishing - which is great because it is my least favorite task. It seems to fit Fitz' meticulous nature, though, and he has really upped his game in terms of colors and styles he is putting out there. I like to joke that I am the Vice President in charge of shapes and forms and Fitz is Vice President in charge of tones and colors.

Fitz: John tortures me, I torture him. After that, my take on it is that John does a lot of the guitar design and we work together to tweak those designs. As far as process, we both do a lot of the basic woodworking, fretting, assembly. etc. Then, I take it to the finishing booth and take care of that. Once we're past this, John’s really in charge and deals with final set up and tweaking. I do it, but he is the guy that knows the ins and outs. When I have a head scratcher, he knows how to resolve it.


Both of you are accomplished musicians as well. How does your and Fitz's playing style affect your design? 

Fitz: One thing that I notice right away when I pick up a guitar- acoustic or electric, is it's resonant tone- it has a good one or doesn't. I first noticed and developed my ear on this point via acoustic playing. It's easy, really: you strum the guitar and it sounds good or doesn't to your ears.

John: In a really good acoustic guitar, you know instantaneously that it is good instrument and what it has to give you. I think truly it is the simplest ideal instrument with little between the musician and the music. The best acoustics always have a "reserve" waiting for you as you progress with your style or music. Now, I think that acoustic guitars and electric guitars are totally different animals... not better or worse, but different. An electric guitar can be a real hairy beast or it can be an intuitive extension of one's music. The soul of the guitar, however, really is in the immediate response back to the player. 

Fitz: An electric has a different tone acoustically, but a qualitative judgment can be made. I’m REALLY picky about that. What is considered 'good' here is subjective, but at this point, I know it when I hear it and I trust my judgment at this point.

John: The tone of the instrument should be able to shine through without any electronics. We try to capture that in the wood and construction of our instruments and have been consistently hitting that mark because we know right away in the building process if a guitar has it or not. If it has it, we are set. If it doesn't, it takes attention and listening to find out what the guitar needs. Many times the guitar will tell you... sometimes it is as simple as a set up change. In other cases, it might be something surprising like fitting a different neck. When it suddenly comes together, you know it! All of this is important before engaging the pickups. 

Fitz: In the end, what is translated sonically into an amp is the same sound when the guitar is played unplugged.

John: Really good pickups don't hide the character of the guitar. They might add to the character but they should never hide it.

Fitz: On my end, I play with pretty stiff strings and need a guitar that can take a lot of stress. I am NOT a delicate player. Well, I have my moments. I like as clean a tone as possible, what that means for me is transparency.

John: Additionally, we’re looking for a guitar that is comfortable to play, can always deliver "more" when you need it, and is amenable to customized changes. In that respect, our playing styles are infused in every instrument.


What effect does wood have on build decisions?

John: We like to use really good tone woods for different purposes. Traditional alder for the bolt-on guitars is certainly good but we have stumbled across some really good American Poplar that is superior in tone and in machinability. We also really like good American mahogany - who doesn't? We have had difficulty finding real swamp ash but when we get it - it's proven really great. The mahogany we have found takes most pickup beautifully but we stick to tradition - soapbars and humbuckers. The poplar and ash really lets the tele pickups spank and sing. The recipes generally follow this progression: body wood first, neck fingerboard second, then pickup configuration.


Do you have pickup recommendations based on playing style?

Fitz: I can't really answer that - it’s way too subjective - Everyone is different. you could get great surf sounds w/tele style pups!

John: We can put just about any pickups on it but we've found that the best combination on the Ultrasonic is a tele-style bridge pickup mated with a soapbar in the neck position. We like to use really high quality pickups and that makes a serious difference in tone.

Fitz: If all else fails, go with p90s - no matter WHAT you play, you'll sound killer...

John: The bodies are configured to take just about any pickup combination and the wiring is very straight forward, lending itself to custom modification.


Let’s talk about that for a moment because a really interesting element to FnH is that while you have a focus on a few general instrument designs – your main focus is on customization. I’m guessing a lot of this is the result of instrument needs that you have as players – that don’t come with mass produced instruments.

John: The whole ethos is really about a player discovering their tone through their own individualized customization. Having said that, we also try very hard to have input from the user if we are building a custom guitar. Usually this includes input on such things as neck thickness, fret wire size, and pickups.


If people have never ordered a custom instrument (or a customized one) what kind of questions should they be asking?

John: Well, people should be aware of the style and tones they may want. Ideally, they should have a basic knowledge of the different types of tone woods out there and their specific characteristics. They should also have a basic sense of the types of electronics they want. I like to shy aware from really outrageous electronics as I feel that less is more in terms of good guitar tone. We can really help a player out to figure what they might want to hear or emulate with their guitar. The hard part is to have people understand that no matter how great, one guitar can't really "do it all" and that is an important aspect to understand. Each style of guitar has a specific characteristic and that can affect one's playing and musical style. The good side of this is that it tends to drive the desire for many different guitars!

Fitz: First: What kind of finish are you using on your guitars? Nitrocellulose lacquer is the best for sound. It breathes and lets the sound of the wood come through. Does that mean that a guitar dipped with a poly undercoat or all polyester won't sound good? No. But the odds are far better that it will sound good if it is all nitro lacquer on the body. What kind of electronics and hardware do you use? Is the nut bone or plastic? (Bone is far better- nuts made out of graphite based materials for trems are great). What kind of wood is the guitar? Do you check for resonance of the wood before using it? What brand of pickups do you use? Are you outsourcing any materials or parts? If so, from where?


With a focus on custom instruments - what is the strangest thing you've been asked to build? 

John: A double neck guitar with one six string fretted neck and a whammy bar and a fretless six string neck with sustainer circuit. That was a challenge - but ballsy fun... you should see the electronics!! It’s like mission control!

Fitz: An electric ukulele. But it came out awesome!#

John: I had never seen an electric ukulele and didn’t know if it would work. Turns out that it was really cool! It looks suspiciously similar to a mid-60s J-45!


One thing that I think is really speaks to the fact that these guitars are made by players for players is the price point. It‘s remarkable is how wallet friendly your guitars are. The Ultrasonic starts at $1299 US which is inconceivable to me for a handmade guitar in the US.

John: There’s a huge amount of dreck being produced by big "names" in the industry… and the inflated prices they are demanding. Really, who is paying this? Our goal is to make high quality tools for working musicians - not expensive pieces of eye-candy that will be hung on a stand as an icon to one's "grooviness"...

Fitz: Our guitars are still handmade. We are essentially a very small custom shop. We build at our pleasure. We've tried to incorporate production techniques to speed up the process, and we continually try to improve it, but it is still us, from start to finish that saw, carve, wire, apply finish and set up these instruments. Our goal has always been to provide an instrument that is the best that we can produce, and we still do that. It's hard to finish them and see them out the door when they go, and we always worry whether we've done our best. In the end, I can honestly say that we did. They don't go into the case until we're satisfied that they are as perfect as they can be.


So at a starting point since every instrument is hand-made (instead of simply hand assembled) every instrument starts as a unique custom instrument before the customer asks for any additional customization.

Fitz: Hand built means that even with the same model, they're all different; but they all look, sound and play the way that we think they should.


What are the production challenges in being an upstart guitar company?

Fitz: Too many to list. We're a small company in a really tough economy. Many have failed. Money is tight, keeping quality up when the manufacturers are outsourcing everything is a challenge; continually refining and learning better production techniques is a constant challenge.

John: We are constantly tweaking and coming up with ideas, but we’re back loaded in production trying to build things we would want musicians to use on a daily basis!

Fitz: We're two guys that build guitars in an extremely small shop. Space is an issue. I could go on. It doesn't matter, we like doing it and will keep doing it. I should say that we're in a (geographic) area that has a lot of small guitar companies and several of them have been really key in helping us. Dean Campbell at Campbell American Guitars has been really, really helpful. I can ask him questions or ask for help and he's there. Just a great resource. He and Charlie (Lavallee) have been godsends on many occasions, and Charlie is just...amazing. One of the best guitar men I've met - it's really discouraging how good he is (LOL). Otto D'Ambrosio is another one that is in the area and man, what a builder. Stunning instruments.


Now for some dirt – What industry trends drive you nuts?

Fitz: Why is there a fascination with relicing guitars? I don't know. Why are people spending thousands of extra dollars to ruin perfectly good guitars? I mean, to each their own but this trend has reached the point of absurdity, in my opinion. Learn to PLAY the guitar. Do players actually think that this gives them extra credibility of some sort as a player? The second you hit the strings and a sound comes out of your amp, people will KNOW whether you're good, bad or extraordinary. They won't be looking at your worn guitar at that point; they'll be looking for the exits or where and when your next gig is happening. Natural wear and tear is one thing... to purposely do it...and pay more for the privilege? No thanks. I'd rather spend it on better tuners, pickups and wood.


On a more serious note, what other industry concerns do you have?

John: We’re really concerned about the scarcity of good tone wood in the world.  Conservation is truly important. We've got to find some way to keep these species around and thriving for the future.


What's new for FNH in 2011?

John: We are working on a few new models and ideas. One exciting new model is called the Sixty-Six - kind of a pun on the year if inspiration (Think Bakersfield, CA in 1966!) and the number of strings. It, too, is a semi-hollow body (sensing a theme here?) with a proprietary neck set that I won't divulge here. It is a double cutaway model that affords access all the way to the 22 fret. It also relies on high quality pickups and simple electronics. It does not afford the level of customization that the Ultrasonic does, however. It also comes as a twelve-string (sixty-six, get it?).

Another direction we are pursuing is lap steels. We are in the final phase of the new Metro model, named after friend and super talented musician, Sue Metro.


If people want to order a guitar right now - what do you have in stock?

Fitz: We have a couple of nice ones right now. A surf green Ultrasonic w/3 lollar P90s, a candy apple red Ultra w/ a mini-humbucker in the neck position and a lollar 'special' T pickup in the bridge. A Gold Ultra w/ a firebird in the neck and an OC Duff Tele special in the bridge - it's a factory 2nd, but it screams.

John:  We also have mandolectros in stock. A Beaumont would take about 1.5 months to turn around. We are planning to roll out the Sixty-Six this summer and will probably have 2 or 3 available then.


Thanks guys. 


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