In August 1998, with the help of an associate, I visited the office of Performance Guitar near the Universal Studios in California, U.S.A. It is a custom guitar shop which has been producing guitars for Warren DeMartini for a long time. I wanted to talk with the staff members of Performance Guitar and make this page because the name 'Performance' doesn't seem to be known as much as Charvel/Jackson guitars, which are famous for their flashy paint, and also because I had always wanted to know more about Warren's work behind the stage and the records. I would like to thank Mr. Kunio Sugai, General Manager, and Mr. Yasuhiro Yokote, Chief Engineer, who talked in detail about Warren's guitars and other things, even while they were busy serving their customers without a break. I referred to "YOUNG GUITAR MAGAZINE" a lot regarding questions about guitars. I personally cannot play the guitar and am not knowlegeable about it. My last but not least gratitude goes to Nao and Mark. Without their help, I would not have been able to create these pages. Thanks a lot!!
(This is a full/literal translation of the interview which was originally done in Japanese. I translated it into English in February 2000 with considerable suggestions from Jean, my English mentor, and Martin S. Weingarten, one of the most dedicated webmasters and music appreciators I've known.)
--Please summerize the history of Performance Guitar.
SUGAI:Performance Guitar started in 1979. More precisely, the company was established in 1976. In the beginning, we were taking care of marketing and repairs and modification of Fender guitars with direct orders from Fender (Mr. Sugai had been working for the R & D Section of Fender until Performance Guitar was established) and were also working jointly with guitar manufacturing companies such as Morris Gakki. In 1979, we started to accept custom orders in response to a strong demand from our clients. The first well-known artist whom we made a guitar for was Jeff Berkley, the leader of a band called AMERICA.
--Have you always been located here?
SUGAI:We were on Vine Street in Hollywood for 16 years, and 2 years ago, we moved here, near the Universal Studios.
--What are your special features and the differences from other custom guitar shops?
SUGAI:One of the most significant features is that we accept orders here at the front desk and can do most of the work at the factory in the back. Not so many custom shops work like that. All of the back of this building is the factory, and we can manufacture most of the guitars for which orders were taken in the front office. That's one of our biggest features. We have been doing this for almost 19 years. We were the pioneer of custom-made guitars.
--I will ask about Warren's guitars later. Who else have you worked with regularly?
SUGAI:First and foremost, Frank Zappa. It was through Frank that we made Warren a guitar in the beginning. We were taking care of Frank's guitars since around 1980, and Warren saw Performance guitars when he went to Frank's house.
--How did you start to work with Frank?
SUGAI:Frank Zappa had his own guitar-tech(s), but one time before he was starting a European tour, he couldn't have all of his guitars... maybe 13 in total... ready for the tour inside of his camp. We were asked to work as quickly as possible. That was his first order. Frank was a very creative person and liked to make various tones. He asked us to make special guitars whenever he went on the road. He was a very special client for us. As he was such a respected musician, his admirers also started to work with us. It was a great honor for us to have worked with Frank.
--You are also making guitars for his son, Dweezil, aren't you?
SUGAI:Yes, we are.
--Other customers are Billy Sheen and...
SUGAI:Billy Sheen, Steve Vai... Steve Vai also saw Frank's guitars when he was in Frank's band and came to us. He is using Ibanez but we are still giving him service when he has something difficult to be repaired.
--There must be a lot of musicians who use Performance guitars, though they don't mention it openly.
SUGAI:Yes, there are many. Slash is one of them. Look at the photographs on the door. We are working with many studio musicians and many first-rate musicians.
--How are Performance guitars marketed in Japan?
SUGAI:Gee Craft in Osaka is carrying our guitars in Japan. (Gee Craft closed their shop in the spring of 1999. Midori Gakki in Nagoya and Micky's Music in Osaka have been distributing Performance Guitars in Japan. ) We are looking for good music shops in the Tokyo area. (For contact address and numbers, please jump to Section 6.)
--Since when have you been working with Warren?
SUGAI:Since around June 1985. He saw our guitars at Frank's house and asked us to make one for him. He said he liked the neck of Frank's guitar very much. The pick-ups of his guitar was different from Frank's, so we made a model called Corsair as the first guitar for him.
--Did you make it as a completely new guitar?
SUGAI:There was a basic guitar, but we arranged it to meet his orders. The second guitar was a python skin-covered one. That was made in December 1985.
--How did he place orders? Was he very specific about details?
SUGAI:He was extremely busy those days, but we were awfully busy, too, so we couldn't go to his house or studio. We had to have him come to our factory. We couldn't talk in the office, because it was surrounded by a lot of his fans. We listened to his requests for about two hours at the back of the office, and finished the guitar two and a half months later. He came to pick it up. He used it for the recording and for the shows, and liked it very much.
--Does he try the guitar right away when he picks it up?
SUGAI:Well, both. He tries it here and also uses it at rehearsals and recordings. If the guitar doesn't create the tones he was thinking of, a roadie brings it here and we modify it. One time, in the early days when he was touring a lot, a guitar was sent by one-day delivery service to us and we sent it back by the same method after repairing it.
--Is he a 'difficult' customer to work with?
SUGAI:Not at all. We have a very good communication with Warren. He is one of the best musicians who listens to our ideas and takes them sincerely.
--Warren, off-stage, gives us the impression that he is free from worldliness...
SUGAI:Does he? He is just a wonderful musician for us who listens to us very seriously.
--When he was playing Charvel guitars, it must have been difficult to put Floyd Rose lock nuts on because the neck was too wide. How about now?
SUGAI:Charvel guitars had wide necks in the beginning, but since he was hoping to use a neck with a regular string interval, we have replaced necks for him.
--Now he uses regular size necks. Is that correct?
--What kind of locknuts does he use?
SUGAI:#2(which is most popular).
--His guitars didn't have front pick-ups and had only humbuckers at the rear position. A lot of L.A. Metal musicians used to use the style. However, since he started to use Performance, his guitars have front pick-ups, don't they?
SUGAI:That's right. But, for a period of time, he was only using rear pick-ups. The front and mid pick-ups were attached, but the front pick-up was not connected. After a while, he began to think it would be better if the front pick-up was working, so we re-connected it.
--When was that exactly?
SUGAI:Shortly before the recording of "DETONATOR". (After I came back to Japan, I received the following information from Performance Guitar: "After the reunion of RATT, we have upgraded some of Warren's guitars by replacing locknuts with regular type nuts made of graphite. He likes that because he can get warmer sounds. Bridges are Floyd Rose plus Big Blocks, same as the old days.)
--The black Performance which is a Corsair is the first guitar you made for him. Please talk about the specifications of the guitar such as the type of wood, pick-ups and necks.
SUGAI:The Chief Engineer (Mr. Yokote) will explain them.
YOKOTE:The body is made of Mahogany wood. The pick-ups are; Seymore Duncan JB for the bridge position, Seymore Duncan Classic for the neck position. The fingerboard is made of maple, since he likes maple.
--The guitar Warren is using as his main one...
SUGAI:You must be talking about the Hawaiian Koa guitar.
--Was the wood used upon request from Warren, or did you recommend it?
SUGAI:That was when he was looking for something different, something new with sounds, so I recommended him a good wood. Hawaiian Koa was very popular in the 70s, but it was not used so much in the 80s. As we had good Hawaiian Koa in our factory, I told him that we could make a good guitar with it. Then, we installed Big Block for the tremoro unit to make the sustainer work better. With Floyd Rose, you have a problem that the sustainer tends to work less. With Big Block, the problem is solved. Big Block was developed by Warren and us together.
--When was that?
SUGAI:From 1991 to 1992.
--The switch between front and rear on the guitar is the toggle switch looks like Les Paul. Was that a request from him?
SUGAI:Yes, it was. He said he could handle the toggle switch quicker on stage.
--If I ordered a guitar with exactly the same specifications, how much would it cost?
SUGAI:The list price in the USA is $3,500 (as of 1998). Please ask music shops in Japan about the price in Japanese Yen.
--Please talk more about Big Block which you developed with Warren.
YOKOTE:Floyd Rose is a small bridge. Generally speaking, when you replace a normal bridge with Floyd Rose, the tones become weaker. It keeps the sounds in tune very well, but you tend to be unsatisfied with the tones. So, this is the finished product of Big Block. It is made of bell metal, which is a special metal.
SUGAI:Bell metal is used to make church bells. It conducts trembles very well.
YOKOTE:You can see when you compare them; by doubling the size and the weight, it keeps tones from losing quality. The one Warren first made was completely done by hand. Then we kept improving it and now we can manufacture them as ready-made products.
SUGAI:We attached the first one to his guitar very forcibly. The prototype was genuinly hand-made.
YOKOTE:Most of Warren's Performance guitars with Floyd Rose have this Big Block.
--I cannot afford the same guitar as Warren's, but can I just buy it if I want to use at least the same bridge?
YOKOTE:Yes, you can. Everybody who uses Floyd Rose has the same discontent with the weakening of the tone. We recommend to such people to replace it and most of them are happy with the result.
--How much is the price?
YOKOTE:This costs $75 (as of 1998), however, you need a modification to attach it. Pleaes consult your music store.
--May I have it attached in Japan, too?
SUGAI:Sure. All shops with reparing skills can do it.(Note that technical fees will be added.)
--How many Performance guitars does Warren have now?
SUGAI:Let me see... We made "mini" guitars, and...
--Are they for his son?
SUGAI:We even made one for himself. (Laughs)
YOKOTE:About 10... in total, I guess.
SUGAI:He must have more than 10.
--You mentioned earlier that he likes maple necks. What else are Warren's significant preferences?
YOKOTE:For instance, on live, since he likes to distinguish between hambacking sound and single-coil sound clearly, he seldom uses mixed sound on the pick-ups. Also, he considers reliability is very important. He doesn't like guitars which require adjustment every day. He likes guitars which are stable and can be set well in advance. He uses a Gibson Les Paul, too, on which we re-did almost everything. He brought it in a dismantled condition, and we adjusted it and rebuilt it. We have been exchanging ideas a lot. He likes to try different things, such as changing pick-ups, using a pick-up cover or not, etc.
--Please talk again about the selling points of Performance Guitar as a closing comment.
SUGAI:Guitars we make are equivalent to special cars which are made exclusively to race, not cars sold to the public. The quality is so high that professional musicians can use them on stage without any changes. We have a lot of know-how from selecting materials to manufacturing processes and the final construction, such as where to put bridges, alignment, and furnishing nuts. The difference is like that between public cars and race cars. They are completely different. Since we make such guitars that professional musicians can use on stage immediately, our price is high, but please remember that it includes our service fee for professionals. We are sure that you will agree to our price.
3621 Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90068
U. S. A.
Fax: 323-883-0997 e-mail
The Atrium 1F
Chuo-ku, Osaka, 542-0085 Japan
Phone & Fax: 06-6245-1230
155 Kawanayama-Cho Showa-Ku
(C) 1998 - Lieju. All rights reserved.