Ellis Hahn, founder of LEH guitars, spends their days designing and building kickass electric basses for kickass musicians.
Ellis’s approach is simple: “I design instruments that are personally exciting to me, that I think are awesome. I design instruments that sit well and feel good in your hands—instruments that I wish existed. My focus is on comfort and playability while creating something that is at once visually familiar and uniquely different.”
Ellis’s career officially began in 2002 with an apprenticeship in Chicago learning guitar repair. Ellis realized that they were more interested in designing and building instruments than repair work. In 2005, Ellis moved to NYC to work for, arguably, the best guitar shop in the city: Sadowsky Guitars. They spent thousands of hours working in all levels of the production process— fretwork, body sanding, final assembly— ultimately taking on shop manager duties in 2013. “That gave some time and experience to find out what works and why, talk to players about their needs, and then after hours: prototype a lot of different designs to see what works.”
As of this summer, LEH has a new shop space in Portland, Oregon. The move out west has opened a new chapter of creativity and prototyping for Ellis. Expanding on the success of LEH’s current offset models — new ones are in the design stage. “We’re always changing, we’re always evolving and improving. Life is an ever shifting tone quest and I’m as much on that journey as my customers.”
When you began building: 2002
What inspired you to become a luthier? I was a musician before I was a builder. But I was always most inspired when I was playing an instrument that felt magical, an instrument that was difficult to put down. After twenty years of building basses, what originally felt like magic, I now know to be a million little things coming together in the right way. It may seem counterintuitive, but what inspires me now is the removal of magic from the equation: the confluence of ergonomics, sound, and geometry in a great instrument. Magic is not coincidence or chance; magic is repeatable and attainable. That inspires me every day, on every instrument.
What kind of customer do you build for? Bass players are the best folks on the planet. I love working with people who tour all over, and I love working with people who play in their living rooms and garages. I build for customers who love to sound awesome while they play a great bass. Making that happen is the name of the game. I’ve always loved building things, but if I build basses, it means I get to work with bass players. And bass players are the best folks on the planet.
Clients of note: Oh gosh, they are all notable, and are all doing very cool things. Don't ask me to pick favorites!
One of my first clients wasRob Trulijo––musical director for Luis Fonsi. He wanted to take a new bass on tour, following the success of their single "Despacito". Rob was looking for something that would stand out in big arenas, and it was amazing to see him on stage in front of thousands of people with one of my basses. I also built a bass for Demonterious “Detoxxx” Lawrence and that build that was featured on the LEH spotlight Dickies Maker Series. Detoxxx is a great session player who’s recorded for Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest, among tons of other people.
Some of my most important clients are the ones who give me a new puzzle to solve.I’m working on a build now for a client who wants a single musicman style pickup, with no control plate on my current body style. It’s been fun prototyping and brainstorming a pickguard style that would complement that set up along with rear mounted controls. Another client asked for a magnetic backplate. I like to say every build teaches me something new, so it’s always fun working with a client who wants something a little bit different.
Favorite materials and finishes to work with? My favorite tone woods are Maple and Alder. Maple is bright and punchy. It’s usually paired with Swamp Ash, but I like to pair it with Alder. I feel like alder adds something new to the maple, when ash just enhances what’s already going on. My favorite top wood visually is any kind of Burl. It has a kind of galactic vibe (like those pictures of nebulae, if you’re into that kind of thing). It's the most difficult one I work with but I still love using it. My favorite metal is Brass but Titanium is a close 2nd.
When did you discover Nordstrand and why do you use Nordstrand in your builds? I discovered Nordstrand in the mid 2000’s, while I was working for Sadowsky Guitars in New York City. We started offering Nordstrand pickups as an off the menu option and they sounded so good. In 2018 I had an idea for a bass that I couldn’t get out of my head and I began to prototype and make decisions about how I wanted the bass to sound. The first decision I had to make was which pre-amp would back up the three band fader system I had in mind. I still remember the day that I wired the Nordstrand 3Band to boost-only through my 3 Fader prototype rig. The 3 boosted frequencies felt immediately musical and reactive, as if each frequency wasn’t just boosted: they were lifted. It sounded like I’d put the passive signal in a sonic hot air balloon. And beyond just the sonic excellence, I work with Nordstrand because of the people there. The Nordstrand crew are just incredible and I’m not only proud to get to show off the amazing things they do, but feel lucky to consider them part of my team at LEH.
L.E.H. Guitars is fond of our NP5 and Big Split 5 pickups as well as our Fat Stacks and preamps. Find more about Ellis and L.E.H. Guitars on their website and instagram.