Custom Shop: L.e.H. Guitars
“I have a joke slogan: ‘Not for the faint of heart.’”
Meet L. Ellis Hahn, creator of L.e.H. Guitars. Ellis has taken the familiar offset body design to whole new heights. At first glance, the details that make these basses special might go unnoticed, but make no mistake, these are very well-thought-out instruments.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Ellis was living in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. She was working at a repair shop that focused mainly on acoustic instruments: violins, upright basses, etc. Having a good working knowledge of electronics (a childhood hobby) made her a valuable addition to the shop. During this time, Ellis completed one of her first instruments, a Strat copy built from scratch almost entirely in her kitchen. Craving more building experience, Ellis soon decided it was time to make a change.
“I just decided I’m moving to New York City. So, I just looked for … the shop that’s going to propel me to where I’d like to be, and it was hands down Sadowsky. Sadowsky was, like, the top world-class shop, and I wasn’t sure I would even get the job. I just wandered in with my little portfolio … and it turned out there was opening. It was very fortuitous.”
This was 2005, and Ellis was put to work straightaway doing fretwork and sanding bodies. She craved more hands-on experience building and quickly graduated to Head Builder. For the last six years, she has held the title of Shop Manager, no small accomplishment! I asked Ellis if her experience has given her any wisdom to pass on to aspiring builders. “You can’t ever think it’s easy,” says Ellis. I respond, “The more you know,” and she chimes in, “the harder it is [laughs].” “It’s not something you can learn quickly. It’s a super-long game.” Yet Ellis managed to come out on top at Sadowsky in just a few years. Clearly, she has a knack for this.
I asked Ellis how working at Sadowsky has shaped her as a builder and influenced L.e.H. Guitars. She explains that working at Sadowsky showed her “the right way to do everything.”
“I’m not saying what I was doing before here was garbage, but it wasn’t to that Sadowsky level. I remember just learning how to do the fret cornering in this particular way, and I was thinking, “Okay, this is serious [laughs].” So, like the small fish in a large pond, I had to grow.”
Ellis’s duties at Sadowsky also include training new hires. “Sometimes I almost feel like I’m learning more by teaching,” she explains. “It takes a while to actually see something, like showing people what end-grain is about.” She sends trainees to the tool room with a task and tells them, “Come out when you think you’re done, and I’ll show you what’s wrong [laughs].”
So what’s next once you are Shop Manager for a very well-respected bass brand? You start building your own brand, of course! “A couple of years ago I realized that I needed to just do it, and just go for it,” says Ellis. Thus was born L.e.H. Guitars.
I asked what influenced the Offset 4 and 5, L.e.H.’s current offerings. “I think I’m most inspired by ergonomics, and getting to a certain spot with the least in the way.” She explains how she continually tweaked the body shape and used “selective weight-relief” to ensure that the basses balance perfectly, seated or standing. Her experience with countless Sadowsky basses has given her a firm knowledge of how different combinations of wood and electronics affect an instrument’s tone.
“I think at the last count I’m about 1000 Sadowsky’s in, as far as building. So I’ve heard a lot of different combos, and the “P / Soap” has always been my all-time fave. A P pickup by itself, yeah I love it, but it doesn’t do everything. Sometimes a J pickup doesn’t stand up to the P or doesn’t get heard, essentially. It’s overshadowed a lot by the P, and then it’s like, “What’s the point?” The soap-bar, it’s just got that bigger sound. [The P and soap-bar] are like siblings. They work really well together; it’s like simpatico.”
Ellis also equips L.e.H. instruments with a Nordstrand active pre-amp, either 2 or 3-band. A unique aspect of the Offset is its clever use of sliders to control the EQ of the active pre-amp. Not one to take shortcuts, Ellis explains how she found the proper parts. “That was actually, probably one of the trickier parts. I honestly bought almost every fader Mouser has. I have so many faders underneath my bench right now that I don’t know what to do with [laughs].” Explaining why she prefers active circuitry to passive she says, “Even flat, the impedance just makes everything sound great. I didn’t realize it until I was in a recording studio and it was like night and day, versus a—supposedly—really amazing vintage Fender. Even the pre-amp at zero just makes things sound so much clearer.”
You don’t get to be the head of the Sadowsky shop and find time to start your own company without a little discipline. I asked Ellis what keeps her motivated.
“Every time I do something, I try to do it better. Have you ever read, The Toyota Way? When I first took over as shop manager, it’s the book I was obsessed with. It’s the production manual for Toyota, it’s amazing. One of the things they say throughout the book is, ‘continuous improvement,’ and I was like, ‘That’s really cool.’ Then I was like, ‘I should get a poster for the shop,” and the first poster I saw said, ‘Continuous Improvement is Endless.’ So I often am thinking [sighs], ‘Continuous improvement is endless… Noooo, when will I be done?! [laughs].'”
Ellis has a unique advantage as a builder. Not only does she have experience helping to run a successful large-scale operation at Sadowsky, but she also gets to explore the perks of being a small builder who can tailor instruments to individuals. “We have a lot of different clients who come in, and they all have their own kind of vibe,” Ellis explains. “Like, a guy who starts on upright is going to have a way different left hand. Both hands, actually. I feel like you have to be able to feel the instrument the way that a player does, to be able to speak the same language.”
L.e.H. Guitars initially only offered 5-string basses, but Ellis unveiled the Offset 4 at the 2019 Winter NAMM Show. She hints that there may be another big announcement ready by next winter. Perhaps at the 2020 Winter NAMM Show? If you are looking for a handmade instrument with looks that will turn heads and tone to spread, look no further than L.e.H. Guitars, but remember: these basses are “Not for the faint of heart.”
- Name: L. Ellis Hahn
- Current Location: Brooklyn
- Years building: Since 2002
- Favorite Wood: Alder
- Favorite Tool in the Shop: Jointer, Router Table
- Favorite Bassist: Tina Weymouth
- If I wasn’t building basses I’d be: Screenwriting/Filmmaking
From his first time picking up a bass 16 years ago, to starting his own bass company, Serek Basses, in 2015, Jake Serek has been on a mission. Touring with bands such as Smashing Pumpkins, KISS, and Slash gave him a taste of the professional life. His experiences working at Lakland and Third Coast guitar repair sharpened his skills.