Fullerton’s Justin Juknelis presents a handmade tribute guitar to Marine veteran

Long-time Fullerton resident, Justin Juknelis, was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. He left the East Coast and the Chesapeake Bay with little more than the clothes on his back, a guitar slung over his shoulder and ventured to sunny Southern California’s palm trees and beaches in 1987 to seek his fame and fortune in the music industry.

He dreamed, like so many, of becoming a rock star.

But, as John Lennon aptly put it: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” With shoulder length hair and stars in his eyes, he joined one band after another, playing gigs, recording songs – always keeping his love for music his top priority.

But Justin has never been a “one-note Johnny.” He is a Renaissance Man. So, after graduating with honors at an art college in Long Beach, he launched what today is an incredibly successful Graphic Arts/Web Design business. But, what about the music?

About 12 years ago, his wife, Jeni purchased a guitar kit as a Christmas gift for him. He transformed the parts into a work of art. Justin completed all the electronic hook ups, lovingly prepared and painted all the finish work on the wood, and he was hooked!

So, when Justin came across an online guitar building community conducting a contest to win a free guitar kit from Bad Cat instruments, he felt compelled to enter. The winner would be determined by answering a seemingly simple question: “If you win, what will you do with the guitar?”

Justin’s big brother has devoted his life to serving our country in the military, and his father served in the Army National Guard, so the answer to that question was easy for him: “Lord knows, I don’t need another one (guitar). I got to thinking how blessed I am with all the guitars I have and decided if I win this guitar, I will build a patriotic themed guitar and find a guitar playing American Veteran (active or retired) and give it to them to enjoy.” Only one small problem: Justin didn’t know anybody who fit that description.

Venancio Portalatin, at VME Guitars and Bad Cat Instruments, liked Justin’s answer and awarded him the guitar kit saying, “We chose Justin because he said he wanted to build the guitar for a deserving military veteran. As the son and son-in-law of Vietnam veterans, vets hold a special place in my heart.”

Justin and wife Jeni both play in their church’s worship team band, and as we all know, the Lord works in mysterious ways. One day, while taking a coffee break at church in between services, Justin met another guitarist on the church worship team for the first time.

“And you know what happens when you get two guitar players over a cup of coffee — they’re going to geek out over guitars,” recalled Justin. “So, as we were talking, he revealed that he was a Marine.” Ron Lubag enlisted in 1996, was deployed in Iraq and served through 2004. After hearing all that, Justin had his a-ha moment.

After innocently picking Ron’s brain as to his guitar preferences – luckily, he favors the Fender Stratocaster, which is what the kit was, Justin spent the next four months painstakingly creating the custom tribute guitar for Ron and planning the best time and place to present him with it. That came, fittingly enough, the week of Veterans Day.

First, Justin gave Ron a custom, guitar strap with the Marine Sgt. Patch emblazed on it. Justin carefully placed the strap around Ron’s shoulders, lamenting that it was too bad Ron didn’t have one of his guitars handy to break in the strap. Then, Justin asked one of the worship team leaders at the church to get a guitar case. Justin opened it and handed it to Ron and asked him to check out the back. There was Ron’s name, shining through a custom replica of the dog tags he wore in Iraq.

Ron said: “Is this for me?” And then the tears fell.

Ron was born in Manila, raised in East Tennessee and comes from a military family. He refers to enlisting as “a calling.” He said, “I had to give something back, to be a part of something bigger than me.” And when Justin handed him the guitar, he was stunned with disbelief and overwhelmed with emotion. “This was the first time anyone had ever done anything like this for me.”

So, it looks like Justin’s dream came true after all. Justin Juknelis truly is a rock star. If you or someone you know would like Justin to build a custom Tribute Guitar, contact him via email: