The Return of the Hot Rod Guitar
As the modern custom shop comes full circle with its hot rod
beginnings, we take a look at the movement’s early years.
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To Mod, or Not to Mod?
The general components needed to hot-rod a guitar were focused on increasing the performance capability of the electric guitar—as I had done to my Les Paul, increasing sustain by changing the tailpiece and the bridge pickup. It was finding a way to improve my guitar to meet the standards of the playing trends before finally buying a new guitar that met those standards more completely. But there were those who didn’t want a new guitar. If there was a will, there was a way. These discerning players chose the modifying route. Replacement parts saw a boom in sales during this time period. It began with the pickup.
The pickup I put in my Les Paul was a Gibson Dirty Fingers humbucker. It was a gnarly pickup that put a lot of sizzle into my tone. The salesman who showed me my options put a wide variety in front of me. DiMarzios filled the display case, along with a bunch of other replacement parts. DiMarzio was one of the first companies to offer such a wide variety of replacement parts—that also included necks, bodies and hardware. But their main product was their headspinning array of pickups. Seymour Duncan would later arrive on the scene as major competition, making even more tonal options available.
As the years went by, a huge assortment of other parts companies appeared, making it possible for any guitarist to hot-rod to their heart’s delight. There were electronic gadgets available to make your guitar scream, provide endless amounts of sustain, and even shoot out lasers.
Of the more outstanding parts companies was Warmoth from Puyallup, Washington. As mentioned earlier, it was a company born out of the Charvel legacy. Lynn Ellsworth and Ken Warmoth put together a company that made a whole host of Strat-compatible necks and bodies using premium and exotic woods. They did everything in-house and built a large enough market for guitarists to begin doing their own customization on a massive scale. Other similar companies, like Mighty Mite, Chandler and Zolla, were very good and affordable, too. All of them gave guitarists the ability to hot-rod guitars at home or have their local guitar repair guy slap something together for them.
In 1987, I decided to take a stab at building a guitar. How hard could it be? I had a Charvel and a Kramer, but at that point I wanted to see if I could make one just as good or better than what I had. I ordered a Warmoth neck and body; I collected other hardware—from screws to bolts and wiring; and got a humbucking Seymour Duncan pickup to make this dang thing. Once I had gotten a Floyd Rose tremolo, I went at it, using the Charvel and the Kramer as my cheat sheet. From building this guitar, I began to develop a true understanding of how a guitar works… everything from a pickup’s peak resonance to the sustain factor of wood combinations, to the correct balance point of a Floyd Rose.
During this time, guitarists could be seen with augmentations to classic guitars. There were Les Pauls with locking tremolos on them. There were Strats with one or two humbuckers in them. There were the true hot rods, like Kramer and Jackson. Newer competition from companies like ESP and Fernandes appeared, having been influenced by the hot rod movement. Ibanez got a rebirth at this time, developing their now famous RG series.
What Goes around Comes Around
As with everything in life, all good things come to an end. With the demise of the hard rock scene, guitarists reverted back to rock music’s more humble beginnings, citing simplicity as key. Along with this revival, the guitar world reverted back to the Gibsons and Fenders that were the tools of our forefathers. The nineties ushered in the vintage market, and the hot rod revolution was over. While Jackson guitars continued, Kramer went bankrupt and closed up shop.
It seemed like kids who grew up in the eighties and were now of age had gone into their dad’s closet to see what made their dads hip. What they found was dad’s old Crosby, Stills & Nash records, along with dad’s old Les Paul and Fender Super Reverb. Coming into their own, that generation took its inheritance and started their own bands, following dad’s lead. Suddenly, what was old was new again. Gibson and Fender seemed to undergo a much-needed revival, bringing back the regal stature of electric guitar. I embraced it for a while myself, but I missed the high-octane, six-string flamethrower I had wielded in the previous decade.
At the turn of the millennium, things became a bit complacent, and music trends changed again. The nineties had given us a lot of dark, brooding images, and guitar playing had gone off the beaten path toward odd tunings and other techniques that weren’t as challenging as they once had been. However, in 2002 Ozzy Osbourne fell victim to reality television, and metal was being exposed to an entirely new generation. The kids who grew up in the nineties were maturing—just as in the previous decade, they went through dad’s closet to find out what made him hip. When they found Judas Priest records, they discovered some fierce guitar playing. And they found dad’s Charvels, Jacksons, Kramers, ESP’s and Ibanez guitars, along with his Marshall amp. They took up those guitars and started learning Van Halen riffs.
The return of the hot rod guitar has come, and we’re seeing a much needed shot in the arm. Newer, technically advanced players are again being provided with the appropriate tools, along with the enhancements of much more sophisticated technology. Things are more precise, and guitar makers are introducing products that may take us beyond what we already knew about guitar construction. We have computer-driven machinery that makes things more accurate, but the old-school minds are still at work. Things have come full circle, but guitar design innovations continue evolving to fit the high performance needs of accomplished guitarists around the world. Of course, no new revolution will ever recapture the humble beginnings of that shop in Azusa.