James Cara
Cara Hot Rod Guitar Shop

Cara Hot Rod Guitar Shop
Wilmington, Delaware
Years Hot-rodding: 20+
Starting at: $600 for base hot rod package; $1200 for base relic (Customer provides guitar)
Typical wait time: 7–21 days on hot rod package; 30–45 days on relic
How did you get into building and modifying hot-rodded guitars?

My dad worked in a music store when I was eight years old. I just started hanging out there, and I liked the guitar atmosphere of it, but I was also into Hot Wheels and building model cars. I started working at the store, and after awhile I started putting wheels from model car kits and using them as knobs, decals and flames on the body. Through my whole life, both worlds of guitars and hot rods have always coincided.

With guitars, I never really fell in line with the ordinary stuff. I approached the guitar like the old guys did with their cars. They didn’t go out and look for parts, they went out and made the parts to accomplish the look, feel and drivability they wanted. I always approached it that way with guitars—mostly for a lack of money. I never had a guitar with a tremolo growing up, but I figured out a way to make the bridge wiggle and that was my first modification on the actual guitar setup.

What’s your building philosophy?

First off, you’ve got to figure out what the customer wants out of it and what they want to achieve out of it. They might want EMG pickups, but in your head you’ve got to know why they want these pickups. Is it because they read about them? A friend told them or a famous player uses them? That might not be the right answer. He could be this rockabilly dude who is going with his friends who use EMG pickups, and it’s totally not what he needs to achieve that sound.

Tell me about your pickup selection process and how that works for your Hot Rod shop.

First off, I collect every freakin’ pickup I can get my hands on. I’ve built a device that can test and measure pickups—like a dynamometer for cars. Imagine a guitar sitting on a bench with an arm that hits the strings at a predetermined strength, with a pick on it, and it hits it consistently every time and it has a meter on the output of it, so that you can measure any pickup. I also use a spectrum analyzer to assess what tones and frequencies are coming out of the pickup and how they react to different room settings and setups, which helps decipher what pickups have the clarity, midrange, output, low frequency and breakup point that works best for what a particular customer needs for their tone.

I rate all the pickups and then I record all this information so I can remember what pickups did what when a particular project calls for it. I also have a vacuum chamber and hot wax dip, so I can dip the pickups into the wax and then put them in the vacuum chamber so there isn’t any internal feedback.

Do you construct your own bodies or do you use others as a template for customers?

It’s going back to the hot rod car scene. For instance, you’d walk through an old junkyard with all these mangled cars and you’d say to a buddy, “That’d be awesome if you could fix it up.” So I just apply that same principle to guitars. Any guitar could be a good guitar, if you just put the time and effort into it. We have tons of bodies up on the wall and people can just come in and look around and find a body style to start with, but if they want a custom shape or body, I have a CNC machine I can use through the CAD program and cut it out. While people may want a crazy shape or design, what’s more important to them is the paint, tone and playability.

What’s the process at your shop like?

Since I have years of experience on design and computer graphics, after they decide on a body style and wood choice, I do computer mockups of their guitar with graphics, paint schemes and fully erected on the computer and email them the different designs. It’s totally like Orange County Choppers, where they see everything laid out and completed before it even begins the actual building process. I think that’s the most important thing that we do—they build the guitars with us.

Why should people come to Cara’s Hot Rod Guitars?

Because it’s not one of our guitars, it’s their guitar. They are so involved in building these guitars, and it’s exactly the way they want the tone, look, feel… the whole PT Barnum package. The guitar is all about them. They’re not buying a PRS or Les Paul that’s a different color, they’re buying their own guitar and I’m just making it for them. It’ll be what they wanted or they won’t pay me for it. It’s as simple as that.

Hit page 3 for the second of our 5 Hot Rodders...