Sara Ray
Sara Ray Studios

Sara Ray Studios
Long Beach, California
Years hot-rodding: 20+
Starting at: varies
Typical wait time: varies
What is your definition of hot-rodding something?

A lot of the guitar heroes have hot rods and whatnot; I think it’s all part of the customized lifestyle. That’s where you want more out of everything. You can start out with what everybody’s got, and that’s fine, but some people want to add their personal touch to it. It’s all very personal—some guys will paint a ridiculously out-of-control, chopped and dropped hot rod bright pink— it’s just what they want. There’s no way to rationalize it, because it’s all personal taste. You grew up around hot rods, right? Yeah, living in California and having a family that was involved heavily in that, there were always custom cars around. I literally grew up on the beach, and that’s where you’d take your car: down to the beach. There’s a big culture of it that really began out here.

You’ve done some cool work with fellow SoCalites at Fender’s Custom Shop. How did that come about?

Someone at Fender/Gretsch came to me… I think they actually found me at one of the big car shows, because a lot of the builders love cars and motorcycles, and they’re usually there. And they asked me if I’d paint a guitar but they didn’t give me a theme. That turned into the Victory Guitar, which was a Gretsch 6120 that was going to be for the NAMM show in Tennessee. I did a WWII [theme], not really sure what they wanted from me, and it’s now on display at the 8th Air Force museum.

Did the company just send you a 6120?

When I get the guitars, it’s just the bodies usually, but sometimes I get the neck too. It all varies; every single one has been different and there’s really no standard. But I live fairly close to the custom shop, and the builders all live around me, so it’s pretty convenient. I can call them or they just come by the house—they like coming by the house anyway, because they get to see all my stuff.

I understand you do an impressive amount of research on your projects.

Some people have a limited knowledge of what they’re looking for, especially with history and artifacts, like airplanes. I make it a point to spend a lot of time around the actual things I admire like that. I’ve been on most of the airfields on the West Coast and to military museums all throughout Europe. I meet a lot of people that are involved with it, and so I have a big network of people that I can go to for information.

It’s really important for me that it’s as historically accurate as it can be for a paint job. I’m not sure what it is, but ever since I can remember, I’ve always been completely enthralled by history and wars and whatnot. I think it’s a past life kind of thing. [laughs]

You antique your guitars? What do you like about that technique?

They’re all antiqued generally. I don’t think there are a lot that haven’t been aged that much. But being surrounded by antiques, I like them better. Everything I have is older and some of the stuff I have is almost ruined, old and just falling apart, but it gives it such personality. I try to take that and reproduce it on something to give it a little bit of history, to give it a little bit more story. I don’t really buy anything new that I don’t have to; everything is old and beat up, and when you have a house filled with that, it really is a whole different kind of world.

You’re also using a matte finish on a lot of these guitars.

Yeah, pretty much. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for a gloss finish. If it’s a Masterbuilt guitar, we talk about what it should look like when it’s done, and they’ve all agreed with me on the finishes I pick. It’s all been matte or satin; there have been a couple of flats, but I don’t think I’ve done a glossy one yet.

And if I customer is interested, they should just get in touch with you?

Definitely. I tell people, “The quickest way to get something done by me is to get it started.” If you wait and you want deadlines, there’s no way to know because each project is so different and there’s really no set standard of how long it’s going to take or what I’m going to do with it. The Red Baron guitar took three whole months, and it was just an adventure in guitars. I lived and slept it for three months; it was constant reference work. I flew to London and went to the Imperial War Museum. And then some only take me like two weeks. I like to do pinups that are a little different, and I can do those fairly quickly, but it still requires two solid weeks of work. I wake up, I have my coffee and start and don’t stop until the sun comes up.