I was thirteen in 1977 when I got my first Gibson Les Paul Custom. It was my dream guitar ever since I’d seen it in the hands of many of my favorite guitar players, like Ace Frehley and Peter Frampton. A year into it, I started having problems trying to make it sound a particular way. I took it to a local music store to ask how to go about making it sustain more, and the guy behind the counter introduced me to replacement parts. He showed me a heavy-mass stop bar tailpiece and a high-output pickup. Thus began my journey into the world of hotrodding the electric guitar. As time went on, I started adding other parts to it, and each time I put something new on it, it was like having a new guitar all over again. By the time it was all over, nothing on that guitar was stock except the wood.

In the thirty years since then, much has gone on in the guitar world. Basically, there have been two approaches in play: modifying an existing guitar, or building a guitar to meet high-performance needs. It also always came down to two kinds of guitars: Fenders and Gibsons. What Fenders lacked was the output and full-bodied tone of the Gibsons; what Gibsons lacked was the comfortable playability of the Fender neck and body.
Photo: Rendition of EVH’S famous first guitar which inspired a generation of hot-rodders

The Hot Rod Revolution: The Early Days

In 1978, the year after I got that Les Paul, a revolution erupted, and a movement started that continues today. With the release of the first Van Halen album, rock guitarists were exposed to the unthinkable: putting a Gibson-style humbucker pickup in a Stratshaped guitar. It was like two worlds colliding… the guts of a Gibson in a Fender-style body. By today’s standards, it’s not uncommon, but thirty years ago it was unheard of. My other guitar buddies and I stared at that album cover, looking at Eddie’s picture on the front, asking, “What the hell is that?”

Hot-rodding a guitar was something that was done out of necessity. You either had to modify an existing guitar to give it features it wasn’t originally intended to have—from changing the electronics to replacing bodies and necks. Or, if there wasn’t anything out there that suited your needs, you just built a guitar that featured everything you wanted, including the way it looked. Historically, the whole idea of the electric guitar was to amplify the sound of the instrument. Hotrodding it meant amplifying everything, from refashioning the electronics to giving it one hell of a graphic paint job. Taking it to the extremes is what hot-rodding is all about.

For us hot-rodders, the fifties through the sixties might be considered the dark ages of the electric guitar: the instrument was still young, and the companies at the forefront were still tinkering. Early hot-rodding was evidenced by John Lennon and George Harrison scraping the finish off of their guitars to get better tone. Gibson was coming out with things like the VariTone switch, which gave the player several preset tones. Fender developed the Slimline Telecaster in the seventies—surprisingly, it had a dual coil humbucker-style pickup in the neck position. So, it was evident that the spark had already been ignited. But it was only when a custom shop opened up in Azusa, California that some really crazy stuff was about to go down.

The Ground Zero of Hot Rod Guitar

Wayne Charvel was a guitar player in the L.A. area who started a business in guitar repair, including refinish work for Fender under contract in the mid-seventies. Some of his work included routing humbucker cavities in Strats. He started doing customizations that no one had ever done before, and also developed aftermarket parts, including hardware made of aluminum, brass and stainless steel. While doing basic guitar repair and contract work for Fender, he was also making customized guitars that eventually developed into original designs. Soon, he was building custom-made guitars to order and was the only true custom shop on the block.

It was in this shop that a kid named Eddie Van Halen would sit on the floor and tinker with guitars while Charvel did his work. Charvel would eventually offer replacement bodies and necks made by his friend, Lynn Ellsworth. Ellsworth began making Strat bodies and necks under Charvel’s tutelage, and then started Boogie Bodies Guitars, a replacement guitar parts company. Charvel sold them at the repair shop. In the late seventies, Ellsworth would partner with Ken Warmoth to create Warmoth Guitar Parts. It was also during this time that Charvel did some work with Dave Schecter, who had begun to make aftermarket guitar parts. Together, they built necks and bodies to be sold through Charvel’s mail order service. Later, Schecter would go on to form Schecter Guitar Research, and would design high-end superstrats for discerning players. Eventually, Charvel began making bodies and necks on his own, as Ellsworth and Schecter took what they had learned from him and begin their own luctrative businesses.

Wayne Charvel’s guitar repair workshop in Azusa seemed to be the birthplace of the modern hot rod guitar. Eventually, it would become Charvel Manufacturing in San Dimas, California—and would grow into the flagship of the revolution, producing some of the most influential guitar designs to appear on production models to this day. With his staff, he created some of the most original guitar body designs anyone had seen, and had them painted with everything from hot rod flames to asymmetrical stripes and highly detailed graphic artwork. To a guy like me, San Dimas is hallowed ground.

One employee of Charvel became legendary in his own right. Karl Sandoval was a luthier at the Charvel shop and later became known to local L.A. area guitarists as a radical guitar builder. He understood the needs of the working musician as well as the rockstar mentality. His clients included Eddie Van Halen and George Lynch, but Sandoval made more of a statement with his work for Randy Rhoads: the famed polka dot Flying V. Like Ellsworth and Schecter before him, Karl Sandoval had Charvel as a launching pad to elevate his stature in the hot rod community.