With the RatRod Roadster Custom, Baudier Guitars has successfully synthesized the design aesthetic of the rat-rod subculture and electric guitar design in an instrument that plays and sounds great.
It’s not uncommon for a guitarist to hot-rod a guitar or amplifier—that is, modify it for enhanced performance like a race car builder might. Baudier, however takes the hot-rodding concept in a slightly different and more literal direction, offering souped-up guitars that also borrow cosmetic cues from hot-rodding culture. Talk to Tony Baudier, the brains behind the company, for a minute and you’ll understand why. “I love cars,” he says. “I was a professional drag racer and I couldn’t think of a better idea than to make guitars like hot-rods—cool-looking and high-performance. That’s been the concept of Baudier from the start, cars and guitars.”
Baudier Guitars got started in the mid-2000s when Baudier and his son began playing and collecting cheap guitars. Baudier also has a background as a visual artist, so he couldn’t help but customize these axes—often with spectacular paint jobs. Baudier grew tired of working with more familiar and derivative designs, however, and made some sketches of original guitar ideas to show his musician friends. Bolstered by their positive responses, Baudier brought the drawings to life. “I wanted to do something original,” he says, “that also happened to be the best playing and greatest sounding guitar I could build for a customer.”
At his Harahan, Louisiana, workshop, Baudier and two assistants make a range of models, including the RatRod Roadster Custom they sent us for review. We first saw this wild-looking solidbody electric (which you might recognize from the Premier Guitar April 2013 cover) at last winter’s NAMM show, and were psyched to bond with it in a much calmer environment.
Rat Rod Style
The RatRod Roadster is inspired by that bare-bones, no-frills mixture of custom and hot-rod car culture—the rat rod. Resourcefully built from unfinished body panels and parts on hand and meant to be driven and raced rather than shown, rat rods are the custom car world’s ultimate embodiment of function over form.
Outwardly, Baudier’s Roadster shares a lot of those attributes with the cars that gave it its name. The body is finished (for lack of a better term) with a mixture of colored paints and iron powder, and the metal parts are intentionally distressed and rusted. The resulting patina effect is beautiful and complex, a sea of turquoises, browns, blues, and foams that look like the hood of a ’52 Dodge that’s spent decades languishing in a high desert scrap lot. The metal control plate, also hand-painted, is designed to look like a shard of a gasoline can, and the toggle switch, held in place by two metal bars, looks a lot like one of those floor-mounted gear shifters from a car so bare-bones you can see through the floorboards to the road.
The Roadster might look like it was built from junkyard scraps, but it’s crafted from rather conventional and very nice tonewoods. The offset body on our test version—which looks a little like a mash up of non-reverse Firebird, Jazzmaster, and Old Kraftsman shapes—is crafted from mahogany, though it’s also available in alder. The neck and fretboard are both made from handsome examples of maple, and there’s a pronounced curl on the neck and a subtle quilt on the fretboard, suggesting that Baudier has a good eye for guitar lumber.
Baudier outfitted the Roadster with twin humbucking pickups, which are made in conjunction with Brian Porter of Porter Pickups and mounted directly into the guitar rather than on plastic rings. But if the pickup array is Gibson influenced, the rest of the guitar is built like a classic Fender, with a bolt-on neck and a 25.5" scale length.
Elsewhere on the guitar, Baudier embraced a few less traditional design elements, including a triple truss rod. This system uses carbon fiber rods that are intended to add not only stability, but also richness to the guitar’s tone. In the newest models, the truss rod is adjustable via a spoked wheel at the neck pickup.
Though aging makes it less apparent at first glance, the Roadster sports premium hardware. ABM makes the hardtail bridge, the nut is by Graph Tech, and the tuners are Gotoh’s Delta Series 510s with a 1:18 gear ratio. Pots are by Mojo, and everything is connected with cloth-covered wire. Other hardware, though, stays true to the rat-rod theme, and the strap hooks, the mismatched tone and volume controls, and the toggle-switch cap are fashioned from hardware store and parts bin finds.
For all the left-to-die-in-the-desert weathering, the Roadster is very well built. The 22 nickel-silver frets are meticulously seated and polished, and the nut is cleanly shaped and slotted. The neck-to-body junction feels very solid, though it looks like the neck pocket could have been shaped just a little more tidily. The satin finish on the neck is smooth and inviting, and the distressing adds a cool visual effect without any roughness to the touch.
Four Ways to Rev It Up
When I removed our Roadster from its custom C&G hardshell case (the same company that makes cases for the Fender Custom Shop and other high-end clients), I noticed that it’s moderately hefty at about eight pounds. But basically it’s a comfortable guitar and I enjoyed its acoustic liveliness and smooth playability. The C-shaped neck is inviting whether you’re forming chords or flying around the fretboard in lead mode. However, I did experience some fretting-out during extra-deep bends past the 12th fret, though a little extra neck relief or a slightly higher bridge setting would likely alleviate the problem.
Rather than a 3-way switch, which would allow using the pickups individually or simultaneously, the Roadster has a 4-way switch, which lets you use each pickup with both coils engaged or with coils tapped. It also has a kill switch that mutes the pickups with the press of a finger—helpful for adding a staccato tremolo effect after a chord is strummed.
The Roadster impresses from the moment you plug in. And indeed, like a hot-rod it has an assertive voice. Both the front and rear pickups pair nicely with distortion for searing lead tones and punchy rhythms. The bridge pickup positively growls without being strident and the neck pickup is classically warm and round. While I definitely missed the ability to use the two humbuckers together, it’s easy to appreciate the glassy single-coil tones afforded by the Roadster’s coil-tapping capabilities. In tapped mode, the bridge pickup becomes an express ticket to hot country-style soloing, while the neck pickup is transformed into a vehicle for Memphis-flavored R&B chordal accompaniment. Even in these pretty familiar and traditional musical settings, the kill switch was great fun to use for rhythmic accents.
With the RatRod Roadster Custom, Baudier has successfully synthesized the design aesthetic of the rat-rod subculture and electric guitar design in an instrument that plays and sounds great—all while looking quite unlike any other on the market. Some players will no doubt be put off by the guitar’s rough-and-tumble folk art guise. But more adventurous players will relish both the individual look and the wide array of sounds and textures that you can summon from the coil-tapped humbuckers and kill switch. The inability to use the two humbuckers together will be a bummer for those who love the fat-and-jangly tones they get from the middle switch position on their SG or Les Paul, but that drawback aside, this feels like a players instrument. And like those rat rods roaring across the blacktop, this guitar isn’t for babying or locking up in a glass case, but built to run hard while generating tough and sweet tones in a multitude of rock ’n’ roll settings.