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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.

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.

Neal Shelton’s Rare Charvel/Jackson Guitars

Neal Shelton is a southern California music store owner who for almost thirty years has collected many early Charvel and Jackson guitars. Though he’s brokered hundreds of these rare guitars through his shop, he has also managed to own quite a few of the company’s true gems, including one-of-a-kind custom models, pre-production versions, and celebrity-owned Charvel/Jacksons.

His first exposure to a Charvel was in 1979, while he was shopping for gear in Hollywood at a small store called Guitar Center. Shelton says of his epiphany, “There was a wall of these awesome guitars with custom finishes, crazy colors, and graphics. My jaw dropped! The one that really caught my attention was a Star body, pink with a silver lightning bolt graphic. I really wanted it, but I was on a budget to buy a PA, a Marshall half-stack and a guitar. I had to settle for a used G&L F-100. I never did forget that day.”

With so many custom options available on Charvels and Jacksons through the years, Shelton cites the differences that set these guitars apart from the mainstream: “They had a nice wide fretboard with a slim, fast neck. These guitars were built for speed, not sluggish like a Les Paul. They were built to play and perform metal.”

Shelton played the L.A. metal scene for many years, and continues performing in Hysteria, the premier Def Leppard tribute band. His store, Neal’s Music, is located in Huntington Beach, California, where many of these gems can be seen. Of these, the true treasures are the vintage Charvel and Jackson guitars on display.

These guitars show an evolution of their own, which Shelton describes as a progression. “The Charvels had a Strat-style headstock, but due to Fender copyrights, they had to switch to the pointy headstock that most everyone now thinks of when they think of Jackson or Charvel,” remarks Shelton. Of the guitars Shelton owns, one stands out as his proudest piece. “I have a 1982 Charvel EVH black and yellow-striped that belonged to Eddie Van Halen,” he divulges. “They only made about a hundred of these guitars as a production run.” He also has the original company invoice made out to Eddie. This is the oldest Charvel guitar Shelton currently owns, although he has had many that predate this one. “I have owned many pre-production Charvels in the past, dating back to 1977,” he remarks, “before Wayne Charvel put serial numbers on the guitars, and some of them were even built using actual seventies Fender hardware.” As a broker of these rare guitars, Shelton can be considered partly responsible for having fed the hot rod fever. As he says, “I have literally had hundreds of vintage Jacksons and Charvels go through my hands. I supplied many of the collections you see on the internet today.”

Visit Neal Shelton’s 1982 EVH Charvel at:
The Hot Rod Movement Branches Out

In terms of historical importance, at this point Wayne Charvel was the central figure in the west coast hot rod guitar movement. But, another key player on this coast who would eventually do some work with Charvel was Bernie Rico of BC Rich Guitars. His company was an established guitar manufacturer, and enjoying success at the time. Based out of the Los Angeles area, Rico was designing guitars with much more radical body shapes. The names of these guitars became synonymous with the brand name: Mockingbird, Seagull, Eagle and The Bich, to name a few. Rico’s main contribution to going left-of-center was his refinement of the neck-throughbody design and the development of a heelless neck joint. To make a more affordable version of some of the BC Rich guitars, Rico also produced bolt-on models, for which he contracted Charvel to construct necks.

In 1978, Wayne Charvel decided to move on to other ventures, and sold the Charvel company to an administrative employee, Grover Jackson. A guitar player in his own right, Jackson took on the business end of the Charvel company, but also had a genuine interest in transforming it. Once he gained control of the place, he brought a major focus to the company with marketing savvy and a much-needed artist relations program. While maintaining the Charvel company name, Jackson took what Wayne Charvel had started to the masses, by providing local and national players with high performance machines. He started an endorsement program, which meant high-profile players were constantly seen with Charvel guitars.

In 1980, Jackson met with Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads to design a much more unconventional guitar. It was an offset V-shaped guitar, with one wing shorter than the other. Charvel Manufacturing was still enjoying the success of Wayne Charvel’s designs and customized Strat-like guitars. Jackson didn’t want to risk disrupting that success by putting the Charvel name on Randy’s new guitar, so he simply put his own name on the guitar’s headstock and the first Jackson was born. At an Ozzy show the following year, I saw that guitar. The ferocity of Rhoads’s playing made me notice the brand name on the guitar, a name I’d never heard of. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would later own over twenty Jackson guitars!

My first exposure to a Charvel was at a local shop in 1983, and my first impression was that it played much more easily than my Les Paul. Like Van Halen’s guitar, it was strat-shaped, had a single humbucker and a brass tremolo bridge. Even more striking were the hot rod flames painted on it. The fastness of the neck was due to the flatness of the radius, and I felt like a better guitar player simply by virtue of that.

Charvel and Jackson guitars would soon be seen with lots of players on the world scene, from Gary Moore and Iron Maiden to RATT and Jeff Beck. With such high-profile players involved, Jackson’s marketing got the word out that there was a new production standard entering the game. These were manufactured guitars derived from the customizations done on guitars at Charvel’s original shop. They included angular body shapes, highoutput pickups, various electronic switching, flat-radius necks and stunning graphic paint jobs. Not only did they make the Randy Rhoads signature model, but they also made other Vs, an Explorer-styled guitar called a Kelly and the Strat-shaped Soloist, which was the first “superstrat” to appear on the market.
Using the Rhoads model as its flagship, the neck-thrubody models were designated with the Jackson label, while the bolt-on, Strat-shaped models went under the Charvel name. Clearly, these didn’t resemble anything Gibson or Fender had produced. Eventually, the Charvel name was phased out and Jackson flourished as the standard that other companies would come to follow. At that point, it was clear there was life blooming beyond the Les Paul and the Stratocaster. Rock guitar playing was becoming more extreme, and the tools needed to accomplish this more challenging playing style were being developed to make it happen.

Terry Boling’s Kramer Compulsion

“The single thing that made Kramer guitars more desirable to me over the competition was that Eddie Van Halen was playing their products,” says Terry Boling of Easley, South Carolina. He is one of the premier Kramer collectors in the US, having owned hundreds of Kramer guitars over the past twenty years. Boling has often been referred to as “The Godfather of Kramer,” having written the most definitive story of the Kramer guitar company. Also a motorcycle enthusiast, Boling began collecting Kramer guitars in 1984. He believes the popularity of the Kramers was due to two factors: “With the endorsement of Eddie Van Halen and being the sole distributors of the Floyd Rose tremolos, Kramer was difficult for anyone to overthrow.”

Of the Kramer guitars Boling currently owns, his white Baretta model is his favorite. “It’s an original 1985 Baretta,” he says, “with the R5 Floyd Rose nut width, and it’s loaded with an aftermarket EMG 81 pickup. The radius of the fretboard is really flat, and the neck thickness is fairly thin and feels absolutely terrific to me. I’ve played it somewhere in the neighborhood of six to seven thousand hours in the twenty-one years I’ve owned it.” Kramer closed up shop in June of 1990, but Boling continued his crusade to honor the company by launching He also contributed a lengthy, six-part research report on the company for Vintage Guitar Magazine in 1998, which was well-received by guitar fans. It contained many unknown facts about the company, including the involvement of ESP Guitars and other companies in Kramer’s product manufacturing.

“ESP helped fulfill the needs of Kramer for guitar bodies and necks,” says Boling, “along with other wood suppliers like LaSiDo (a Canadian guitar company) and Sports (a wood supplier from Connecticut). By 1986, ESP was the sole supplier of bodies and necks.”

In 1995, Gibson bought the Kramer name and began importing guitars from Korea under the Kramer brand name, using the same model names from previous years. Boling was displeased, saying, “They were importing guitars under the names ‘Pacer’ and ‘Baretta’ that had no similarities to the original guitars of the eighties. I felt this was a hard slap in the face of the original company, its founders, and the fans of their products.”

But with the pressure of the Kramer fans in online forums, the newly formed Kramer company restructured their production and is finally recreating the original models in the US. In some cases, they’re even better than the original versions. Boling recently bought a new 1985 reissue Kramer Baretta. “The fit, finish and overall quality meets or exceeds many of the original ’84 – ’85 Barettas I have owned over the years,” he says.

For more information about the original, legendary Kramer guitars and Terry Boling’s history of the Kramer company, visit:
A New Name in the Game

So it’s 1985, and George Lynch is showing me a new guitar. He had done an even trade for a Charvel at a music store while on tour with Dokken. It was a red Kramer Baretta, and it was heavy. The body was made of maple and painted red, with a matching red headstock. He said it was every bit as good as what Charvel was doing with custom-ordered guitars, but this Kramer was a stock production model. It had a single humbucker (like the Charvel I had seen a couple of years before), a wide 1-3/4” wide nut, a flat radius, big frets and Floyd Rose tremolo. At that time, no production model guitar had a Floyd included as stock hardware. I had seen a magazine ad with Eddie Van Halen, but I was still attached to my Les Paul. However, after plinking around with George’s Kramer Baretta, I just had to have one. The next day, I went down to the local guitar shop and ordered one.

Kramer was a whole world away from San Dimas, being based in New Jersey. It started out in the mid-seventies as an offshoot of the Travis Bean Guitar company, which built guitars around an aluminum neck. That guitar was super neck-heavy, and the neck itself was cold to the touch. Gary Kramer, then business partner of Travis Bean, redesigned the neck, and with the folding of Bean’s company, he pursued this redesign. The new guitar featured wooden inserts in the neck for weight relief, and to give it the feel of a normal guitar neck. He marketed it under his own name, and with the partnership of music store owner Dennis Berardi, Kramer Guitars went on to perfect the production that Travis Bean guitars had lacked.

The new series of guitars had the new neck and a pronounced double-cutaway body very similar to the Travis Bean guitars in appearance. Most of the accessories on these guitars were completely Kramer designed, like the active pickups and the bridges. One of the more innovative designs Kramer offered at this time was the Duke bass, which was a headless bass guitar with the tuners attached to the body. This preceded the Steinberger by several years, and showed the company’s intention to move into more original designs.

By the time more contemporary guitars were designed, Gary Kramer had left the company (see sidebar story) but Kramer guitars continued to redesign their products with Berardi and luthier Phil Petillo. Beginning in 1983, Kramer guitars took on a more Stratshaped appearance and all-wooden necks. Calling these “Pacer” models, Kramer began to feature a double-locking tremolo made by Rockinger, a German company. Eddie Van Halen appeared in ads with a Pacer series guitar and the tremolo was listed as the “Eddie Van Halen Tremolo.” It was during this time that a new contraption by a guitar tech named Floyd Rose entered the scene. It was a double-locking tremolo, much like the Rockinger, but it had a two-point floating pivot rather than the six-screw anchoring of the Rockinger. As Kramer continued to evolve, they discontinued the use of the Rockinger and began using the Floyd Rose tremolo, which was exclusive to all Kramer guitars by 1984. By then, Kramer had started adding other body shapes with exotic graphic paint jobs.

At that time, in order to get a Floyd on your Charvel/Jackson guitar (or any other custom manufactured guitar), you had to buy one and send it to them to put it on your order. Kramer owned the rights and distribution to the Floyd Rose until the late eighties. As an alternative to the Floyd Rose, companies offered the Kahler tremolo bridge, which was more like a moving tailpiece that passed the strings over roller saddles. One key point of difference was that it stayed in tune with the use of a lockpiece on the headstock behind an existing nut. It proved less desirable because this design didn’t eliminate friction at the nut, and the tailpiece didn’t have enough of a break angle to increase sustain. The Floyd Rose was preferable because of its tuning stability and sustain.

Kramers had all the custom hot-rod options already done to them: high-output pickups, a Floyd Rose tremolo, flat-radius necks and flashy paintjobs. It seemed they had taken what Charvel had started and mass marketed it. Soon, players everywhere needed to have guitars that were “souped-up” with the appointments introduced into the mainstream by these east and west coast branches of the guitar industry. They were highly influential and became the standards to follow. Guitar playing had gone into a whole new realm, and shredding was becoming a competitive sport. Even more traditional rock players like Peter Frampton and Neal Schon were using customized hot-rodded guitars that suited their playing styles.

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.