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What Is a Hot-Rodded Guitar? The Complete 2021 Guide

If you’re curious about a hot-rodded guitar and what exactly this term means in relation to guitar, this post is for you!

But before we dive into this topic, I’m going to give some background for context.

Background

The electric guitar standards set back in the 1950s and the 1960s are still present today. These standards have always been Gibson and Fender. In particular, I’m thinking of Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls. Most other electric guitars are modeled after them one way or another.

Back then, Fender focused on playability and a brighter “twangier” sound. On the other hand, Gibsons were more about raw power. They always sounded “thicker,” even with single-coil P90 pickups.

Other alternatives include Gibson SGs and Fender Telecasters. Even those lesser-known brands copied these guitars.

In short, you really had two options for an electric guitar. One was a thinner-sounding and ergonomic guitar (Fender-style). And the other was a thicker-sounding Gibson-style instrument with a somewhat robust body and neck.

This practice continued even into the 1970s and most of the 1980s. If you wanted something else, you had to design and build a guitar yourself or hire a luthier.

However, the demand for alternatives grew. The electric guitar was becoming more popular and people wanted more options. The late 1970s and the 1980s were crucial for the instrument’s development. 

What Is a Hot-Rodded Guitar?

So what does all of this have to do with so-called “hot-rodded” guitars? The term itself doesn’t have a very precise definition. But, in simple terms, it’s a reference to personally modified guitars.

More specifically, a hot-rodded guitar is an electric guitar with replaced and modified parts. The main goal of hot-rodding is to enhance its performance, tone, or aesthetics. It’s something that you can do with every guitar.

How Hot-Rodding Started

I don’t know if anyone can say for sure when the term came into use for electric guitars. However, hot-rodding emerged in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Eddie Van Halen was the one who did it with his “Frankenstrat.” 

He was the first popular guitar player who combined Fender and Gibson traits. The instrument retained most of the Stratocaster characteristics. It had a Strat-shaped body and a maple neck bought from Charvel.

Its body and neck resembled a Fender Stratocaster. Eddie added a tremolo bridge from a ’58 Fender Stratocaster. Later on, he replaced it with a Floyd Rose bridge.

However, the bridge pickup was from a Gibson ES-335. With a humbucker, Eddie finalized this new concept. Eventually, a new name for such guitars emerged – “Superstrat.”

This technically wasn’t a hot-rodded guitar. It was rather a completely custom-made instrument. Nonetheless, it sparked people’s imagination. It was proof that you can combine Fender and Gibson traits.

Quite often, it’s Stratocasters that go through the hot-rodding treatment. Nonetheless, you can modify pretty much any guitar.

Ways to Hot-Rod a Guitar

So what are the ways that you can hot-rod a guitar? And does it count as hot-rodding if you’re doing minor modifications? Usually hot-rodding refers to pickup replacements and changes of body and neck construction.

But generally speaking, hot-rodding should include more than just one modification. Below, I’ll explore things that you can modify or replace.

Pickups

Replacing a guitar’s one or more pickups is the most common hot-rodding procedure. This is where your guitar’s sonic character comes from. It’s really easy to do this on regular Stratocasters. All of its pickups and electronics are attached to the plastic pickguard.

You can swap single-coils for humbuckers and vice-versa. Just bear in mind that this may require body modifications.

You can also re-wire and modify your guitar’s pickups. Changing the wire or just adding more turns can completely change its tone.

Bridge

Replacing a bridge is also pretty common. Most commonly, players like to add two-way “floating” tremolos. It’s usually Floyd Rose bridges. However, Evertune bridges are becoming more popular as well.

A bridge replacement is one of the easier ways to enhance your guitar’s performance by impacting your instrument’s tone and sustain.

That said, replacing a bridge sometimes requires body modifications. (I’ll discuss this further below.)

Electronics

Replacing and improving electronics can completely change your tone. Using different pots and capacitors makes your guitar sound different. Also, different pots have different sensitivity, so that’s important as well.

Shielding is also an important thing for every guitar. Does your guitar pick up a lot of electromagnetic noise? Then cover its inside cavities with adhesive copper tape. Metal pickup covers also help with this.

Adding coats of paraffin to a pickup or any other part is also common. This is known as “wax potting.” The process helps remove unwanted pickup noise and prolongs their life.

Fret Wire and Nut

Although it’s made of metal, fret wire wears out over time. This is due to constant friction between strings and frets. Flattened-out frets can completely ruin your performance.

However, you can refret your instrument to enhance its performance as well. There are three materials for this purpose. Frets are made of nickel silver, EVO gold, and stainless steel. These days, stainless steel is really popular. It’s extremely durable, it feels smoother, and many think it improves the tone.

The nut is also very important. Most guitars come with plastic nuts. They can wear out and cause performance and tuning issues.

Graphite, bone, and even metal nuts can work on electric guitars. (If you’re curious about nut materials, check out my article about Corian as a nut material). And if you’re planning to have a Floyd Rose bridge, a locking nut is a good choice.

Paint Job

Guitar players often want to change their instrument’s appearance. Doing a new paint job is not uncommon. However, it’s a very delicate process. It includes the addition of protective coatings that keep the wood safe. If you’re planning to repaint your guitar, I advise that you consult a professional.

Tuning Machines

Replacing old or stock tuners is also common practice in hot-rodding. With better tuners comes better tuning stability. Plus, quality tuning machines also affect your guitar’s tone and sustain.

Body and Neck Modifications

Like I mentioned above, you may need to make body modifications on your instrument if you replace its bridge. This is also the case if you’re adding a humbucker to a guitar that has slots for single-coil pickups.

Other body modifications include adding slopes and contours. Some people do this to improve an instrument’s ergonomics.

And aside from bodies, you can also modify necks. Sanding the back of the neck changes its profile, thus impacting ergonomics too.

Additionally, some “scallop” their fretboards. This means that the space between the frets on a fretboard is deepened.

The concave shape allows for an easier grip over a string. It’s a common modification that virtuosic players do to their instruments.

Just like with paint jobs, I advise that you consult a professional luthier for any of these hot-rodding tactics.

Neck and Fretboard Replacement

Finally, you can also replace an entire neck. This is easy for guitars that have bolt-on necks. It’s possible to do it on glued necks, but it’s a more difficult process. Removing the glue can be complicated and takes more time.

Some have even replaced the fretboards on their guitar’s neck. But again, this requires removing the glue.

For either of these modifications, it’s best that you let a professional handle them.

Difference Between Hot-Rodding and Maintenance

After all this, you might think any sort of maintenance sounds like hot-rodding, but that isn’t the case.

Replacing just one thing to keep your instrument functioning is maintenance. But are you replacing or modifying a few parts to enhance it? Well, this counts as hot-rodding.

Again, there’s no strict definition as to what “hot-rodding” actually is. But we can compare guitars to cars here.

If you’re replacing a dead battery and a broken alternator on a car, that’s maintenance. But if you’re modifying it to go faster and look better, that’s hot-rodding.

For instance, if you refret your guitar because the frets wore out, that’s maintenance. If you’re replacing stock frets with stainless steel ones for better performance and tone, that counts as hot-rodding.

Are There Some Guitars That Shouldn’t Be Hot-Rodded?

As mentioned earlier, you can hot-rod any guitar. But just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

Technically, any cheaper instrument would do. It’s not uncommon to see a Squier Stratocaster with new pickups and other parts. In fact, cheap Squiers are great “platforms” for hot-rodding.

This also goes for regular mid-priced or expensive instruments. However, if it’s a part of some limited series, you may want to rethink hot-rodding. And if you have an old valuable vintage instrument, hot-rodding will likely make it lose its value.

Hot-Rodded Guitar: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you understand the hot-rodded guitar and what this term means!

If you have further questions about this, let me know in the comments!

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