Hot Rod Old Skool 12
Not long ago, my young son arrived at a family gathering and made a beeline for a resonator guitar that his uncle had recently acquired. I’m no less attracted to shiny metallic things than the typical two-year-old, but when I picked up the instrument, with its brilliant sound and easy playability, I was drawn to it for other reasons. What made things even more interesting was that the guitar was the work of a company that was not familiar to me.
Hot Rod Steel Guitars is the brainchild of Lenny Gerthoffer, an expert on National and other vintage resonator guitars. After buying his first resonator in 1990, Gerthoffer—thanks to his earnings as a real-estate broker—spent 15 years accumulating an impressive collection of more than 70 vintage Nationals, constantly swapping up as he found more pristine instruments. In 2005, he officially started a business—Vintage Nationals, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California—that specializes in the guitars.
As Gerthoffer broadened Vintage Nationals to include new and budget resonators, he became familiar with the shortcomings of those imported instruments that exhibited poor build quality and setup. Identifying a gap in the market, Gerthoffer in 2011 began designing and importing resonator guitars under the Hot Rod Steel name.
Hot Rod now produces 27 different vintage-inspired models in China, as well as 12-string and baritone tricones custom-built in the United States. When the company receives the goods from the East, Gerthoffer’s team gives each instrument a thorough tweaking and setup, inside and out, resulting in such high-performance guitars as the Old Skool 12 model I received for review.
Hot Rod’s Old Skool 12 is a loving tribute to the early-1930s National Style N, a round-neck guitar with a single-cone resonator, basically a plainer version of the Style O, which featured additional sandblasted decorations. While the original Style N had a nickel-plated German silver body, the Old Skool has a nickel-plated brass body, along with the traditional mahogany neck and a bound fingerboard made of ebony (uncommon for an imported resonator instrument).
Like its benchmark, the Old Skool is a simply appointed, but handsome guitar with minimal ornamentation. Twin flat-cut f-holes give it a cool, old-fashioned appearance, as does the slotted headstock, whose tuners have subtle floral motifs on their plates. Having the classic perforated diamond pattern, the cone’s cover plate—with the help of the sculptural tailpiece—lends an Art Deco feel. Practically the only obvious indication that this is a new guitar is Hot Rod’s metal emblem, which graces the headstock in the form of a 1932 Ford Coupe.
The review model, featuring Hot Rod’s proprietary aging treatment, appears tastefully distressed. The nickel plating is dulled a bit and the body is slightly dented in a few strategic locations—forearm wear has been simulated on the lower left bout, the handrest, and the tailpiece revealing a hint of the brass under the nickel plating. On the headstock are the occasional nicks one would expect to find on an 80-year-old guitar. (For players wanting a flawless new instrument, Hot Rod also makes a non-distressed version for $150 less.)
The craftsmanship on the Old Skool review copy is superb, thanks to a comprehensive treatment by Hot Rod luthier Hans Pukke, who, among other good things, leveled the guitar’s pan and cone, completed the fretwork and rolled the fretboard edges, for a played-in feel. Pukke also replaced the factory saddle with one he built from scratch, using ultra-dense, 200-year-old maple from the bed of a river in Canada. It’s uncommon to find this caliber of work and such attention to detail on an imported guitar of any type.
Superb Sound & Playability
With its ample C-shaped neck and unimpeachable setup, the Old Skool is a deeply satisfying instrument to play. The action on the review copy is comfortable, but not too low as to discourage slide playing. The notes ring true and clear in all regions of the fretboard, and the guitar is free from the unwanted rattling and buzzing that afflicts many resonators both vintage and new.
Resonator guitars have been most closely associated with blues, bluegrass, and slide playing, and the Old Skool accommodates all of that territory. In both standard and alternate tunings—played with and without a slide, with a plectrum, or with the fingers—the guitar has a clear sound with excellent note separation, an effusion of harmonics, and a wash of reverb. And this warm-toned instrument has an exciting projection without sounding in the least bit shrill.
Pioneered in the 1920s by John Dopyera, resonator-type guitars were originally built not to suit the requirements of a particular style but to be sufficiently loud in brass-heavy ensembles. So it seemed only natural that I would subject the Old Skool to music not normally associated with this type of instrument. I played jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s great waltz “Ugly Beauty,” and found that the guitar sounded right at home in this setting—well suited for complex chords and hornlike lines alike. Purists might recoil at the notion, but I even read through some J.S. Bach arrangements and found the Old Skool’s clarity lent itself nicely to this polyphonic setting.
A Perfect Gig Guitar
Even the best vintage resonator guitars are sometimes plagued by problems with action, intonation, and ghostly noises. With its Old Skool 12, Hot Rod has corrected these problems in a smart guitar with an aged appearance, modern playability, and a positively winning sound. The instrument would be perfect for a range of musicians, from the traditional slide player who’d prefer to avoid gigging with a valuable old instrument, to the specialist in other styles who’s in search of inspiring
At under a grand, this awesome resonator is a real steal.
At A Glance
BODY Nickel-plated brass body with hand-spun Continental cone and 12th-fret neck junction.
NECK Mahogany neck with slotted headstock. Ebony fretboard and maple saddle. 25-inch scale. 1.75-inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Closed-gear tuners.
STRINGS D’Addario phosphor-bronze medium strings (.013–.056).
MISC Featherweight hardshell case. Available left-handed.
PRICE $949 direct as reviewed.
$799 direct without aging (Classic 12 model). Add $40 for left-handed.
Hot Rod Steel Guitars. Made in China
and the USA. hotrodsteel.com