“All aboard, ha, ha, ha” Dun-nah…. Dun-nah, dun-nah, dun-nah “Ai, ai, ai”. That refrain, called out by John Michael Osbourne, also known as Ozzy, was my first exposure to the diminutive Randy Rhoads way back in the summer of 1981. I remember exactly where I was, in my friend Howie’s house, listening on a little, chintzy turntable played through repli-wood speakers with maybe 5 inch drivers. It was a horrible way to hear it but it didn’t matter, it was monstrous and awe inspiring. At just 5 feet 7 inches tall, his stature belied an Everest sized talent hiding within a wispy, almost fragile frame. Wielding a Jackson “Rhoads” guitar that looked impossibly over-sized, he tore through melodic runs that had every guitarist on earth running for the woodshed trying to figure out what classical guitarists have known for all time, Bach rocks. Born December 6th, 1956 in Santa Monica, California to a musical family, Randy started playing guitar around the age of 7. His mother Delores had a music school (Musonia School of Music) in North Hollywood (it’s still open today) and Randy was a vessel perfect for the lessons there. He excelled at playing, reading and composing music, a modern day Mozart, of a sort.
You see, Randy was born in an era when Elvis was the number one rock and roll icon of the planet, the British invasion was still fresh and glam rock was surging. He loved guitarists like Leslie West from Mountain, Mick Ronson with David Bowie and Michael Schenker from the Scorpions and UFO. Their influences played into Randy’s musicianship AND his appearance. Randy often wore flamboyant outfits live with bow ties and polka dots being an early theme. In the LA circuit, he very quickly was playing gigs in places well before he could drink there. Approximately 1974, Quiet Riot was formed with Rhoads’ school pal Kelli Garni on bass, Kevin Dubrow on vocals, drummer Drew Forsyth and Rhoads on guitars. This incarnation opened all over LA including gigs with fellow hard rockers, Van Halen. Never truly gaining popularity in the USA until much later (when Rudy Sarzo, Frankie Banali and Carlos Cavazo backed Dubrow) , Quiet Riot was signed to CBS but only saw their albums released in Japan. In addition to having difficulties cracking the American market, Kelli Garni and Kevin Dubrow had a very strong dislike of each other. This put Randy directly in the middle and just a few years after starting the band, it looked like it was over. Just one day before the last Quiet Riot show, Randy brought a little practice amp and his Les Paul to a hotel in Los Angeles. As he proceeded to warm-up for his audition with a very inebriated Ozzy Osbourne, Ozzy called from the couch, “you’ve got the gig” and that was that. Rhoads played his last show, packed and flew to England.
Holed up in a castle for 6 days, the band, made up of Rhoads, Kerslake, Daisley, Osbourne and Airy, rehearsed, wrote and performed the Blizzard of Oz album, in parts, before moving onto Ridge Farm Studio at the edge of Surrey Hills to put it to tape. The album was released in England in 1980 and in the US and the rest of the world, in 1981. Osbourne’s best selling solo album, Blizzard went on to sell over 6 million copies worldwide. It was during the tour of America supporting the first album that the Rhoads designed Jackson was born from the minds of Grover Jackson, Randy, Tim Wilson and long-time Jackson collaborator, Mike Shannon. Randy’s main guitars were Les Pauls, a ’57 and a ’64, and a Sandoval built, Flying V. Jackson guitars was unknown at that time since Jackson worked with Wayne at Charvel first. Despite decades of building great guitars, business wasn’t Charvel’s strong point. His company was almost bankrupt despite cash infusions by various individuals, and by 1978, Jackson bought the company and rights to Wayne’s creation and thus, Jackson Charvel was born. Meanwhile, around the same time, Randy had a Sandoval Flying V with polka dots but was looking for a more radical design. “Jeeves, please show in Grover.”
But wait, first, let’s talk about neck-through guitar design. You think you weren’t gonna learn something about guitars today? Take a peek at the photo to the left. This instrument was built using a technique known as neck through. Obviously, it’s self-explanatory and it’s construction methods fairly obvious, take one piece (or a laminate of many pieces) and place both the tuning machines as well as the bridge and tailpiece, into it. Tack the top and lower bout of the body, usually of an alternate wood type, and voila, you have a guitar with more sustain, potentially, than any other construction method. The reason is simple, different pieces of wood resonate differently, even of the same type. Despite guitar builders best efforts, they still cannot meld the cellular structure of wood from one piece to the next. If the resonant factor is the same throughout, then you have a much “truer” tone to the instrument, or so the theory goes. As it turns out, that’s just what Randy was looking for, neck through design with a radical shape, dual humbuckers like his Les Pauls and a tremolo system. The original design was named the “Concorde” and had a one piece maple neck through and maple “wings” for the body. Rhoads, unlike so many metal players, preferred small to medium frets, like on a Les Paul, and the Jackson prototype was no different. They adorned the bound, ebony fingerboard which had mother of pearl block inlays like a Les Paul Custom. Gold hardware, Grover tuners, vintage stratocaster style tremolo, 2 volume and 2 tone controls and 3-way toggle, a recessed jack and Seymour Duncan pickups, a JB and Jazz finished out the feature set.
Aesthetically the guitar was finished in white polyester gloss and was pinstriped giving us the guitar similar to what we see here. This prototype was the first instrument from the Charvel guitar shop that bore the Jackson name. Randy got the instrument in late ’81 and used it live as well as in the studio for Diary of a Madman. Jackson delivered a second instrument early ’82 which was a black finish but with a more aggressive shape as the upper side of the “V” was even more elongated. This guitar had a brass pickguard and ferrule guide tail piece with the strings anchored through the body. The neck was adorned with “shark fin” inlays which is a style created by Jackson and was emulated by Ibanez with their shark “teeth” which had a serrated edge. Jackson was working on 2 further prototypes but was unable to deliver them prior to Randy’s untimely death March 19, 1982.
No other single instrument has made a bigger splash in the world of hard rock and metal than the Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar. It is the oldest signature guitar outside the Les Paul and has been in constant production since the first one was sold to the public in 1983. I owned serial number RR0985, a white, pin-striped version with a Kahler tremolo system. It was made in 1984 and I stupidly sold it, ahhh, the gear I’ve owned and sold, lots of regrets there. As with most V shaped guitars, I was never able to fully bond with the Rhoads, it’s a hard guitar to get comfortable with and that had to be the reason I ultimately got rid of it. I think I traded it for a Soldano preamp but who knows, lost days. The Rhoads model has been played by so many guitarists, from Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Phil Demmel of Machine Head to Vinnie Vincent of Kiss and Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society and Ozzy. It’s distinctive shape and sound heralded a change in the musical space, from traditional instruments to the pointy, colorful guitars of the 1980s metal scene worldwide. Jackson would go on to arm vast armies of shredders but it all started with a guitar built for a boy born in LA who’s licks and riffs became mainstays of Guitar Centers everywhere.
Come back next time when I take a look at Jimmy Page’s 1959 ‘burst, number 1. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK May 2017