Guitar maker on a roll

EVERETT – Rod “Hot Rod” MacKenzie’s latest creation is gaining traction after an appearance on a country music video won it Nashville street credibility.

It’s called the Rockit guitar and melds motorcycle and guitar parts. Country music superstar Toby Keith takes it for a ride in his latest video, “High Maintenance Woman.”

At $5,000 to $7,000 apiece, with some models sporting gold and silver inlays and diamond fret markers, the instrument isn’t designed for the starving musician.

“The minute that video hit, things just went nuts,” said MacKenzie, an affable, barrel-chested Everett native.

In an open brick walled workshop on Hewitt Avenue, on a recent rainy spring morning, the video played on a large flat panel TV tuned to the Country Music Television channel.

MacKenzie won’t say how many guitars have been ordered, only that sales are exceeding expectations.

MacKenzie says he has customized or built thousands of autos and motorcycles in his career. He works with his son, Mike.

Go to the Rockit Guitars site to learn more about the company, watch Toby Keith’s video for “High Maintenance Woman” or download songs recorded by “Hot Rod” MacKenzie on his unique guitars.

The cowbell and chain dangling from the front door of his shop clanks frequently as customers stop in.

People like a plumber from Lake Stevens, who wanted his motorcycle’s gas tank stretched, typify MacKenzie’s clientele.

However, his new project seems to be attracting a different demographic.

MacKenzie, 48, said the most expensive guitar that he has sold so far went to an airline executive on the East Coast – a birthday gift for her husband.

The momentum started with the three and one half-minute music video, which ends with a close-up of the black and steel guitar.

Keith appears strumming the guitar during the entire clip, which also features a bikini beauty, psychedelic laser show and a stretch limousine.

It was better exposure than MacKenzie could have hoped for. Now he hopes to leverage the marketing mojo to his advantage.

The guitar’s journey from workshop to the hands of a country music giant wasn’t orchestrated by a big bucks public relations firm.

It started when MacKenzie hopped on a plane to Nashville with two guitars and a dream of landing a Keith endorsement.

He thought the bad-boy multimillionaire embodied the perfect persona to introduce the world to the outlaw guitar.

MacKenzie got his wish in a big way, a few days after his visit in October, Keith shot “High Maintenance Woman.”

“Toby just felt it was a unique guitar that would really stand out,” said Johnny Rose, vice president of sales and marketing for Keith’s record label, Showdog Nashville.

Guitar aficionados have also taken note.

Guitar Player ran a spread in the magazine’s April edition, and MacKenzie said Guitar World and Rolling Stone are also considering write-ups.

MacKenzie, who says he has customized anything that rolls, floats or flies in his 32 years in business, said the guitar symbolizes the harmony between music and motorcycles.

Building the Rockit prototype, required slicing a motorcycle gas tank, shaping holes in a cast-zinc dash for electronic pickups and inserting a stage tuner where a speedometer would go.

Turn it around, and it looks like the dash of a Harley Davidson. Plug it into an amplifier and you get a sound that keeps going.

The only problem was its weight, and a rattle that worked the bolts loose.

At almost 20 pounds, it was several pounds heavier than guitar manufacturer Gibson’s notoriously weighty Les Paul.

In the months that followed its creation, MacKenzie leaned on several area craftsmen to perfect the guitar.

By replacing the steel tank with fiberglass, the weight was shaved to a manageable 9 pounds.

To avoid rattling, his team created a patented tuning rod.

He also worked in detailed hot-rod-style flame cutouts though the length of the Indian rosewood fret board, and crafted a spiked head-stock to match.

The guitars are offered in twelve different colors, running the visible spectrum from candy apple red to a deep violet.

MacKenzie says he’s invested “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in the venture, but he keeps many details of his business guarded.

The hyper-competitive guitar making business is wrought with potential pitfalls, including piracy.

For a fledgling guitar maker such as MacKenzie, a mass-produced counterfeit from an overseas factory could wield a tremendous blow to his business, which is only geared to produce 30 guitars a month.

MacKenzie was the focus of a reality TV show fronted by Emmy-winning Seattle television producer Jeff Erwin three years ago.

The Rockit guitar concept emerged well after filming began, and Erwin said it would make a nice ending – especially if it turns out to be a commercial success.

Erwin, who shot marketing material for Rockit’s Web site, called MacKenzie a “larger than life” character who possesses an ability to get people to wish him success.

“The kind of stuff that Rod does is under the radar,” he said, “He’s a talented painter and he builds and designs really cool stuff, but it isn’t always big, splashy stuff that necessarily pays the bills.”

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or

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