BOULEVARD OF BROKEN-IN DREAMS
Guitar Player|November 2021
Billy Rowe’s Rock N Roll Relics look, play and sound like much-loved and well-traveled treasures.
RICHARD BIENSTOCK

ASK BILLY ROWE when his love for building guitars began and he’ll take you all the way back to his San Francisco high school in 1980. “I was a big Van Halen fan,” Rowe explains. “And Eddie was the guy of my generation who took guitars and reconfigured them to what he wanted or what he thought was cool. So I was always into tinkering with guitars, ever since I started playing.

“Then, in woodshop class, I decided to make one. I bought a block of wood at a hardwood shop in the East Bay, cut it, did the whole nine yards. I built a star guitar out of swamp ash. And that’s where it started.”

Still, it took many years before Rowe became a guitar builder. First, he had to become a rock star. In the early ’80s, he co-founded Jetboy, who relocated from the Bay Area to L.A. and quickly established themselves as one of the leading acts of the Sunset Strip’s mid-decade glam-rock explosion, alongside up-and-coming peers like Poison, Faster Pussycat and, most significantly, Guns N’ Roses. Over-the-top looks and attitude were the calling cards of the day, and that extended to guitars as well. “I painted my Strat hot pink during the band’s super-early glam era, put a mirrored pickguard on it and scratched it up,” Rowe recalls. “It looked like Paul Stanley’s cracked-glass Ibanez.”

Jetboy eventually signed a major-label deal and released a well-received, if not exactly chart-conquering, 1988 debut, Feel the Shake. One more record, Damned Nation, followed in 1990 before the band called it quits. “After the second record, we toured for a little bit, got dropped by our label, and then we all ended up moving back home and kind of went our own ways,” Rowe says. He worked a day job but ultimately found his way back to his first love. “I built a couple of guitars for myself, and then, you know, the internet started,” he says. “I sold a guitar on eBay. I thought, Maybe I’ll start a website. It just happened kind of organically.”

Thus was born Rock N Roll Relics, which today is one of the more prominent boutique builders of high-end, stylish and, as the name obviously implies, age-finished electric guitars. And in keeping with the other part of the company’s moniker, the guitars are undeniably rock and roll in sound, look and vibe. They include a Tele-like model named the Richards (as in Keith) and an LP Junior-style design christened the Thunders (that would be Johnny).

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