Good looks helped RKS Guitars make the cover of BusinessWeek this summer, when the Oxnard company's futuristic, lime-green guitar was showcased in the magazine's annual design issue.
Whether the guitar will ever make the cover of Rolling Stone -- or at least find a niche in the fast-growing electric guitar market -- is another story.
Nearly all of rock's famed six-string slingers play models made by Fender Musical Instruments Corp. or Gibson Musical Instruments, making those guitars the dominant choices for players who can afford $1,000 and up for a premium ax.
The odds of cracking this stranglehold?
"Every year there are a bunch of guys who try," said Ken Daniels, owner of Truetone Music in Santa Monica, which specializes in high-end guitars. "And every year most of them drop like flies."
Ravi K. Sawhney said he wasn't thinking about the long odds when he decided to get into the guitar business -- he was simply excited about the chance to break the mold.
A prominent product designer, Sawhney's RKS Design in Thousand Oaks has created the look of photo printers for Hewlett Packard Co., cellphones for Nokia and vacuum cleaners for Sears' Kenmore brand.
About five years ago, one of his designers started working up a new pattern for an electric guitar. Sawhney was taking guitar lessons at the time and decided to greenlight the project.
"I can't say we sat down and studied and analyzed the failures of the past," said Sawhney, 49.
Rocker Dave Mason, whom Sawhney met through mutual acquaintances, came on board early on to help with the design and tone. More recently, software entrepreneur Dale Jensen, the majority owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a rock 'n' roll enthusiast, provided additional funding.
Last year, the company opened a factory in North Carolina and shipped 300 guitars, Sawhney said. But he was making continuing changes in the design and wanted the plant closer to his design studio. In June, RKS opened the Oxnard factory, getting a boost soon thereafter from the BusinessWeek cover.
The guitar was the second-place winner in the Disruptive Design category, with the judges pointing to the instrument's unusual "open architecture" look, in which the electric pickups appear to float in the middle of a high-tech body.
Despite the acclaim, however, the company is in its infancy. Its 15-worker factory turns out just eight guitars a day, and RKS has sold only 27 instruments made in Oxnard to music stores. The instruments retail for $2,200 and up.
West L.A. Music, which bought 18 RKS guitars for its stores in West Los Angeles and Universal City last month, said it had sold only one.
"It's such a different look that they take a while to get used to," said West L.A. Music general manager Rick Waite. "But the response has been good from the musicians who try them. They like how they sound; they love how they feel."
In addition to the innovative design, Sawhney thinks that his fledgling company has several factors in his favor.
One is a surge in sales of electric guitars. Although most of the growth has been in cheaper imports from China selling for less than $150, the premium market is also booming. Sales of models retailing for $1,000 and up rose 27.5% last year, according to Music Trades magazine.
That's partly from baby boomers who now have the means to buy instruments they have wanted since high school. Many of these players already have Fenders and Gibsons, giving RKS -- at least in theory -- a shot at customers looking for something new and different.
"A golfer might have one set of clubs; a person into fishing might have a couple different rods," said Paul Majeski, publisher of Music Trades. "But you never find a serious guitar player with just one or two guitars. They have a trading card mentality.
"RKS already has something going," he added. "They are already ahead of where most companies are at this point. The odds are not insurmountable."
But they are daunting.
Fender has $380 million in annual sales (for guitars, amplifiers and related equipment) and Gibson has $210 million, Music Trades estimates. From there, it's a wide chasm to the next company that specializes in electric guitars: Paul Reed Smith, or PRS, Guitars, with $28.1 million.
Fender, with its famed Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, and Gibson, best known for its Les Paul line, have largely defined the electric guitar sound in rock and pop for the last half a century.
At studio recording sessions, professional guitarists typically show up with at least one Fender and one Gibson, Grammy-winning record producer Jimmy Jam noted.
"I know in my mind what a Tele and a Strat and Les Paul sound like," said Jam, who has worked with pop stars including Usher, Mariah Carey and Gwen Stefani. "There is a comfort level for me, personally, when someone pulls the guitar I'm thinking of out of a case."
Paul Ash, president of the Sam Ash Music Corp. retail chain, believes RKS may have a shot if it can get rising stars to play its products.