There aren't too many mean-looking things in Cupertino, Calif., this sleepy Silicon Valley haunt of Apple Inc. employees and overachieving middle schoolers.
But there's something gruesome growing in one corner of town: Halo Custom Guitars Inc.
Fueled by a resurgence in heavy-metal music and its numerous sub-genres, Halo makes and sells evil-looking instruments with bodies carved to resemble rotting flesh, distended eyeballs and bone. The demonically themed guitars primarily find their way into the hands of death-metal musicians.
Regular heavy-metal music can cover the usual topics of scorn and despair, while death metal leans heavily on growled vocals and themes such as Satanism and dark mythology.
Both are an important niche for electric-guitar manufacturers like 5-year-old Halo. It sold 200 guitars in its first year in business and now moves 200 to 300 a month in direct sales and an additional 200 a month to dealers, said co-founder Waylon Ford.
"Ever since we started making more-outrageous designs, we started selling more guitars," he said. "We really owe a lot to the metal genre."
Street teams of Halo guitar players and hangers-on keep the company's buzz alive across the U.S., posting links to their favorite Halo-using bands on their MySpace pages and posting images of the lissome Halo Gals, young models who appear in ads wearing little more than underworldly undergarments.
More-established guitar makers are taking notice of metal's rebirth as well.
B.C. Rich Guitars boasts an aggressive-looking lineup that includes Warbeast, Warlock and Dagger, the latter available in the color Blood, according to the company's website. The Warlock is pointy from all angles, and the Warbeast looks a bit like a Fender Stratocaster with an attitude problem.
"B.C. Rich had a huge heyday in the '80s, obviously when metal and big-hair bands were all the rage," said Ted Burger, a spokesman for B.C. Rich parent company Davitt & Hanser Music Group, based in Hebron, Ky.
Then came the '90s and Nirvana and grunge bands that wanted nothing to do with big hair or brightly colored guitars.
Now grunge is a trivia game answer and metal is king again.
"People just missed the pleasures of a nice piercing guitar solo," Ford said.
Ford takes his designs to the extreme, and his guitars boast names such as Satyr, Hellfire and Fallen Angel. The "demon" headstock, where tuning pegs adjust string tension, looks like a horned profile of Lucifer himself.
Halo sells custom-made models as well as lower-priced machine-cut guitars fashioned at an overseas plant.
Marc Minarik, who runs Minarik Guitars with his father in Glendale, said there's no doubt he owes his business success to the recent metal resurgence.
"I put everything on the line for this. I sold everything I owned, every dollar I had to my name, to put into this company," Minarik said. The result was the 2002 introduction of the $1,199 Inferno, a guitar with a body shaped like licks from a raging fire.
"It's the reason that we are where we are. It's because we launched the company with one of those exciting, edgy metal, neo-metal shapes. The Inferno. And no one had ever seen anything like that," Minarik said.
Minarik Guitars sells 115 to 130 custom model guitars a year and more than 2,000 lower-priced machine-cut models annually, Minarik said. As with most guitar companies, the handmade U.S. models command a higher price and are favored by serious players. The offshore-produced guitars range from $300 to $1,300, while the U.S.-made Minariks start at $2,950 and cost more based on the amount of customizing.
"You may look at that flame-shaped body and be like, 'Oh yeah, cool. Flames,' " Minarik said. "But I engineered each one of those flame tongues to generate a certain frequency response. Everything about that guitar is completely thought out."
So what exactly is the allure of the demonic metal scene?
"'Cause there's always kids, and your parents tell you not to listen to it," Ford said. "It's a really good outlet for your aggression."
As for his mean guitar designs, Ford put it simply.
"Some people like skulls," he said.