I first became aware of Charvel guitars in the early 80′s. As a teenager it was impossible to not notice they were used by pretty much every hard rock act of the decade at some point. Nearly every guitarist in Kerrang would be playing a Charvel.
The company started out making necks & parts and built up a loyal base of Rockstar Clients (Eddie Van Halen, Warren De Martini, Jake E Lee, Viv Campbell, Neal Schon, Steve Farris, even Dave Gilmour had a couple of Charvel necks fitted to his Fenders) Wayne Charvel left the business in 1978, it was Grover Jackson (a former employee) who bought the company and obviously had the marketing skills seeing a gap where Fender & Gibson were failing the new emerging technical Rock player. Jackson had made a guitar for Randy Rhoads shortly before his death and the Jackson/Charvel guitar company was born. At one point Charvels were the bolt on “Superstrat” type guitars beloved of Steve Vai & Warren de Martini while Jacksons were the neck thru designs like the Rhoads and the original Jackson Soloist, most people over 30 will remember Phil Collen of Def Leppards Bela Lugosi guitar.
Charvel/Jackson first came to the UK in 1986. Grover Jackson decided to expand the brand and make all US built instruments Jackson’s and have a range of Charvel guitars made in Japan. These are the Charvel guitars most European people will know. The original 7 models numbered 1-7 are still very highly regarded and prices are increasing on Ebay. The Model 4 was always seen as a great instrument, although early models had the Kahler 2300 tremelo (which was shite) and many were retrofitted with Floyd Rose systems. From 1987 I think Charvel even started to use a Floyd type trem themselves.
By the late 80′s Jackson had sold the company on to japanese electronics giant Akai. The brand fell out of favour in the 90′s as grunge and pasty faced indie made the “pointy headstock” guitar unfashionable. There was a limited amount of US production at this time, but the bulk of Charvel/Jackson guitars were made in Japan. Although this has never hurt the brand as quality control has always been pretty good, although there are some awful guitars from 91-02 when Akai seemingly struggled to make the brand relevant and desirable in the retro 90′s. The Charvette ranges were cheap guitars usually made in Korea.
The Purists were horrified at the “San Dimas” model of 1995, that was this rather sensible looking guitar
In 2002 Fender aqquired the Charvel Jackson brands and have been keen to market them as seperate entities. Aside from some Warren De Martini signatures and the odd limited run of US guitars. The Charvel line has been redrawn as from 2008 into 3 basic production models. The San Dimas which is available as either a Strat or Tele shaped alder body with 2 Seymour Duncan Humbuckers, one volume knob, no tone control, a chunky pickup selector and a Floyd Rose, or the more Strat like So Cal, which is the same guitar, but has a scratchplate (routed HSH underneath) and Di Marzio pickups instead. All necks are the same 1 peice Quartersawn maple, Fender Style 22 fret compound radius board (12″-16″) with massive jumbo fretwire and and have rolled fingerboard edges for maximum playing comfort.
These models have been made in limited runs with rotating paint jobs, over the last 2 years, there have been 8 seperate production runs of these instruments complete with gigbags for just under £1000.
The latest press release from Charvel is that as of Aug 2010 these Production models have now moved to Japanese production (the OEM for Fender Japan are making them) and are available in 3 colours: Ferrari Red, White and Black. There is also a limited “Wildcard” guitar which is a random selection of features in a very limited production run. The Wildcards will rotate features and colours on a regular basis.
As someone who cut his teeth gigging a pair of Ibanez RG560′s, I was quite keen to try out the #4 Wildcard in its limited “Dead Calm Aqua” finish. The feature set looks incredible for the price. Seymour Duncan pickups (SSH), Floyd Rose, SKB hard case. So I made an appojntment at my nearest stockist (Richtone Music in Sheffield).
The initial feel of the Wildcard #4 begs the initial question “How the fuck are they making them this cheap when the Yen has nearly doubled in value in the last 3 years ??????????” .
The neck was perfect, the rosewood board dark and rich, frets perfect, hand rolled fingerboard makes for a smooth comfy played in experience, the fretting & finish superb, controls flawless. The Aqua blue finish was of a high standard. The only niggle is that the Floyd Rose (FRT02000) tremelo system is a generic type designed for OEM’s to fit to their guitars and it has to be said, the baseplate feels cheap and insubstantial, the knurled fine tuners are clumsy and its simply not as well made as the usual modern Schaller or Gotoh built Floyd that you’d find on a Suhr or Tom Anderson. The alder body has a maple veneer that is beautifully finished and gives the guitar a high end “Valley Arts” or “Suhr” type feel. Although the routing from the tremelo looked a bit badly thought out, sadly these are the type of things that at any price point Ibanez seem to do very well.
My test amp was a Blackstar Series One 45 watt 2 x 12 Combo. Overall the Seymour Duncans (a JB in the bridge and 2 SS1 Stacked Single Coils) sounded ok, but I have to admit the guitar never really came alive, I don’t know if it was the pickups or the maple veneer top, or the darker tone of a rosewood board. But tonally I thought it was a bit uninspiring and lacking zing. The neck played like butter though.
At this point I thought Id probably best check out a Pro Mod So Cal, so a Ferrari Red finished instrument was brought out for me to try. In terms of Specs these pro mods are identical to the US made production versions, with the same Floyd FRT02000 and in this case Di Marzio pickups (A Tone Zone in Bridge and an Evolution in the neck). If the San Dimas represents the early Charvel guitars, the So Cal is totally from 1986, when a certain Mr Steve Vai played a Di Marzio equpped Charvel on Dave Lee Roths “Eat Em & Smile”.
The one piece quartersawn maple neck seemed a much more fluid playing experience, as someone who’s used to playing constructed solo’s to serve the song. I found myself widdling a lot more, the neck was incredible, the jumbo frets and rolled fingerboard edges make the guitar neck seem almost “scalloped” from certain angles. Its just superb.
Tonally the Di Marzio’s seem to have a lot more bollocks & “grunt” about them, I noticed a greated amount of prescence at all frequencys, this sound is much more up my street. Before too long I was playing Dio’s Sacred Heart note for note through the crunch channel on the Blackstar and in my minds eye Ive got longer hair, Im much slimmer and in tight pants and a fire breathing dragon poking out behind a wall of Marshalls……YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ( stops typing and makes Devil Horns sign with hand).
I bought the So Cal.
Floyd Rose issues aside, these are probably some of the best guitars Ive played in recent years. The Fender owned Charvels are essentially a simple stripped down range, with no silly extras or options, the So Cal is routed underneath the pickguard for HSH so modding it for your own pickup combinations will be straightforward.
Add in the included SKB ATA case and straplocks, this is an unbeatable package, these guitars capture the essence of the original Superstrat guitar (which is essentially a flashy paintjob, modified Fender Strat with better hardware and hotter pickups). With an on the street price of around £600-700. These are incredible value for money. If it was a proper Floyd Rose on here I’d give em 10/10, but 8/10 is it.