Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve noticed that the Charvel guitar company is back and in a big way. Back in the ‘80s Charvel was the “It” guitar; all the best guitarists played them. Eddie Van Halen and Jake E. Lee were the two reasons I loved them so much, and they played Charvel because back then Strats didn’t come with any options for that type of player. Charvels had bigger frets, a flatter fretboard radius, a locking tremolo system, humbucking pickups already routed for the guitar, and an array of crazy colors and graphics that all the guitarists craved. Did I mention it was the ‘80s?
In June of 2008, Charvel began releasing the newly designed USA Production Models Series. These are American-made guitars, priced right around a grand. Every three months they release limited numbers of each model in custom colors—most recently Ferrari Red, Polar White and Taxi Cab Yellow. They offer two body shapes with Duncan pickups (San Dimas Styles 1 2H and 2 2H), and one with a pickguard and DiMarzio pickups (So-Cal Style 1 2H). They all come with black hardware, Grover tuners, Floyd Rose locking tremolos and a gig-bag. That’s a lot of bang for the buck!
Little Red... Charvel
For this review we received the So-Cal model in Ferrari Red, which is the same color as the Charvel Model 2 I had in high school! Like I said, I’m a fan from way back. After playing it for about an hour, I remembered why I loved my Charvel so much.
Though updated for a new generation of players, they still retain all the elements that made them so cool in the first place.
The guitar was set up, in tune and gig ready. Really! I haven’t had that happen with a new guitar in a while. The neck is quarter-sawn maple, with a nice “C” shape that is tapered as you go up the neck, very comfortable, and very shred ready. The alder body is balanced and meaty, without being tubby. This is a very comfortable guitar to play, and the 22 large frets make bending notes a breeze.
Since my background is in guitar manufacturing and design, I can be very picky when it comes to how guitars are made. Manufacturers spend the money on the parts that you can see, but sometimes skimp on the stuff you can’t. When designing a guitar to fit in a certain price range, sacrifices have to be made, like cheaper pots, lower quality wood, cheap paint and so on. So imagine my surprise when I opened up the Charvel and saw clean solder joints and quality parts. The neck joint is clean and the seams are tight. This means that the guitars are cut, sanded and assembled properly.
Most guitars on the showroom floor are, in my opinion, ninety percent done. Finishing and setting up a guitar takes time and money, and unfortunately that’s the area where the cost seems to get cut first, especially in the lower priced guitars. This was not the case with the Charvel So-Cal; it was rockin’ right out of the box.
Tone to Burn
The USA-made DiMarzio pickups are a total complement for this guitar. The Tone Zone in the bridge is a mid-rangy pickup with lots of bite and harmonic structure. If you’re a Paul Gilbert fan, then you’ll love this pickup. They combined the Tone Zone with the Evolution in the neck. This is a very interesting and complementary combination: the Evolution is a very smooth pickup, more PAF-sounding than the Tone Zone, but the difference is all good. These are not vintage pickups by any means. These are very modern pickups with complex tonal structures. I guess when you combine Paul Gilbert with Steve Vai you get a guitar that’s nothing short of “shredtastic.”
The Floyd Rose system is fully floated and works like it should, but this is the one thing I would upgrade on this guitar. The stock trem itself is fine and keeps the Charvel affordable, but upgrading to an original Floyd would put this guitar on a boutique level, and it would still cost less than some other guitar manufacturers charge. The single Volume knob and toggle switch might not offer enough tonal options for some players, especially if you’re used to rolling the tone knob down for a softer attack, but that’s not what this guitar is all about. It’s meant to be played aggressively without any knobs or switches getting in the way of your rockin’ self. I would have liked a push/ pull volume knob so I could split the neck pick-up into single-coil mode (but that’s a very easy upgrade and a small matter).
The Final Mojo
I hope we will see more options offered in the future, because if you’re not into locking tremolos and such, you might be turned off from buying this guitar, which is a shame because everything else on the guitar is top-notch and very player friendly. If you are in the market for an American-made guitar on a budget, the Charvel So-Cal is by far one of the best deals around. I for one am glad that Charvel is back and offering the kind of guitars that made them so special in the first place. I look forward to owning another one in the future.
you’re on a budget and want an American-made hot-rod Strat-style guitar.
you’re not into locking tremolos or the current color options.