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September 2014
more... Gear HistoryFebruary 2009CharvelKramer

The Return of the Hot Rod Guitar



Neal Shelton’s Rare Charvel/Jackson Guitars

Neal Shelton is a southern California music store owner who for almost thirty years has collected many early Charvel and Jackson guitars. Though he’s brokered hundreds of these rare guitars through his shop, he has also managed to own quite a few of the company’s true gems, including one-of-a-kind custom models, pre-production versions, and celebrity-owned Charvel/Jacksons.

His first exposure to a Charvel was in 1979, while he was shopping for gear in Hollywood at a small store called Guitar Center. Shelton says of his epiphany, “There was a wall of these awesome guitars with custom finishes, crazy colors, and graphics. My jaw dropped! The one that really caught my attention was a Star body, pink with a silver lightning bolt graphic. I really wanted it, but I was on a budget to buy a PA, a Marshall half-stack and a guitar. I had to settle for a used G&L F-100. I never did forget that day.”

With so many custom options available on Charvels and Jacksons through the years, Shelton cites the differences that set these guitars apart from the mainstream: “They had a nice wide fretboard with a slim, fast neck. These guitars were built for speed, not sluggish like a Les Paul. They were built to play and perform metal.”

Shelton played the L.A. metal scene for many years, and continues performing in Hysteria, the premier Def Leppard tribute band. His store, Neal’s Music, is located in Huntington Beach, California, where many of these gems can be seen. Of these, the true treasures are the vintage Charvel and Jackson guitars on display.

These guitars show an evolution of their own, which Shelton describes as a progression. “The Charvels had a Strat-style headstock, but due to Fender copyrights, they had to switch to the pointy headstock that most everyone now thinks of when they think of Jackson or Charvel,” remarks Shelton. Of the guitars Shelton owns, one stands out as his proudest piece. “I have a 1982 Charvel EVH black and yellow-striped that belonged to Eddie Van Halen,” he divulges. “They only made about a hundred of these guitars as a production run.” He also has the original company invoice made out to Eddie. This is the oldest Charvel guitar Shelton currently owns, although he has had many that predate this one. “I have owned many pre-production Charvels in the past, dating back to 1977,” he remarks, “before Wayne Charvel put serial numbers on the guitars, and some of them were even built using actual seventies Fender hardware.” As a broker of these rare guitars, Shelton can be considered partly responsible for having fed the hot rod fever. As he says, “I have literally had hundreds of vintage Jacksons and Charvels go through my hands. I supplied many of the collections you see on the internet today.”

Visit Neal Shelton’s 1982 EVH Charvel at: nealsvintage.com.
The Hot Rod Movement Branches Out

In terms of historical importance, at this point Wayne Charvel was the central figure in the west coast hot rod guitar movement. But, another key player on this coast who would eventually do some work with Charvel was Bernie Rico of BC Rich Guitars. His company was an established guitar manufacturer, and enjoying success at the time. Based out of the Los Angeles area, Rico was designing guitars with much more radical body shapes. The names of these guitars became synonymous with the brand name: Mockingbird, Seagull, Eagle and The Bich, to name a few. Rico’s main contribution to going left-of-center was his refinement of the neck-throughbody design and the development of a heelless neck joint. To make a more affordable version of some of the BC Rich guitars, Rico also produced bolt-on models, for which he contracted Charvel to construct necks.

In 1978, Wayne Charvel decided to move on to other ventures, and sold the Charvel company to an administrative employee, Grover Jackson. A guitar player in his own right, Jackson took on the business end of the Charvel company, but also had a genuine interest in transforming it. Once he gained control of the place, he brought a major focus to the company with marketing savvy and a much-needed artist relations program. While maintaining the Charvel company name, Jackson took what Wayne Charvel had started to the masses, by providing local and national players with high performance machines. He started an endorsement program, which meant high-profile players were constantly seen with Charvel guitars.

In 1980, Jackson met with Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads to design a much more unconventional guitar. It was an offset V-shaped guitar, with one wing shorter than the other. Charvel Manufacturing was still enjoying the success of Wayne Charvel’s designs and customized Strat-like guitars. Jackson didn’t want to risk disrupting that success by putting the Charvel name on Randy’s new guitar, so he simply put his own name on the guitar’s headstock and the first Jackson was born. At an Ozzy show the following year, I saw that guitar. The ferocity of Rhoads’s playing made me notice the brand name on the guitar, a name I’d never heard of. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would later own over twenty Jackson guitars!

My first exposure to a Charvel was at a local shop in 1983, and my first impression was that it played much more easily than my Les Paul. Like Van Halen’s guitar, it was strat-shaped, had a single humbucker and a brass tremolo bridge. Even more striking were the hot rod flames painted on it. The fastness of the neck was due to the flatness of the radius, and I felt like a better guitar player simply by virtue of that.

Charvel and Jackson guitars would soon be seen with lots of players on the world scene, from Gary Moore and Iron Maiden to RATT and Jeff Beck. With such high-profile players involved, Jackson’s marketing got the word out that there was a new production standard entering the game. These were manufactured guitars derived from the customizations done on guitars at Charvel’s original shop. They included angular body shapes, highoutput pickups, various electronic switching, flat-radius necks and stunning graphic paint jobs. Not only did they make the Randy Rhoads signature model, but they also made other Vs, an Explorer-styled guitar called a Kelly and the Strat-shaped Soloist, which was the first “superstrat” to appear on the market.
Using the Rhoads model as its flagship, the neck-thrubody models were designated with the Jackson label, while the bolt-on, Strat-shaped models went under the Charvel name. Clearly, these didn’t resemble anything Gibson or Fender had produced. Eventually, the Charvel name was phased out and Jackson flourished as the standard that other companies would come to follow. At that point, it was clear there was life blooming beyond the Les Paul and the Stratocaster. Rock guitar playing was becoming more extreme, and the tools needed to accomplish this more challenging playing style were being developed to make it happen.