Charvel San Dimas Mahogany Oil Finish Review
January 14, 2009
An eighties dead-simple throwback that can really rock.
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An incredibly simple guitar by design—just one volume knob, one humbucker (maybe two) and a bolt-on maple neck with maple fingerboard— they were functionally solid and built to rock. Most bodies were constructed from alder or swamp ash and painted with wild custom colors and graphics, though to me, some of the coolest ones were the most basic, reminding me of an old Strat or Les Paul. Mind you, owning one of these guitars for most junior high students was just a mere dream—we tended to have guitars more like Memphis Les Pauls and Arbor or Hondo Strats. Owning a Charvel was being part of an elite and exclusive club for rock stars and that seemed worlds away from us kids in suburbia. I never did get one, but from time to time I was able to play a few that came through our local guitar shop for a setup. Damn, I wanted one of them!
Fast forward to October of 2002, when Fender Musical Instruments bought the Charvel/ Jackson brand, and all of their existing inventory--and began building US-made instruments and custom guitars for the brand in Ontario California. Over the course of time many variations of the original Charvel Strats were brought out, including the EVH-style guitars in three different color schemes (black/white, red/ white, black/yellow). Then, one of the larger dealers of Fender and Charvel, The Music Zoo, put together an exclusive deal with Charvel to create the “Natural Series” Charvels. These guitars are a no-frills affair with either one or two pickups (H/S, H/H), a volume knob or two, Floyd Rose or NOS Charvel bridge and—as noted by the name—no paint! In place of the wild colors and graphics is a simple, oil finish applied to either a mahogany, koa or swamp ash body. And of course it goes without saying that the fastest profile neck in the history of the guitar is bolted right onto that oiled body, duplicated directly from the original and now infamous early-Charvel necks.
The Natural Series model reviewed is a two pickup shred machine. Mahogany body, maple neck, chrome Floyd Rose, two Seymour Duncan humbuckers (Custom 5-bridge, PAFneck), single volume knob and 3-way toggle switch. Simple and effective. In a somewhat bizarre twist, this particular model has both chrome and gold appointments. While the tuners, Floyd and jack are chrome, the knob and strap buttons are brass and the selector switch is chrome with a gold tip! I’m not too sure what the thinking was behind that, but aside from the somewhat odd look it certainly doesn’t affect the tone—it’s just an appointment issue. The neck is bolted on and seems to have a very tight neck pocket that doesn’t slide around or show any visible signs of shimming or unnecessary voids. The guitar comes set up with 10’s ready to rock, with uber-low action and enough float in the Floyd to pull back at least a step and a half. Nice! Sadly, the original detail of necessitating a neck removal for a simple truss rod adjustment is present in this model, which is too old school for this reviewer’s taste. Then again, with the locking nut at the top of the neck and a humbucker right up against the 22nd fret, it seems unlikely that there would be any other place to put the truss rod adjustment. As long as the strings stay at the same gauge it’s pretty much a set-and-forget detail anyway. Moving on…
I found the guitar to be a bit body-heavy due to the significant chunk of mahogany that it’s built from. Long recording sessions seated at the console tended to fatigue my leg a bit, but that’s sort of a cop-out considering this guitar was meant to rock, and rock it does. The set of Duncans really captured the spirit of the original models, even though the Custom 5 pickup didn’t exist back in the day. According to the Seymour Duncan website, it was developed by replacing the ceramic or Alnico 2 magnet in an SH-5 Custom or SH-11 Custom Custom with an Alnico 5. It turns out that it sounds like a PAF with more lows and highs and a bit more output. Plugged into my Lee Jackson-modified ’73 Superlead, I was immediately brought back to the days of shred and found myself playing “Round and Round” and “Mr. Scary” with a grin you couldn’t wipe off my face. The tone was at once searing, sweet and cutting without being shrill. Thanks to the mahogany body it was almost like the best of a Les Paul and a Strat but with the added bonus of being able to dive bomb for hours without going out of tune! Surprisingly, when rolling back the volume knob I was able to clean up the grit significantly, and switching over to the neck pickup I pulled off a convincing clean tone that was both warm and defined without farting out on the lowest notes. Perhaps the lack of a tone circuit helped keep the rolled-off tones from getting muddy. Either way, I never missed having a tone knob since this is a rock and roll machine that has no need for that kind of subtlety.
Probably the best part of the guitar was the killer neck. It took a bit of adjusting at first because it’s so slim and wide (1 11/16” at the nut), compared to a Les Paul or U-shaped Strat neck, but over time it began to show good reason for its design. The flat radius of the neck and speed of an unfinished maple really let me tear into everything from alternate to sweep picking, and bends to the moon. It was obvious why so many of the great metal players of that era were playing Charvels. In a way it bummed me out to see how much easier it was to dig into that style of playing—if I had had one of these back in the day, it would have pushed my playing ahead quite a bit faster due to the low action and ease of access to the notes. What would be near impossible to pull off on a Les Paul was second nature on the San Dimas model—kind of like somebody pulling the governor off a go-kart at Malibu Grand Prix!
I like this guitar a lot. Aside from a few things, like the mixed brass and chrome hardware, the heavy chunk of mahogany and lack of easy access to the truss rod, this guitar is all rock. Since there wasn’t an original Charvel Strat to compare this model to I can only speculate on how close they got to the original—but suffice it to say that the guitar plays and sounds fantastic, and is certainly in an affordable price range for what it accomplishes. Music Zoo did us a favor by teaming up with Fender and putting a unique spin on the Charvel San Dimas model by stripping the paint and letting the guitar breathe. The only thing I need to do now is start putting my favorite band’s bumper stickers all over the guitar to give it my own custom finish.
You wish it was 1983 and want an absolute no-frills shredder
You like pretty "ten tops" and don't miss the eighties.
Street $1695 - Charvel - charvel.com