In the early 1970’s, electric rock and roll music was booming and growing in sophistication, and guitarists were interested in getting more from their instruments to help enhance their playing and inspire further creativity. The two traditional and most famous electric guitars, the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster, were essentially polar opposites in both sound and feel. This left the market open for a guitar that could successfully merge some of the features of both instruments to create what would be viewed by many as the ultimate rock and roll guitar.
Charvel was initially a parts supplier offering upgraded hardware, bodies and necks for Stratocasters before developing its own brand of complete customized guitars. When that occurred, the category of the Super Strat was truly born. These early San Dimas, CA made Charvels are documented and coveted by their owners, and consequently worth thousands of dollars. Into the late 1970s and early 1980s, Charvel’s popularity grew as many up-and-coming guitar wizards became associated with these instruments, including: Warren DeMartini, Jake E. Lee, George Lynch, and Eddie Van Halen.
The formula for Charvel was essentially a simple one. Use a Stratocaster-style guitar as the platform and build it for more comfort, hard rock tone, and speed. The recipe for a great Charvel was also made by paying attention to the details of the finish and setup. Flatten the fretboard radius, add larger frets, widen the neck, add a humbucker, and so on. Add to that the emerging trend of further customization with wild paint job schemes and Charvel was certainly positioned for success.
And Charvel had great success throughout the 1980s, though its brand name suffered as the lineup shifted from being a US-based custom shop to one that moved guitar production overseas. While these mass-market import guitars, wildly successful in their own right, were of generally good quality, they shared little in common with the earlier US-made instruments other than the Charvel brand name.
Fender now owns Charvel, and with a company of Fender’s size having the muscle and investment capital to fully support the brand, Charvel is looking to return to its glory days with its latest lineup of U.S.-built guitars. Additionally, Charvel has many of its original builders and team members onboard from the early San Dimas days.
The Charvel So-Cal is the model we’ll focus on with this review. It is one of two instruments from Charvel’s USA Production Series. The So-Cal and San Dimas models both share the same essential hardware with single volume control, three way toggle switches on Strat-style alder wood bodies, using unfinished quartersawn maple necks with compound radius design, and Floyd Rose locking tremolo bridges. The So-Cal is fitted with Dimarzio pickups, a single-ply pickguard, and Strat-style recessed input jack plate, while the San Dimas does without the pickguard and recessed input jack, and opts for Seymour Duncan pickups.
Both Charvels are available in standard black finish with black hardware. Beyond the standard color, Charvel has a very creative and unique strategy for offering additional colors for both models, while at the same time being able to focus on cost-savings and efficiency. The company does this by producing color runs in larger batches that change every few months, therefore making each instrument part of a limited run. So by using larger quantities of paint for a few models over a period of 3 months or so, Charvel can reduces costs and simplify production. As of this writing in late March 2010, Charvel just recently announced its 8th batch of custom colors, noted as the “Last Batch” and includes Candy Tangerine, Slime Green, and Flat Black as specific color options on San Dimas and So-Cal models. As part of this batch, a Flat Black-painted San Dimas model guitar is identified as the “Wildcard”, and this limited instrument features a single-humbucker design and chrome Floyd Rose, rather than standard black hardware with two humbuckers. The collectability of these various limited batch Charvels will be interesting to see in the future.
What will come after the 8th and “Last Batch”? Michael McGregor, Senior Product Manager for Charvel, couldn’t provide specifics, but did offer some clues about the future. “Colors will more than likely not appear on the same platform more than once,” but he added, “The base color may change.”
But does the somewhat cryptic title of “Last Batch” indicate a slowing down of offerings or will it be yet another unique twist ahead in the Charvel story? It seems the latter, according to McGregor who stated, “Lots coming down the road for Charvel!”
The Charvel So-Cal model we checked out is a current standard black model. In addition to the basic features described above, the So-Cal is equipped with Gotoh tuners, a Dunlop strap locking system, and ships in a Charvel gig bag. One of the objectives of the USA Production series is to to provide a high-quality US-built guitar for a reasonable price. At $1099, the Charvel So-Cal certainly hits an attractive price point. It also includes a limited lifetime warranty.
The So-Cal in Detail
Original Charvel San Dimas guitars are perhaps best-known because of the feel of the necks. The specifications of the So-Cal production model’s neck profile and thickness were selected after carefully considering many. In fact, according to McGregor, it truly was a team effort. “In regards to the neck profile of the Production Model, we took the Custom Shop neck we had in the shop that was ‘The One’. Everyone loved this neck,” he said.
The profile is a comfortable medium C-shape. The fretboard radius is a compound design, which begins as a 12-inch radius starting at the nut and gradually transitions to an even flatter 16-inch radius at the final 22nd fret. A flat radius board facilitates easier string bends and permits the guitar to be set with lower action. As is the norm with any Super Strat design, the So-Cal is equipped with medium jumbo frets (perfectly polished and dressed by the way). The 1 11/16-inch width at the nut is wide, facilitating an R3 size Floyd Rose locking nut.
Although the maple neck itself feels smooth and unfinished, it actually has a light gunstock oil finish that keeps the neck conditioned. Because it is a hard rock maple design and the wood is cut in a quartersawn fashion, concerns with any neck warpage over time are nil. A quartersawn neck tends to be more rigid than the more common flatsawn necks because the wood grains run perpendicular to the plane of the fretboard.
Playability of the neck was a dream. The combination of the medium C profile shape along with the slightly wider nut-width fit me perfectly for any style I played. Whether doing lead runs, blues patterns and bends, or chords along the neck in various positions, everything felt natural and right. And because the neck isn’t finished with any nitro or poly-based lacquers, I avoided the sticky-neck syndrome that happens with normal perspiration in my hands.
Moving to the body and hardware, the So-Cal keeps it simple. There’s just a single volume control and toggle switch to change between three positions. The Floyd Rose tremelo system stayed in tune regardless of the abuse I gave it. The bridge could be set flat against the body if desired, but comes from the factory set with a little bit of floating space, similar to traditional Fender bridges.
The So-Cal uses the DiMarzio Tone Zone pickup in the bridge and an Evolution in the neck position. Both pickups are higher output, but are able to retain top-end clarity without sounding muddy. These progressive DiMarzio pickups tend to naturally have more compression versus similar Seymour Duncan models, but you can still roll back the volume and they will clean up nicely as needed.
Plugging into either the Mesa Roadster or a vintage Marshall JCM 800 amp, the So-Cal delivers quite a range of tones beyond just heavy rock, metal or shred – though it does that phenomenally by design. With the mids bumped up a bit and the gain set lower on the Marshall, or if using one of the lighter-gained channels on the Mesa, I found that I could obtain superb bluesy tones. The bridge position provides excellent cut, while the neck delivers warm tones, all while staying balanced without any over-dominating frequencies. Whether playing heavy overdrive or clean, never once did I feel I had to change e.q. settings to achieve genuinely pleasing sounds when choosing either pickup.
If I had any criticisms to offer, there are only two and they are minor. The volume pot used on the So-Cal, even with the knurled knob grip provided, has a somewhat stiff rotation by design (closer to a typical Gibson’s versus a Stratocaster’s which can be adjusted with a pinky). This makes doing volume swells a challenge while playing, but is honestly more of an issue of personal preference rather than being a real problem. Other than that, I wish that the So-Cal came with a hardshell case instead of a gig bag. A guitar this good deserves a case, even a lower-cost plastic hardshell would be welcome, though I understand Charvel’s need to meet a certain target price point.
These two very small points aside, the Charvel So-Cal is a fantastic instrument. If I had to describe the Charvel So-Cal model in one word I would call it “effortless”. With its smooth neck, low action, and great tones, the Charvel So-Cal doesn’t force you to adapt to it. It plays extremely well, sounds great, and the price makes it compelling for those seeking a quality genuine U.S.-made instrument. Charvel hit the mark with the So-Cal.