Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas Review

2011 February 15
by Gray

Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas in Ferrari Red

The reemergence of off-the-shelf, production line Charvels in 2008 was met hungrily by players, as if the company were the world’s only supplier of superstrats and we’d been forced to subsist on big box jazz plinkers since 1987. Riding on the nostalgia of a thirtysomething demographic, the new models soon backed it up as word of their worthiness spread rapidly from early adopters.

At a price rigorously pared down to $999 list with zero street margin, for US-built guitars with a beloved 30 year reputation, they were pitched perfectly: just under that magic cutoff point for the growing shredder looking for a serious upgrade, and in positively impulse-buy territory for the wealthier professional looking to add one or two fun candy colored hotrods to his man cave. This latter market Charvel teased and tortured splendidly; offering each batch of striking paint jobs and off-spec wildcard models in only short bursts leant the guitars a get-’em-while-they’re-hot urgency.

That feeling possibly proved more accurate than Charvel had planned when, after just 18 months or so on the market, it was announced in March, 2010, that the eighth batch would be the last of the revived US production line to leave the factory. Like having your favorite show canceled halfway into the second season, this was glum news.

In August, though, hope. Production would move to Japan.

Physical

Here, then, is my Japanese Charvel San Dimas Style 1 2H in Ferrari Red, bought last Thanksgiving, an example of Charvel’s second foray into the Pacific, and with serial no. 769 probably an early one. Though the move can only have been economic, Japan is hardly China in terms of wages and overheads, yet the new Pro Mods cost $100 less at $899 with the same zero street margin, and come with an excellent, tightly fitted hard case; the US versions, even as they rose to $1099, came only with gig bags. Someone pulling the strings knows a thing or two about the impact of over-delivering.

And inside the case? Good god, look at that red. Look at it. Not since a greasy teenager, drunk with lust over the flourescent yellows, pinks and greens of the Ibanez Jem 777, have I been so drawn to a guitar for its paint. Against the unlaquered maple, chrome hardware and black pickups, it could be the Jack Butler vibe, though I suspect it might be just as sexy in a world in which Crossroads was not worn into my skull.

The pickups, a Duncan JB (bridge) and ’59 (neck), are direct mounted on the made-in-Japan San Dimas versus pickup ring mounted on the US version. Though it’s a small change, it’s a handsome, streamlining one, and makes the guitar look more modern, less clunky.

Its dry, oil-finished one-piece maple neck is treated with an unnatural looking flat yellow stain that glows like powdered eggs; the plain chalky-beige maple would have been fine. There’s a heavy knurled chrome volume knob and a strange fluted 3-way toggle switch tip (see video for closeup) that’s often swapped out. I like the jack: it’s thoughtfully placed further back than you’d expect, so you don’t mash your cable even if playing on the floor. The case includes strap locks, two hex wrenches, a mount with screws if you want to keep those wrenches handy on the back of the headstock, and the tremolo arm.

Quality

A problem Charvels face from people who haven’t played them, which until recently included me, is that they sure look like Strats with humbuckers and Floyds. Not that there’s anything wrong with Strats, but it seems an unexciting proposition, one that you could imagine from start to finish without picking up a San Dimas. But this just describes how a Charvel looks, not how it plays, which is entirely different being that so much of its character is in the neck.

You have fat slippery glossy frets, a smooth unvarnished finish that feels like moving on talc, a compound radius board, and a softly curved, subtly flattened neck profile that’s so friendly I do wish it’s what you got on regular Strats. The neck is unlike any I’ve played and easily the best reason to try a Pro Mod. Truss access at the heel, a hassle in humid climes, is the only negative I can level at its design.

Charvel’s laudable focus on such delights at uncommon value is not invisible. The locking nut is a little offset on its shelf. There are file marks at the corner of the neck’s heel carve. You can see into the route by the jack plate. The direct mount pickups are in this case quite literal: the legs of the pickups screwed directly onto flat wood, immobile, with no springs nor space for them, leaving the pickups unadjustable.

Yet you can’t fault the integrity of the whole thing. The neck pocket is tight and snug and the hardware sound. Nothing creaks or shifts when you dive the bar as you find on cheap guitars. There’s a solid and dependable feel to it, despite the raw edges. The impression is somehow of a high quality guitar just made very quickly, which sounds funny.

Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas rolled fretboardWhere attention has been spent, it has been spent lavishly. One difference between the discontinued US models and the new Japanese breed is the rolled fretboard. The usually hard corners along each edge of the fretboard have been sanded ever so smooth, apparently by hand and one fret at a time. I’ll freely admit to ignorance of manufacturing, that there could be some automated way this is done, because the mind boggles over such care in a production guitar at this price, but the work is so smooth and subtly varied from fret to fret I can’t see it as the doing of CNC machines. Curt Anderson of Stanton, CA, authorized Charvel dealer Squid Music was given a look behind the curtain and said standards were respectably high.

“Every single employee who touches guitars in the Japanese factory must have graduated from a guitar luthiers school. The same cannot be said about the people on the USA production line. Also, the Japanese factory building these only builds Jackson and now the new EVH and Charvel production series guitars. Nothing else.” (Rig-Talk)

There are especially beautiful frets sitting on that pampered neck, too, round and shiny, their ends polished to soft domed tips, complimenting the rolled fretboard so that it all slips effortlessly through the hand.

Also in the plus column here is a flawless paint job, metal cavity plates, and that the single volume pot is a CTS. The Floyd works painlessly and returns to pitch as long as you’ve stretched your strings, but although it is a real Floyd Rose, i.e., not a licensed copy as you often see, it is, as on the US Charvels, apparently a Korean import built by Ping rather than the full German article (which enjoys the title of Original Floyd Rose.) It isn’t recessed but pulls up a couple of steps.

Unplugged

For a little lad who grew up the Ibanez way, the loud, open sound of the unamplified San Dimas was a shock. With their ruthlessly thin necks, basswood bodies and plastic coated, powdered metal bridges, Ibanezes, God love ’em, sound thin unplugged. I’d been so brand faithful I thought all superstrats sounded like that, a side effect of the floating tremolo! Turns out it doesn’t have to be that way. What we get here is a wide, balanced, dry ringing tone, with no particular emphasis on any range. It rang so well that I knew it was going to be dynamite plugged in.

Amped

Good wood and a single 500k volume pot make for a bright and lively guitar, and even as a man who prefers fixed bridges I’ll say it has plenty of sustain; it was a surprise to later open the tremolo cavity and find a tiny block on the reverse of the Floyd.

Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas horns, Ferrari RedThe brightness of the guitar suits the neck position Duncan ’59 (SH-1n) well — glassy, open, revealing. I like this pickup in lots of things, but right here in a bright alder San Dimas is the best I’ve heard it perform, with so much form to the notes. Refer to the video for this and see what you think. Every time I throttled a note with my wide overcooked vibrato it yowled such a terrifically vocal ooheeeeooeeeoooh I couldn’t quit. Be thankful you see only edited highlights.

I didn’t gel with the bridge’s JB (TB-4). It’s an understandable selection by Charvel given the raging 80s metal pedigree of the San Dimas, but it was too hot for me and I could hear it blowing detail out of my tone. Its dynamics were obnoxious, too. I have a friend who shouts all the time, even if it’s just you and he in the room — the JB seemed like that in a pickup, always shouting, outputting at 10 no matter how I varied picking styles. I like a pickup to drop way down to a twangy crunch when palming the pick to pluck softly with my fingers, then be driven all the way back to full filthy overdrive just by picking hard, but the JB wasn’t interested in complying, and since you can’t experiment with lowering it in the San Dimas, I had to switch it out for something with words in its vocabulary other than “TEN!” (The replacement was the Duncan Parallel Axis Blues Saraceno PATB-3, which laid out for me a winding little tone odyssey itself, reviewed here.)

In The End

While Gibson has lost sight of what a guitar is (Firebird X) and who musicians are ($5,000), Fender shows itself to retain a keen handle on both. (Fender has owned Charvel since 2002. I was keen to credit the canny pricing of the Pro Mods to whatever kernel of Jackson Charvel Musical Instruments might remain inside FMIC, but putting this to Fender’s Ed Treat he told me bluntly, “Fender is Charvel, so we set the MSRP for all of our products.”)

Like a reissued muscle car, the new San Dimas represents an unapologetic, attainable raw glory transplanted from a simpler time. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t; no binding, no coil split, no wavy wood, no piezo, no abalone. In this age when the instrument is being over thought — the MusicMan Game Changer plugs into a computer and offers a quarter million tonal settings — it’s all the more appealing to find a kick-ass production guitar that doesn’t even have a tone knob. It’s always simply ready to rock.

Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas headstockVideo Evidence

This first video shows the unboxing and playing of the guitar, as well as a rambling section in the middle where I go off and investigate offset dot markers. There are closeups of all the main components. The guitar here is entirely stock, running directly into my Splawn Competition amp. More gear info on the video’s page.

This second video demonstrates the Saraceno pickup I put in the bridge to replace the JB. It also gives a better example of the true color than the first.

28 Responses leave one →
  1. Pete permalink
    March 10, 2011

    Great review.

    How are you liking the guitar a month on? I’m in the process of getting one of these so I’m reading as much as I can.

    I too had/have some reservations about the JB in the bridge though as they are way hotter than what I have in my other guitars. May go for a EVH pickup or something.

    • March 12, 2011

      Thanks Pete.

      Actually I received the guitar in November, so it’s closer to four months, and the Charvel still guarantees a grin. I’ll never get over that neck! I’m hearing from some forums that the glorious fretwork I enthused about and photographed isn’t always present — QC may be inconsistent — so please try to play the guitar first, or ask the seller to send closeup pictures.

      I’ve a feeling the perfect JB replacement might be a Rio Grande BBQ, which still does a great overwound 80s rock crunch like you might want from this kind of guitar, but kills the JB for flavor and dynamics. A very expressive “talky” kind of pickup, at a reasonable 12.5k. (I have one in another guitar.)

      Thanks for coming by, and let me know how that Charvie works out.

  2. Derek permalink
    June 7, 2011

    Hey mate, great review. Really set the GAS cylinders firing there! After a bit of a search may get the same guitar in snow white, and changing out the bridge to an SD Custom Custom I have lying around.

    Quick question if you know – I’m guessing the volume pot is 500k? I’m thining of installing a push/pull and was hoping you could tell me if it was a long or short shaft, and solid or notched head? My guess is that its a solid head, short shaft but wanted to check!

    No worries if you don’t have the time.

    • June 7, 2011

      From footering around in there while installing a pickup, I remember that it’s a 500k CTS pot. Just whipped the chrome knob off and the pot is solid shaft, but don’t get hung up on that as these knobs with the little set screws can work with the split shaft too. I’d bet on short, because the pot doesn’t have to reach through a thick top like on a Les Paul.

      The Custom Custom could be an excellent match; have been meaning to try one in the San Dimas lately myself. New Duncans with white bobbins would probably look pretty killer in your white Charvie if you go that way, don’t you think? Not that I want to cause more GAS. Heavens no.

      • Derek permalink
        June 8, 2011

        Haha, my thoughts exactly. There’s an ebay seller who’s got black/white coiled CCs; think it would look awesome. Course, then I would have to change the neck to match – maybe a Pearly Gates?

        Can recommend the C5 as well; less mids than the CC and Custom, so balances out on LPs really well.

      • Derek permalink
        June 8, 2011

        Sorry mate, I could ask one last silly question? Do you know how big the trem block is in the back, and if you can see the trem arm part? Was thinking about a brass block in there after seeing this

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sZ3w_Qwq2Q&feature=related

        GAS = neverending

        • June 10, 2011

          I only remember that it’s a tiny little thing! Given how well the Charvel rings out unplugged, I opened that cavity up expecting a big block, but it’s small, way smaller than on a Strat or Ibanez Edge. I figure it sounds great, just leave it. A big brass block could add sustain but lose brightness.

  3. stef permalink
    August 25, 2011

    HI!
    Great review Gray! I just read it, after I purchased the guitar, just yesterday. I found this one in a guitar shop near my town, I tried it (2H Ferrari red just like yours) and I immediately fell in love with it. I had to double check the price to see if it was a used example or what. It was new, Japan made at the cost of a chinese low quality product. The guitar is a killer. For eighties riffing and shredding it’s a beast. I’m a Jazz musician now, but how cool is to throw in some fast pentatonic licks and XYZ, Ratt, Van Halen and Dokken riffs with the right tool sometimes? Thanks to this guitar I found that I’m still the same headbanger in my heart! ; )) You’re right, the painting is a showstopper. Quality is very high for a guitar of this price, there was a USA made just near this one, the quality was onestly the same, if not better on this one. I don’t agree on the JB. I love it, for this kind of guitar it’s absolutly perfect. It screams the kind of VH and Lynch pinch harmonics and it has that creamy liquid tone that glues the notes together in fast running! My best vote for this guitar to Charvel, high quality, low price, awesome specs. Just the right thing that a nostalgic of the eighties wants and nothing more. Long live EVH!!!! ; ))) Best to you stef

  4. GuitarDude permalink
    October 14, 2011

    Hey man

    Great review, I came here from YouTube. In this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVr_JuqsXJw what is the name of the song at the beginning? I really like it.It sounds like Survivor or Scorpions like.

    Thank you very much!

    • October 14, 2011

      Well now, that makes me happy, because it’s actually just a short demo called ‘The Conversation’ I made in GarageBand. ^_^ I guess there is no escaping that I am a product of the 80s.

      If you like the tone, it’s an Alnico II Pro bridge pickup into my Splawn Competition amp (there’s a little isolated section of it on the A2P review.) I’d upload the whole thing, but honestly the lead playing is pretty wobbly.

      • GuitarDude permalink
        November 18, 2011

        Wow man! I thought it was from the Scorpions or something. Really nice song. Do you have any plans to upload it to YouTube? Awesome song!

        Thanks

        • GuitarDude permalink
          April 30, 2012

          Hey man

          I am still remember this song! Can you please upload the full version to Youtube?

  5. Rob permalink
    November 12, 2011

    Cool review.

    I know Curt over at Squid Music, well from a message board, he sold me my USA Charvel So Cal and San Dimas. He gave me a tip about the yellow tint… It can be rubbed off of the neck and fingerboard with #0000 grade steel wool (4 ZERO!!!!). I just did that to mine, same color as yours, except I put cream pickup rings and a brass knob (from Curt’s lol)… So much nicer, feels better, and and looks better, waiting for my next string change to do the fingerboard.

    I had to change the position of the toggle, on the USA models the toggle was on a slant, at least on mine, these Japanese models are straight up and down and the motion is so unnatural, also changed the cap to a cream Gibson cap.

    I believe the rolled fingerboard and frets is just how that Japanese factory does it, the same difference exists between the USA EVH Wolfgang and the Japanese EVH Wolfgang Special… I love the feel of the rolled edges.

    I personally prefer these Japanese models to the USA ones, once the yellow tint was rubbed off, debating on whether to get one of Curt’s Retro Mod versions of them in blue, or get a GMW Charvel Star copy.

    And your assessment of Fender vs. Gibson is spot on man, would be nice if Gibson offered a Japanese Gibson intermediate between the overpriced USA Gibson’s and shitty Chinese Epiphones… Why can’t we get a USA made Les Paul with binding for the price of a Studio, is binding really that fricken expensive? lol

    • November 15, 2011

      That’s a nice tip, Rob. I’ve got a lot of #0000 sitting around from a refinishing job, so I might give it a shot in one of my more gung-ho moments. I’d worry a little teeny bit about stripping off what seems to be a light protective oil finish at the same time as the cornbread yellow, but something can be rubbed back on to compensate. The toggle did seem unnatural, but I thought this was down to the SD being my first Shovel; I’m not used to having a switch where a tone pot normally is, no matter which way it faces!

      Fender definitely had its head screwed on with this pricing. I noticed a pretty beefy hike on the official site lately, though — hope they don’t get too greedy with the success of the Pro Mods.

      Good luck with your next, whichever it may be. Think I’d like to grab a Wildcard #6 for the fixed bridge, put brass hardware on it… Never ends.

      • Rob permalink
        November 15, 2011

        According to Curt the oil finish is deep enough into the wood that it won’t rub off with just the 0000 steel wool

  6. Pete Estes permalink
    December 9, 2011

    Great guitar. I have been a pretty dedicated Les Paul player since 94 but, owned and played super strats as far back as 80. Out of the box this guitar was great ! played pretty nice and after I set it up to my preferences it is perfect. There is something to be said about a well prepped neck and this one comes out of the factory like it was played for 10 years and perfectly broken in.

    Just a real nice honest guitar. a joy to play and although I am not a big fan of the JB in the bridge I find that is working well through my early 70′s JMP Marshalls. Been putting it through its paces at home and on stage since i got it.

    I think I will save up and get another for a back up . still love my les pauls but, it is nice to have a second option. have tried and owned many strats and it would be difficult to find one that played this nice without a bunch of mods.

    I would recommend this guitar to anyone that digs a stripped down hot rod. glad that Charvel got it right. there are a lot of us out there that like simplicity.

    only thing I would like to see is a single pickup model or a Humbucker and a single in the neck offered.

    you will like this guitar.

    • December 13, 2011

      Thanks for coming by and offering your 2 cents, Pete. The grab-it-and-go design really appealed to me, too, and there is no beating that played-in neck. If you’re only going to have one super strat, there are several good arguments to suggest it should be one of these, as you’ve found.

      One little note you might find interesting: Wild Card versions #6 and #7 are indeed HS models, as in humbucker at the bridge, single at the neck. #6 is fixed bridge (and may be my next Charvel); #7 has the Floyd.

  7. Tom permalink
    June 2, 2012

    I was shocked that the truss rod cannot be adjusted on the Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas Style 1 and So-Cal Style 1 models without taking the neck off. This is a fatal design flaw for me because I need to adjust the truss rod occasionally due to seasonal climate changes. It is too difficult to setup a guitar and dial in the proper neck relief if you can’t adjust the truss rod with the neck and strings installed.

  8. June 13, 2012

    Awsome review dude! keep up the good work. wish every review was like this with videos and dialogue and lots of playing. is it true these were discontinued or something?

    • June 29, 2012

      Thank you, Abbas, I am to please. Only wish I had more time to do these.

      Yes, sadly it appears the MIJ Charvels are no longer being made. I’ve been meaning to tack on a note about this to the review. There were rumors about the Japan quake being involved, but it turned out that the factory building these for Fender/Charvel, Chushin Gakki, just went out of business. The margin which allowed for such a guitar at $899 was apparently too thin, owing to the strong yen. Fender will likely start up the Pro Mod series again, but where is a guess right now. Mexico? Korea? It won’t be at that plant with those luthiers. But hey, players worried the move from USA to Japan would be negative, and look how that turned out.

      • July 5, 2012

        Great thanks! I’m seriously contemplating buying one off my friend it is a USA version I think with the black floyd and pickup mounting rings? are these good ones too? or is the japanese version better in your opinion?

        also can you please advise me are these mostly just aimed at Hard Rock/Metal type players or can they accommodate other styles?

        thanks Gray

        • July 18, 2012

          The US models were a real hit when they launched, very well received, though I’ve heard owners of both types say the necks were a step above on the MIJ models. I’ve never played a US Pro-Mod and cannot fairly compare.

          They are high-output, bright circuit guitars with locking tremolos. Yes, as repros of 80s screamers they are aimed squarely at the rock/metal crowd, particularly those of us with a guilty Spandex past. However that clear, crisp primary tone — the way the guitar sounds unplugged — is a great place to start for all sorts of music, and there’s no reason we widdlers should hog all the primo necks. I’d think with the right pickups, especially something more dynamic in the bridge position, you’d have a great platform for almost anything. Whether your jazz trio or punk outfit will let you play a candy colored 80s superstrat is another issue…

  9. July 25, 2012

    LOL! awesome thanks Gray!

  10. Leonardo permalink
    August 27, 2012

    Hello,

    Nice review.
    I bougth a Charvel San Dimas Candy Blue last week.
    I have a question.
    How can i adjust de pickups distance from the strings.

    Tks

  11. Leonardo permalink
    August 27, 2012

    Hello,

    Nice review.
    I bougth a Charvel San Dimas Candy Blue last week.
    I have a question.
    How can i adjust de pickups distance from the strings ?

    Tks

  12. May 2, 2013

    Nice bridge pup choice man.. I grabbed a black Charvel San Dimas USA from off ebay USA new for just over 1k.. I love it but its really heavy and hurts my shoulder.. Id love to order a Jap one… you got a link man?

    Cheers.. Keep Rock’n

    Marc

  13. January 28, 2014

    I need to to thank you for this good read!!
    I certainly enjoyed every bit of it. I have you book marked to check out new things you post…

  14. September 6, 2014

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It truly useful &
    it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and aid
    others like you helped me.

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