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.
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.
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.
Where 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.