Charvel Guitars: Built For Speed
Originally published in Guitar World, March 2010
How a small California guitar parts and repair facility kick-started
the guitar custom shop revolution and became the premiere maker of super-fast guitars for everyone from Eddie Van Halen to Steve Vai to Warren DeMartini. Guitar World celebrates the storied history and glorious renaissance of Charvel.
Wayne Charvel unwittingly spawned a guitar custom shop revolution when he opened Charvel's Guitar Repair in 1974, in Azusa, California. The shop performed aftermarket customizations and sold parts that allowed guitarists, including an early customer named Eddie Van Halen, to build their own instruments. At the time, the major guitar companies didn’t offer custom work to the public, and they typically turned over artists’ modification requests to independent luthiers, such as Charvel. In that respect, Gibson, Fender and the other big firms helped independents like Charvel prosper. Ironically, the poor quality of those companies’ guitars during that era drove more business to the doors of Charvel and its ilk, as players sought competent luthiers that could turn their mediocre instruments into something special.
It didn’t take long for Southern California guitarists to appreciate the Charvel shop’s hot-rodded electronics and the superior playability that its modifications provided. By the late Seventies, when Charvel began to build its own guitars, the company’s aptly dubbed “superstrats”—with their flat, unfinished necks and large fret wire—had become synonymous with the rising trend of shredding. As the Eighties gave rise to virtuoso shredders, Charvel guitars could be seen in the hands of players like Steve Vai, Jake E. Lee, Warren DeMartini and George Lynch. But Charvels weren’t exclusive to metal players. Fusion giant Allan Holdsworth played custom Charvels, and in the late Eighties Jeff Beck exclaimed, “These guitars made me want to start playing again!”
Charvels were built for speed, but they also had a sound all their own. “They never sounded like Fenders or Gibsons,” says Dweezil Zappa, who acquired his first two Charvels in 1982. “They always had their own sound and personality. The guitars were built with more dexterity in mind. It was easier to reach the top frets, and the vibrato systems were set up well.”
Credit for the company’s mainstream success is due to Grover Jackson, the man who is considered the mastermind and father of metal guitars. Though he’s known today for the brand that bears his own name, Jackson first made his mark with Charvel after he bought out Wayne’s interest in the company in November 1978. Jackson and his team of noted luthiers refined the instruments and instituted production facilities that allowed him to bring Charvels to the masses.
Under Jackson’s guidance, Charvel grew in popularity throughout the Eighties as the shred phenomenon took off. Production began to shift to Japan in 1986, and in 1989 Jackson sold his interest in the company to the Fort Worth, Texas investment firm, International Music Corporation (IMC). Charvel’s numerous original employees went to work as master builders at Fender, where many of them still work today. High-quality Charvels continued to be manufactured in Japan, but the rise of grunge in the early Nineties reduced demand for the instruments. As the decade went on and sales waned, quality began to dip, and the brand became associated with inferior budget instruments.
By the time Fender acquired Charvel in the fall of 2002, the brand had been all but abandoned. Over the past seven years, Fender has managed to return it to its old glory, thanks in great part to those many original employees in Fender’s ranks. Charvel senior product manager Michael McGregor says, “Charvel is a brand steeped in history and tradition. Building these guitars again with the original recipe is a true labor of love.”
Charvel’s colorful story is a convoluted history of genius, serendipity, iconic players, third-party financiers and talented builders. But whatever the circumstances, there was something special about each Charvel, whether it was made in America or Japan.