Charvel Guitars: Built For Speed
The new Charvel models received an enthusiastic reception from dealers and players. The company’s humbucker- and tremolo-equipped superstrat quickly became the favorite model and is still one of the most sought-after guitars on the used market. But Charvel also built an equally impressive San Dimas Tele and Explorer, as well as a guitar inspired by Eddie Van Halen’s modified Ibanez Destroyer, called the San Dimas Star. Mike Shannon says, “We all worked for perfection and quality—shaping necks to be fast and comfortable, doing superb paint work, and meticulously dressing the frets… Each guitar had a personality for the player to discover.”
One of the superstrats’ key features was a compound radius fingerboard. Eldred describes the flattening arc of the radius as being “like an inverted ice cream cone,” where the lower frets have a smaller radius that’s comfortable for chording and the higher frets have a flatter or wider radius that facilitates speed, low action, high bends, hammer-ons and arpeggios. Tim Wilson did the math to determine the measurements that made consistent production of a compound radius fretboard possible for the first time.
Early Charvel bodies were all made from heavy woods, typically ash. Lightweight woods didn’t become popular until Allan Holdsworth requested custom-built basswood Charvels. (A friend of Jackson’s, Holdsworth held rehearsals for his 1982 album, I.O.U., at the Glendora shop.) This was the first time that a lightweight wood was ever used by a major manufacturer on a solidbody electric guitar.
Another component featured on almost all Charvels was a modern tremolo from either Kahler or Floyd Rose. Most of the very early Charvels were built with Kahler brass vintage-style trems that were non-locking. A short time later, Charvel started mounting the double-locking Floyd Rose system that’s preferred by the majority of whammy and dive-bomb specialists. Steve Vai was an early fan of the whammy-equipped Charvels. He says, “Before I created my signature Jem model for Ibanez in the early Eighties, Grover Jackson was working on innovative guitar designs. He was one of the first to put a humbucker and a whammy on a body that actually worked. This helped shape much of the early Eighties dive-bombing extravaganzas that pervaded the metal guitar scene.”
Like Van Halen’s striped Charvels, Vai’s “Green Meanie” Charvel became a highly visible example of the company’s work and growing influence, making appearances on Vai’s Flex-Able album cover, numerous magazines and, later, in the video for David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose.” The guitar that became the Green Meanie was originally one of Grover’s personal superstrats. Vai borrowed the guitar to take on tour with Alcatrazz. A few months into the tour, he called Jackson and said that he didn’t want to part with the guitar and had painted it green. Jackson let him keep it.
While many players, including Vai, were content with an outlandish paint scheme on their Charvel, Randy Rhoads was not. He recognized the playability of a Charvel but wanted a guitar that had a more radical look, right down to the body shape. In December 1980, while in California on a break from the Blizzard of Ozz tour, Rhoads sat down with Jackson and began designing a new guitar. The result was an offset-bodied white V-style instrument that they named “the Concorde.” The appellation was later changed to RR1, for “Randy Rhoads Model One.” It remains one of Jackson’s most popular guitars.
The guitar’s look was very unusual for the time, however, and Jackson, fearful of alienating customers, was hesitant to place the Charvel name on the instrument. Instead, he put his own name on the pointed headstock, and Jackson Guitars was born. Jackson had made one V-shaped neck-through-body guitar for Swiss virtuoso Vic Vergeat that predated the Concorde, but Rhoads’ guitar was the first to display the Jackson logo. Going forward, Jackson became the sleekly insane brother to the wild, yet traditional, Charvel brand. From a construction standpoint, Jacksons were the company’s neck-through-body guitars and Charvels their bolt-on instruments. Ironically, considering Grover’s original concerns about the RR1, the popularity of Jackson’s aggressive styling soon overshadowed the more conventional-looking Charvels. By the mid Eighties, MTV looked like a 24-hour advertisement for Jackson.
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