Charvel Guitars: Built For Speed
Grover Jackson says, “There was a vibe and a team spirit at Charvel that I never experienced anywhere else. Sometimes the good intention of the creator gets into the product, against all odds, and this was certainly true of every Charvel that went out the door.”
Charvel’s Guitar Repair
The man whose name is on Charvel guitars was a part of the company for only four years, but Wayne Charvel’s contributions and importance to the history of player-centric guitars can’t be understated. He was a typical Southern Californian hot-rod enthusiast, whose innate mechanical and artistic talents inspired his desire to help players improve and personalize their instruments.
Originally a sign painter, Charvel discovered he had a remarkable aptitude for guitar refinishing. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, he began to perform custom work for Fender, including paint jobs and pickup installations. Using other company’s parts, he also created two blonde Tele-style guitars for Billy Gibbons, a black Strat-style guitar for Ritchie Blackmore and a one-of-a-kind Plexiglas bass for the Who’s John Entwistle. Painting flames on guitars, as he did on several of Gibbons’ Fenders, became one of Wayne’s particular specialties. Charvel says, “As far as I know, I was the first person to ever paint hot-rod flames on a guitar.” Over the years, attention-getting paint jobs would be a defining characteristic of the guitars that bear his name.
Wayne opened Charvel’s Guitar Repair in 1974 in the Southern California town of Azusa. There, he continued to take on work from Fender, sell aftermarket parts and offer some custom services to the public. One noteworthy player who wandered into Charvel’s shop in the early Seventies was a young hotshot named Eddie Van Halen.
“Eddie came by the shop a lot and sometimes would sit on the floor and play the guitar while we repaired some of his other guitars,” Charvel recalls. “One day, Eddie came over to the shop and asked if I had an extra body and neck. I told him that I had an extra Boogie Body neck and an old body in my shop. I gave Ed the parts, and the next time I saw the guitar he had used a spray can to paint it white with black stripes. He used nails to hold the pickup in the body.”
This was the first of Eddie’s fabled “Frankenstein” guitars, as was featured prominently on Van Halen, the self-titled debut from Ed’s group. It eventually served as the template for the Grover Jackson–built black-and-yellow-striped Charvel superstrat that Ed can be seen holding on Van Halen II. Though Wayne couldn’t have imagined it at the time, his shop’s association with the guitarist would springboard Charvel’s success within a few years.
Although Wayne was well known for his paintwork, Charvel’s repair guru, Karl Sandoval was the shop’s main attraction. Sandoval is best known today as the innovator of Randy Rhoads’ polka dot V, but long before he worked on that guitar he was Charvel’s chief employee. Sandoval, who routinely worked on Van Halen’s guitars, introduced Eddie to Charvel’s shop and turned him on to using a Variac voltage-regulating device with his amps, something that Eddie has long credited with helping him create his signature “brown sound.”
After a year in Azusa, Wayne moved the shop to San Dimas, which is now widely celebrated as the birthplace of shredder guitars. Even though the shop offered repair services, most of Charvel’s business was from mail-order sales of Boogie Body and Schecter Guitar Research bodies and necks, pickups from DiMarzio (then in its first years as a supplier of aftermarket guitar pickups), and replacement parts. Many guitars of the time came stock with plastic and low-quality steel parts, and Charvel was among the first suppliers to offer superior replacement hardware, including brass bridges, stainless-steel tremolo arms and aluminum jack plates.