Charvel So-Cal and San Dimas Electric Guitars
Charvel Guitars, charvel.com
Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009
These axes will satisfy shredders of all ages, from players for whom
the Charvel name is just a legend to—especially—those who have
experience playing the originals.
Charvel Guitars are as integral to the roots of shred as the legendary players who first burned across fretboards and into rock history. In the Eighties, the company’s California shop with the San Dimas mailing address gained notoriety as the place that transformed Stratocasters and other guitars into specialized head-cutting, divebombing scream machines. Charvel’s unique Southern California hot-rod treatment typically included planing the fretboard to a flat radius, loading in humbuckers, hopping up to big frets, reshaping the neck and installing a double-locking Floyd Rose.
The resulting muscle-car guitars were dubbed “superstrats,” and pioneering shredders like Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, Warren DeMartini, George Lynch, Jake E. Lee, Steve Stevens, Vivian Campbell and Richie Sambora rewrote the rules of rock guitar on one of these high-performance instruments. In 2002, after a storied history, Charvel became part of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation and began the loving process of rediscovering its past glory. Charvel’s three current models—the So-Cal 1 2H, San Dimas 1 2H and San Dimas 2 2H—are made in the U.S.A. and look, feel and perform exactly as the originals.
Charvel spent more than two years on these guitars’ specs to ensure that every detail is true to the original guitars’ feel, tone and playability. The bodies are cut from medium-weight alder for a warm midrange that has kicking mids, impressive bass weight and pronounced harmonics. Both Strat- and Tele-style bodies are essentially identical to their Fender counterparts except for a slightly more square edge route. Original Floyd Rose double-locking tremolos are top-mounted, as they were on the superstrats, to provide more punch and power than a back-routed trem. The mini Grover tuners are almost identical to the originals, and you’ll notice that all hardware is offered only in black. Speaking of colors, the guitars’ finishes are all limited to specific productions runs, making the guitars’ years of manufacture obvious and adding to collectability. Also, the So-Cal’s pickguard is only for authentic aesthetic appeal; there isn’t actually a cavity under the plastic.
Pickups for the San Dimas models are Duncan’s classic JB bridge and ’59 neck humbuckers. The So-Cal is loaded with a DiMarzio Tone Zone in the bridge and an Evolution in the neck, much like the set of DiMarzios that were favored in guitars like Steve Vai’s Green Meanie Charvel. A stout three-way switch selects the pickups. Aside from this, the only other control is a single volume knob. As any shredder knows, the absence of a tone pot frees the pickups to deliver their loudest and raunchiest performance.
While these and other features make Charvels incomparable shred tools, their mystique really lies in the comfort and response of the neck. To create the template for these new necks, the company turned to numerous original superstrats and other early modified Charvels, and the results recall the best of Charvel’s renowned mid-Eighties necks. They’re cut from one piece of expensive quartersawn maple, and the fingerboard edges are aggressively rolled so that they never cut into your thumb or fingers. The fretboard’s compound radius starts at 12 inches and flattens to 16 inches above the 12th fret. It’s imperceptible to touch but quite evident when bent notes never fret out and tapped and swept notes emanate from the board with minimal effort.
Twenty-two jumbo frets strike a perfect balance between touch sensitivity and easy fingering. Where so many modern shred necks are extremely thin, the Charvel’s neck profile is a relaxed and wide C shape. It’s the kind of neck that melts into your hand and can be played all day without strain. For true Charvel aficionados, the coolest detail has got to be the San Dimas neck plate. Originals routinely sell for between $200 and $400. For its new guitars, Charvel is using the same neck-plate mold, and they are dead-on perfect reissues. Of course, these would not be true Charvel guitars if they didn’t have the Strat headstock, so through a special agreement, Fender is allowing Charvel to replicate the design.
All three of my test guitars were very similar in their phenomenal tones. This means that Charvel has figured out how to turn magic into a repeatable science. The San Dimas models exhibit brown tones with breathy lows, a jackhammer upper-midrange attack and searing highs. If you’re going for the brownest or thickest tones of the group, the Tele body style on the San Dimas 2 2H actually delivers the goods best, although we are talking about minute differences. These are the tones that first lit the shred fire and continue today as the archetype of technical metal.
The DiMarzios in the So-Cal model are representative of the late-Eighties Charvel evolution, when players like Steve Vai began favoring a lower-midrange accent, which gives weight and clarity to a legato style. Squeals and screams are a little more refined through the DiMarzios, and chunky treble triads are traded for harmonic complexity.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Charvel got it right. From the neck shape to the pickups, bodies, headstock and San Dimas neck plate, these Charvel guitars are exact reissues of the original super-modified Eighties-era guitars. These axes will satisfy shredders of all ages, from players for whom the Charvel name is just a legend to—especially—those who have experience playing the originals.
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