Jun 28, 2012
Charvel is a name that will forever be associated with 80s metal/shred. Although the company was named after Wayne Charvel, early on in the game he sold the company to Grover Jackson, whom we all know went on to pioneer another behemoth of metal guitars, starting with the now-classic Randy Rhoads model.
Grover Jackson basically started Jackson guitars so that he could try to push the outlandish offset V design that he and Randy had concocted, electing not to let the Charvel brand stray from the superstrat formula that had made it famous. To some extent, this has been Charvel’s philosophy all these years – make a killer bolt-on superstrat with a double-locking bridge, most often seen with a maple fretboard. Calling card of the blazing technical shredder in the 80s – used by guitar greats ranging from Richie Sambora to Van Halen to Warren DeMartini, to pretty much everyone.
Sure, in the late 80s/early 90s they brought out the Model series, and those were drop dead amazing. But these were mostly variations on the same theme (although there was the Model 6, a neckthrough killer of an axe, but that was basically a port of the Jackson Soloist anyway).
Charvel as a guitar maker died a death in the late 90s, and the brand sunk from the public eye for quite some time, until FMIC (Fender) decided to purchase and revive it in 2002. Since then we’ve seen a whole lot of cool reissues and “inspired by” kind of guitars like the heyday of the San Dimas guitars. Which, is really cool. But again it is not really different from the safe formula Charvel has been sticking to all this while.
Enter the Desolation
This is where the new Desolation series comes in. Where previous contemporary Charvels have been exclusively Japanese or American made, these are made in China.
Where previous contemporary Charvels have been 99.9% superstrats only, these feature new designs aimed at the modern metal player.
Where most of the Charvel line features Duncan/Dimarzio passive stalwarts like the JB or Tonezone, these feature Blackouts, the latest innovation in active pickups that threaten to unseat the EMG81/85 combo from its seat of metal power.
Most of the line released so far also retails for $1099 NZD and under.
It certainly sounds a bit too good to be true – so let’s find out what the deal is.
What’s under the hood?
The Rockshop was kind enough to get me the DS-1 FR, basically the top of the Desolation range in the Les Paul flavour. As usual, big props to our friendly local retailers!
The DS1-FR boasts these specs:
- Mahogany neck-through with mahogany wings and carved top
- Scalloped neck heel for easy access to the
- 24 jumbo frets, 25.5″ scale length
- Pimptastic abalone inlays, body binding and headstock binding.
- Floyd Rose locking bridge
- Seymour Duncan Blackout set
A Les Paul with a Floyd, you say? Are you insane and/or stupid??
Well, quite possible. But I have a well established love of crazy looking combinations, and what’s crazier than a Floyded LP? Also, I figure the construction and specs (neck-through, Fender scale) are far enough from a Les Paul that you might as well take it one step further!
Fit and finish
As a general comment, on my first look over it, I was a bit disappointed. However, a friend astutely pointed out that these are basically set at the same price point as an Epiphone Les Paul!! So take my nitpicking with a grain of salt, and remember you’re never going to get perfection for $1099.
Inlays, as expected, were quite rough. The “shield” inlays (I think that’s what they’re meant to be?) are a fairly angular shape, and quite a bit of black filler was noticeable around the edges. I might just be totally full of shit but I like to take the precision of inlay work on a production guitar as a general comment on the workmanship of the entire guitar. This did not bode particularly well.
Next up – finish. The finish was a nice matte black, with the neck joint masked off to transition into an unpainted neck. There was a very distinct paint line where the masking occurred. You could feel the difference in thickness where the paint ended, which I wasn’t really impressed about. A minor concern in the grand scheme of things, sure – but it was one which I was reminded of every time I hit the higher frets.
The neck itself had a peculiar sort of feel. It obviously wasn’t gloss finished, but it didn’t feel like a normal satin finish either. It just kinda felt like raw wood – perhaps it was oiled? I don’t know for sure. But it was decent D shape and pretty fast to get around on.
Now it’s not all doom and gloom. The factory setup (it came straight out of the box, and hadn’t been setup by the shop at all) was actually pretty impressive. Medium/low action, and the Floyd was basically already perfectly balanced. All I did was tune up and tighten the locking nuts. That was a nice touch – when you hear horror stories about Gibson’s yo-yo QC, it’s nice to see that a Chinese factory can get it right. Naturally there was a small amount of buzz in random spots, but nothing too terrible.
Let me hear you scream
I think it’s a foregone conclusion that even if the production values were a bit hit and miss, loading this guitar with Seymour Duncan Blackouts could quite possibly be what sets it apart from the Epiphones of the world. Let’s face it, Blackouts are the new generation of active pickups – ridiculous amounts of output, but no longer as sterile as the original EMGs were for anything but uber gain.
“With great gain comes great responsibility” – I’m pretty sure Spiderman said that. Or something. My made-up quote is completely true – you have to be careful with a super high output pickup. Driving an already raging gained out amp with super high output pickups is basically a recipe for mush, as I found out when I plugged the Desolation into the High input of my Marshall AFD on its normal settings. Sure, it sounds like a brutal, djenty Christmas, but once other instruments kicked in, it got swallowed whole like Pinocchio and Moby Dick. Or that other giant whale.
So, make sure you adjust your gain levels accordingly. This is a Public Service Announcement. Kids, I’m sick of testing out guitars in shops and finding the amp has been set to Bass 10, Mids 0, Treble 10 and Gain 10. This is not how you achieve “t3h br00talz”.
When I started doing these clips, the Blackouts just kinda hit me like a sledgehammer with the sheer amount of output they have. They just made everything sound more metal, and who’s more metal than the late, great Dimebag Darrell?? So this time, the soundclips turned into a bit of a Dimebag/Pantera tribute.
Now before you start going on about the fact that Dimebag never played a goddamn Charvel in his life… well, he did!! Back in the early glam days of Pantera, he had a sweet original San Dimas finished in Ghost Flames, completely awesome.
If you still don’t believe me, check out the video below (skip to the solo to see the guitar above).
Anyway – the reputed best part about Blackouts is that they do not suck for clean playing. True or false? Listen for yourself. First the neck pickup, both, then the bridge.
I did think it sounded a little “plinky” on the bridge pickup, but that could be down to the setup as well.
So we did single notes… now let’s explore some ringing open note stuff, with the badass Black Sabbath cover that Pantera did. Planet Caravan.
That’s pretty cool!
Okay… next up usually is the rock stuff. However, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t find any rock tones that I particularly loved from the Blackouts. The tones I did get seemed a little fuzzy or a little too driven, or something. So I left those out – but I’m sure someone somewhere might love these for rock! Just not me, I’m afraid.
Alright, the formalities are over. Let’s see how the Desolation fares for face melting metal madness.
One of the things you might be worried about is the Ping Floyd Rose. Although it looks like an original, it’s made in China. By all accounts, not all Floyds are created equal, but as they go, this one isn’t bad at all. Although I can’t speak to the long term survival of the knife edges and so on, the Floyd on this didn’t shy away from some Dime style whammy abuse, before I got my chug on with Mouth For War. I used the Dual Rec model on the HD500.
Getcha pull! Now that’s what I’m talking about. Whammy madness and still keeps in tune – that’s good.
As we reach the end of the “Dimebag tribute” edition, I’d just like to say that Dimebag was a hugely inspiring figure to me, both as a person and a musician. His playing skills were second to none – such a fluid, aggressive grace, if that’s not an oxymoron. But where he really stood out among the heap of “brutal” metal guys was his great personality and kind soul. Back in the day you would hear heaps of stories about Dime just taking the time, after a gruelling night on stage, to hang out with the kids who had come to see the band, sometimes even giving them personal effects and pedals and such like.
Why would someone want to kill such a good soul? We will never know. In tribute to the late Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, here is the final outro/solo section of one of his greatest masterpieces – Floods. Somewhere, Dime is drinking a Blacktooth Grin with Jimi, Randy, and all the other greats lost before their time.
Going boldly where no Charvel has gone
I really like that Charvel is striking out and trying something different. And I think they’re doing a good job using the Desolation branding to establish a product line that is distinct from their high end guitars, which helps to alleviate some of the brand dilution I was ranting about the other week.
Despite some workmanship hiccups, I can only be amazed and impressed by the features and sounds packed into this guitar for just over $1000. The stoptail model can be had for about a grand, and I think the DS2 (set neck with Charvel active pickups) is somewhere in the $650 price range. So if you’re looking for a modern style alternative to a Les Paul, and want great features out of the box, this could well be the ticket. Why buy an Epiphone with crappy stock pickups when you can kick ass with one of these?
I really hope that Charvel’s Chinese factory will improve on the workmanship, and keep these guitars at the same great price point. That’s the challenge, and if they can, I’ll bet we’ll be getting a whole lot more Desolate in future!! PS – once again I didn’t recognize the serial number format, looks like the trend these days is towards getting your own small factory setup, which makes it even more confusing in terms of figuring out general quality trends in Chinese manufacturing, but that’s a post for another day!!
3.5 Fuck Yeahs - Great feature set, but the workmanship lets it down.
Tune in next time – I’m doing a cool comparison of the Tech 21 Character Series pedals for the Rockshop website Blog section.
Thanks for reading, Samurai out!