Charvel/Jackson Model 4
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
One day in the late '80's the manager of the music store in which I was teaching at the time says,
"Hey, you wanna buy a $900.00 guitar for $300.00? We're placing a $25,000.00 order and getting a bulk discount. Here's a Charvel catalogue. Pick out what you want, we'll include it in our order and you just pay our cost when it comes in."
I said, "Do they have anything in a wood-grain finish?" Answer - No.
"Do they have anything without a whammy bar?" Answer - No.
"Do they have anything without a locking tremolo system?" Answer - No.
I like things that look natural and organic - wood floors, natural-looking landscaping, women without makeup, tattoos or dyed hair and natural, wood-grain guitar finishes.
All the guitars in the catalog had cherry-red, hot pink, flaming orange or some such garish finish.
So I picked out the most conservative looking guitar in the catalogue (electric blue). I figured if I didn't like it I could sell it for 500 bucks. Someone would get a really good deal and I would make money - win/win!
It felt different than anything I'd ever played. The neck has a wider radius than usual. This means the neck feels wide and flat (not curved) across the fret board but thin from front to back.
The pickup configuration was also unfamiliar to me. There are separate on/off switches for each pickup and an active midrange boost knob to get a fatter, more Gibson-y tone when desired. I decided to give myself 6 or 7 months to get used to it - I was gigging pretty steady (as always!) at the time and used it on 5 or 6 gigs a week.
I have a saying: "I like what I'm used to and I can get used to almost anything."
I did get used to it and kept it. I've used it ever since on Rock/R&B/Variety gigs. In spite of the fact that it looks like a hot rod eighties rock guitar, it's actually quite versatile.
But let's talk about the locking tremolo. It's now common but was a new thing to me at the time.
To my surprise, the locking tremolo system actually worked! You can abuse the whammy bar big-time and the thing stays in amazingly good tune.
Caveat: that comes after a modification.
The original tremolo was a Kahler system which had the headstock lock behind the nut. That is a major design flaw. Let me explain:
A guitar that has a non-locking whammy bar on it has problems. Using the whammy bar in an aggressive manner creates tuning issues.
One of the reasons is because when you depress the bar the strings slide through the nut. When you release the bar they are supposed to slide back. Some of them, usually one of the lower, wrapped strings, would catch on the edge of the groove in the nut and not come all the way back, causing the string to go sharp - hence, out of tune.
The locking whammy bar was invented in the middle to late '70s by Floyd Rose with, according to a pissed-off Eddie, a little help from Eddie Van Halen. Before about 1980, it didn't exist, at least in its present form with the fine tuners on the bridge.
Listen to any live Jimi Hendrix recording. Odds are he's painfully out of tune. Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing Hendrix; he's incredibly important and very influential on my own playing (I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Are You Experienced in 1967), but the tuning issues always bugged the crap out of me. Why is he so out of tune? Because of his extreme whammy bar use.
Back in the sixties and seventies we dealt with this issue in several ways. One way was to take a fingernail file and round off the edges of the string grooves in the nut. This helped the strings slide all the way back. The downside was it was more likely for the string to pop out of the nut when bending. So we only filed the grooves for the 3 lower strings since most of the string-bending occurs on the top 3 strings. The strings would still pop out of the nut if you hit them hard, so you had to develop a real light touch with your strumming hand. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Another way we dealt with the problem was to smear vaseline in the string grooves. I also used graphite, that is, pencil lead. These things helped, but nothing worked all the time.
Back to the Kahler; when the lock-nut is behind the regular nut, as in the original system on my Charvel, the strings still slide through the grooves in the nut! So the tuning issues were still present, though mitigated somewhat.
So after deciding to keep the guitar, and coming to the conclusion that the locking system basically worked, I had a local tech put a locking nut on it, which replaced the regular nut. That worked! It stays in tune even with extreme whammy bar use.
After many years of playing that guitar, it became difficult to find parts for the Kahler so I had the same tech replace it with a Floyd Rose.
I've only recently reduced the gigs I use it on because of my acquisition of a 1972 Telecaster which I like better tone-wise. I still use the Charvel when a whammy bar is required a la Hendrix, Prince, any 80's Rock or Surf Music.
I've recently been told by the owner of one of the stores at which I teach that these 80's-era Charvel-Jacksons now have some collectability.
Sweet! I only paid $300.00 for it brand-new. I wonder if the installation of the Floyd Rose has reduced its collectability value? I don't care - I'm functionally-oriented, and the Floyd Rose works better.
My original impression of the Charvel line of guitars was that they were cheap Jacksons. Now it seems they are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in and of themselves. It's amazing how perspectives change over 30 years.
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