Something big happened to rock in the early 1990s. Out went spandex, hairspray and garish album covers; in came tattoos, pierced nostrils and deathly rage. It was a revolution, but nobody told Charvel, who had been on top of the metal world when Eddie Van Halen and Richie Sambora were flashing their superstrats all over MTV. In the aftermath of grunge the guitars' aesthetics stayed pretty much the same, but their reputation for quality did not – a recipe for going out of fashion and staying there.
Maybe now we're far enough away from the '80s to look at this sort of bold, highcontrast styling as an acceptable kind of retro. Things have been looking up since Charvel was bought by Fender in 2002, and rumour has it the quality of their current offerings is right up there with the good old days. These two models are from the Japanese-built Pro-Mod series, and they look like serious bits of gear.
Now things get more complicated. The hardware's the same but the Wild Card has a maple top, which should brighten up the sound, and a thick rosewood fretboard, which should soften it again. The pickups are Seymour Duncans in the popular HSS format, so we're expecting less brute force and more harmonic complexity. This is echoed by the bookmatched blue/green top which gives a slightly more sophisticated look. It fades moodily to black around the edges, and the finish is translucent enough on the back to reveal that the alder body is made of three pieces. Again there are no tone controls, which may prove to be more of an issue on a guitar that mixes humbuckers and single-coils.
Unplugged, the Wild Card is light and smooth in a way that makes the So-Cal sound a tad vulgar. This is carried through by the humbucker, which is more articulate than those white-hot DiMarzios. The single-coils are much lower in output, with a classically Stratty tone that can end up sounding rather weedy through an amp that's been set up for the fat fella at the back. Tone controls might help, but of course that would make the volume drop even bigger. There is more fullness in the out-of-phase sounds (even if 'middle and bridge' is so quacky you'll want to throw it bread), and overdrive will melt things down nicely to the point of tackling blues.
In metal territory the humbucker leaps into life, with the classic honk of the So-Cal toned down for a more grown-up feel. The level drop between pickups is now minimal, but there's enough tonal di¨fference in the five settings to guarantee the switch is going to get plenty of use. It's certainly more versatile than the So-Cal, but is it as much fun? Not quite.
There’s no denying that those looks, not to mention the Charvel name itself, will be a big turn-o¨ to anyone who thinks poodle perms look best on poodles, but that’s not what the Pro-Mods deserve. They’re basically Japanese Strats with high-output humbuckers, and they’re pretty good.
Website: Charvel Pro-Mod Series