When: March 26, 1982
Where: Grover’s guitar building facility in San Dimas, California
What: I originally met Grover through my friend, Jimmy Waldo. Jimmy was the keyboard player in a band called Alcatrazz. Following Yngwie Malmsteen’s departure, Steve Vai, on Waldo’s recommendation, was brought into the fold. Steve had just come off working with Frank Zappa and he really didn’t have his guitar thing together. So Grover, as a friend of Jimmy’s, began working with Steve.
was, and still is, a tremendously clever and gifted individual. He was really one of the first custom guitar luthiers and visiting his shop was always a fun time. Guitarists, inevitably, would be hanging out, while their instruments were being assembled and painted.
In this conversation with Grover, he talks about the world of custom guitar crafting. He is one of the most honest people I’ve ever met and was never afraid of expressing his personal views on any given subject.
Randy Rhoads had died just a week earlier on the Friday prior to this conversation. Grover’s relationship with Randy was a special one and the guitarist’s passing had left a pall over the entire interview.
Note: In the 1980s period stories, you’ll find an interview with Wayne Charvel. I had contacted Grover about the interview and even let him read the entire transcript. He felt unsettled about some of Charvel’s comments and in a separate letter to me, tried to lay straight the facts of what happened between he and Wayne.
You can also read the contents of that letter on these pages.
UG: Give us a little bit of background about Charvel and this amazing facility you’ve created here?
Grover Jackson: Charvel with whatever after name – Charvel Manufacturing, Charvel Guitar Guitar Repair, or Charvel this or that or the other – has been around for about 8 years. Wayne Charvel started it as a repair shop in the garage of his house over in Covina. And operated as a repair shop for about 5 years and moved into a little industrial place over there in Covina. And about 4 ? years ago, I got involved as a 10 per cent partner/business manager. And about a year after that, he had gone through a lot of real hard stuff with the Schecter ISA people and I won’t even make an opinion about that. But they just had a lot of troubles and lawsuits went back and forth and at that point, he was mentally and physically worn out. He said, ‘I don’t want no more of this;’ we were goin’ through real hard financial times, he says, ‘I wanna go bankrupt.’ And my deal for the 10 per cent with him was, I said, ‘I will take no money, no salary, but I want 10 per cent and I’ll run it and do the best I can. If I can make it fly, I get the 10 per cent, if I don’t make it fly, then I don’t get nothin’’.
At the end of that year, he said, ‘I’m gonna go bankrupt’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s far out but you’ve got a year of my asshole here, you know.’ And he said, ‘Well, I want out’ and I said, ‘OK, I’ll buy you out.’ And so I bought him out and it’s blossomed since then. So, in a nutshell, that’s the history of Charvel.
Was there an actual point where it changed from a repair shop into a manufacturing enterprise?
There wasn’t a point, no. You can go back to your old Guitar Player magazines and you’ll see the Charvel advertisements as early as, I think, 1975. Where they had the non-breakable Les Paul jack plate and the non-breakable tremolo arm; then a little bit later, the white single layer Strat pickguards. That’s all verifiable through Guitar Player magazine. But he was still basically a repair shop and he had jobbed out these few parts that he then marketed. He made it sound like he manufactured them but he never did.
Then he got involved with Schecter and they said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make a million bodies, we’re gonna make a million of this, we’re gonna make a million of that, and you’re gonna need all of this stuff.’ And he went out and bought two overhead pin routers which at the time I came on the scene had never even been plugged in; he didn’t have a router bit. He’s got $15,000 worth of machinery sittin’ there that’s never been turned on.
Travis Bean was a friend of mine from my days at Anvil; that’s where I came from, Anvil Cases. I was a salesman there and I called Travis Bean up and they gave me some router bits so we could turn our routers on.
And we have progressively gone more and more manufacturing ever since then and even today we take on a few repairs. I’ve got two or three repairs in here now. But we stopped soliciting repair-type work and being more of a manufacturer about 3 ? years ago.
So the first guitar you designed and manufactured came out of this shop about 3 ? years ago?
No, Wayne used to do all the Fender refinish work so he had access into the Fender service center. As long as six or seven years ago, he had access to parts and was always taking this body and refinishing it and this neck and putting it together. So there’s been a long history of Charvel guitars of one form or another; basically chickenshitted Fender parts in the early days.
Then when I got involved, we started makin’ bodies; we never made necks until after I bought the company. So the first complete Charvel guitars were made about 3 ? years ago where we made the body and the neck and used DiMarzio pickups and whatever kinds of tuners and things like that.
So those early guitars did sport DiMarzio pickups?
Yeah, our connection with DiMarzio is real tight; we make all their bodies for them. We use mainly DiMarzio pickups although we use Duncans as well. I don’t even know what the percentage is now; I know we buy an awful lot of both of ‘em. I think at some point we’ll even make our own pickups.
You think so?
Yeah, I think so; not that I want to cut anybody out; it’s just that the concept of this company has always been to make our own stuff. I like makin’ stuff; it’s like we’ve just started our own little machine shop and making a lot of our own little metal parts. I think eventually we’ll get to the point of making our own pickups.
What is it about DiMarzio and Duncan pickups that work so well for you? Are they the best pickups out there?
Well, DiMarzio because they were the big name in the industry and available; availability is the main thing. Seymour has been a friend since before it was Seymour Duncan pickups. When he was a pickup rewinder only, he was a friend.
What were the first guitars coming out Charvel like?
Crude, honestly. I think they were probably comparable to a lot of things on the market but I don’t have a real high esteem for a lot of stuff on the market. I have real rigid standards that I judge things by and I don’t exclude us from that.
Were the first body shapes …?
Strat? Yeah. Our history had been there in refinishing Stratocasters and Telecasters and P basses for Fender; it was a mode that we were already comfortable and familiar and fit through the system. Right at that point, the parts business had first started and the first thing that everybody went after was Strat bodies and Telly bodies and P bass bodies. And so here we had these bodies and necks laying around and the natural inclination is, ‘Oh, let’s stick em’ together and sell the son of a bitch.’ Charvel had always been known for its painting in the Los Angeles area because of the refinish work for Fender. So we were already considered one of the better refinishing companies in the LA area and we’ve just taken that and compounded it and added and done things a little different and continually tried to upgrade what we do. And we’re in a heavy painting area anyway because Southern California hot rod kind of mystique thing; the San Gabriel Valley is heavy, heavy into the hot rod industry. So there’s a lot of that kind of technology and suppliers and real specialized talent and knowledge around. So it was kind of a natural thing; much more natural than if we were in Atlanta or Boston.
Certainly a question everyone must be asking is whether Fender owns the copyright or whatever you might want to call it on the Stratocaster body shape. Do they?
"I don’t think Gibson or Fender, either one, ever got close enough to instruments to identify the factors that made a great guitar from a regular guitar."
No; that’s a design patent. My understanding of that is you cannot patent a design. Fender is supposedly going around suing everybody over that right now; they did that in Germany and from what I understand, got their ass beat. CBS/Arbiter which is London actually pulled all the G&Ls, got an injunction, and all the G&Ls were out of the Frankfurt (NAMM) Show for a day. They went on Sunday, they went to court on Monday, and got their ass beat. Basically what they’re pissed about is the Japanese copies, not the American copies. If they set the precedent with the Japanese copies, then certainly they’ll be able to come after everybody else. But I don’t believe they’ll ever get away with it. Because their design patent or trademark is how I think they’re going after it, is two cutaways and all six tuners in a line. That’s so goddamn nebulous, give me a break. If they made their stuff right, they wouldn’t have to worry about me. Seriously. If they made great guitars, they’ve got the name, all they’ve got to do is make it right. Nobody would buy a Charvel; nobody would buy a Schecter; nobody would buy a Tokai. They’d buy a Fender because it’s the name, it’s the heritage; the only reason they have to chase people legally is ‘cause they’re not willing to make it right.
How long has it been since Fender made a truly great guitar?
I got real definite opinions about that and I’ll tell ya – I don’t think they ever made it right; I think they got lucky. I’ve been around Leo Fender’s people enough now and people that were connected with early Fender … Leo Fender was a genius to a certain extent. I think genius and success are a real combination of things. Right place at the right time; having the smarts; and being aggressive enough to go after it. And he was those things but I don’t think he ever really understood what the magic of a Telecaster was; I don’t think he ever really understood. I think the proof of that is the G&Ls and the MusicMans that he made; they’ve never been right. If he was so smart, if he was such a genius, why couldn’t he ever reproduce the simplistic perfectness of a Telecaster? That’s the greatest guitar ever made; I just love ‘em. Telecasters and Les Pauls are it; my own personal favorite guitar is an Esquire I made for myself that sits at home that I wouldn’t take a million dollars for. It’s a perfect, perfect design.
The instruments that were great in the 50s were great because of a combination of things and then not even every one of them piece to piece. I think if you go to your oldies dealers, Norman (Norm’s Rare Guitars), Frank Lucido,any of those guys, they’ll tell ya, ‘This one will be great and the next one won’t be so great.’ And go to your great players and they’ll tell you the same thing.
It’s a real combination of things: they happened to have a lot of the components and the people and the spirit of the time and everything going on right then. And got some great instruments made but it was not planned; it wasn’t thought out or intellectualized. It was luck more than anything.
You can’t deny that a ’59 Les Paul is still the standard of a great instrument to this day?
It is but they’re not all great. I’ve owned a lot of old Les Pauls; I’ve probably owned as many Flying Vs, Explorers, and sunburst Les Pauls – excluding the big time dealers – as anybody you’ll ever meet. I’ve probably owned 25 sunburst Les Pauls; I’ve owned 3 Explorers and 4 Vs. Original ones; this was in the early 70s when I still played for a living. Yeah, some were real great; some were real turds.
The best, the prettiest Les Paul that I ever had was not that great a guitar; I mean it was OK, it was a guitar. The worst one I ever had was the greatest one; I mean it was thrashed but that guitar had more soul and more heart than anything I’ve ever played.
I don’t think Gibson or Fender, either one, ever got close enough to instruments to identify the factors that made a great guitar from a regular guitar. I think they happened to manufacture a line of instruments and within that line of instruments, some of ‘em stuck up like peaks and were real great. But it wasn’t planned; if anybody is going to do that, it’s the Japanese. They scare me to death; the only thing missing for the Japanese is the heart. They don’t have the heart for it. It’s all intellectual, there’s no emotion; there’s nothing from in here (taps over his heart).
There are very few American makers that even understand the concept. I’ll tell you who could get close to it; it’s Peavey (intriguingly, years after Edward Van Halen experimented with Charvel, he would align himself with Peavey in creating the Wolfgang brand guitars). Because he has the resources to do it; once he sets a goal, he will do it. He just hasn’t decided to do that yet; if he decides to do it, he’s the only person who can give the Japanese a run.
There are one or two little companies who could do it – like Charvel – if we can grow fast enough and hard enough and learn enough to do it. It’s like, right now, Charvel makes good guitars but we wanna make great guitars. It’s finding the resources and the ability to make ‘em consistently. That’s the reason I hate Fender; Fender has the resources to make great guitars. They’ve got the money, they’ve got the history, they’ve got everything they should have except the determination. They don’t want to make good guitars; they want to make stuff that makes money and that’s all. They don’t have any love for the instrument at all; they’re not in the music business, they’re in the money business.
I think I’ve got this all thought out; I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m ready for a straightjacket, I don’t know.
The reason someone would buy a guitar from Charvel as opposed to Fender is quality control?
Quality control I would think, yeah. Even at Charvel, a small company like Charvel … I’m shootin’ you all this stuff straight from the hip the way I really believe, OK? (Inhalation of breath and a brief pause) Charvel can make shitty instruments because we’re not big enough … there’s a lot of quality control but it’s people quality control. That doesn’t mean somethin’ can’t slip under the wire and we have, in fact, turned out shitty instruments. We do our best to catch ‘em and not let ‘em get out of here and we stand behind ‘em. If somebody has a problem and it really is a problem and not somebody’s egocentric paranoia, we’ll remake it from the ground up if necessary.
That’s why I mean by resources; like Fender has the resources to turn out, instead of 300 crappy guitars a day, they could turn out 100 great guitars a day. Where Charvel doesn’t have those financial resources; we have to do the best we can every day and just get what we can out and try to check them and make sure they’re the best.
We’re constantly trying to slow down as we speed up. Because everyone that wants a Charvel, it’s like anything – when somebody wants something, they want it now. And what we do is penalize that customer; if he calls up and says, ‘Man, I want a Jackson and I want this and I want this.’ We say, ‘Oh, well, that’s two months, that’s three months.’ Immediately we’re penalizing this guy that’s already pre-sold and we have to do that. If we had a lot more money, if we were a more heavily capitalized company we could embark on a heavier training program without worrying where the money was going to come from to pay the bills while we were training more people to make more guitars.
How many people are currently employed by Charvel?
20: 5 in the paint shop, 4 in the assembly shop, 9 in the woodshop, and Jo (Grover’s wife/administrator).
As you touched on earlier, the custom paint on your guitars is a huge attraction. Where did these painters come from?
I’ve had several hot rod painters who have worked for me that have come and gone and left some of their technology or their knowledge. I learned a lot of it the hard way; I’ve gone in and hung out at body shops and custom painters; I’ve read books; and then I’ve spent a lot of nights here until 12 o’clock trying this and trying that. Trial and error.
Bruce, the head painter right now, is a hot rod painter, although in his last job he worked at a place where he was painting panels for rockets and stuff; military stuff, airplane control panels, it’s crazy. He happened to come by and we got to talkin’ and it worked out and he’s been here three or four months.
Is there a standardized timetable for painting a guitar?
It’s not done in a one-step kind of thing; it’s done in a series of applications that may only take 15 minutes per application and it’s sanded in-between which may go over a three-week period. Graphics when they’re laid out usually take from 1 to 5 hours. There’s a spiral checkerboard graphic and that’s a 4 to 5 hour layout, that one guitar; there’s a surcharge added on to the instrument according to how many hours of graphics time we put in.
Are there basic graphics templates you work from? A certain number of designs?
No; it’s not always new ideas, I like for it to be new ideas. Unfortunately not everybody out there is real creative. We’re so different than most companies that a lot of people don’t understand and it takes a little bit of dialog to make them understand. We have a little brochure that is supposed to say, ‘This is what could be done,’ not ‘What is done.’ Invariably we sell a lot of bulls eyes and a lot of spider webs and we sell a lot lightning bolts. Personally I’m so sick of all of those, I wish I’d never have to do another one in my life. It’s very interesting, a lot of people will call with a specific idea and then you go through the dialog and say, ‘Anyway you want it to.’ And we’re literally like pushing them away; they come back, they call back two weeks later and they say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinkin’ about it and if you could do dah dah dah dah dah color, that would be great.’ And you say, ‘No problem’ and they go away so happy.
Two things: Everybody knows how they want it, how it should be. And, if we’d just shut up and listen, they’ll tell us. And it’s amazing the creativity of some of these people; some of the simplistic ideas that people come up with that are really graphically very interesting. So one of our jobs is to not talk too much but rather shut up and let ‘em tell us what it is.
So, any idea I have in terms of color and graphic, you’ll put on a guitar? And depending on the complexity, that’s how it would be priced?
Yeah. It’s not cheap; you get crazy, it’s not cheap. I make no bones about that. But you name it … I almost dare people to come up with something we can’t do. A dealer called up and said, ‘I know what you can’t do’ and we said, ‘Oh, fuck you.’ A Heineken bottle; we said, ‘Sure, we can do it.’ The paint job cost him $350 and that’s wholesale; our normal guitar is only $440 for the whole guitar wholesale. So it was a lot of money but it was an investment of his ego to say, ‘This is real important to me.’ And I literally got on the phone and I said, ‘You don’t want this; you don’t want me to do this because it’s gonna cost a lot of money.’ He says, ‘Nope, I want it, I gotta have it; I don’t believe you can do it.’ (claps hands for emphasis) ‘Screw you, we can do it’ and we did it; it turned out real bitchin’. It was the color of a Heineken bottle. (Pulls out a slide of the completed guitar). There was a lot of work in the graphics of that; that’s not laminated, that’s hand painted. It’s not a decal or an applique or any kind of bullshit like that.
When someone comes in with a graphic that is moderately difficult, what will the cost of the guitar be?
The basic guitar, single humbucking basic guitar (with) maple neck, DiMarzio pickup is $880 retail without a case. A lightning bolt, spider web, bulls eye, is $70 more so $950. I don’t know what he would have done if he was selling that guitar because his cost on the guitar was $440 and $350 which is $790; if he was selling that to a retail customer, that would have been a $1550 guitar.
I don’t see that as being wrong or bad at all; I don’t feel bad about that at all. That’s real custom work; I don’t know anywhere in the world where you could go and get that done.
Most of your sales come from the individual calling Charvel and ordering a guitar? Or are you selling directly to guitar shops?
We’re trying to transfer this thing into a dealer type program and it’s working pretty good. What it does is it psychologically sucks people in because it’s something they can talk to their friends about. ‘Oh, I’m getting one like this’ or ‘I’m getting one like that.’ And the dealers are really falling into it; it’s like a new item and they can get the kids in the store to talk about.
And in these recessionary times, we’re so loaded with work we don’t know what to do. Psychologically you’ve got someone by the throat when you’re not telling ‘em how it is but rather asking ‘em how they want it.
One of the cornerstones of this company: How everybody else does it, we want to turn it 180 degrees out of synch with that. Let’s say, ‘I don’t know shit, I’m stupid, you tell me how is it supposed to be?’ And they’re invested at that point because it’s their ego.
Consequently we don’t have to advertise very much; word of mouth does it for us. Plus the fact that it’s a small company undercapitalized; I don’t have the money for a lot of advertising.
But your guitars are in a lot of shops across the country?
More and more but we don’t solicit those sales which is a very enviable position to be in and I don’t expect it will be there forever. For one thing, it’s unfair: these people in these music stores are building us, supporting us, making us bigger and we don’t do anything to help ‘em. So at some point we’ve got to start holding some seminars in their stores which is something I want to try and do this year; we have plans to do that going out with somebody. Randy Rhoads, before he died, was going into stores and doing seminars for us without us even knowin’ it. Joanne (Grover’s wife) will be going into some stores to try and show people what we can do and what’s available and how they work. We have a hot, young LA guitar player who’s going to go with her and play some stuff; Mitch Bronstein who is a monster.
There are about 40 or 45 stores who now carry out guitars and distributors in 7 European countries. It looks like it’s the year of Charvel.
How much of your business comes from people like Edward Van Halen using your instruments?
The story with Van Halen is a long story; I don’t sell anything to Ed. Ed and I don’t get along. It might be interesting from my side of the story for it to be told although he’s never … Ed just doesn’t like me, personally. We’ve never gotten along. It’s like one of those things where have you seen somebody and you immediately didn’t like ‘em? He immediately didn’t like me. Everything I tried to do with or for Ed, he somehow turned it 180 degrees out of synch.
Before the first album ever came out, I helped him build some of their Anvil cases. They needed cases, they’d never been on the road, they were a local band, and I was over trying to help. I have a ring modulator, one that Oberheim made for Maestro, and I took it over because it’s an odd effect and he’s probably never seen one. He got real intimidated and thought I was trying to tell him how to play. I was just trying to show him something. Everything I’ve ever done for him has been that way.
Even then I recognized him as a great guitar player and thought that he would be big; nobody had any idea how big they would be.
The taped guitars and that graphic was originally Ed’s idea?
"One of the cornerstones of this company: How everybody else does it, we want to turn it 180 degrees out of synch with that."
The first one, the white and black one on the first album, absolutely it was him. There was another guy around town at that time that did that according to some stories, first. He was the guy in the band in the Cheech and Chong movie, Up In Smoke (this may have been Michael Caldwell). There’s a scene in the movie where they are playing in a punk club, which was really the Roxy, and the guy had a Les Paul taped up. And that guy is now in some San Francisco group as a drummer.
But anyway, Ed was the first guy who popularized that; I don’t even know that he saw that guy or maybe the other guy saw him. I don’t know. They were a huge local band for a long time before they got signed; they were big shit around town. They were real good then, too. I went around and saw a lot of the local bands at that time and they were so dramatically more professional. And I told a lot of local bands this, so cohesive in their effort. It was unbelievable. They put on a show. Other local bands come out tune their guitars and start to play their songs or something. I mean when they hit the stage, they were there to kill; they wanted blood. You could see it, the fire in their eyes was incredible. There was never one bit of doubt that they were stars; it hadn’t happened yet, it was just a matter of time.
I’m starting to get an awful lot of that stuff and I’m not real happy about it. This is a company of investments; a lot of quote unquote stars that come your way are just lookin’ for more free stuff. They’ve become, boy, do I want to say this? Manufacturer’s whores. They will whore out their name for some free stuff and those are the kind of guys I don’t want any part of.
For one thing, if I had an endorsement from Jesus Christ today, what would I do with it? I don’t advertise, it wouldn’t do me any good. What I am interested in is finding artists that are looking for somebody that will interpret what they want in an instrument. That’s my little contribution to the arts.
I worked with Randy for a year on that shark fin guitar thing; we never talked endorsement, we never talked nothin’. And he played it when he felt like playing it and he didn’t play it when he didn’t feel like playing it. And we worked towards that thing of a great guitar that he would play. He was playing what he called the Concord guitar with no advertisement, and we were literally getting one to two requests a day to buy that guitar. There were only four in existence: he had two and I got the other two. We were just starting to talk about manufacturing that guitar as a Randy Rhoads guitar and selling it; I still may do that. I want to wait and give his record company people and his poor, dear mother time.
Randy walked in a year-and-a-half ago with a drawing of this thing; he conceived the idea himself. The only thing I added was a head design. He said, ‘Can you make this?’ Just like every other kid on the block. And I said, ‘Yep, I can do it.’
Once his people have a little bit of time to accept that he’s gone, I want to get a hold of ‘em and kind of as a memorial to him and because it’s a good guitar, it’s a valid design, if they don’t have objections I’m going to market the guitar as a Randy Rhoads guitar. If they have objections, I’ll never make another damn one of ‘em. I don’t care how many kids want it; they can find some Japanese company to make it.
Randy was the nicest, quietest little guy you could ever want to meet. Amazing unaffected by the whole stardom thing. Real stupid way to die; real dumb.
Who else is playing your guitars?
I’m supposed to see Billy (Gibbons) on Friday. Billy I don’t know about, I think he’s pissed at me. Billy was already buying stuff from Wayne Charvel before I came on the scene and then he and I got acquainted and stuff. We’ve made about 6 or 7 of those Telecaster basses for Billy and Billy gives ‘em to Dusty or gives them to other people as gifts. We’ve also made a couple of guitar for Billy that I’ve never seen him play; they were like Telecaster basses but they had one Strat pickup in ‘em. Then the last instrument I made for Billy was a quilted maple Telly bass and the history of Billy had always been to get him to write us one of those little corny notes that he does that are so great. He used to send those all the time and he would always say something after he got an instrument. I never heard another word; I don’t know if he hated it, I still to this day don’t know what the problem was. We just got a telegram about four days ago telling us that there were tickets there and passes waiting for us at the concert. So I don’t know, I guess we’ll see. But it’s been like two years since I’ve seen him or heard from him.
One of the people that I’m real committed to is Allan Holdsworth. Steve Blucher, who is one of the owners of DiMarzio, has been a real Holdsworth fan and friend for several years. Holdsworth is really getting shit on. So I asked Blucher if it would be alright to call Holdsworth up when I got to London. Holdsworth has an album done and nobody in England will take a shit on him. It’s incredible. Blucher was talking about a small group of fans getting together and paying for the pressing of the album and distribute it ourselves.
Allan gave me a copy of the tape and I’m going to make some guitars for him, some real crazy stuff. He got me drunk as a skunk and what I am doing with this tape is to try and get it to record company people or even people that may be influential. It’s some of the most interesting music Holdsworth has ever done; it’s a three-piece band, one or two tracks has piano on it. Allan Holdsworth plays chords which he’s never done; no band he’s ever been in has allowed him to play chords.
Right now, David Lindley has the tape. I know David pretty well and so that was my first person to take it to. I asked him if he would listen to it and he said, ‘Yeah.’ He was amazed; that’s not his style of music at all.
Has Jeff Beck ever played Charvel?
Most of the people who have Charvel stuff have paid for it; Randy Rhoads paid for the first guitar he got. Gary Moore has some Charvel stuff he paid for. But Beck has been my personal hero since about 1966. When they came over and did the There and Back tour, you know from The Beck Book (a biography I wrote about Jeff Beck in 1978 that was published in Japan), the two 32s (Fords) have flames on them. The yellow one has flames on it and the black one has flames on it.
I said, ‘I’ve got to do somethin’ for this asshole.’ So I made a Strat body, two humbuckings in it, painted it with flames and when I was with Anvil, I met one of the guys in the (Beck’s) crew, John Dodd. So we went to the show the first night and the guitar wasn’t quite done and I was all panicked and freaked out. I saw him and he was amazing. The second day I got the guitar done, put it together, took it down there (Greek Theater) and went to the stage before the show. And I said, ‘Is John Dodd here?’ Just right in front of the stage. He comes over and I said, ‘I’m Grover Jackson, I met you at Anvil, I made some cases for you’ and he’s, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ I said, ‘I own Charvel now’ and he never even heard of it, didn’t know anything about Charvel. I said, ‘I’ve got this guitar I’d like to give Jeff.’ He looks at me like, ‘Yeah, what kind of hustle is this?’ He said, ‘Come around to the side of the stage when the show is over.’
Well he got detained in breaking down (the gear) but there was a friend of mine there that was doin’ some drum stuff for him. I told him what I was there for after the show; he says, ‘Oh, well, I’ve got a pass, I’ll take it back there.’ I give him the guitar and we’re kind of standin’ around kind of all nervous and not knowing what to do. And he’s gone about 15 minutes and here comes this procession of people with Beck at the front of them, right? He comes out and he’s got this look in his eyes like, ‘What in the world are you all about?’ And so I very clumsily said this is not an endorsement trip or anything; you’ve been my hero since I was a kid and I am in a position in my life where I have some little tiny way to say thank you for the music that’s meant a lot to me.
‘If you like it, fine, if you wanna break it, fine, I don’t give a shit. It’s just that simple.’ He said, ‘It’s great, it’s beautiful, thank you a lot, I really appreciate it.’ And invited us into the party and so I never talked to him again. I talked to Mo Foster (Beck’s bassist) quite a bit that night. That’s almost two years ago that they were here (for the There and Back tour), right?
Last year at the June NAMM Show, this English guy who works for Rosetti, Mighty Mite’s distributor over there, basically a competitor employee, comes up to Joanne at the booth and says, ‘Oh, yeah, Jeff Beck’s got one like this’ and she says, ‘How’d you know that?’ ‘Cause we’d never heard a word from him; he hadn’t played anywhere. And he said, ‘Oh, well, a friend of mine was over at his house the other day. He had a big party and Jimmy Page was there and all these other people and he was jammin’ out on the lawn, and he was playing the guitar.’
Joanne called me from Chicago, I didn’t go to that show, and she told me that and you couldn’t touch me for about two weeks. I was too perfect for anybody to touch. There’s the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (DVD). He didn’t play it on that; he played a Telecaster Seymour Duncan made for him. But at least I know he did play it some. That right there is gratifying enough for me.
(Note: Some 6 or 7 years later, Grover would make a Jackson Strat for Jeff that would become one of his main guitars).
You touched earlier on Fender and what they do; how would you distinguish Charvel from Schechter, a company that is much closer to what you do in terms of manufacturing essentially custom guitars?
They’re much more into a real earthy, natural thing with the exotic woods and stuff; we’re into a gaudy, high-tech painting graphic kind of a thing. Although we do make exotic wood guitars too, we just don’t make very many of them. We’re much more of a rock and roll-oriented guitar company. Most of the people who buy our guitars are heavy metal monsters. Although we’re making some inroads and headway into the studio players set which is where Schecter has made a lot of inroads. A lot of the Hollywood session people who were playing Schecters are now playing Charvels.
The shape of the neck that we do is not like what they do; they’ve tried to reproduce a lot of the early 50s Fenders kind of feel and we do that but we don’t do much of that. We’ve tried to take some of the things from early 50s Fenders and some of the things from late 50s Gibsons and mix it all together and come up with this real Frankenstein kind of a guitar that still looks like a normal Stratocaster. But the shape of the neck is more like a ’59 or ’60 Les Paul or an early 335; it’s a wide flat neck. It’s wider at the nut than Fenders are; it’s thinner. It’s more of a Les Pauly kind of neck.
How many frets?
21 or 22; we’re making 22-fret necks now which is another thing Schecter doesn’t do. The only other company making a bolt-on 22-fret neck is ESP.
What types of woods do you typically use?
We use a variety of woods; alder is what I personally prefer although we use poplar; we use eastern hard maple. One of the two guitars that was being manufactured for Randy Rhoads which are neck-through body guitars like a BC Rich which Schecter doesn’t do at all. That’s what Randy wanted; he didn’t want a bolt-on neck guitar, he didn’t like ‘em.
Randy, even though he was a tiny little guy, was into real solid feeling guitars, real heavy guitars, so that they had a real substantial kind of feel. I personally don’t think those guitars sound as good. That’s been substantiated by a lot of real good players: Lindley, Ry Cooder, even though I don’t know him, Albert Lee according to Seymour, will not play a Telecaster if it weighs over 3 pounds. Real light guitars seem to have a more buoyant, voice-like tone; warmer. Where real hard, heavy-wooded guitars seem to have a more nasal quality; it’s almost as if the wood is magnifying certain frequencies.
And where do the tailpieces for your guitars come from?
We’re making some of our hardware ourselves and we buy it from a company called the Brass Factory. It was one of the major suppliers of hardware for the whole music industry; they were making Fender stuff for a while.
How different are the vibrato assemblies you use as opposed to Fender tremolos?
"Randy was the nicest, quietest little guy you could ever want to meet. Amazing unaffected by the whole stardom thing. Real stupid way to die; real dumb."
At one point, it was not different at all; it was made off the same tooling. It’s not so much the unit but the way the unit is set up. At Fender where I’d assume they have some union lady sitting there with an air screwdriver going, ‘Zip zip zip zip,’ and it’s on, it takes about 20 or 30 minutes for us to put a tremolo unit on. It’s balanced and it’s made sure there are no points where there is friction or it’s binding; that’s what makes one work well. Our tremolo unit still doesn’t work perfect; nobody does. What ours does, I can make a stock inexpensive Fender do, I can make a Japanese tremolo unit do, I can make anything do. When you get into a tremolo unit that really works, you’re talking about a Floyd Rose which I don’t like either. There are some real inherent problems with a Rloyd Rose; if you like flat fingerboards, you’re shit out of luck with a Floyd Rose because it has a pre-arched thing and there’s no way you can change that unless you get in there and do some heavy modifications with the bridge. Economically the Floyd Rose bridge is a disaster; he set up, like a moron economically, because he penalizes me for using his product and he penalizes the end customer price-wise. There’s no way I can make any money on a Floyd Rose bridge. I break even. The only reason I put some of them on is because it exposes me to a better clientele; a lot of people really need to use tremolo and really need for it to stay in tune without any messin’ about and the Floyd Rose is the best unit on the market as far as that goes. Even though I have real problems with it on the other end, it works.
I’m workin’ on a unit right now myself; I’ve seen a couple of units other people have invented that worked and we’re workin’ on one ourselves. I would assume by the end of the year, I’ll have my own tremolo unit that works better than the Fender style that will be on all Charvel guitars. That’s one of the reasons I’m starting to build my own machine; I can’t be at the mercy of these suppliers.
On an average, how many guitars come out of Charvel each week?
It’s about 65 to 75 a month; 15, 20 a week. And that’s goin’ up as rapidly as possible. Basses are a little easier (than guitars); you don’t have to spend the time fooling with a tremolo to balance it.
Have you thought about hollowbody guitars?
Once again, the dinner plate philosophy: I’ve already got so much on my dinner plate, why would I want anything else? I would start doing one thing half-assed so I could do two things. Right now, there’s a lot of pressure to start doing these neck-through-body guitars and I’m trying to resist that. I don’t want to end up spread so thin that we don’t do anything good.
We’re doing this MusicMan thing; has anybody told you about that? We’re making Stingray basses for MusicMan which seems to be fairly common knowledge. We do job shop work as well as other stuff; like I said, we make all of DiMarzio’s bodies, I make Modulus’ bodies, at least some of’ em. I make components for a lot of different people. One of those job shop activities is making painted bodies and necks for MusicMan.
Are you satisfied with the way Charvel has progressed and improved? The quality of the instruments you’re turning out?
I’m satisfied for today; it’s gotta be better tomorrow. We’re constantly looking for ways to make this slicker. The basic things are all under control here: We’re making a fairly consistent, a fairly clean instrument. It’s little things, little parts that might fit a little nicer or little things that look a little cleaner; a little shinier paint job, a little better fretwork, whatever. The basics are all here, now it’s just honing. I don’t want to become complacent.
Sometimes complacency accompanies success.
That’s the reason I’m out there sanding bodies; I am real not comfortable with Grover Jackson as an executive. I don’t like that a lot. At least once a week, I try to go in the shop and do some real bottom line physical labor. It’s very gratifying to sand a fuckin’ body and see it done and you walk away and you say, ‘Yep, I sanded that son of a bitch good.’ Because you sit in here (his offices) and you talk to people and it’s fine and good and here I am doing this now, it’s fine, it’s great, and I do all this paperwork crap … it’s much more gratifying to be I the shop. But I can’t allow what’s more fun for me to stop the company; this is stuff I have to do, this is part of growing and being part of a bigger company and stuff. It’s just that I can’t turn completely loose of that. Because I think that’s when I will get complacent; if I lose touch with how hard it is to sand a body, I’ve lost touch with this company.
We’re friends; this is a good, good group of people. There’s almost nobody that I couldn’t leave the keys to this place with. I know the place is completely safe; it’s just the way it is. The people who are here help weed out bad people. They’ll come and say, ‘Hey, this guy is an asshole, get rid of him.’ If I hear that from one person, it could just be a personality thing but when I start hearing it from 2 or 3 people, he’s gone. It’s a real close knit, clannish, cliquish little group of people we’ve got here; they’re real proud of what goes on.
We work a 4-day, ten-hour day so we work Monday through Thursday and then Friday about half the people come in and work overtime. Some because they need the money, some because they just like to work. They’re involved with the people that are using our stuff. When Randy would come out here, or anybody, they stand around and talk with the guys as much as with me. Randy had been out here several times and hung out with the guys. Last Friday when they heard on the radio that he was dead, they all got sick and left and went home. It was a personal thing for them; he was not my friend, he was our friend.
I don’t know how long we can sustain that and grow much bigger; maybe this is too idealistic but we’ll just have to find out. We have a commitment to try to keeping this place idealistic and I hope it works. The day it stops being idealistic is the day I look for somebody to buy it and I’ll move on to start over.
Another Note: Following this conversation (and it should be stated that I knew Grover pretty well by the time we actually rolled tape for this interview), I sort of half-jokingly/half-seriously asked Grover to build me an instrument. His immediate reply was, “What do you want?” I described a Strat-styled instrument with a whammy bar and painted like the Japanese Rising Sun flag (that sort or red/orange orb from which spokes flare out). He built it and gave the guitar to me. Free. At that time – and you can read about his feelings in the interview above – Grover didn’t give guitars away for free to anyone.
It was truly a work of art. But that wasn’t enough for me. I had asked him to paint the background in a light blue and when I received the guitar, this portion of the graphic was in white. I think I even had the temerity to ask him to repaint it. To which he replied, “No problem.” Never batted an eye, never said, “You selfish asshole. I build you an instrument, don’t charge you one cent, and now you want it redone?”
Grover Jackson did not have to use his resources to build this wonderful guitar. But he did. That was the type of person he was. Don’t get me wrong, Grover could be difficult to deal with at the best of times. He was opinionated and had his own way of doing things. But he never sacrificed quality in the guitars he made (to this day, those instruments are still the archetypes for all the custom pieces that followed) and if he made a promise, he kept it.
Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2012