For guitarists, the early 1970s was a time of great enthusiasm and grass roots innovation. At the same time, the big companies like Gibson and Fender were under new corporate management and growing more and more disengaged from players’ wants and needs. Arguably, this period was the low point of American factory guitar making – out of touch manufacturers skimping on quality and not understanding the sounds and features players desired from their instruments. Also, it was during this time that terms like “Pre-CBS” and “Vintage” began to take hold as a way of describing a group of instruments with magical properties… both real and imagined.
All of these factors fomented the environment for a cadre of small businesses that specialized in improving and modifying current guitars, and restoring or customizing earlier ones. This was a time before you could buy replacement or hot-rod parts… everything had to be made from scratch! Many of these trailblazers and their products are known to this day, names like Carl Thompson, Bill Lawrence, Charles LoBue (The Guitar Lab), Dan Armstrong, DiMarzio, Charvel and Jackson.
Charvel opened his self-named, So-Cal guitar repair shop in 1974. The shop performed aftermarket customizations and sold parts such as replacement bodies, pickguards and jack plates. Business was good, but he was looking for a way out, so in 1978, with money borrowed from his parents, Grover Jackson bought the repair shop business.
Grover continued to expand the shop’s product line and in 1979 began making guitar necks for other companies such as BC Rich, DiMarzio, Music Man, SD Curlee and Mighty Mite. Grover looked around and saw what amounted to a complete “guitar kit” of his own parts made for others. He then made the decision to build guitars under his own name — Grover Jackson’s Charvel guitars were introduced at the 1979 Summer NAMM Show.
It was at this point that advancements such as bolt-on 22 fret necks, hum-single-single, single hum, and hum-single-hum pickup arrays with a single volume control started to gain traction. Outrageous paint jobs inspired by the custom car industry also became popular.
By the late ’70s, Grover’s instruments, with their flat-radius, unfinished or oiled necks and large fret wire had become synonymous with the rising trend of shredding. As shredding progressed into the 1980s, his guitars could be seen in the hands of players like Steve Vai, Jake E. Lee, Warren DeMartini and George Lynch. But they weren’t restricted to metal players… Fusion stalwarts Allan Holdsworth, Bill Connors and Steve Khan played these very same instruments. In the late ‘80s Jeff Beck exclaimed, “These guitars made me want to start playing again!”
As time progressed, new models were introduced, and by 1987 Guitar Player Magazine proclaimed these new instruments, irrespective of their particular profile “Super-Strats.” Indeed, many took the form of streamlined versions of Fender’s venerable model, but more often than not, the shapes were swept away, downsized and mutated until only a vague family resemblance was all that harkened back to the original inspiration.
As a guitarist himself, Grover was always interested in input and comments directly from players, and many guitar models were originally done as special custom projects, where he worked one-on-one with their namesakes. One particular vision came to be one day in 1980. Originally called The Concorde, the Randy Rhoads model was the result of a marathon session that started with an outline drawn on a napkin, and ended 12-hours later with what has become one of the most unique and identifiable guitar designs – ever! Originally meant to be a Charvel, the neck-thru construction and radical styling of the Randy Rhoads seemed to beg for its own identity beyond that of the current offerings, it was at this moment that Jackson Guitars was born.
The dam was burst and the Randy Rhoads model was followed by the Soloist, the Kelly, King V and more. With respect to what was called a Charvel and what was called a Jackson, from 1982 through 1986 all bolt-on instruments were branded “Charvel” and all neck-through instruments carried the “Jackson” brand.
In 1985, Grover Jackson sold the business to International Music Co. (IMC), a distributor of various brands of music-related products. IMC folded the Charvel and Jackson product lines into one homogeneous grouping with little to distinguish the two brands. In a story that has been repeated many times over, after an initial boost under IMC, Charvel and Jackson, the brands and the instruments, started a long swoon towards irrelevancy. Disenchanted with what the brands had become and foreseeing the inevitable, Grover left the company.
All but abandoned, in the fall of 2002, Fender Musical Instruments Company (FMIC) purchased Jackson/Charvel at a “fire sale” price. Under FMIC, Jackson/Charvel has remained in what can be described as an ‘80s time warp. Rather than go back to the custom, hot-rodded roots, the current line is fairly indistinguishable from what was being offered some 30 years ago. What was once a firebrand of innovation; sleek, highly tuned precision-machined tools, are now more like artifacts frozen in a bygone era.