All of us have certain players that have inspired us to pick up the guitar and made us want to be better players. Their music that touches something in us that we want to be a part of. Taken too far, it can turn into slavish hero-worship. But when channeled in a positive direction, these musicians can be a healthy dose of motivation to find our own voice.
I preface this review with all of the psycho-babble to point out that no one in the last five years has inspired me more than Guthrie Govan. His impact on my personal taste, style and direction is as big as Steve Vai was for me twenty years earlier. Anyone who's been around me knows how I like to go on and on about Guthrie and his band The Aristocrats. Guthrie's got a lot going on and I want to get me some of that.
So after a large gear-purge, I was left with a tidy pile of funds to spend on something new and after a significant amount of research I suspected the Guthrie Govan signature model from Charvel was more than just a crass attempt at capitalizing on the good name of one of the most amazing players of this generation. After watching a few interviews with Mr. Govan it was clear that this was an instrument that, like Steve Vai's Ibanez JEM, was built with very careful consideration.
The only other guitar I know as well in this class is the Ibanez JEM. Both it and the Govan Charvel are clear expressions of the playing styles of their namesakes. I love my JEM and I've fallen hard for this Charvel, so comparison between the two is inevitable (as you'll see).
This guitar has a muted ninja look to it—friendly and professional but clearly stating that it has come to kick ass and take names. The maple top is very classy looking, while the hot-rodded silhouette of the Strat-style body hints at the danger that lurks beneath the serene surface.
This guitar comes in two flavors of maple top: birdseye and flame. Both are gorgeous guitars that project a very skilled and professional image. I went with the birdseye (I thought it looked a little cooler by a hair). The maple top is married to a basswood body. Both the body and the neck have been "caramelized" which is essentially the process of baking them to give them a nice toasted look and to extract extra water-content out of the wood. The result is very light, resonant wood.
The fretboard is another beautiful cut of maple with some very unique fret-markers. As the story goes Guthrie was looking for some kind of low-impact fret-marker that he could still see in low-light conditions. The solution he and Charvel came up with was a variation on the tried-and-true circular markers with the additional twist of a dark contrasting outline. This simple tweak is actually quite effective. It keeps the visual impact of the fret-markers to a minimum (as opposed to the baroque stylings of the "tree-of-life" inlay on the JEM), while still being functional for the person playing the instrument.
The fretboard is set with some absolutely buttery jumbo frets. I've played a lot of different guitars in my life and it's easy to forget just how good really well-dressed frets feel. Bends and vibrato just slink across the frets with very little effort. The frets are big enough that getting your finger rubbing against the fretboard is a pretty rare event. In fact, now I feel a bit spoiled and want to go back and re-dress the frets on my other guitars just to get that same impossibly-smooth feeling of this guitar.
There are very few players that get as many different tones out of a single guitar like Guthrie Govan. He has an instantly recognizable tone that floats somewhere between the metal, fusion and jazz realms. In reading interviews with him about this guitar, he asked the pickup-maker, Michael Frank-Braun, to create something "honest". What he wanted was something that didn't cover up your mistakes with a glossy sheen of high-gain. If that's what Guthrie was going after, he succeeded. These pickups feel very "transparent"—like a very immediate and direct translation of your fingers and pick.
What this guitar has is the most versatile 5-way configuration of pickups in a HSH configuration that I've ever played. Somehow they've solved the volume-imbalance issue that plagues so many HSH guitars (even the JEM) so that every single pickup combination is usable. Unlike almost every other 5-way switched guitar (even a classic Stratocaster) I find I actually like the 2 and 4 positions. The bridge pickup has plenty of bite without being overwhelming. The neck pickup is warm, without wallowing too much in the low-end.
There is no pickguard so the pickups are attached directly to the body similar to the EVH line of guitars. Eddie always felt that the more things were screwed down the better the resonance and sustain, and I'm inclined to believe him. There is no play in the pickups which gives the guitar a very solid feeling of being locked-down. Like Ed, I think this results in a more resonant tone.
One of the most intriguing design-decisions of this guitar is the vibrato system. Apparently there is no love lost between Guthrie and the classic double-locking Floyd Rose whammy. He was eager to keep the headstock tuners functional without sacrificing the tuning-stability of the double-locking system.
The result is a bit of a throwback with a single-locking Floyd Rose (locks are down at the bridge) coupled with a bone nut and locking tuners minus the usual clamp at the nut. It's as if Guthrie went back to 1978 after the first Van Halen record came out and took a different turn solving the tuning problems of whammy bars.
The result though, is pretty amazing. The stability of the locking tuners with the single-locking Floyd is as good as any double-locking Floyd I've played (even as good as the Ibanez Edge II). Better yet, hex wrenches need not apply when it comes time for tuning. Instead of messing with the fine-tuners at the bridge-end, you can twist the knobs on the headstock in classic fashion.
The whole system results in a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution where you get the easy tuning of a non-whammy guitar with the ability to execute the most outrageous whammy stunts and still stay in tune.
The whammy itself is the model of stability. One of the biggest frustrations I have with whammy systems are ones that allow any play in the bar. When I push or pull that thing I want an instantaneous response, not a promise to change the pitch at a later date.
As much as I love my EVH guitars, the screw-down attachment of the bar to the bridge always results in some amount of play. As a result I'm constantly tightening that nut when I play. Even the JEM, for all the Edge II system gets right, has some well-known issues with the bushings on the bar eventually wearing down.
But this guitar seems to have solved that problem. The solution is a simple screw-in bar (threaded on the inside of the bar), with a very tight bushing on the bridge itself. You can simply push the bar into the whammy and get excellent response right away. But with a few turns you can screw the bar right into the bridge if you like to limit the backwards travel of the bar (again more resonance from everything vibrating as a single unit).
One other important feature of the whammy system is the use of the Tremol-No system. This ingenious little system lets you lock the whammy down with just a few turns of a thumbscrew that is easily accessed from the back. You can either fully lock the whammy system to function like a hard-tail (great for those country double-stop bends) or lock it into dive-only mode. The latter allows you to easily de-tune the 6th string to D without upsetting the overall tuning. This functions a lot like the EVH D-Tuna but with better tuning stability.
I didn't think anyone would best the Ibanez Edge II system, but I think Charvel and Guthrie have hit this one out of the park. I haven't had the guitar long enough to know how well the bushing surrounding the arm will last and retain that snug feeling. But, from what I've read, they worked through several iterations before finding a material would last. Given the non-stop pace of The Aristocrats touring schedule over the past two years, I'm inclined to think it will work just fine for me.
The overall feel of this guitar is fantastic. The body is a classic Stratocaster shape which is probably the most comfortable guitar body shape ever invented. The neck joint has been cut at an angle to make accessing the way-up-there frets much easier.
The neck has a very comfortable compound-radius that gives you the easy grip for blues-bends but the speed of a flatter "shredder" neck. It has a much rounder feel than the standard shredder neck, without sacrificing playability or speed.
Then there are the little touches that reflect the careful consideration that went into the design of this guitar. Even the humble input jack gets some love and attention. Rather than awkwardly jutting from the bottom of the guitar like a Gibson or interfering with the controls like a classic Strat, it sits recessed into the side of the body near the rear strap button (similar to the JEM).
This is a guitar that has thoughtfully addressed so many of the little irritations you find in nearly every other instrument. The result is one of the most comfortable, playable and inspiring guitars I've ever had the fortune of picking up. Every player's signature guitar is often the sum of their idiosyncrasies, and sometimes those oddities fit your own playing style. When that happens, you get a match made in heaven.