Charvel vs Fender: Which is Right For Me?

Published on 23 January 2024

Have some Charvel guitars caught your eye lately? Are you wondering what sets them apart from the Fender guitars they undoubtedly resemble? If so, read on, because as an owner of both types of guitar, I’m able to compare the two from a player’s point of view.

Today, I’ll look at the Fender Player HSS Stratocaster, and compare that with the Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 1; I’ll see how the Fender American Performer Stratocaster compares with the Charvel Pro-Mod DK24; and I’ll also take a look at some Telecaster styles, the Fender Player HH Telecaster and the Charvel Pro-Mod Style 2.

I’m going to take you through the various features that separate each brand, and also give some personal perspective on it all while I’m at it. Let’s go!

Contents

 

Charvel - The Brand

Now, I expect you’ll know a little about Fender already, right? So, let’s have a little look at Charvel.

Charvel, at a casual glance, look remarkably like hot-rodded Fenders, don’t they? The reason for that is because that’s pretty much what they are! Back in the late 70s, Wayne Charvel ran a repair and upgrade shop in San Dimas, California. He specialised in repairing and refinishing Fenders, which was a novel idea for the time. Long story short, he was successful and began putting together complete instruments, which went down a storm in the 80s Los Angeles music scene.

The Charvel we know today are actually licensed and built by Fender, so the journey has come full-circle, in a way. Today’s Charvels are very faithful to the models from their 80s heyday, and feature the same sort of ‘performance specs’ that made them so popular to begin with.

So, how do ‘regular’ Fenders match up to their modified brethren?

 

Fender Stratocaster vs Charvel Stratocaster

Fender Player HSS Stratocaster against Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 1

Now then, let’s put the Fender Player HSS Stratocaster against Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 1 and see how they compare!

A quick word on Charvel’s naming conventions, before we go any further. ‘Pro-Mod’ refers to their Mexican-made line of guitars, because there are US-built Charvels out there too. ‘So Cal’ (short for Southern California) basically means that the guitar has a pickguard. ‘San Dimas’ models have no pickguard. ‘Style 1’ refers to a Stratocaster body shape, and ‘Style 2’ to a roughly Telecaster-shaped body.

So, the Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 1 is a Mexican-made Charvel with a Strat body and a pickguard.

Our Fender choice - the Player HSS Stratocaster - is from the same Ensenada production facility as the Charvel. The price on this model is currently somewhat less than the Charvel, so bear that in mind.

In terms of differences, there are lots, so let’s go through them now…

Specs for Fender Player HSS Stratocaster

  • Body: Official Stratocaster body
  • Headstock: Official Fender Stratocaster headstock with Fender logo
  • Necks: 22 fret maple neck with a modern C profile, a 9.5” radius and medium jumbo frets. Fingerboard is either maple or pau ferro, depending on colour choice
  • Bridge: Traditional style Strat ‘vibrato’, the more modern ‘Two-point’ bridge, rather than a more vintage ‘six-point’ style
  • Pickups: Two alnico V single coil pickups and an alnico II humbucker
  • Controls: a 5-way blade pickup selector, one volume & two tone knobs

Specs for Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 1

  • Body: Official Stratocaster body
  • Headstock: Official Fender headstock with Charvel logo
  • Necks: 22 fret maple neck (with internal graphite rods for extra strength) with a ‘speed neck’ profile, rounded fingerboard edges, jumbo frets and a ‘compound radius’ of 12”-16”. This means that the fingerboard gradually flattens the higher up it goes. This is helpful for more technical playing
  • Bridge: Double locking Floyd Rose 100 tremolo, which locks the strings in place for rock-solid tuning. The Floyd Rose tremolo is capable of much more extreme pitch fluctuations and unorthodox sounds
  • Pickups: A set of handmade Seymour Duncan Distortion humbuckers, along with a coil split circuit to create single coil tones

What to make of these differences, though? I’d say the biggest things to look at here at the pickups, bridge and neck…

Charvel vs Fender Pickups

Fender’s Player series pickups are particularly good when compared with the previous range of Mexican-made guitars. Those alnico V single coils deliver classic Strat tones, so ‘instant replacements’ are not a concern. The humbucker is, to me, less impressive, and even a little bit underpowered.

‘Underpowered’ isn’t something you’ll be saying about the Charvel’s pickups! This pair of Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups are very hot, and also retail at over £200, so bear that in mind when you consider the total cost of the Charvel! They are very loud and harmonically alive pickups, but also perform very well when cleaned up, so they aren’t just for summoning armageddon! Also, the coil-split control introduces thinner, more ‘Stratty’ tones, though I couldn’t quite find that famous ‘quack’ in-between sound that some Strat fans can’t live without.

Charvel vs Fender Bridge

The bridge is a big subject too: the Strat bridge performs well, and you don’t have to fully commit to a tuning the way you have to with the Floyd Rose, since it locks the strings in place. That said, the Floyd Rose quite obviously keeps the tuning in check, and you can divebomb and squeal to your heart’s content with this one! I’d say the bridge will dictate player’s decisions on which model to choose in a big way.

Charvel vs Fender Neck

Lastly, the neck. This is actually where I believe the biggest differences lie. Now, this is all subjective, but I feel like the Charvel’s ‘speed neck’ actually has a little more meat on it than the Fender’s ‘modern C’! I’d have thought otherwise, but I have my hands on both and that’s how it seems to me.

Also, the Charvel’s compound radius and jumbo frets make any type of playing quite effortless. You are somewhat encouraged by this fact to indulge in constant soloing, but that’s as good a sign as any that the instrument is performing well.

The Fender, for me, is a clear second here. It’s not even anything to do with needing a ‘shred guitar’ (I do not) and more to do with my hand finding the Player Series neck carve a little too thin, a little insubstantial. Many other guitarists may find different outcomes there, but those are mine.

The Bottom Line

For me, it boils down to this: the Charvel is insanely well-spec’d for its price. I don’t think you can get a better performing instrument without spending double the price, frankly. It is shaped like a traditional Strat, so it’ll fit in with most bands/genres. The only downsides are the locked-in tuning (a massive bonus, though, if you stick to one tuning) and the absence of those Nile Rodgers quacky sounds. They are sort of there, but not in the same way as with the Strat.

If you need to change tunings, bring the funk or indeed just have ‘Fender’ written on the headstock (that’s a legit thing, and there’s no harm in admitting it!), then the Player HSS Strat is a fantastic, versatile choice.

Fender American Performer Stratocaster vs Charvel Pro-Mod DK24

The differences outlined in the above comparison pretty much crystallise the main points of divergence between the two brands. That said, there are points when certain specs cross over into the wheelhouse of the other brand, and this brief comparison should indicate this.

The Fender American Performer Stratocaster HSS looks very similar to the Player Strat we just looked at, but as with all Stratocasters, it pays to look a little closer…

First off, this is made in the USA, so naturally, the price reflects this. At time of writing, this guitar is over £600 more expensive than the Player Strat. For that, you get specially designed pickups (two Yosemite single coils and a Double-Tap humbucker, which all sound great but not necessarily ‘night & day’ better than the Player to my ears), some improved circuitry and a neck that keeps the modern C profile and 9.5” radius, but uses jumbo frets to get a little of that ‘performance’ feel.

This is the most affordable US-made Strat on the market, and it’s a very good bit of gear, but is it £600 better than the Player? You try both and be the judge.

Meanwhile, the Charvel Pro-Mod DK24 is the guitar I’m using for comparison. The DK24 is less traditional then the So Cal, with a 24 fret neck and a slightly smaller, slightly more ‘shapely’ body. It seems to me that Charvel are aiming this model at the sort of player who likes boutique brands like Suhr, but offering them something nice at a much cheaper price.

The DK24 can be had in either HH or HSS pickup configurations, and once again you get proper Seymour Duncans (the actual pickup models vary) along with a Gotoh 510 tremolo, which is held as one of the best trems on the market. The performance-style neck remains (12-16” compound radius, rolled edges etc) though you get two more frets this time, of course.

This spec list is like a glass of champagne! Charvel are managing to put a huge amount of quality into their DK24, and the price is (at time of writing) still under a grand.

How do they compare? Well, I’d say that the Charvel is easily the better equipped of the pair, and has its own style and vibe. The Fender is very good, but feels a little like a victim of the Player Strat’s success: there isn’t a ton of difference between them apart from the price! Both guitars feel different though - with the Charvel more overtly modern in most every way - so give both a test drive before making your mind up.

Fender Telecaster vs Charvel Telecaster

Fender Player Telecaster vs  Charvel So Cal Style 2

Lastly, a brief look at some teles. First off, let’s be clear here: Charvel have changed the actual body shape away from the traditional Telecaster style for something that’s close but a little offset. Personally, I’d sooner play one with the ‘correct’ silhouette, but you may differ!

The Charvel So Cal Style 2 has high output humbuckers, a Gotoh 510 tremolo and a neck that follows similar specifications to the other Charvels necks we’ve seen today. In other words, it’s really not much like a typical Tele at all!

Fender’s Player Telecaster HH is a much more traditional beast, albeit with the two humbuckers on board. There are plenty of people looking for a classic tele with added humbuckers, and this model delivers on that front. There’s nothing unusual otherwise: alder body, modern c neck with a 9.5” fingerboard radius and 22 medium jumbo frets. It’s absolutely up to whatever job you ask of it. There’s even a coil tap on board to thin out those humbuckers.

The Charvel Pro-Mod So Cal Style 2 has a unique look that will either win you over or it won’t. What I will say, though, is that you shouldn’t come to it for a traditional Telecaster experience - either in feel or sound - because you simply will not get it. If, however, you want a highly spec’d performance guitar with a unique single-cut look, the Charvel should be at the top of your list.

 Charvel vs Fender: Who Wins?

Who wins? Who indeed! Well, that’s hardly for me to say, because there are some factors that cannot be gotten around. The chief one is the ‘F-word’: if you need your guitar to say ‘Fender’ on the headstock then you have to go with a Fender! Luckily, every Fender mentioned today is worthy of your hard-earned pounds, so buy with confidence.

For my own take, I find the Fender guitars on topic today to be very good, very capable and very reliable. It’s just that the Charvel ones are too, plus they offer tons more on top, for either not much more money or, sometimes, less!

Don’t forget this: there are kind of all Fender at this point. Each brand has its remit, and each brand plays to its strengths. Go with your gut, but not before giving due process to each contender. They deserve your time!

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About the author

Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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