Charvel SK-3 ST Skatecaster Guitar Review
Standard Retail Price: $299.99
Typical Used Price: $125 to $200
Features: Offset-shaped mahogany body; bolt-on mahogany oil-rubbed neck with rosewood fretboard; locking tuners; 24 jumbo frets; two humbucking pickups; bridge specially designed for compound-radius fingerboards.
Controls: 3-way pickup switch; single volume knob.
Famous Users: Terry Balsamo (Evanescence)
Further Information: Charvel.com
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to point out two things:
1. I would actually give this instrument a 3.5 rating if half-stars were available.
2. I do not play hard or heavy rock.
I feel these clarifications are necessary, because if this review comes across as highly positive, please bear in mind that I was very surprised by this guitar. I acquired my SK-3 ST during the course of a trade transaction, and while it wasn't what I wanted initially, it turned out to be what I needed.
Charvel released this guitar a couple of years ago as a kind of reissue of their underrated Surfcaster from the 1990s. The Skatecaster is only peripherally related to that semi-hollowbody, single-coil-equipped instrument, however, borrowing only its shape and a few cosmetic appointments as a basis on which to build.
On first glance, the SK-3 ST is a very good-looking instrument, with a clean, modern design. The model I own has a flat black (more like charcoal) matte finish, and the light gray binding on the body and neck really stand out in a kind of classy way. The uncluttered controls contribute to the sleek feel, and although the neck and headstock are assembled from 2 separate pieces of wood that have slightly different colors, this doesn't detract from the great look. About the only complaint I have is that the pearloid inlays on the fretboard are a little on the large side, and to me they look a little "Nu-metal gone Vegas."
The second thing one notices when picking up the Skatecaster is how light it is. I'd be surprised if it even clocked in at 6 pounds. However, it still manages to feel sturdy and substantial, due to the dense feeling of the mahogany used to craft the body and neck.
Speaking of the neck, it's very flat and that took some getting used to on my part, as I'm much more used to rounded Fender and Gibson-style profiles. While I didn't care for it at first, after about 30 minutes of playing I came to realize that it might be one of the most comfortable-feeling necks I've ever had the pleasure of playing. This is due in large part to the fact that the back of the neck is not finished--it's described on Charvel's website as "oil-rubbed." Whatever the case may be, having your hand make such a direct connection with the wood of the guitar is a really interesting experience. And with its 25.5" scale length, the SK-3 ST feels different than most short-scale guitars that are designed for hard/heavy rock.
The black nickel hardware is also very nice, blending handsomely with the look and feel of the rest of the guitar. The tuners, bridge and tailpiece all feel very sturdy and solid. It might have been nice to have even basic straplocks included, but the black nickel strap buttons are very well-designed and I have yet to have a strap slip off them.
Ease of Use
With regard to the Skatecaster's functionality, it's been described on other sites as a one-trick pony and I don't think that's quite a fair assessment. While it's true that the guitar is clearly intended for heavier types of music, I've personally had a lot of success playing other genres on it, including pop rock and post-punk/new wave type.
After owning this guitar and using it as a second instrument for several months, I do have some concerns about the SK-3 ST but none of them are fatal flaws--each can be easily corrected with a little time, patience and money.
- First, the tuners feel very sturdy but the locks don't seem to do as well with the size .11-.49 strings I typically use. There tends to be a little slippage over time that results in tuning stability issues. It's nothing that can't be addressed by tightening the locks every so often, and if I didn't like the way they looked on the guitar so much, I'd probably just replace them.
- Next, and this is probably the most remarked-on feature of the guitar, the humbuckers on the Skatecaster are not the highest quality. They're voiced pretty darkly, and ironically, I find that although they guitar was built for playing gain-saturated hard rock, the pickups sound great when paired with an amp that has a bright sounding clean channel. Otherwise, though, they're fairly lifeless and somewhat flat.
- Finally, the instrument can be a little hard to intonate. If you're accustomed to performing your own setups, you may find that for whatever reason, adjusting the saddles on the bridge the way you would on other guitars doesn't seem to have quite as much influence on the intonation and it will take time and patience to get it where you want it.
Other than these rather small problems, the SK-3 ST performs admirably on a number of levels. One of the things I've found that it excels at, in fact, is alternate or open tunings. The Skatecaster seems to really love drop-D, open-D, and open-E, as well as other custom tunings that I occasionally employ. These seem to make the mahogany body and neck really resonate, and the guitar just sounds great when played this way!
The lack of a tone knob is, in this instance, not an issue--I can't imgine you'd want to turn down the high end on these pickups, as you'd quickly turn your signal to mud. A tone control might be useful if one swapped pickups, though again, the idea of having your 'buckers on full-tilt all the time is a testament to the hard-rockin' intentions behind the design of the Skatecaster.
I can't stop raving about the neck on the SK-3. It's easily one of the most comfortable I've ever played, and if this guitar was trapped in a burning building, I'd save it just to preserve that one part. The compound radius (12"-16") means that the frets toward the headstock are fairly flat, while those up near the neck bolt are more rounded. This makes the instrument extremely easy to play, and the fit and finish on the frets was better than some new USA-made Fenders I've played recently! There were no burrs or sharp edges whatsoever, and each fret was polished to a gleam.
Tonally, it's definitely a darker-sounding guitar but you would expect that given the humbuckers and abundance of mahogany present in the construction. As mentioned previously, the pickups are a little stale-sounding when played with high gain, which is funny given that this guitar was clearly built for modern rock.
However, the pickups do sound pretty good through a bright clean amp, and they seem to put out a hot enough signal that many distortion pedals work well with them in my experience. One area where I've noticed a problem, though, is overdrive pedals. Though the SK-3 ST's humbuckers are sort of characterless and generic in general, they're hot enough that many relatively tame OD pedals (such as the Boss SD-1 and OD-2, as well as the Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer) actually end up sounding a bit like fuzz pedals on all but the mildest settings. So if you use an OD-2 Turbo Overdrive in the Turbo:On position like I do, expect to either turn that off or dial down the Drive knob considerably from where you'd normally set it.
The light weight of this guitar makes it very easy to play for hours on end. I recently did a 4-hour show with a few short breaks in between sets using this guitar exclusively, a stint that even with my Strat usually leaves my back and shoulders feeling a little tender. However, having the SK-3 ST strapped to me was like wearing a backpack or a slightly-heavier-than-normal piece of clothing on.
Tuning stability can be a bit of an issue, though this guitar has the feeling of a real workhorse. I imagine that if I can narrow down which component is causing the issue and address it by adjusting or repairing that piece, the Skatecaster does seem like the kind of instrument you could really beat on without too much trouble.
If you're on a budget and looking for an entry-level guitar, or if you're an intermediate to advanced player in need of a backup instrument that isn't going to break the bank, the Charvel SK-3 ST Skatecaster is a great place to start your search.
I won't pretend the guitar doesn't have some shortcomings, because it definitely does. But its strengths seem to more than make up for any problems. The Skatecaster is an unexpected delight, and you may find that its charms will sneak up on you if you give it enough time.