Criss Oliva’s Gear Details

September 25, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

Some Gear Now Appearing on eBay?

Criss with his 'gargoyle' guitar.

Criss with his 'gargoyle' guitar.

Any Savatage fans out there? I know there must be, and if Criss Oliva were still alive today there would probably be a lot more (RIP Criss).

I remember the first time I heard “Hall of the Mountain King,” with the classical music intro. I knew I’d heard the classical piece before, but didn’t know what it was (“In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg – vid below). That use of classical music – second only to the Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy live opening music of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana – and then the absolutely KILLER riff after it made me stop whatever I was doing. It was just so different, so perfectly sinister, I was just blown away and ran out and bought the disc.

I am no expert on Criss, but I can still hear his guitar sound in my head and am still blown away when I hear him. I don’t listen to it often because for me – and again, I’m not a diehard fan – Savatage’s music has a dark feel, a style all its own, that I enjoy but don’t want to listen to all the time.

Not that that makes any difference! The bottom line is that Criss was a heck of a guitar player, had his own style and sound, died too young and deserves to be remembered. I just saw a recent post that a piece of Criss’ gear is now up on eBay (with more apparently coming soon, according to the listing), and was reminded of his fantastic talent.

(I have no way of knowing whether the eBay listings are legit nor who stands to gain from them, so this is not an endorsement!)

I looked around for posts about his gear on the web, and it appears that what he “mostly” used is fairly well known. A couple of websites have the same list (here’s one – tough to tell who copied whom), apparently well-researched, so here it is.

But before reading the list, which appears to be compiled to represent Criss’ career, here’s what Criss’ guitar tech Danny Campbell said about Criss’ equipment during the Hall of the Mountain King era: “This tour Criss is using a Charvel and two ESP guitars. As for his amps and effects, he uses Yamaha amps with Marshall cabinets, an Ibanez delay, and a Boss overdrive pedal. In all of Criss’ guitars he uses DiMarzio pickups.”

I haven’t found a reference to DiMarzio pickups anywhere else, and no specifics, but there you go!


Criss used several ESP and Jackson/Charvel super strats, but his favorite was nicknamed the Gargoyle. It was an ESP that had an ash body, bolt-on unfinished maple neck, 22 medium-jumbo frets, and a Floyd Rose bridge.

Pickups (humbucker bridge, single-coil neck) were said to be Bartolinis (no models mentioned), but had this to say: “Deeper investigations suggest that Criss used Seymour Duncan JBs in the bridge position.” Then there’s the DiMarzio quote above….

Strings were LaBella Hard Rockin’ Steels (no longer made), with the following gauges:
> Standard tuning: 9-42
> Drop D: 9-46
> Whole step down (D to D): 10-48
> Drop C (including Hall of the Mountain King): 10-52

He used stainless-steel picks apparently made by StarPiks, which I believe is now out of business.


Like all guitarists, Criss used various effects throughout his career. But it appears his “standard” pedalboard had the following components, in addition to a tuner:

> 2 Boss Super Overdrives – Both all the way up except one had the Tone rolled all the way off and the other had the Tone all the way up.

> Boss Chorus CE-2 (Rate at 10:30, Depth up all the way).

> 2 Boss TU-12H Chromatic tuner.

> Boss Power Supply, which powered the entire pedalboard.

> A/B switch

Chris also had rack processors, which at various times included:

> Compressor (unnamed)

> Rockman Stereo Chorus and/or Sustainer (used as a clean pre-amp boost)

> Ibanez delay (presumably the one on eBay)

> Peavey 31-band stereo EQ, settings frequently changed but apparently the gain always all the way up.

Other rack-mount units were used, including a noise gate and possibly reverb.


Even though Criss’ tech mentions a Yamaha above (again, no specifics), everyone else talks about Crhis using Marshalls (presumably JCM 800s, possibly hot-rodded) and Laneys: Laney Pro Tube and AOR Pro Tube 50-watters.

Cabs were supposedly Marshall and/or Laney. No word on speakers.

The aforementioned Criss fan sites say: “Criss ran his amps on the clean channel only,” or the lower-gain of two-input, presumably single-channel amps.

Hall of the Mountain King, Live, Cleveland, 1987


> Here’s a good Guitar World article on Criss.

> On his sound (from this 1993 interview): “I’m always working hard on my sound and am constantly trying to improve it. I have Laney amps, Jackson guitars, a small rack. And that’s not even specially adjusted. That’s all…. There’s no mystery. And if any, then it’s hidden between hands, heart and soul. It simply must be the way I play.”

> Amazingly, I don’t think Criss was ever interviewed by any major guitar magazine. (If any of you know for sure, please leave a comment!)

> In this interview, Criss indicates that his favorite guitarist was Jimmy Page. His favorite album: Physical Graffiti.

> In the same interview Criss was asked how he would like to be remembered. He said: “As a great composer, a capable guitarist and a nice person.”

Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King

Category: Boss, Criss Oliva, ESP, Ibanez, Peavey, Rockman

Comments (6)

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  1. Michael Harper says:

    I saw Savatage with Criss in a night club and he was using a Marshall combo amp. I didn't get close enough to see which one he was using as it was behind a curtain, but it was definitely a combo. We couldn't believe the tone that he was getting from it! This was probably either the Power of the Night tour or the Fight for the Rock tour.

  2. OldSchoolShredder says:

    Chris also played Kramer guitars (see… and it looks he's playing a Kramer Baretta in the Hall Of The Mountain King video. Also, Labella Hard Rockin' Steels are still made and you can order them from and other sites.

  3. Dan says:

    Criss ran all his amps clean and used the 2 Boss OD pedals for his rhythm and lead. The rolled off for rhythm then kicked in the rolled up tone one for lead. Gary Holt used a similar method but with amp drive too! The steel picks were a big part of his tone. I still use them to this day as does Brad Gillis :)

  4. Evan says:

    Criss is one of my favorite guitar players. His music with Savatage was fantastic.

  5. Tim says:

    I’ve been a metal fan for many years (when it started with Black Sabbath), and to me… Criss Oliva was one of the best to ever play the guitar. Simply amazing. I still play all the Savatage cds all the time. I love to hear him play still. His death was tragic and robbed us all of what he would’ve shared with us. RIP Criss

  6. Robert Tyche says:

    I’ve seen savatage at least 10 15 times from hall of mountain king to edge of thorns always great shows but one that stood out was on a Sunday night and there was maybe 15 people there 10 of them were from my High school best concert of my life but I didn’t look to see what he was playing on or amps effects etc. Iwas concentrating on his guitar playing I’m still amazed how great of a player he was i rember like it was yesterday RIP

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