Had my neighbors glanced through my windows at the right moment they would’ve seen a strange sight – me walking around with a brand new Carvin SH550 strapped over my shoulder, noodling away with a crazy man’s grin on my face.
You see, part of my ritual of trying out a new guitar is to ramble around the house with it, playing it unplugged just to get a feel for it by itself. The madman’s smile had everything to do with the resonance of this custom shop instrument and the guitar’s comfortable body. It was a really good fit from the get go.
My review model featured a translucent shade of blue that flowed over the beautiful flame maple top and matching headstock like deep water. It had a mahogany body and a set neck. I was in no rush. There was a lot to take in before plugging in. Carvin has been big on UV finishes over the last few years – in fact, the high quality gloss has a very identifiably Carvin look that you’ll recognize once you’ve been around a few.
This guitar came with abalone block inlays and gold hardware. The 550 is equipped with a 3-way pickup selector switch, a volume knob and a tone knob. The tone knob pulls out for a coil-splitting option that I found useful. I like the overall less-is-more attitude of this model’s electronics and the simplicity of the controls.
I’ve been familiar with Carvin guitars for quite some time, so I expected the attention to detail that I saw on this model. The finish was first class. The feel of the instrument was solid and the playability was incredible. I checked the intonation straight out of the case and it was spot on. There are certainly lighter guitars out there, but I suspect few players approach this style of guitar and expect it to weigh much less.
The “Rapid Play” 25-inch scale length neck had a profile that was a little different but comfortable to me within minutes. The action was about as low as I would take it but there was no buzzing with any of the 22 medium-jumbo frets and I couldn’t find any dead spots. Carvin incorporated a two-way truss rod system two years ago that seems to have made a huge difference in adjustability and playability. They say they’ve also incorporated a unique neck- conditioning process and a new, more precise method of leveling the fretboards. The results are noticeable – we’re talking ultra-consistent low action. I could really feel the notes vibrating in my left hand as I strolled from room to room.
Another part of my ritual is to “try on" the guitar and check it out in a mirror. Stop laughing – you know you do that too. Let’s just say it looked fabulous.
Okay, so how did this guitar sound? I took it out for a night of romping at one of Nashville's better known blues sit-in spots and waited for an hour to get up. From the first couple of notes I found the guitar to be intuitive and toneful with a wide variety of dynamic response. The house band players all filtered up to the stage within a few songs to check it out. I love that about this town – you see some nice instruments everywhere you go, but true players don’t hide their penchant to get in on the musicality of something that catches their eye and ear.
The warm rhythm pickup, a covered S22 humbucker, gave a distinct clarity to the notes being played. You could hear every note in a chord, there was no blandness about it. The rear pickup, also a covered S22, had the same clarity and musical tone but with a nice growl mixed in to complement the bite of the treble brightness. The thickness and oomph of the lead pickup only confirmed what I had suspected from the beginning with this guitar, that it would sing!
There were a few spots where I just held on to a note and let it sustain. This guitar made me want to hear it. I was also able to get under the band and just whisper phrases with this guitar; it felt like the whole room would listen and get it. I had a great time on this guitar and really fell for its feel and overall sound. Of course, many other players commented on the instrument’s beauty, as well.
In summary, when I consider the soulfulness of this guitar and its quality of construction and finish, I am amazed that an American company’s custom shop can offer it with so many options at such a low price – $1699 shipped direct. Considering what people are used to in the 335-type class of guitar it is in, it’s an awful lot of sweet sounding guitar for the money.
you want a top rate semi-hollow built to your tastes
you aren't sold on the weight and style of a carved-top