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Over the years, Carvin gear has been used by heavyweights like Frank Zappa, Jaco Pastorius, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. The company has carved its niche in the industry as a manufacturer of US-made instruments and amps that can be had at a fraction of the cost of their counterparts. Their electric guitars have a unique look, an excellent reputation in terms of playability, and are priced in the same ballpark of the mass-produced, Asian models that dominate big box music stores—stores where Carvin instruments cannot be found. Before retailing through the Internet, Carvin relied almost exclusively on catalogs and mail order. As is still the case today, if someone wants to check out one of their guitars or amps before buying, a visit to one of their Southern California showrooms is the sole option.
While still holding true to their sales methodology, Carvin has embraced the digital age. One can visit their site and custom order an instrument with an assortment of details and options. And while there, gear-centric musicians can order amps, PAs, stands, mics, and pretty much everything else needed to rock out—all under the Carvin brand. Premier Guitar recently spoke with Carvin's Creative Director Richard Cruz to learn about the secrets of their success, the history of the company, and what sets them apart.
Lowell Kiesel and one of his lap steels and amps in the 1940s.
Lowell was a musician who was also a tinkerer. He ended up building his own pickups, and eventually started building his own guitars in his woodshop. This was in the early ’40s, so it was really around the birth of the electric guitar. Lowell knew Adolph Rickenbacker and Les Paul, and I believe he knew Leo Fender. It's not like it is today. At the time, there wasn't a ton of competition—they shared their information.
Given how new the concept was, how did Kiesel make his pickups?
Back then, there were no machines designed to wind pickups, so he took the motor out of his wife's sewing machine and used it to make a winder. When his wife needed to sew, he just put the motor back in the machine. In fact, he ended up teaching his wife Agnes how to wind pickups and she was very instrumental in producing them early on. The original pickup was very similar to a PAF and the sewing machine is still in the Carvin archives today. Lowell also started making Hawaiian electric steel guitars and marketed them in Popular Mechanics. He took out tiny, little ads and began taking orders for his Hawaiian guitars and pickups.
Who were his early customers?
Lowell originally went the traditional route by trying to market his pickups to dealers. He quickly learned that being a guitar enthusiast is one thing and being a businessman is another. A lot of dealers back then would rip you off if they could. He thought, "Why do I need to go to these people and take less money when I can just market this myself?" That's how Kiesel Electronics started in 1946, though the name changed to Carvin soon after—a combination of the names of his two eldest sons Carson and Gavin. Then he started the mail-order catalog and sold amps, pickups, and steel-string Hawaiians. He was also a dealer for Fender and other brands at the time.