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.
Lowell Kiesel started Carvin in 1946, right around the same time Leo Fender got his company going. Both were experimenting with electrifying the popular Spanish and Hawaiian guitars of the era. And while Leo Fender, Ted McCarty, Les Paul, and Adolph Rickenbacker certainly share much of the credit for bringing the electric guitar to life, Lowell Kiesel was there too—he was just doing it in his own way. Going their own way is a good way to describe Carvin, and they proudly maintain the direct-to-consumer marketing and sales approach they’ve practiced throughout the company’s history.
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.
This mid-'70s SS75B featured solid maple construction and a Bigsby vibrato.
He went to Hofner and started importing parts—necks and semi-hollowbody components. Those were the first electrics Lowell made in the ’50s. Then he went into full-blown production in the ’60s when his son Mark Kiesel came onboard. By the ’70s, Mark started designing guitars, while Carson was put in charge of electronics, amp design, mixers, and pro sound.
How long did Lowell Kiesel stay with the company?
Lowell stayed involved in pickup design into the early ’70s. His sons and grandkids run the company now.
What was the genesis of the 11-pole pickups?
When you bend a string, you won't lose any signal beyond the coverage of a particular pole piece. Even in our covered pickups, we pot in wax and maintain the 11 poles. To our knowledge, Mark Kiesel was the first to design an 11-pole pickup.
Carvin's AP11 single-coil pickups showcase the company's 11-pole design. These modern pickups are designed to be identical to Carvin's original AP6 pickups from the '50s and '60s.
Who designs your products today?
Carson is the CEO and head engineer, and he oversees all production as far as electronics, amps, and pro sound. Mark is in charge of all guitar designs, including pickups, and he also designs new headstocks and bodies. Additionally, Mark oversees the quality of production and new ideas.
Lowell and Mark Kiesel in the Carvin factory in 2006. Lowell passed away on December 29, 2009 at age 94.
Is it safe to assume your custom guitar methodology is popular with your customers?
Yes, and Mark prides himself on offering the biggest available selection to the public. With some custom shops, you're paying a huge premium and waiting months and months for a guitar. Mark decided that if you want to buy a custom instrument, you're not going to pay more than you would for a factory-built model off the wall.
What is the average wait for a custom guitar ordered from your website?
Average wait is four to six weeks.
What happens if the customer changes his/her mind?
Whether pre-built or custom-ordered, customers have ten days to evaluate it from the day they receive it. A guitar can be sent back for any reason, or sent in for a modification if you want to change something.
And if a guitar comes back, what happens to it?
If a guitar comes back, it goes into inventory. It's no different than going down to a Guitar Center where dozens of people have played a particular guitar—except in our case, it's only one. If it comes back, we give it a fresh set of strings and a setup. Since we have a number of ways of selling direct to the public—including the factory showrooms in Hollywood, Santa Ana, and San Diego—it will go to one of our stores or online in the Guitars-in-Stock section of our website.
What percentage of guitars come back?
It's very small. The fact that we are not in every store, and market direct to the public—you have to know who we are. It is a bit of a challenge for us, so we have to be that much better. Not only do we have to make a guitar that is desirable, but make it so good that when you pick it up the first time, you don't want to put it down. The reasons guitars have come back recently are often due to an economic thing. The customer has bitten off more than they can chew—it’s not that they don't like the guitar.
Carvin's San Diego facility.
The guitars are made in San Diego?
Every solidbody, including the basses, are made here. We offer some semi-hollowbody guitars and hollowbody acoustic-electrics that are also made here.
How many people in the factory?
There are a 140 in the company. The guitar factory itself is not as large as people would think. We've had some people here for decades, and that is really key. They do important jobs like handpick and book-match the flame and quilt tops. We turn away a lot of wood because we have certain standards. Other companies may have a private stock or figured wood stashes they charge a huge premium for—for us, that's our everyday top.
How many people just working on guitars?
There are 30 to 40 people working solely on guitars. We have two people doing final setups so we can keep quality control down to two guys, and really focus on the attention to detail. During the difficult economic times, we had some tough choices to make—do we make someone wait another couple weeks for their guitar, or do we add another shift and run this place 24/7? In order to keep the quality under control, we did not add a second shift. In my experience, when you get someone who stays up all night, you kind of wonder about them. I prefer to have my guitar built by someone that dwells during the day. [Laughs.]
Unidentified Carvin employees operate the fretwire press (left) and sand the body of a guitar (right)
in the San Diego factory.
And your pickups are made here as well?
Every single pickup is wound and assembled in San Diego. We wanted to maintain that because that was how this company started. We have three or four people making our pickups and each of them knows how to make every single pickup we offer, which is currently about two dozen. That's tight quality control.
Carvin factory workers wind pickups (left) and spray finish (right) in the San Diego factory.
What is the most popular electric guitar you make?
The California Carved Top—and it comes in different models. There is the original CT6 with a deluxe flame top, which can be upgraded to quilted maple or other deluxe maple tops like spalted or burl. There’s also the CT3, which is all mahogany, and the CT4 that comes with a standard maple top. The CT6 is actually my personal guitar—the neck on that thing plays so beautifully, and the sound of that guitar is astounding.
Our semi-hollow electrics are also popular because they are not quite as hollow as an ES-335. It is a nice hybrid between a semi-hollowbody and a solidbody. We start with a solid piece of mahogany and core it out. It's simply a cored-out solidbody—no laminate or veneer sides—with an added maple top, so you don't have the feedback issues you often find with traditional semi-hollowbodies.
A Carvin employee hand-dresses the frets (left) while a CNC machine shapes the
neck profiles (right) for consistency.
What is the standard neck radius on the CT6?
It's a 12" radius. Though we do offer custom radius options, from 10" to 15", there is not much customization available if a Floyd bridge is chosen
How many guitars do you ship a month?
It's usually around 200, but it depends how backed up we are in production. Custom orders take priority, so that will impact production and what we can stock for the website and stores. For a number of years now, we have stretched out beyond the US and Canada with dealers getting us into stores in other parts of the world.
Tell me about your artist roster.
We've tried to maintain a roster that represents the best of the best. When you're talking about guys like Steve Vai, Alan Holdsworth, and Frank Gambale with his new signature model, we're very blessed we can please these guys with our products. They may not be mainstream radio artists, but they are players who inspire everyone who wants to play well. That means a lot to us because we want guys who are respected. One band we work with is As I lay Dying, and they were so excited to meet Frank Gambale. I didn't expect a younger band to be in awe of Frank Gambale, but his videos were very popular and influential in the ‘80s, and it’s obvious his influence hasn't changed—people still look up to him.
You manufacture some great sounding amps. Tell me about the process of amp design.
We try to maintain the models that have been popular over the years—the Vintage series in particular. They were very well received when we debuted them in ’94 or ’95, and artists like Joe Walsh have embraced them. The only change we’ve made since we released them is pulling the spring reverb tank to go with a digital one. The source for that tank was unable to provide the exact tank we had been using, so instead of re-engineering the amp, we decided to give it a go with a digital reverb.
Carvin amps throughout the years: (upper left) 1949 tube amp for lap steel; (upper right) 1960 #28-212-B; (lower left) 1980 VTX112; (lower right) current Vintage 16.
Your amps are also made in San Diego?
All our amps are made here. The old woodshop in the back, where the guitars are made, is split in two with half the room for guitars, and the other half for our cabinets. There’s another section of the building for guitar and bass amps, where we still do point-to-point soldering whenever we can on all the tube amps. We offer one solid-state amp that uses micro-components and the new realm of surface mount technology, but when it comes to guitar amps for us, it's still the old-fashioned way of assembling by hand.
You have a vast product line from guitar picks to 32-channel mixers, and studio mics to guitar amp stacks. How do you manage all that?
One of the things we employ with our model of manufacturing is what people call “lean manufacturing,” a model used by companies like Toyota. It monitors how stock gets depleted and we then build enough replenishment stock so we always know exactly how many days of inventory we have. We have an assembly line—a couple of them—and they assemble every single product that we make. Whether it's a mixer, power amp, or guitar amp, our people know how to make every single product. And not having a huge inventory has allowed us to react to sourcing parts during fluctuating economic times. We're never in a situation where we have to get rid of stock that is not moving.
Is there a Carvin Sound?
I've heard some players say that. You can be a replica of this or that—but if you clear all that away and ask yourself what a good sound is—a good amp can sound the way you want it to, if you dial it in correctly. This whole thing of amp modeling has cluttered the industry. If you take the time to actually adjust things, a good tube amp will respond to the things you do. If you turn the gain up and the volume down, you get a different response. With amp modeling, a player may not get the response they want because the amp tries to emulate what people thought a certain amp sounded like at a certain setting. We're not against modeling, but there is no substitution for plugging into a real tube amp. If you know how to use an amp as a player, there are things you can get out of it that are unexpected. To me, an amp is also an instrument you have to learn how to play.