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.
What was Lowell Kiesel's mission with Carvin?

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.

Kiesel's original pickup winder from 1946 used a sewing machine motor and still exists in the Carvin archives.

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.
How did selling guitars from other companies evolve into Carvin making and selling their own guitars?

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.

The Jethro Tull guitarist discusses his tools of the trade, touring, and how his first take recording of the Aqualung solo was almost interrupted by Jimmy Page.

The rich and complex history of rock ’n’ roll, as expressed through the electric guitar, cannot be told authoritatively without the including the work of Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. Barre's contributions are cataloged under classic Jethro Tull albums such as Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and War Child to name a few. Tull, masterminded by writer/guitarist/vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson and supported by Barre's guitar work, added concepts and progressive riffs that expanded the electric guitar's boundaries established by British blues-rock—a genre that was in full bombastic bloom when Tull's Aqualung was released in 1971.

In spite of any perceived under-recognition, Martin Barre's masterful solo on Aqualung's title track consistently pops up in the top five of nearly every “greatest guitar solos” list. The solo is a great example of Barre's contribution to the medium and it exemplifies what makes a great rock guitar solo—the suspenseful melodic build up that peaks with intensity, a gorgeous tone, soulful expressions that sink deep inside the listener, and technique without the slightest whiff of wankery. Jethro Tull is in the US for a summer tour, and the band is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Aqualung by playing the album live in its entirety. Anderson and Barre have been playing together so long that, as Barre puts it, "Even if we're playing a song we haven't done in ten years, Ian and I will remember what we did, and where we move. It's like we played it yesterday." Anderson and Barre are the only original members touring, and the first time they played together in preparation for the US tour was sound check at their first show at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Visiting friends, family, and guitar shops in advance of the tour, Martin Barre sits down with Premier Guitar to talk gear, the tour, and his simple but effective approach to tone.

Are you excited about the tour?

To be honest, most tours are special and only a few are a pain in the ass. I don't like going to India because it's a very sad country, but I love playing in America. For me, America is really a second home and I can't even imagine how much time I've spent in here in the last 42 to 43 years. Playing Red Rocks will be great—I know where the dressing room is, I know the venue, I know Denver, and I know where to go for a run. I'll probably even recognize a few people in the crowd. I love playing anywhere—be it a small club in Germany, outdoors at a festival in Italy, or somewhere in America. It's always a labor of love.

What gear will you be taking on the road for this tour?

I'm just bringing my PRS 513s, which I've played for about 10 years, and a mandolin. Ian plays his acoustic, and for the few acoustic parts I play, I'll just use the 513. If I could, I would bring ten guitars on the road with me. But given the logistics of coming from England, it's not practical.

I'll be using Soldano Decatone amps. I have a good relationship with Mike Soldano, and I think I’ve worked with that same amp for 20 years now—they always do a great job. I fly around the world with them and they get thrown about, but you turn them on and there you are—they sound exactly how you want them to. My favorite setup is a Decatone with a Marshall 2x12 and 1x12, running the 1x12 at the front of the stage like a monitor. I take both cabinets off the amp so I'm in the middle of the sound. That's all I use, it's really simple with three channels—clean, crunch, and distortion.

Any effects or processing?

I use a tiny little Alesis PicoVerb for a tiny bit of reverb. It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

Picks and strings?

I use quite a heavy pick so I've got lots of control, and they're made for me in England. I have a great guitar shop in the UK called Manson's and they build guitars as well. They're friends and do all my repairs, make me a coffee and feel at home when I come in. For strings, I use GHS 10-46s.

Rumor has it that in early days of Jethro Tull, you used a Hornsby Skewes Treble Booster that picked up radio signals.

Yeah—that's true and I've still got it! It's the worst bit of kit ever made. [Laughs.] You open it up and it's got just a few bare wires and a capacitor. They were virtually wireless receivers. There were so many gigs in America where we'd be playing downtown, and atop of the concert hall would be a radio mast—just a nightmare. I used to neurotically look out the window of the car on the way to gigs, watching out for radio masts.

You have very pure tones on your recorded work. Do you use much processing or EQ in the studio?

No, I don't use any EQ. I only want the sound of the guitar coming out of the amplifier—nothing else. When I go to any studio, I insist the EQ is either turned off or set to null.

The tone on your solo work, while it doesn’t sound processed, is quite different from your tone with Jethro Tull.

Well, in Jethro Tull, I get one or two hours and that's it. If I haven't got it by then, then my solo is going to be a flute solo. On my solo albums, I have the luxury of spending as much time as I want to experiment with different guitars, different sounds, and mics. It's a different process and there is no pressure. With Jethro Tull, there's always somebody waiting to record their part, so there is a bit of pressure on you.

I don't spend a lot of time doing guitar parts, because I want them to be fresh. But I think that if something doesn't work in one or two takes, that bit of music doesn't work or you've got to completely rethink what you are doing. You can't just keep bashing away at the same idea.

Do you prefer humbuckers or single-coils?

I like to switch around and don't use one tone for very long—I go through the catalog of what's available. I always had a humbucker in the bridge and then a couple single-coils so I could get both the sweet Fender sound and the full-blown humbucker sound. When listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robben Ford, you can really tell when they're digging in with their right hand. You get a different kind of compression on a single-coil than a humbucker. You can sort of overdrive it with your fingers—I love that sound. And I love that sound where you need to bite in to get that sustain.

Speaking of single-coils, you used a 1958 Les Paul Junior on Aqualung. Why that guitar?

We did a tour with Mountain. Back then, bands weren't particularly friendly with one another, and Mountain was the first band that we really became friends with. I just loved Leslie West's playing and they truly were a great “feel” band with the way they fed off each other live. He's probably the only guitarist who has influenced me directly. He played a Les Paul Junior, so that's why I bought mine.

The solo on the song “Aqualung” has received as many accolades as any rock guitar solo in existence. Was that composed, one take, or a composite?

It was a one-off and I did it first take. I've never learned licks—especially at that point of my career—and I never, ever used the blues licks. All the other guys were doing that and I wanted melody. In my mind, I can hear a melody, and then I can play it. That's what I've always loved about playing an instrument. You hear where you want to go in your head, and your fingers can go there for you—it's sort of a direct connection. I don't have any sort of hang-up about having to play a B.B. King or Freddie King lick. I love the blues as well, but in those days, it was a very free approach. I just played.

Led Zeppelin was in the same studio as Jethro Tull when you were recording Aqualung. Did you guys ever drop in on each other's sessions?

We were Led Zeppelin's support band in 1969. They were a wild bunch of guys as you can imagine, but we got along well enough. In the studio, we both got buried in our work for some reason. I hadn't seen Jimmy Page in over a month in the studio, but when I was doing the solo for “Aqualung,” he coincidentally decided to come upstairs and say hello. I was in the middle of the solo and he was in the control room waving at me. I thought if I waved back, I'd have to play the solo again. So I just carried on playing and grinned, and that was the solo used on the album.

Your audition for Jethro Tull went badly. What happened?

It was in this huge basement room. For some reason, they had a drum kit and an amp in the middle of the room, and all the guys auditioning sat in chairs all the way around the room. There were like 30 or 40 guitarists waiting for their turn to play, and everybody was watching everybody else. It was just horrible and I don't think anyone could play well under those circumstances. It was so much pressure and I played awful.

Yet you got the gig.

Because I read the music press in England, and a couple of weeks went by with no news, I had a feeling that Ian hadn't found anybody. I called him, asked if he had found someone, and he said he had—Tony Iommi. But Tony had an accident in a factory, and the tops of his fingers were cut off. He couldn't play many complex chords, but fortunately for Tony, he did go on to make it huge with Black Sabbath. Since he couldn't do the Tull gig, I asked Ian if I could have another go and he said yeah. This time was just me and the band spending a whole day of playing together. Obviously, that went a lot better.

Ian wanted a guitarist that with no pre-conceived style. He didn't want a blues guitarist. He had already had one in Mick Abrahams, who went on to form Blodwyn Pig. Ian wanted someone with an open mind who would try stuff out and go to a different place without questioning it. So it worked out perfectly.

As a self-taught guitar player, how were the complex parts that make up a Jethro Tull song communicated?

I knew everything they knew. I was taught flute professionally before I joined Jethro Tull, so I could read music and I understood music. We were all at the same level musically.

I was in the middle of the solo and [Jimmy Page] was in the control room waving at me. I thought if I waved back, I'd have to play the solo again. So I just carried on playing and grinned, and that was the solo used on the album.

Talking about your early rock ’n’ roll days in the late ’60s, you said there were two types of players—those in the Gibson camp, and those in the Fender camp. Can you elaborate on that?

At that age, it was a style thing. If your favorite player played a certain guitar, that’s what you aspired to. There was no real advantage of one over the other from the information we had about guitars back then. Once you've gone down the Gibson road, that sort of neck profile and design stuck with you. But by the mid-’70s, I was playing Fenders as well. By then I was more aware of what you could get out of the instruments. At that time, many guitarists wanted both because they wanted to expand their library of sounds.

What drove that shift from traditional electrics?

I met and got to know Paul Hamer. Paul used to come around to all the big rock bands and sell vintage guitars. When he started building his guitars, he brought one to a show for me to try out. At the time, my Les Pauls were becoming so valuable that I didn't want to take them on the road—so the Hamers were a perfect replacement. They played like a Les Paul, they sounded good, and if you lost one, you could get another one. It was also a relationship thing. I got to like Paul so much that I wanted to support him. When Paul left Hamer, I played Tom Anderson and Ibanez guitars for a short time, and then Mansons, Schecters, and Fenders. Now, I’m playing PRS.

All these people I've dealt with have been really good people—Tom Anderson, the guys at PRS—we got along so well. I never asked for anything—we all just had a common love of music and a love of good guitars. That's why I use them and why I've got a lot of them. I've bought most of my guitars from a local shop in England.

Many established players prefer vintage guitars. Like your guitar work, you tend to go your own way on that trend.

I don't tend to play vintage guitars and I only own a couple—they aren’t practical. Vintage guitars are a bit more temperamental, but I do appreciate them. There's this guitar shop in Mississippi where the guy in the shop—an older guy—has a huge collection. I’ll go to his house, sort of dive through his cupboards, and I always find something nice in there. I bought a blonde Gibson ES-140 3/4 from him, and on this last visit, I got a 1962 Gibson mandolin.

Inevitably, I always compare myself to somebody like a carpenter with a toolbox. He's got his favorite tools, and they're not valuable other than being able to perform the task he asks of them. That's like me with guitars. I ask a lot of them, and put them through a lot of adverse conditions and temperature changes when touring. I ask them to sound perfect every night, and if they do, then I have a great respect for them. Listen to someone like Jeff Beck. He can play any guitar through any amp, and he will still sound like Jeff Beck. Guitars are tools.

Martin Barre’s Gearbox

Paul Reed Smith RS 513

Soldano Decatone
Marshall 2x12 and 1x12 cabs

Alesis PicoVerb


Download Example 1 Radio - Fender American Strat Download Example 2 Heavy - Ibanez Saber Download Example 3 Heavy Parked - Ibanez Saber Clips recorded with Blackstar HT40 emulated

Download Example 1
Radio - Fender American Strat
Download Example 2
Heavy - Ibanez Saber
Download Example 3
Heavy Parked - Ibanez Saber
Clips recorded with Blackstar HT40 emulated line out to E-MU 0404 USB into Cubase 5.
For most electric guitar players, natural, even-harmonic amp overdrive and distortion is a kind of perfection—a balance of grit, grime, and clarity that’s at once rebellious and resonant. Then there are those who don’t like their distortion so civilized—players who like it to sound a little alien, a bit nasty, and occasionally just straight-up cruel. Totally Wycked Audio’s Triskelion TK-1 Harmonic Energizer (which is distributed by Godlyke) is remarkable for being able to offer something to each type of player. But it definitely favors those with more radical tastes. And if you’re a jazz, funk, metal, or heavy rock player that loves the outer limits of the form, the Triskelion can help get you there.

Though it rewards the adventurous and looks dangerous, the Triskelion (which was inspired in no small part by the Maestro Parametric Filter and Systech Harmonic Energizer favored by Frank Zappa) is essentially a filter that can boost and modify specific frequencies. It’s not all about sonic agitation, though. The Triskelion has a wide range of voices. It loves hot humbuckers and vintage- voiced single-coils equally. It’s exceptionally responsive to a player’s input—the kind of pedal that offers give and take no matter how radically you set it up. And in almost any setting, the Triskelion can take you from merely playing well to playing your ass off.

Clear Intentions
One glance at the Triskelion gives you a pretty good idea that it has the ability to get out there. The red sparkle finish would make a vintage speedboat owner envious. Its trefoil logo lights up more like a warning than on/off indicator (which is occasionally appropriate). It also changes color based on where the expression pedal/Variant Mass knob is set, providing valuable visual feedback about the function of this complex unit. But even when the pedal is turned off, it seems to glow like some possessed hardware in a Stephen King story.

The three gold knobs control Energy (the level of harmonic boost), Variant Mass (the frequency to be boosted), and Amplitude (output level.) Two small buttons beneath the three knobs light up when engaged. The first is Boost, which shifts the Variant Mass setting into a higher frequency range. The second is Engage, which bypasses the amp and filter circuit allowing you to use the pedal as a single-channel EQ with attitude.

Adventures in Filtration
With my Blackstar HT40 running clean and a Fender Stratocaster and Ibanez Sabre at hand, I set the Triskelion’s Energy knob up high and moved the Variant Mass knob through its range to check out the many flavors of cool overdriven raunch on tap. With the Variant Mass knob around 12 o’clock and the Boost engaged, I got a cool wall-of-Pignose sound that made me miss Zappa himself. Dialing back the Energy knob to about 9 o’clock or lower, and fine-tuning the Variant Mass knob between 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock traded grit for a very honky-tonkin’ treble boost that was downright Tele-esque on my American Standard Stratocaster. The clarity and tonal versatility at these settings is impressive—I was even able to coax sparkling country tones from my 25-year-old, hot-rodded Ibanez.

Dialing back both Energy and the Variant Mass knobs even further gave me a wide-frequency clean sound that was akin to the tones from a semi-hollow body. And attaching an expression pedal to control the Variant Mass knob enabled me to sweep between the two clean tones easily, which was very cool. As effective as this pedal is when growling and snarling, the range of cleaner tones are stunners—clear, chiming, and kicking with high-end boost.

Cranking up the Amplitude and Energy knobs introduced a sweetened Tube Screamer overdrive effect, but with more expansive tonal options. Running the Sabre’s Seymour Duncan into the Blackstar’s clean channel and dialing back the Variant Mass knob summoned some cool ’70s stoner tones in the vein of Wolfmother. Exploring similar overdrive settings with the help of an expression pedal controlling the Variant Mass knob yielded shades of Robin Trower or Jimi Hendrix modulated grit, as well as cockedwah tones that are great for giving lead lines character and space in a heavy rock mix.

While the pedal sounded great at any three-knob setting I tried, I loved jacking up the Amplitude and Energy knobs, kicking on the boost, and using the expression pedal in the manner of a wah to get some absolutely blistering lead tones. Even with the Energy knob back down to a sensible 5 o’clock, the Amplitude at 3 o’clock, and Variant Mass set wide open with the expression pedal, my guitar wept, cried, howled, moaned, sang, and screamed. And hanging out in the range of these more aggressive settings makes it a breeze and a joy to get abundant musical feedback—especially with a whammy bar.

It’s also easy to set the Triskelion to take advantage of a guitar’s given strengths. Setting the Energy to about 12 o’clock, and sweeping through the Variant Mass control enabled me to hone in on the harmonic sweet spot of a guitar or pickup and boost it—making it a delight to generate pinch and tap harmonics, as well as coax overtones from chords.

When you’re ready to forego any semblance of restraint, maxing out the Energy and Amplitude knobs will take your playing into interstellar regions. But even at these extreme settings the signal, which constantly teeters on the edge of feedback, is lush with harmonics and rich with character. From John 5 noise-tones to Dave Navarro leads to dark, beautiful Santana-style sustain, the pedal is graceful and at home when heavy. It will drag you and your guitar happily screaming in pursuit of lingering notes and harmonics. Best of all, the expression pedal gives you a sense of control in these extreme settings.

The Verdict
Any good pedal complements your playing, allowing you to preserve the mojo you worked hard to call your own. The Triskelion does all that. But I’d argue it improves your playing too. It is very forgiving, even as it leads into radical territory where it beckons you to cut loose and be expressive.

As a reviewer, I feel obligated to find something that needs to be improved upon—some flaw or unfulfilled wish. I’ve looked up and down the TWA Triskelion and listened all over, and I only found one—a second footswitch to turn amplitude on and off would be seriously cool. TWA did an outstanding job in delivering a pedal that is beautiful and dangerous in both looks and tone. At 350 bucks, you’ll pay for that power to express. But if you’re unafraid of getting outside the tone box you’re accustomed to, the dividends this pedal pay on that investment are potentially hefty.
Buy if...
you want your tone (both clean and dirty) to smoke and stand out, and you’re down with screaming, howling, crying guitar sounds.
Skip if...
you hate filters, wahs, and feedback in all their forms.

Street $349 - Totally Wycked Audio -

How the Grateful Dead, 19th-century Johann Georg Stauffer acoustics, and Lindsey Buckingham’s fried Hiwatts inspired Rick Turner to create his legendary Model 1 electric—and single-handedly establish the boutique guitar industry.

Not every guitar player recognizes Rick Turner’s name, but one could argue that every guitar player should know it. Many consider him the father of boutique guitar building because of the Model 1 guitar he built for Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham in the mid ’70s. Although he’s also known for his time at Alembic Inc., the brief period he spent at Gibson (before he “ran afoul of corporate politics”), and the three boutique guitar companies he runs today—Renaissance Guitars, Compass Rose Guitars, and Rick Turner Guitars—Turner’s Model 1 is what started it all.

Although some of its features are fairly commonplace on modern electrics, the Model 1’s advanced EQ, custom rotating humbucker (which had fewer windings and a wider frequency response than most pickups of the day), and onboard preamp blazed a trail that led the way to countless advances we take for granted today. Let’s take a look at the journey that led Turner to his place at the head of the boutiqueguitar family tree.

Turner’s Musical Beginnings
Turner moved with his beloved Martin D-28 and Epiphone Howard Roberts from Massachusetts to New York City in 1966. He started playing coffeehouses in Greenwich Village and in Boston with Lowell “Banana” Levinger and Jerry Corbitt (who, with Jesse Colin Young, went on to form the Youngbloods). He had already spent time touring with the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and had also worked with musicianturned- producer Felix Pappalardi (often referred to as “the fourth member of Cream”). Turner’s musical interests continued to evolve, and by the end of the decade he was in the psychedelic band Autosalvage. They opened for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and their album got great reviews in Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. Not that it mattered.

“We quit before we got those reviews!” Turner laughs. “We were way ahead of Spinal Tap, man. And the best gig we ever did was with a band called the Children of Paradise that had Artie Traum and Happy Traum in it. It was at a mental institution on Halloween!”

At the same time, Turner was also earning a little cash doing guitar repair. “I apprenticed in ’63 for a couple of guys in Boston.

Rick Turner says his famous Model 1 design is “basically an [1820s] Stauffer with a cutaway and slight modifications.” This Johann Georg Stauffer “terz” guitar was made sometime in the 1820s at the Stauffer factory in Vienna, Austria—the same factory where C.F. Martin Sr. apprenticed before moving to America. Terz models had a shorter string length and were intended to be tuned a minor-third above standard pitch. This Luigi Legnani model is named after the Stauffer endorsee, who also happened to be the most famous guitarist of the period. Photo courtesy of C.F. Martin Archives
One of them, Stan Stansky, had been a cabinetmaker and didn’t know much about guitars, but he had good woodworking skills. And the other guy, Don Gadbois, was a really good jazz guitar player who knew a lot about guitars but didn’t have much in the woodworking department.

“I learned luthiery primitive from these guys,” Turner continues. “When I look back at the way we did things, I’m in shock. I mean, it was just horrendous. Those were the dark ages of American small-shop luthiery and guitar repair. Nobody knew anything outside of the factories— nobody knew Jack Diddley squat. A few classical builders were starting to do things, and I knew a few people just starting to try to build acoustic guitars. We who got into it in the early to mid ’60s were really on our own in terms of ‘How do you do this?’ and ‘How do you do that?’ Some of the repair techniques were utterly brutal. We didn’t know about steaming necks off for doing neck resets, we just slammed them out!”

Despite the fact that Autosalvage broke up, the band still played a role in Turner’s guitar- building future. “This guy who was a fan of our band brought me these pieces—an SG neck, a completely smashed SG body, and the pickup harness—and said, ‘Here, you want this? Seventy-five bucks,’” Turner recalls. “I said, ‘sure.’ So I had the neck and the wrecked body. I did this body shape that made it symmetrical and took the design to this cabinet shop on Broadway and Bleecker. They cut it out for me in mahogany, and I took it home and hacked away and veneered the back of it with walnut. Jerry Garcia wound up buying that guitar and used it on the Grateful Dead’s “Skull and Roses” album. That’s the guitar— and it has disappeared. Nobody knows where it is.”

Asked what inspired him to buy 75 bucks’ worth of broken guitar, Turner answers simply, “I wanted to build my own guitar, you know? By that time I had been doing guitar repair for four years or so, so I had the chops. In fact, in New York, when I was broke and needed to pick up a few bucks, I would go down to Dan Armstrong’s shop and say, ‘Dan, you got anything for me to do?’ And he would always toss me a fret job or have me glue a bridge on a Martin and pick up 10 or 15 bucks.”

Turner ended up moving to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and more or less joined the Grateful Dead family. He did an inlay job on one of Phil Lesh’s basses and made a few custom pickups for the band. “In 1968 or ’69, where did you buy pickups? You could get DeArmonds and that was about it. You couldn’t buy Gibson pickups or Fender pickups. Dan Armstrong started making pickups under the tutelage of Bill Lawrence, and I thought, ‘Well, this is just a little cord with a little wire and some magnets—duh!’ And so I started literally handwinding my own pickups, counting the windings by hand. I brought them out to the Dead’s warehouse and showed Ron Wickersham, who had figured out how to measure the frequency response in the pickups. This was when nobody knew anything about what was really going on. The stuff that we take for granted now, we had to invent and figure out.”

The Alembic Years and Fleetwood Mac
Thus began Turner’s critical, tumultuous Alembic period. Turner co-founded Alembic with Wickersham, and the company’s initial aim was to push the envelope of live sound through the medium of Grateful Dead shows.

A corner of Turner’s factory with the original Model 1 blueprint on the wall.

Turner worked on practically everything Alembic touched, including designing speaker cabinets to eliminate standing waves in the Dead’s Wall of Sound PA system— which had McIntosh power amps pushing 125,000 watts through 450 drivers. Once Turner, Wickersham, and the other folks at Alembic had tackled the acoustic and electronic considerations of large PA systems, they focused on the instruments— primarily Lesh’s basses and Garcia’s guitars. Soon things started to snowball: A carving job Turner did for an early Alembic bass made for Jack Casady helped put Alembic on the map as an instrument maker, as did their work for Stanley Clarke.

Before Turner’s time with Alembic was up, he found himself involved with another milestone in the history of rock and roll—the studio sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album, which the band was recording at the Record Plant just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Turner was sent over to do a setup on John McVie’s Alembic #33 bass, and he ended up staying for much of the sessions to work as a guitar tech because Lindsey Buckingham’s Strat had an Alembic Strat-o-Blaster preamp that kept blowing his Hiwatt amps.

“The preamp was turned up all the way—that’s 12 dB of gain coming out of the Strat-o-Blaster!” Turner relates. “Evidently, the Hiwatts were set up so that the gain structure expected a normal electric guitar output from the guitar. When you jacked it up by 12 dB, the amp tried to suck more current through the power transformer and it just fried. But it sounded great for about 15 or 20 minutes! [Laughs.] At about that same time, I did a Strat-o-Blaster in Lowell George’s Strat. So that whole Waiting for Columbus live album by Little Feat—that’s all Lowell with his Strat cranked way past 11.”

Turner left Alembic in 1978 with many lessons learned. “Alembic electric guitars were noted for being too clean and sterile sounding,” he notes. “And it was often attributed to the electronics. I came to the conclusion that it was not the electronics— it was the way the guitars were made. The very stiff neckthrough- body construction, with a primarily maple and purpleheart neck, didn’t allow enough warmth and body to come in.”

Given his involvement with the legendary acid-trip rock band of the flower power era (and of all time), as well as the freewheeling, “free love” reputation of the scene it dominated, one could easily assume Turner sort of stumbled onto the recipes that his highcaliber instruments and electronics are known for. Nothing could be further from the truth. He studied acoustics and the science of sound extensively, and even took Don Davis’s famed Synergetic Audio Concepts (aka “SynAudCon”) class. He also learned invaluable lessons from his association with Wickersham (whom he calls “a genius”), John Curl—who remains on the cutting age of audio design—and Dead live sound mixer Owsley “Bear” Stanley. In fact, the lessons garnered from this time with Alembic and the Rumours sessions with Buckingham were crucial to Turner’s development of the Model 1.

“Based on talks with Lindsey, and also the general criticism of Alembic guitars, I started thinking very deliberately,” says Turner. “I said, ‘Okay, what I’ve got to do is climb down off this branch of the tree and get down on the ground and look around for another tree to go up, in terms of guitar design.’ I went to a set-neck guitar with a mahogany body to try to get the best of both worlds. I wanted more of that clarity from the body, because I had played that hybrid SG and didn’t like its whippy neck. I also thought the SG was fabulous within about a one-octave range, so I wanted to extend that range. The choice of an arched top and back was very deliberate. I really thought about every aspect of the instrument. And then I showed Lindsey the blueprints and he said, ‘Oh, you know, I’d get one of these. I’d like the first one.’ And then Alembic blew up on me. Part of the settlement was that I left with the design.”

Few get to see the beauty of the Model 1’s backside

Acoustic Roots Electrified, Then Unplugged
The Model 1 blueprint, which sits high on a wall above a workbench in Turner’s factory, is torn on one side and looks deceptively simple. Asked if trial and error were part of the process when going from blueprint to the first Model 1 sent to Buckingham, Turner says, “I knew what I was going to make. I knew what it was going to sound like. I got the first one made and plugged it in, and it was exactly what I had thought it would be. And that was the guitar that really showed me that I could design from scratch and know what the results were going to be—sonically, as well as aesthetically. It was a turning point for me in gaining confidence as a designer.”

Although its forward-thinking features revolutionized the electricguitar universe, the Model 1 was inspired by designs from way back in the history of 6-string luthiery. “I had this Stauffer guitar from 1820s Vienna—[Johann Georg] Stauffer was the guy who taught C.F. Martin how to build guitars,” Turner explains. “The Model 1 is basically a Stauffer with a cutaway and slight modifications.”

With those roots, as well as the soundhole look of its unique, rotating pickup assembly, it’s not surprising that most people think the Model 1 is hollow. “But it isn’t,” Turner says. “It’s a solidbody. I wanted a mahogany body that would give it warmth like the original Les Paul Custom, the ‘Black Beauty’—which is all mahogany and doesn’t have the maple cap. I was looking for the warmth and sustaining quality of the mahogany and the clarity of the Strat.”

However, considering the Model 1’s rather petite outline, what is somewhat surprising is that the guitar is on the heavy side—but that seems to lend it a resonance and character beyond most traditional electrics. “That’s the combination of the mahogany and the maple and purpleheart neck,” says Turner, who also attributes those properties to the relatively wideband humbucker and its ability to remain remarkably clear. “Then you throw in the EQ, which lets you do some really trick things with amp voicings—you know, tickle the tubes with a nice midrange boost.”

These days, Turner manufactures Model 1 electronics in his shop and at D-TAR, the company he founded with Seymour Duncan. The first Model 1’s electronics— which were basically a single channel of parametric EQ without a bandwidth control—were made by Jim Furman. When Turner worked at Alembic, their guitars had similar features but never quite realized their tonal potential, whereas his Model 1 capitalized on an impeccable blend of excellent woodworking, playability, electronics, and, most importantly, tone.

“I kind of like a challenge, so part of the exercise with the Model 1 was seeing how far I could take a singlepickup instrument. It had a frequency sweep control, and then boost and cut, and then EQ in and EQ out, and Volume and Tone. So it had Volume and passive Tone and an EQ section.”

Naturally, the electronics have evolved over the years. Considering its creator, how could they not? Turner expanded the versatility of the rotating humbucker by adding a piezo pickup and updated electronics that allow you to split the magnetic pickup or bypass the onboard EQ. Turner is also developing a more affordable model without the piezo and EQ circuit.

A Turner Model 1 waiting to be finished

Back to His Roots
After turning the electric-guitar universe inside out, Turner’s next logical move was back to his acoustic beginnings. And his purposes there stemmed from a similar dissatisfaction with amplified acoustic tone. Some audio engineers have a hard time listening to music on the radio because of the poor processing and mixing common to commercial music. Turner has similar issues with recordings of acoustic guitars. “Very often, amplified acoustics drive me crazy! God bless him, but I think Dave Matthews sounds like shit! That ultra-quacky piezo sound is not something I like.”

Turner’s issues with piezos in acoustic instruments is what pushed him to form an alliance with Duncan and develop the D-TAR Wavelength, which uses modeling technology, a piezo pickup, a condenser mic, and an 18-volt preamp. Duncan’s VP of engineering, Kevin Beller, helped Turner figure out what he didn’t like about piezos on acoustics.

“I was hearing piezo quack as being very fast clipping,” Turner says. “Well, we finally got to measure it, and Kevin started doing some ball-bearing drops—just dropping a ball bearing through a tube, down a foot, and onto a piezo pickup. And he was getting spikes of 100 volts out of the pickup. When you lay into the strings, you get that very first spike. Under a bridge—under a load—you’re not going to get 100 volts, but you’re going to get more than the nine volts that are available from the preamp. It clips. And a lot of the quack is the recovery of the preamp from that hit. By going to an 18-volt system, you clean things up tremendously.

“The other issue with undersaddle pickups is that, compared to an acoustic guitar, they are relatively phase-coherent,” Turner continues. “But the sound of an acoustic guitar is phase incoherent. It’s all screwed up, because it takes time for the frequencies to propagate out into a top and release into the acoustic field—and it takes different amounts of time for different frequencies. And then you’ve got the low sound coming out of the soundhole, which is also phase incorrect. So what we have come to love is the phase incoherency of acoustic instruments. With a piezo, you’re so close to the string that you’re actually intercepting the vibration before it gets to the guitar. One of the reasons that the piezo sound is so in-your-face is because the highs are coming at you too fast. So one reason we went to digital modeling was to selectively slow down different frequencies based on these complex algorithms. You can get all theoretical about it and say, ‘Oh, the theory about it is wrong,’ but all I care about is my ears. I like the theory to understand what my ears are hearing, but I don’t want to study the theory to tell my ears what to hear.”

A Turner masterpiece in production for an undisclosed client. This instrument will have nylon strings and be equipped to work with Roland guitar synths.

Turner on the State of the Boutique Family
With five decades of guitar building under his belt, Turner naturally has opinions about the state and future of boutique guitar makers. He expects to see faster price increases from instruments made in Asia—especially China, where there’s a burgeoning middle class that will probably start competing for the worldwide demand. Of North American makers, Turner gives Jean Larrivée, Santa Cruz Guitars’ Richard Hoover, and Bob Taylor credit for being on the ground floor of boutique guitar construction. “I just hope that American guitar makers can hold on through the economy.”

Turner is encouraged by the fact that electric players seem to be looking beyond Les Pauls and Strats—though he is thinking about coming out with his own take on the Stratocaster. Given that his Model 1 is basically his take on the Les Paul, there is little doubt his interpretation of the Strat would be anything less than inventive, unique, and wholly playable. Only one thing gives him pause on the matter: “The dizzying array of Strats coming out of Fender these days is . . . I mean, who can keep track?”

Lindsey Buckingham—who purchased the first Rick Turner Model 1 guitar and now owns six of them—wraps up a fiery solo onstage at a May 3, 2009, gig at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by J. Chris Johnston
While many Turner fans look upon his instruments as works of art, to Rick Turner they are simply tools. “I certainly know guitar makers that think of themselves primarily as artists, but I don’t. The musician is the artist. On the best of evenings, the instrument disappears and the mind, soul, and heart of the musician communicate directly with the audience. My job is to stay the hell out of the way. And part of that is making instruments that play well and that allow a musician to develop his or her own signature sound. You don’t want to make characterless instruments, but you don’t want to impose the character of the instrument too severely on the musician.”

Rick Turner Model 1 Specs
The first Model 1 guitar built for Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham featured the following specifications.
  • Scale length: 24 3/4"
  • Nut width: 1 11/16"
  • Fretboard radius: 12"
  • String span at bridge: 2"
  • Body: Mahogany
  • Neck: Laminated maple and purpleheart set neck with 24 medium-jumbo frets
  • Tuners: Schaller M6-A
  • Bridge: Copy of Turner’s early-’70s Alembic design built by Stars Guitars
  • Knobs: Mouser Electronics Eagle knurled black aluminum Electronics
  • Pickup: Rotatable Rick Turner-designed, high-impedance humbucker with ceramic magnets, built by Bartolini
  • Controls: Quasi-parametric EQ with hardwire-bypass switch, a 150 Hz–3.5 kHz sweep knob, 12 dB boost/cut knob, and Master Volume and passive Tone knobs