Imagine a company that builds 600 high-quality guitars and basses per month, with a normal backorder count of 700. “Well, that’s okay…” some guitar enthusiasts might observe, “but some guitar factories are putting out that many guitars per day.”
But what if those 600 instruments per month are almost all custom-made? And what if the instruments and gear are sold directly to the retail customer (in the U.S.)? And what if the company has been successfully doing business in its own unique way for over a half-century?
Well, it’s not your imagination. Carvin’s against-the-grain manufacturing and marketing approach has been incongruous, and it has served the company well ever since founder Lowell Kiesel began building pickups in his Los Angeles garage in 1946.
The history of Carvin has already been covered in VG‘s “The Different Strummer” (VG, August ’92), and the growth of the Southern California manufacturer over the decades has resulted in several relocations of manufacturing facilities. The company moved to Covina in 1949, then to Escondido in ’67, and in ’95 it occupied a new 80,000 square-foot facility in San Diego. VG recently visited the factory to check out the manufacturing techniques and products proffered by the special-order specialists.
One of Carvin’s five retail stores is located in the same building as the factory, but the company does have international distribution through retailers in other countries, which explains the surprise some folks experience when they see a Carvin display at a NAMM show.
A small display of classic Carvin gear (including tube amps from ’53) greets a visitor to the retail store. Dave Flores, Carvin’s Director of Public Relations, our enthusiastic tour guide, has been with the company since 1980 but was using Carvin products in ’68, when he ordered a bass amp at the Escondido factory. Flores’ enthusiasm was evident as he proudly directed us through the clean, efficient factory (since the retail store displays finished products, we concluded there).
We began our tour in Carvin’s amplifier department. The company also makes several hundred amps every month and during our visit was gearing up for new production innovations. Carvin makes solidstate and tube amps, the former using wave solder machines, as well as programmed machines that light up portions of a circuitboard in sequence, to guide workers installing specific parts.
Another innovative in-house procedure is custom-winding of low-profile toroid transformers. Such doughnut-shaped items are normally found in high-end audio gear, according to Flores, and making their own versions of such parts enables Carvin to monitor production and provide their amps with efficient, low-noise transformers with output that’s right-on-the-money.
Tube amp production is centered around two distinct facets. Carvin’s “Vintage” series differs from many other modern-day “retro vibe” amps in that the circuitry is actually a Carvin design from ’62. “Vintage” guitar amps also feature a tube reverb circuit, and the series is covered in a unique tweed fabric with a maroon stripe. Other nostalgic cosmetics include oxblood grillecloth and vanilla-colored chicken-head knobs.
Flores was particularly ebullient about another successful Carvin tube amp, the Steve Vai Legacy. Carvin no longer solicits endorsers per se, but has instituted a commendable signature series program that involves a participating artist in a long-term relationship with the company in the design, refinement, and production of a specific product. Other signature series artists include Alan Holdsworth (guitar) and Bunny Brunel (bass). Flores said the Vai Legacy amp (VG “Gear Reviews,” October ’99) has been so successful, sales of other Carvin amps have also been boosted.
At the other end of Carvin’s amp offerings is a unique 12-volt battery-powered PA called the Showmate. It’s a 100-watt, four-channel system with optional 24-bit digital effects.
Speaker cabinets are also built on-premises; everything is made from seven-ply, 3/4″ poplar plywood, which the company prefers for its light weight, extreme strength, and good sound.
The guitar production area reinforced Carvin’s unique position in the fretted instrument marketplace. Each instrument makes its way through the process sporting a small sticker noting the customer’s name and preferred options. Flores asserted that between finishes, hardware, pickups, etc., a Carvin, customer has over 1,000 choice combinations. However, other unique aspects of Carvin’s instruments include the primary type of construction (neck-through) as well as the most popular fretboard wood (ebony).
Guitar production foreman Robert Messier, who has been with Carvin for 16 years, showed us the meticulous hand-fitting process involved in fitting the sides and neck of a neck-through instrument. While we visited, he was working on a prototype acoustic (“..we’ll give you an exclusive,” noted Flores) that will be made using extensive carving on CNC machinery. Flores also said the new acoustic would be neck-through but would also have bracing, so it should be interesting to see (and hear) the ultimate configuration of this project. Messier also pointed out various figured woods used in Carvin’s upgrade instruments.
CNC machinery also figures into standard-configuration Carvin instruments, as is the case with many other modern guitar factories. All instruments have a dual-action truss rod constructed of hollow graphite. The company maintains that while a graphite rod is more expensive, it is lighter and more forgiving, so the neck resonates extremely well.
Ebony is one of the hardest and most dense woods in existence, and to insure fretboard uniformity, Carvin uses a unique wheel grinder impregnated with diamonds. It’s radiused for a 15″ fingerboard, and as we watched, a strip of ebony slipped into the mechanism for a wet-sanding process. The dust sanded off was so fine it looked like black watercolor paint as it drained. Tolerances on this machine are within 1/500″ between any two points.
“Diamond surface grinding is one of the things we do that’s different,” said Flores. “It insures we have the lowest action and playability on the fingerboard. As far as I know, we’re the only ones doing this. It’s an expensive process, but it’s the best process.”
A 30-ton press installs fingerboards to necks, and figured tops are installed in the same area. Flores showed us a body for the Alan Holdsworth Fatboy, which is hollow on the inside, and contains an unusual suspension system for the pickups which lets the top and back resonate without restriction.
A lot of guitar making at Carvin still involves hands-on work, including fret dressing, body sanding, and detailing, and every guitar is hand-painted. Between standard finishes and combining two colors in a unique sunburst (purple to black, for example), about 100 color options are available.
Carvin also winds its own pickups, and final assembly creates a high-quality instrument from finely-crafted parts made under the same roof. Following a brief conversation with company vice president Mark Kiesel (it’s still a family business) we returned to the retail showroom to examine this final facet of the operation.
The spacious sales area includes dozens of instruments on display, as well as three sound rooms – one for guitar, one for bass, and a PA test area. Carvin even offers a ready-to-assemble guitar kit (bolt-neck). Flores averred that the five retail stores in southern California probably account for around 10 percent of the company’s business. Mailorder still has the lion’s share of volume, and the company’s internet sales are on the increase.
Carvin prides itself on its unique history in U.S. guitar-manufacturing history, and its current production efforts and gear also have a lot of unique things going for them. It’s definitely a different approach to the musical instrument market, and it’s been an ever-expanding and successful enterprise for over five decades.
Photo by Dave Flores. Detail work on a neck-through bass.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’00 issue.