In the days when the printed catalog was king, Carvin guitars and amplifiers often boasted a stature that outweighed their in-the-wild availability, while robust quality and appealing feature sets kept them in the minds of players.
Many fans of vintage amps today, especially players “of a certain age,” were introduced to Carvin products through glossy catalogs that arrived in the mail by request from ads in the back of Guitar Player magazine in the ’70s and ’80s. Flip the pages and you were rewarded with a teen-rocker’s fantasy land of gleaming set-neck guitars (with plenty of fancy maple and mini-toggles for split-coil and phase switching), 22-pole high-output humbucking pickups (the M22 was “the most powerful pickup available”), massive mixing desks, stadium-worthy PA, and tube amps ready to knock Marshall and Mesa/Boogie off their perches. The chances of encountering any of the above at your Saturday jam, however, were vanishingly slim unless it was one of Carvin’s impressively roadworthy a power amps in the PA closet.
But, Carvin boasted a reputation for guitars and amplifiers that stretched back to 1949, when founder Lowell C. Kiesel dropped his own surname – used for a few years on pickups and components he’d been manufacturing himself – for a contraction of the names of his two sons, Carson and Gavin. By the end of the following decade, San Diego-based Carvin was making amplifiers that might have rivaled Fender’s in general looks and features, if not for their lesser availability compared to its competition “up north” in Fullerton. Come the ’70s, Carvin would carve a niche with direct-sales-only via its iconic full-color catalogs, but until then, it remained a significant regional brand.
Look more closely at this ’59 model 8-15-B combo and it becomes clear (despite the approximation of the narrow-panel Fender-tweed look) that the construction isn’t up to Leo’s standards. In fact, Carvin products often exuded a certain DIY/“let’s put the show on right here!” kind of vibe, and this amp reflects that in several ways.
From the front, the cabinet and application of the “attractive brown airplane heavy-duty luggage covering,” look decent, ravages of time notwithstanding. Spin ’round to the back, though, and the effort takes on a hand-hewn appearance, with fabric corners oddly folded in at the top and the control panel redolent of somewhat agricultural-grade manufacturing – none of which is intended as a dis. In fact, it’s all part of the fun of such obscure finds.
Slide out the chassis, itself a simple folded-sheet-metal affair, and the circuit displays archaic point-to-point wiring at its most basic, like many catalog amps of the era. This example benefits from the replacement of some signal and filter capacitors and a few resistors to keep it functional, but they’ve been soldered in place almost entirely between tube-socket pins and other major component connections, with only a single two-point terminal strip for added support.
Though billed as an 8-15-B, as owner and VG reader John Nottage believes it to be, there’s little info on the model in Carvin literature. It sports the engine room of the ’59 8-12-A, with one 12AX7, one 12AT7 or 12AY7 (the chassis’ underside displays the screen-printed legend, “Use only Telefunken 12AT7 or American 12AY7” alongside the socket), one 6SF5 in the tremolo circuit, two 5881 output tubes, and a 5U4 rectifier, all for an output of 25 watts RMS. The 8-12-A, however, is a dual-speaker combo with 12″ and 8″ Jensens; the amp featured here has a Jensen P15P in place of the 12″, which appears factory-original, though its baffle carries only a 10″-diameter cutout for the speaker, a size that would make sense as the blowhole for a standard 12″ (an oddity that might stand to reason if Carvin was simply using existing parts).
Otherwise, the circuit is standard stuff for the era, with an individual Volume control for each of two channels (Mic and Inst), a shared Tone control, and Depth and Speed for the tremolo, “Which sounds pretty good to my ears, though I wish it could go slower,” Nottage tells us. “Overall, the amp’s tone reminds me of a Gibson GA-40, or maybe an old Selmer.” His Gibson nod also tallies with Carvin’s use of mismatched speakers, something seen most notably in the ’50s GA-30.
Despite the rougher construction, Carvin could have beaten Fender to the angled/front-mounted control panels Leo used across his line from 1960 onward (the Champ excluded), if they’d turned the 8-15-B’s chassis around and poked the knobs through a slot in the front of the cab. But, Carvin generally lagged in style; the year before this, the flagship 8-12-A had been offered in a cabinet much like the TV-front style Fender had phased out in ’53.
After broadening awareness with its proliferation of catalog sales from around 1970 onward, Carvin eventually achieved a greater standing in the market by way of high-powered artist signings; British virtuoso Allan Holdsworth began endorsing Carvin’s headless, small-bodied HH1 and HH2 guitars in the ’90s, and Joe Walsh took up the CT6M California Carved Top model in the 2000s. Shredder Steve Vai has worked with Carvin since the ’80s, most prominently endorsing the Legacy amps and pedals.
Following the death of founder Lowell C. Kiesel in 2009, Carvin soldiered on for a few years before splitting in two. Since 2015, the instruments have been made by Kiesel Guitars, while amps and audio equipment are manufactured by the Carvin Corporation. But, even if you’re in the market for new gear, perhaps the most Carvin-based fun is to be had by locating a pre-catalog beauty like this and bringing it back to life.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.