I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Carvin and Kiesel Guitars
Carvin is a respected name in the guitar world, but also one that carries a bit of mystique. This is a company with a different business model than most, as they sell all of their instruments through special order.
You can’t go down to the local guitar shop and try a Carvin guitar unless you live near one of their three California store locations. These guitars are sold direct to you, the guitarist, and constructed based on the materials and designs you request.
Because of this, many guitarists can be a little confused by the Carvin process. You can find and play a Les Paul or Strat easy enough, but how are you supposed to know if a Carvin guitar is worth it if you can’t get your hands on one? This article ought to clear things up and help you decide if taking the plunge on a Carvin guitar or bass is the right move.
My introduction to Carvin came via the mail-order catalogs I used to get as a teenager back in the ‘80s. They were just jam-packed with beautiful instruments, amps, and innovative ideas. My mind would swim with plans of what kind of guitar I’d build and what options I’d choose.
Of course, as a 15-year-old kid, I couldn’t afford any of it, but it was nice to dream. Later in life, I’d finally land that Carvin guitar I’d always wanted, but I’ll get to that later.
For now, here’s a look at how Carvin works.
What Is Kiesel Guitars?
In 2015 Carvin split production and development of their guitars and basses off to a new company, Kiesel Guitars. Carvin has long been a company with many irons in the fire. They not only build great guitars but also amazing amplifiers, industry-leading sound reinforcement equipment, studio gear, and other cool toys. With the development of this new brand name we’ll see a separate company dedicated to the development and refinement of Carvin, and Kiesel, guitars, and basses.
This move was a little jarring for those of us who are so familiar with the Carvin brand, but overall it looks like it’s going to be a good thing. The instruments are still built in the same factory to the same high standard; they just have a different name on the headstock. That means you can expect Kiesel guitars to carry the same reputation for quality found in Carvin instruments.
And, this change isn’t as out-of-left-field as it seems. The guy who founded Carvin back in the 1940s was named Lowell Kiesel, and his son Mark has run the guitar division at Carvin since 1970. He’ll continue to captain the ship for the new Kiesel-branded instruments. In other words, no need to panic.
Some of the older, basic models will continue to carry the Carvin name, but if you see a Kiesel guitar can now you know what’s going on. Confusing? Maybe a little, but let’s move on.
The Kiesel/Carvin Custom Shop Process
Back in the day, those Carvin catalogs were the only connection between a teenage guitarist in rural America and the California world of Carvin, which was, literally, thousands of miles away. The wait for a new catalog seemed to take forever, and by the time it arrived my old one was always dog-eared and beaten.
Nowadays, you can just hop on the Carvin website and see all the pretty things any time you want.
Carvin does have a handful of pre-made instruments available on their site, but to get the ball rolling on a custom guitar you first choose one of their basic models. Consider this the foundation of your custom instrument.
Carvin base models cover just about every genre and style of guitar out there, from carved-top, set-neck classic designs, to super-strat shred machines, to 7 and 8-string models, to semi-hollow jazz boxes, to pointy-shaped guitars made for metal and more. No matter what you are into there is something in the Carvin lineup you’ll like.
From there you have the power to choose just about every detail of your new guitar. Not every option is available on every model, but for each choice, there is a huge array of possibilities.
What tonewood would you like for the body and neck? What fretboard material? What color and finish? What kind of pickups would you like installed? There are literally hundreds of options to choose from, so take your time and build the guitar you've always wanted.
For some options, you can choose from third-party hardware like Floyd Rose and Wilkinson tremolos or Dunlop Straploks.
For others, most notably the pickup choices, you are limited to Carvin’s in-house designs. So, be sure to take a hard look at the different characteristics of their pickups before ordering.
The result is you end up with an ultra-high-quality guitar or bass, designed right to your specs. Carvin instruments aren’t cheap, but they are a great value for what you are getting. And try ordering a custom Les Paul with a maple fingerboard and see how much that sets you back!
My Carvin Experience
About ten years ago I finally decided to fulfill my teenage dream and order a custom Carvin guitar. I chose a DC127C. The particulars read something like this:
- Floyd Rose Tremolo Bridge
- Mahogany Body and Neck
- Maple Fingerboard
- White Finish
- Gold Hardware
- M22SD Pickups
It was a simple guitar by the standards of some of the beautiful instruments Carvin builds on a daily basis, but it was just what I wanted.
The ordering process was a breeze. I worried about this a lot and had a ton of notes together to make sure I explained things just the way I wanted them. But the guy I talked to was very helpful and by the time I got off the phone, I felt pretty confident that I’d be getting what I expected, right down to the correct case.
I wasn’t disappointed. The guitar that came to my door was a gorgeous instrument, with a build quality surpassing just about anything else I’d ever played. It sounded great too. At the time I played through a Peavey 5150 half stack, and DC127 just ripped.
If I could have changed one thing I may have chosen warmer pickups, as I thought the guitar sounded a little bright even with the mahogany body and neck. But that’s my only very minor complaint with one of the finest guitars I’ve ever owned.
Kiesel Custom Shop Models
Kiesel has changed a lot since I ordered my guitar, and today I might make a different choice. I still like the 127 and all of the other guitars in the DC series. But there seem to be more options today than ever before! I’ll never get through everything in the catalog, so I’ll just mention a few favorites here:
The Ultra V 220 is back, a very metal design from the ‘80s that I really liked as a teenager, and still do today. The Ultra V is another Carvin that has returned.
A few years back Carvin came out with the California Carved Top line. These are amazing instruments with single and double-cut designs that will catch even the most die-hard Gibson and PRS fan’s attention. They’re available in 22 and 24-fret models.
The Delos Series Bolt is another cool guitar, and unlike a few years back it is now available with a Floyd Rose option. If you like Fender-like tones this is a guitar to consider. It’s called the Bolt because, typically, Carvin guitars had always featured a neck-thru design.
The Bolt was a departure from this, and Carvin now has many guitars with set necks, and additional bolt-on designs such as the Countour C66, the Bolt Plus, and the TLB60 Vintage Bolt.
Carvin Bass Guitars, Amps, and Other Stuff
Carvin didn't only make cool guitars back in the day; they also made some of the most innovative amps out there. The V3 Series is a stable of all-tube, 3-channel rock monsters. The Legacy is an amp built in collaboration with shred legend Steve Vai. There’s the Vintage Series, the solid-state SX Series, and Carvin has even brought back the classic X100B.
On the bass side, Carvin produced some very cool bass guitars with bolt-on and neck-through designs. They also have some impressive combos amps, heads, and cabinet. The B-series features bass amp heads from the smaller 250-watt BX250 Micro, to the earthquake-inducing B2000, capable of 2,050 watts of power at 2 ohms. Yow!
There was a wide array of PA and studio equipment, from mixing boards to speakers, power amps, rack gear and processors, microphones, and headphones. If you are thinking of building a home studio, or if your band has decided to stop renting and invest in its own PA gear, Carvin may be worth checking out.
Back to guitars, today Kiesel features many accessories for customizing your instrument or building one from scratch. You can find body blanks for carving out your own unique shapes and designs or pre-cut bodies. They have necks, hardware, electronics, pickups, pre-wired pickguards, and even guitar kits that come with all the parts you need to build your own yourself.
Guitar World Reviews the Carvin CS6
Should You Consider Kiesel?
It’s probably obvious that I think very highly of Carvin guitars and that carries over to Kiesel. They are high-quality, USA-built instruments, custom made for a great price. So what could be the downside? Well, there are a few, and they may or may not be a big deal to you.
For one, even though Carvin has an outstanding return policy, you can’t go and try their guitars and amps before you purchase. For musicians who like to seek out that one special guitar that has the mojo, this can be disconcerting. It’s a disadvantage to the way Carvin does business, and tough for some guitarists to get past.
Another downside is resale. Since your guitar is custom made, it may not be worth as much to sell or trade as a comparable guitar from another brand. The big brands make a zillion guitars that are exactly alike, and people know what they are worth.
Your Carvin is made just for you, and its value will truly be in the eye of the beholder.
On the other hand, there are super fans out there that own dozens of Carvin guitars and amps, and couldn’t care less about resale, returns or seeking mojo. They know Carvin builds great stuff and delivers again and again. They wouldn’t have stayed in business for over six decades if they didn’t.
Is Kiesel right for you? You never know until you check them out. Go to their website and snoop around, review what they have to offer, and decide. You might turn into their next super fan!
Go Check out Kiesel and Carvin Guitars!
I'm not associated with Carvin, and I don't get anything for sending you to them. I just think they're a great brand worth checking out if you are looking for a new instrument or amp. So, head on over to Kiesel's website and see what they have to offer!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
tcamuso on June 23, 2017:
Recently got my Kiesel SCB6 with sunburst quilted maple top, ebony fretboard, hipshot tremolo, KH-12 pickups, and black hardware. It's an amazing piece of craftsmanship with flawless finish.
I've never had a more playable guitar, and the range of available sounds is amazing.
This is the third guitar I've bought without playing it first, and I can assert that there is little to worry about if you are buying from a reputable builder like Kiesel.
chingon on February 09, 2017:
25 Years of playing Carvin Instruments,4 custom builts.
Michael Engel on February 04, 2017:
Great article. I'm one of those early buyers. Back in the mid '70s I was supposed to buy a les paul from a member of my friend's band but he changed his mind after I had already sold my Gibson SG. So I ended up with a Strat that was made shortly after CBS had taken over and frankly the guitar was garbage. The intonation was off and it never stayed in tune. So I saw one of their ads in Guitar magazine and took the plunge in 1978. A jet black les paul style body CM140. The first one was fretting out somewhat past the 12th fret so I sent it back and had them send me a new one because I loved the guitar otherwise. Still have it never a problem in fact after 25 years I'd worn the frets so I had a new fret job. The guitar plays and sounds as good as it did 38 years. So in '89 I bought a white flying V. Great guitar never a problem with it. So for my birthday in 2013 I ordered a custom Frank Gambale model with Floyd Rose etc. Just a beautiful guitar. I've never had the desire purchase any other guitar brand. There are plenty of great brands with excellent guitars but for the price of any of my guitars they don't have the same value. Also in closing I'm one of those who buy a guitar because I love it, not even thinking about resale because I don't plan on selling any of them.
Oldgoat on August 24, 2016:
I have not seen any other brand that offers the quality, craftsmanship, and options available for anywhere near the reasonable price, I have 4 Carvin guitars and 3 Carvin basses; soon a 4th bass; Kiesel,( hopefully). I have never had the slightest problem with any of them over the last 10 years.
Michael James (author) on July 25, 2016:
@J: When you get it check back and let us know what you think!
J Harrison on July 23, 2016:
My experience is a little different 14 weeks and still waiting on my ac 40 bass i hope its worth the wait
Michael James (author) on April 30, 2016:
Wesman, if you ever feel like taking the plunge on a Carvin I highly recommend giving it a shot. My experience with them was top-notch, and their instrument was superb. They are now under the Kiesel brand name (I really need to update this) but they are the same company.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 29, 2016:
This is a very useful article. For years and years and years I'd seen Carvin instruments advertised in all those guitar magazines you are familiar with. ]
....but I'd never seen a Carvin. And I 'kick tires' in guitar stores whenever I can - so I had no idea what all was up with any of that.
At least for the longest time I didn't. I'm not sure what I thought...maybe I thought they were a small shop on one of the coasts. Well, that is at least partially correct.
It's a pretty good business model for any type of business - but they'll all have the same drawback too.
Andrew Tompkins from syracuse, ny, usa on June 04, 2015:
Very nice article. I had similar experiences to yours, receiving the Carvin catalogs, wondering if these guitars could be as nice to play as to look at, especially since the prices seemed very reasonable given the custom-made nature of each one. One day I happened upon a used Carvin solid body, single-thru neck, 3-single coil pickups, beautiful starburst blue at a local music shop, priced to sell, and I couldn't resist. I've had that for probably 15 years now, and it never disappoints. It's the only guitar I've ever had that makes people stop to say what a good sound it has. I play it through a Blues Jr. Love it!
ps - I in no way receive any compensation from Carvin or anyone or thing else. Just a person who appreciates a good playing, great sounding guitar.