Incorporated: 1946 as L.C. Kiesel Company
Sales: $23.5 million (2006)
NAIC: 339992 Musical Instrument Manufacturing; 451140 Musical Instrument and Supplies Stores
Carvin Corp. is a California-based manufacturer of electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, and other musical instruments, amplifiers, and professional grade sound reinforcement and mixing systems. The family-owned company, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006, has survived in part due to its unique direct-sales distribution model. Unlike other musical instrument manufacturers, Carvin has avoided mainstream wholesaler-to-retailer distribution channels and instead focuses its operation wholly on catalog and other direct marketing sales. This model has also permitted Carvin to establish itself as a “factory direct” manufacturer of custom-designed instruments. Instead of focusing on off-the-rack sales, Carvin allows customers to choose from among a wide variety of features, colors, and other specifications, developing a one-of-a-kind instrument built to exacting quality standards. Nearly all of the components on Carvin guitars, as well as in its amplifiers and other equipment, are designed and manufactured in-house, complemented by the company’s own wood curing and storage facility. This allows the company to operate a thriving business in the sale of guitar kits, providing customers with everything they need to build their own guitars. Although most of the company’s sales are generated through its mail-order division, Carvin operates three retail stores in California. The company has also spun off its professional sound-reinforcement business into a subsidiary, TCS Audio. Carvin remains owned and operated by the founding Kiesel family, led by Carson Kiesel as chief executive officer. The company generated revenues of $23.5 million in 2006.
Nebraska native Lowell Kiesel was a big fan of Hawaiian music, and particularly the popular group the South Sea Islanders. This passion naturally led Kiesel, who later moved to California, to take an interest in the steel guitar responsible for defining much of that music’s sound in the 1930s and 1940s. With a background as a machinist, Kiesel started off by making his own Hawaiian steel guitar. Into the 1940s, the popularity of steel guitars, also known as lap steels because they were played lying flat across a player’s lap, took off especially after becoming adopted by country music musicians. The steel guitar later became one of the defining parts of certain types of country music.
The emergence of the first amplified instruments in the 1940s led to the demand for new magnetic pickups, which could be fitted to the previously acoustic instruments. Kiesel saw an opportunity to enter into business, and began developing and winding his own pickups. This activity led him to start L.C. Kiesel Company in 1946.
Kiesel’s pickups proved highly popular among local musicians, playing their own role in helping to define the sound of country music in the 1950s and, after the Ventures placed Kiesel pickups in their Mosrite guitars, surf music into the 1960s. Kiesel expanded his company’s production beyond pickups almost from the very beginning. Soon after the company was founded, Kiesel designed and began manufacturing his own lap steel models, made from the early plastic type, Bakelite. Because Kiesel’s instruments were electrified, he also designed and built his own amplifiers. The company’s first amplifiers were tube amplifiers featuring 6V6 tubes and, especially, a tube rectifier, which played a major role in defining the sound of early amplifiers.
Although founded in Los Angeles, California, Kiesel’s company moved to Gothenburg, Nebraska, in 1947. The move proved only temporary, and by 1948, Kiesel had returned to California, setting up a new shop in Los Angeles. At the new location, Kiesel continued to expand his range of products, developing accessories to complement his steel guitars, pickups, and amplifiers. Kiesel also decided to rename the company, combining the names of his two oldest sons, Carson and Gavin, to create Carvin Corporation.
During this time, also, Kiesel developed a unique direct marketing model that was to remain a company mainstay. Kiesel had initially sold his pickups, instruments, and amplifiers through the more common wholesale distribution network. However, after a distributor failed to make good on an order, Kiesel found himself faced with a financial crisis. In order to sell the items, Kiesel took out an ad in the back of a magazine. The items promptly sold, and soon Kiesel began placing advertisements in many of the popular magazines of the day, including bestseller Popular Mechanics.
The products quickly sold out, and Kiesel never looked back, converting all of his sales to the direct sales model. Initially, customers were invited to send back coupons in order to receive product brochures. In 1950, the company expanded its product brochures into its first full-scale catalog.
The early 1950s represented the dawn of a new era in musical instrument manufacturing. An early version of an electric guitar had been developed by the famed Rickenbacker company, and in the late 1940s, legendary guitarist Les Paul had begun working with the Gibson Guitar Company to develop an electrified guitar as well. It was an electrical engineer working in California, Leo Fender, who is generally credited with producing the first solid-body electric guitar in 1950. That guitar, initially known as the Broadcaster, then later becoming famous as the Telecaster, sparked off an entirely new market, and, indeed, a new type of music.
Demand for the new type of electrified and solid-body instrument surged. Carvin by then had been broadening its product range to supply a wider array of musical instruments, including guitars and mandolins. The company also became a reseller for such popular guitar brands as Fender and Martin, as well as DeAr-mond, especially noted for their pickups. The company also sold Rheem organs and Sonola accordions, among other products. Another market for the company was its growing list of parts and components, including fret-boards, bridges, tuners, chords, and switches.
Carvin also began distributing its own guitar brand in the early 1950s. At first, however, these were sourced from the Kay and Harmony guitar factories, at the time among the largest producers of generally low-quality guitars, and rebranded by Carvin. Into the middle of the decade, the company began buying components from the Hofner company in Germany, which had developed a strong international presence.
At Carvin, “Factory Direct” means exactly what it has meant since 1946—Better Features, Service, and Value. By eliminating distributors and retailers, we are able to put the savings right back into higher quality products—with lower prices to you.
Carvin also continued to refine its sales model. In 1954, the company’s expanding catalog, coupled with mailing lists generated through its magazine advertisement coupons, resulted in the launch of its first full-scale catalog using a direct-mail model. The catalog proved a highly successful sales generator, and quickly provided its major sales channel. In addition to boosting sales, the catalog placed the company in closer contact with its customers. The interaction with customers gave the company a deeper insight into the market, and for the demand for new products and features. In this way, the company expanded its own instrument production, developing a range of bass guitars, double-necked guitars, and other products through the 1950s and into the 1960s. The company also continued to develop its own amplifier designs, later producing both tube and transistor-based amplifiers. Backing the company’s expanding sales operations was a new move, to a larger facility in Covina, California, in 1956. The company later moved again, to Valley Center, outside of San Diego, in 1968. The highly humid conditions there, which wreaked havoc on the wood used for its instruments and amplifiers, forced the company to move to Escondido, in 1969.
Over the next decade, Carvin specialized its manufacturing operations on producing guitars, basses, and both solid-state and tube amplifiers. Into the early 1970s, the company recognized a new opportunity for expansion, as it began developing, producing, and distributing PA systems from 1970. By 1974, the company had extended this business into the professional sound reinforcement field, developing and installing mixers and sound systems for churches, schools, auditoriums, and larger venues. This extension was backed by the move into a larger facility in Escondido in 1975. At the same time, Carvin’s sales surged as it launched a new color version of its catalog in 1973. While the bulk of the company’s sales remained focused on the direct-mail operation, Carvin also opened its own retail stores.
By then, Kiesel’s sons had begun to join him in the family business. Their arrival into the company’s operations provided a new phase to Carvin’s growth. Brothers Carson, Mark, Paul, and Jon (Gavin Kiesel died at an early age) had each developed very specific interests within the musical instruments and equipment market. This variety permitted Carvin to develop its diversified operations, while at the same time deepening its level of technical expertise.
Carson Kiesel, who later became CEO and emerged as the head of the company’s day-to-day operations, was a passionate electrical engineer. As he told ProSound News: “I’d eat, drink and sleep electronics. I would rather stay home on Friday evenings and work on projects than go out on a date.” This commitment enabled Carvin to establish itself at the forefront of mixing and sound-reinforcement technologies. Brother Jon, meanwhile, joined the company and specialized in developing designs for speaker cabinetry and systems.
Both Mark and Paul Kiesel had developed strong interests in woodworking. Mark Kiesel gained experience as a design draftsman in the aerospace industry in the 1960s, before joining the family company. With a background working with both wood and metal, Mark Kiesel became the natural leader for Carvin’s entry into manufacturing its own custom guitar designs. By the early 1980s, the company had launched its own line of guitars, designed by Mark Kiesel. Nearly all of the components were also designed and manufactured in-house as well. Meanwhile, brother Paul Kiesel coupled his own fine woodworking skills with developing CNC technologies, enabling the company to manufacture its designs within extremely high tolerances.
The company’s unique direct sales model played a major role in defining the direction of Carvin’s new guitar manufacturing operation. In the early 1980s, the guitar market had become dominated on the one hand by a handful of name-brand manufacturers, and on the other hand by the flood of inexpensive Asian-produced imports. As most of the major guitar brands had been bought out by corporations, which then attempted to compete with the low-cost imports, production quality had begun to suffer greatly. The guitar market had also become rather rigid, with little true variety among instruments. The emergence of new types of popular music, especially the rise of so-called metal music, often featuring virtuoso guitar performances, had stimulated the demand for new types of guitars.
- Lowell Kiesel founds L.C. Kiesel Company in order to produce electric pickups, pedal steel guitars, and amplifiers in California.
- Company is renamed Carvin, combining the name of Kiesel’s oldest sons, Carson and Gavin.
- First direct-mail catalog is launched and becomes company’s primary sales channel.
- Company begins producing and installing PA equipment, then enters sound reinforcement and mixing market.
- Carvin moves to new 80,000-square-foot factory in San Diego.
- Carvin forms TCS Audio for its professional sound reinforcement operations.
- Company celebrates its 60th anniversary with sales of $23.5 million.
Carvin’s direct contact with its customers provided it with strong feedback on these developments. In response, the company began adopting many of the features and components requested by customers, as well as by professional musicians. Customers were then allowed to choose among the many features, finishes, designs, and components in order to create a truly customized instrument manufactured for them by Carvin. In this way, Carvin had anticipated the rise of the “custom shop” market in the 1990s. The company’s early entry into the market helped it expand again, and in 1995, the company moved to a new and larger facility in San Diego. The new site also housed the company’s latest retail store.
Carvin’s guitar models quickly attracted the attention of the professional music market, winning numerous awards through the 1990s. The company also picked up a long list of professional endorsers, including Steve Vai, Willie Nelson, Allan Holdsworth, Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen, Bunny Brunel, Frank Gambale, Craig Chaquico, Yngwie Malmsteen, and even Frank Zappa. As the professional endorser market blossomed into the late 1990s, Carvin adopted a different approach. Instead of hiring paid endorsers, the company instead began working with a number of its longtime players to develop a line of “signature” guitars and amplifiers. These included guitars developed in partnership with Allan Holdsworth, bass models with Bunny Brunel, and the Vai Legacy amplifier developed in partnership with Steve Vai.
The growth of Carvin’s instrument and amplifier manufacturing operations was matched by its strong performance in the sound reinforcement market. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the company boasted a list of more than 70 high-end electronics mixing, recording, and reproduction components. Yet these operations suffered somewhat from their association with the Carvin name. As one executive told Proaudio Asia: “We recognized the need for a clear delineation from our parent company because Carvin is known as an MI [musical instrument]/guitar company, and sound reinforcement professionals typically won’t buy high-end sound reinforcement equipment from a guitar manufacturer.” In 2004, therefore, the company created a dedicated subsidiary for this operation, launching TCS Audio. Backing the launch was the construction of an 8,000-square-foot facility.
Carvin continued to roll out new guitar and instrument models into the later years of the first decade of the 2000s. These included the Icon IC5S five-string bass guitar in late 2006. As with other Carvin models, the new guitar was available with a variety of options, as Carvin continued to push the concept of customization to the extreme. Indeed, by mid-decade, the company claimed that it was capable of producing some 10,000 variations of its guitars. In this way the family-owned company, with sales nearing $24 million, had carved out a unique niche in the guitar industry of the new century.
M. L. Cohen
Yamaha Corporation; Kaman Corp.; Samick Musical Instruments Company Ltd.; Fender Musical Instruments Company; Gibson Guitar Corp.; C.F. Martin and Company Inc.; Taylor-Listug Inc.; Paul Reed Smith Guitar Co.; Ernie Ball Inc.; Ovation Instruments.
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