Fat Necks, Light Bodies: The Carvin Holdsworth and Kendrick Town House

January 1, 2000

The word's out: Fat is good. After years of seeking slimmer, shallower necks, tone-minded electric players are learning to appreciate the sonic benefits of having a baseball bat grafted to their fretboards. Sure, it takes more effort to get around such a neck, but for many the improved punch, sustain and tuning stability is worth some extra sweat.

Recently we found two guitars that prove this point -- the Carvin Holdsworth, which earns our respect for its originality and workmanship, and the Kendrick Town House, a superb refinement of the classic Paul tone recipe. These seemingly dissimilar axes share another trait -- light bodies. One guitar looks forward, the other is retro, but both sound great.

In a Dec. '82 GP interview, Allan Holdsworth revealed his theory of guitar tone: "I never believed people who said, 'The heavier the better for a solid guitar.' Most of the old guitars I've played -- the good ones -- have been at least half the weight of their modern equivalents. An old Strat or Les Paul seems to weigh much less than a new one. The wood contributes so much to the tone, just like an acoustic. If the body is really heavy, it just soaks up the sound, and you're left with a string talking down to the pickup. Then you'd might as well have a concrete body or build it into the ground. I really like when a guitar feels as if it's got an acoustic thing going."

Which exactly describes the Carvin Holdsworth (from $749; $989, as tested) -- a high-performance electric with an acoustic soul. Weighing a mere six pounds, this instrument combines elegant simplicity, great hardware and choice woods. The dual-humbucker Holdsworth features a heavily chambered, smoothly contoured two-piece alder body, a generous, two-piece set-in alder neck and a thick, 25.5"-scale, 24-fret ebony fretboard. Holdsworth models come with either a Tune-o-matic bridge mit stop tailpiece ($749) or a Wilkinson VS100 trem ($799). We tested both versions, each with an optional 1/4" maple top (flamed or quilted maple adds $100 or $150, respectively, to the base price).

Cradling the Holdsworth, you notice Allan's touches throughout. Seasoned players will dig the rounded neck profile, which is easy to grip yet provides serious mass. A volute, placed back from the nut, keeps the neck nice and chunky well into the tiny 2+4 headstock. The strings pull straight across the graphite nut, minimizing binding in the slots. Locking Sperzel tuners simplify string changing and help make the trem version utterly stable.

Measuring 111/16" at the nut and 23/16" where it joins the body, the fretboard has a flat 20" radius -- ideal for the pulls and hammers that characterize Holdsworth's legato style. The fretboard extends 1/8" beyond the outside of each E string, so you won't fall off its edges. The humongous frets are beautifully leveled, crowned and polished. Strung with .009s -- Allan's preferred gauge -- the Holdsworth proved remarkably buzz-free, even with its guaranteed 1/16" action. Carvin has always excelled at fretwork, and the Holdsworth upholds the tradition. It's a beefy yet fast neck.

The Holdsworth's crisp acoustic voice supports its electric tones, keeping them articulate even through heavy distortion. Played clean, the guitar sounds warm and full, with an upper-midrange zing. Very responsive and dynamic, the Holds offers excellent feedback at high volume. When those chambers start vibrating, the guitar takes off like an airborne 335. It likes to be pushed hard. The body shape drew mixed responses from testers and observers.

Neo-traditionalists used to Strats, Pauls and Teles found it a bit nerdy. Those with fewer expectations of what a guitar should look like praised the Holdsworth's highly sculpted contours. The transparent black and green stains of our two guitars elicited positive comments from all but hardcore sunburst fans and demure-is-better extremists. No one could deny the superb high-gloss finish.

Though much of the guitar's sonic snap is attributable to its woods and body design, some of the credit goes to Carvin's new H22 Holdsworth humbuckers. Featuring vintage enamel wire and Alnico V magnets, these top-mounted pickups combine sweetness with high output. The neck and bridge pickups are individually voiced and deliver three distinct colors (the combined setting yields a particularly attractive glassiness).

Each pickup coil has 11 polepieces -- a cool concept when you analyze the benefits. As you bend a string across a traditional polepiece, the note can fade as the string moves beyond the magnetic aperture. Blade pickups solve this problem, but create another by preventing you from balancing relative string volumes. By placing an extra polepiece between each string, Carvin gives you the best of both worlds: You can fight drop-off and tweak string response. For kicks, I raised the polepieces between the top three strings and found I could actually increase the volume of a note as I bent it. It's a wild but musical effect that hints at an onboard E-Bow. (H22 neck and bridge pickups are available separately from Carvin for $49 each.)

Detail freaks will appreciate little stuff: A shallow recessed cavity beneath the floating Wilkinson keeps the bridge plate parallel with the guitar's top, while permitting up-trem action. (The trem was adjusted to allow a minor-third bend on the G string at the 12th fret.) la Schecter and Anderson, dual bottom strap buttons keep the guitar stable when you lean it against an amp onstage. The master volume and tone knobs and pickup selector are located out of the strumming zone, yet lie within fingertip reach. The smooth neck joint allows easy access to the highest frets. Control plate machine screws are sunk into threaded metal inserts, not body wood, and the pickup rings let you adjust coil angle as well as height. The pickup cavity is shielded with copper foil, and the control plate has a foil back.

Niggles? We have a few. The Holdsworth is optimized for Allan's refined touch. With .009s, the trem gargles if you dig into a note or slam a chord. You could combat this by adding a trem spring and restringing with .010s or .011s, but you'd then need to widen the nut slots, which are carefully sized for each string. (Carvin's Dave Flores replies: "All our guitars are built to order from an extensive menu of options, including customer's preferred string sizes and brand. Our setup procedures include grooving the nut for the desired gauges and setting proper spring tension on tremolo models. This eliminates any tremolo 'gargling' effect on a Holdsworth that's custom built to a customer's preferences.")

The rear control plate is flush mounted, but the trem plate isn't. This mismatch murks an otherwise harmonious visual aesthetic. The body is so light that the guitar is a tad neck-heavy, even with its compact headstock. The soldering is neat, but the wires aren't cut to length or tidily bound in the cavity. I've seen sweeter innards, though the Holdsworth is on par with other most production instruments. (Flores: "The wires are kept at a modest length to allow for service and modification, such as adding coil-taps or phase switches.") On one instrument the bridge pickup ring was not screwed flush to the body.

In the Holdsworth, Carvin's serious building chops converge with Allan's design ideas in an extremely satisfying blend of tone, feel and value. Some signature guitars are simply quirky, but this one makes sense from headstock to tailblock. It plays like butter and sings like a bird. Carvin sells direct to the consumer and offers a ten-day, money-back trial period. This fine guitar deserves your attention.

If you like the smooth cry of a '58 Les Paul in heat, but can't pay the price or bear the weight, then you should know about the Kendrick Town House ($2,500). You can't argue with the top-notch materials: a one-piece body and neck of Honduras mahogany, a highly flamed, bookmatched 3/4" maple cap, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard. The nut is carefully carved from ivory, which, according to Kendrick's Gerald Weber, comes from '40s manufacturing scraps that languished in an attic for 50 years.

But there's more going on than cool goodies. The Town House's cherry-stained back is 3/4" slimmer than a Paul's (think SG thickness), and it has a Strat-like belly cut. This makes the guitar noticeably lighter, improves its balance, and changes the mahogany-to-maple ratio, thus tilting the tonal blend toward cut. Acoustically the Town House is very "talky," with a bright edge that helps the guitar project when amplified. Clearer in the lowest registers than typical Paul-style guitars, the Kendrick retains the round, flutey highs of a fine sunburst.

Tall, semi-narrow frets make bending easy by keeping your calluses off the standard Paul-width fretboard. The neck, however, is very unusual. The bass side is round and fat, while the treble side has a gentle V slope. This hybrid profile is such a joy to play and fits the hand so well, we wonder why no one thought of this before. Fact is, they did: Weber reveals Kendrick borrowed the profile from a 1939 pre-trussrod Gretsch archtop. Slightly longer than a Paul, the Town House's 25" scale is the PRS-approved compromise between Gibson and Fender length. The silky-playing frets are expertly crowned and polished. Though well finished from a comfort standpoint, the fret ends could use a cosmetic buffing.

Other details: The cutaway, neck joint and body shape are more streamlined than a Les Paul's, resulting in a smooth-playing, sharp looking instrument. The thin, glossy nitrocellulose finish is beautifully applied and the internals are slick. Wires are cut to length and neatly stashed, and the solder joints are tidy and clean. The fun fretboard inlays -- groovy little maps of Texas -- look cool and are surrounded with a minimum of black epoxy filler. The control and switch covers fit snugly, and the chrome jackplate is an improvement over the original.

Loaded with custom Fralin humbuckers (wound on the beefy side of PAF spec and wax-potted), the Town House has magic tone -- it clangs, squawks, chirps and growls, according to your amp settings -- like a well-played sunburst Les Paul. The neck profile is particularly noteworthy, offering mucho mass that's easy to grip. This extra girth adds stability, since even with its vintage Kluson tuners the Town House was easy to keep in tune. It comes with pure nickel Kendrick strings, which add the final touch of aural pleasure.

The Town House delivers the sunburst ooh and ahh tones of Bluesbreakers, Bloomfield, Free and early Slash. Given the lovely materials and painstaking construction, it's priced fairly too. Paul lovers: This is a great alternative to vintage collectibles, custom replicas or expensive reissues. You get hip improvements and all the tone at two-thirds the weight and a fraction of the cost.

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