CARVIN IS OCCASIONALLY OVERLOOKED in discussions of great American guitar manufacturers, but an instrument like this new SH550 hints at just what an oversight that might be. This set-neck, carved-top, semi-solid electric aims to provide the kinds of constructional details and superb playability that would likely cost twice the price from any of several “boutique” makers, yet lands south of the $2k ceiling here thanks to Carvin’s large production facility and deeply discounted direct-selling policy.
The SH550 packs a little more width and depth than a Les Paul Standard—a touchstone it outwardly resembles—while weighing in a bit less than most thanks to its routed-out mahogany body, about 60 percent of which is air space, as revealed through a pair of traditional f-holes. Its Tiger Eye finish has a deep, rich luster that beautifully enhances the book-matched figured maple top (AAAA quilted with Triple Step finish, as reviewed, a $180 upgrade; AAAA flamed standard). Rather than being a pressed ply or top-carved arch, the SH550’s top is carved from both the top and the underside of a 2"-thick blank and glued to the body. The one-piece mahogany neck has a medium-C profile, while its 22- fret ebony ’board runs to a scale length of 25". A GraphTech nut and a headstock that’s only gently back-angled, with minimum string splay, promise to keep strings hitch-free and in tune, a task that the Sperzel locking tuners further assist in.
Two alnico-V humbuckers (13.6kΩ bridge, 8.12kΩ neck) carry solid chromed metal covers and run through single Volume and Tone controls, with a push/pull on the latter to split the pickups’ coils. A chrome-plated Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece round out the hardware set, the former mounted in its own routed channel to allow further downward adjustment if necessary, a nifty touch. All in all, it’s a sedately elegant instrument that both looks and feels extremely well constructed.
In the hand, the SH550’s medium-low action proves smooth, slick, and buzz free, and the guitar rings with an impressive semi-acoustic voice even before you plug it in. Tested through a range of tube amps, it exhibits plenty of power to crunch and wail when you want it to, but still retains outstanding clarity from all three humbucker settings. The split-coil tones are extremely impressive, too: Where so many sound like just half a humbucker (i.e. rather thin and wan) the Carvins perform like gnarly P-90s at full volume, and snappier Fender-style singlecoils with the Volume knob rolled back a touch. All considered, the SH550 is a sweet player, and a surprisingly versatile instrument. It’s ideal for those who want a guitar that’s more open and resonant sounding than a humbucker-equipped solidbody, and it could be the perfect choice for jazzers who seek a compact-bodied, high-end archtop that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
CONTACT Carvin, carvinguitars.com
PRICE $1,979 direct as reviewed (base model $1,799)
NECK Mahogany, glued in, 25" scale length, C profile
FRETBOARD Ebony, 12" radius
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
BODY Chambered mahogany with carved AAAA quilted maple top
PICKUPS Carvin humbuckers, S22J neck and S22B bridge
CONTROLS Single Volume and Tone with push/pull switch
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic with stopbar tailpiece
TUNERS Sperzel locking
WEIGHT 8 lbs
FACTORYSTRINGS Elixir NanoWeb Light, .010-.046
KUDOS Impressive build quality. Very versatile and usable tones.