Carvin/Kay Hybrid

This month, I’d like to salute Carvin, a company that has specialized in mail-order guitars, amps, and sound-reinforcement gear since the late 1940s. This guitar is one of Carvin’s earliest attempts to enter the electric guitar market, and, as some of you eagle-eyed geeks may have already noticed, the guitar itself is actually a Kay-manufactured K8950 “Master Cutaway” hollowbody. You see, Carvin originally offered only lap-steels with small, matching combo amps. But with the skyrocketing popularity of electric guitars in the ’50s, Carvin realized it needed to get on the stick—and fast. To that end, Carvin simply ordered Kay acoustic archtops, installed their own pickups and hardware, and then put a “Carvin—Baldwin Park, CA” sticker on the headstock where it originally read “Kay.” Although this Kay/Carvin hybrid electric was offered in the catalog until 1959, they must not have sold well, because this is the only example I’ve ever run across. It’s a pretty rare bird.
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The guitar plays exactly like you would expect. It has a giant neck the size of a baseball bat, and you’ve got to put some serious cojones behind every string bend. That being said, it’s surprisingly fun to play.

The tonal possibilities of this guitar are unique. For example, in the two-pickup position played through a clean amp, it gives you the sort of twangy tones you associate with

Joe Maphis. However, it is a big hollowbody guitar, and if you play it on the neck pickup through a distorted amp, it will pour out some of the best blues tones you’ve ever heard. The sounds are very similar to the “liquid” tone that’s instantly recognizable from early Howlin’ Wolf and T-Bone Walker records.

What is it that makes this Kay/Carvin concoction so tonally happening? I believe the magic is in the pickup—in this case, a non-adjustable polepiece version of Carvin’s AP-6 that’s designated simply as an A-1. The construction of the A-1 is amazingly simple. The unit’s coil isn’t even on a standard bobbin, but is instead wrapped in masking tape and held together by the plastic pickup cover on the top, and the magnets on the bottom side. The pickup is suspended from the plastic cover by two small screws in between the polepieces, similar to a P-90.

Carvin began offering their own solidbody electrics soon after introducing this model, and their unique looks, solid playability, and great-sounding pickups have made them collectible guitars in their own right. But this early hybrid is a cool link to the early days of electric-

guitar manufacturing, and it’s a tone monster to boot!

Deke would like to thank Steve Soest for access to all the early Carvin catalogs.