Carvin CT6M Review

Carvin Guitars: Made In The USA (Sooner or Later, Maybe, Yes)

Review of the Carvin CT6M and the Carvin Customer Experience


I.

Initial Contact! After perusing a Carvin catalog for a few hours and about 30 minutes of poking around on their BBS, I was ready to place my order. Apparently, my little bit of “consumer research” endowed me with a greater knowledge of Carvin guitars than my sales guy. I hunted down a couple of option codes for him and discussed a one-piece body. It “might” be possible he said -- he’d check into it and give me a call back. Great, but he never called me back and 15 weeks later (still having not received my guitar, well after the estimated completion date) I still didn’t know if I ever got the body I asked for.

I originally ordered my guitar in April so that I’d have it ready by the middle of July. The catalog stated a five-week build up time but when I ordered I was told to expect eight because they were running a bit behind. Okay, no problem. My CT6M was supposed to be completed June 20th. On June 19th I called Carvin to get an update but found that the rep had no more information than I did using their online tracking system (“GuitarTraq”). When people complain on the Carvin BBS about online tracking they are told to get on the phone instead. Supposedly, if you really want to know what’s going on, you have to call. But then you find out that this notoriously unreliable and inaccurate tracking system is the same one customer service uses! Ah, a page out of the Kurt Vonnegut playbook!

[Update: evidently the 'GuitarTraq' function was so worthless that Carvin has since retracted it from public view].

So, the rep said “According to GuitarTraq yours is being painted.” Yeah, I figured that one out on my own. He told me it was a really good time for Carvin, they were just swamped with orders, and that there was no further information he could give me other than wait a few more weeks. Well, good for Carvin. This was not my first call, nor would it be my last, as it turns out -- and, as I would learn later on, there was a more to the story than I was led to believe.

A couple of weeks earlier I saw a review of the Carvin CT and mention was made of the ill-fitting plastic case that they stuff all their models into and that future buyers should consider the “tweed” case as a presumably better-fitting alternative. I called Carvin to see about a change from the cheaper plastic unit to the upscale G&G model. After sitting on hold for a while I received a lecture about how much better the plastic case would be, etc., but I thought it was important to get one that fit the guitar. I was told that any change to my order would normally result in a $50 penalty but they were willing to cut me a break and let me order the more expensive case without getting the shaft. Oh, thank you, Benevolence! Why were they pushing the cheap plastic case instead of an upscale model? As I report below, it’s because they use inadequate padding (as in none) when shipping their guitars as well as no insurance, so UPS-damaged cases are not uncommon and Carvin simply writes off the loss.

A month into waiting I received offhand information (from an anonymous person on a message board) that the guitar I ordered would not be eligible for the normal 10-day trial examination period because I requested a one-piece body. Buying a guitar on blind faith (and being stuck with it) sounded like a bad idea so I called Carvin to get the lowdown. Surely this was just nonsense. To my surprise, the Carvin rep actually confirmed my fears: my guitar was not eligible for the ten-day trial evaluation. Why did no one mention this to me when I ordered it and could the situation get any more stupid?

Willing to take the 10% “restocking fee” hit over a potential dud of a mail order bride I told the factory rep that I would be canceling my order. “Oh! Hang on just a second.” A few minutes later he changed his mind. What kills me the most about this encounter was not the categorical reversal from “Your guitar is not subject to the 10-day trial period” to “Your guitar is subject to the 10-day trial period” but the way the rep attempted to make me out to be some kind of dolt for asking such an obvious question in the first place: “What made you think you couldn’t return it?” Uh, because you just told me I couldn’t? I was wondering, at this point, if I was even talking to the same person and asked him “Did our last conversation not actually take place?”

I then received a lecture (no doubt the one he just got from his supervisor while I was on hold) on how a one-piece back is totally different from X Y and Z (all custom options that would render my guitar freakishly nonreturnable). Eh, by now I was thinking I needed this assurance in writing in preparation for the next time they changed their mind -- which could, apparently, be at the drop of a hat. No problem, I gave the rep my email address (as if I hadn’t previously given them my contact info) and he told me he was sending me email confirmation. Of course, he didn’t send the email. I called the next day and chatted with a supervisor. He (Jason) talked me off the ledge (actually he just talked over me the whole time) but he didn’t send me an email either. I think this confirms what my buddy Ken learned from his dealings with Carvin: don’t bother with email.  What had I learned?  Don't bother with email or calling. Ugh!

Honestly, after a month of waiting and three interactions with Carvin I was beyond ambivalent about the whole deal. It was beginning to feel like a mistake. But before it was all over, ambivalence would blossom into full-blown buyer’s regret, followed by irritation at the way I was being dealt with.

Well, eight weeks came and went and I was told to wait another three weeks. I waited and those three weeks came and went. I called back and was told that I could expect to wait another three weeks. I decided that I didn’t want to wait any more so I called back to get my deposit returned and cancel my order. Yeah, right.

Apparently the delays were all my fault. You see, I ordered options (silly me!) and each one resulted in a delay. Somebody named Giovanni informed me that my request of a one-piece body (“if possible” and who knew if I even got a one-piece body? Not Carvin customer service that’s for sure...) meant an additional two weeks; the abalone logo: two weeks; the 14” radius neck: you guessed it, two weeks. Nonsense. I pointed out that neck as well as body construction and sanding had all passed quickly (three weeks total) and that my guitar had been stuck in finishing and polishing for two months (I could only imagine how shiny that thing was by now with all that non-stop polishing). This “Blame the Customer” stalling tactic is something Carvin cooked up because what they didn’t want to tell me was that their head painter quit on them (rumor was that he split for Taylor along with other key Carvin employees) and guitars were piling up in the finishing department. They could apparently handle solid colors but anything requiring a burst was waiting for the replacement to figure out. And, boy! You should see some of the horrendous paint jobs coming out of Carvin during the weeks I was waiting. I scanned the Carvin “museum” and the “in stock” pages (i.e., “returns”) and saw some of the ugliest guitars ever.  I was freaking out just imagining the monstrosity that would cast a shadow over my doorstep.

At this point I no longer wanted to give my money to Carvin and told the rep I wanted my money back so I could go buy a guitar. As before, I got some song and dance and was told he would check with the guitar department and see what the holdup was (Hello! If you haven’t heard, you don’t have a painter!) I gave them until the 24th of July to have the guitar at my doorstep and he told me he’d contact me that day or next to let me know what was possible. Despite talking with Carvin reps a total of five or six times, and each time giving them my contact information, they didn’t have my email address on file; Jeez, man, what kind of file are they using? Giovanni told me he’d email me soon. He never did. I called back the next day at which time he informed me that the guitar department was just about ready to get my guitar moving; it would be sitting at my door on the 27th of July “if not sooner.”

On July 25th my guitar was still stuck in the finishing department.  I stumbled across a fresh email address for one of the Carvin reps at a BBS and tried to get an update on the status of the CT6MIA. I emailed at 5:45 on the 25th. The reply (an actual reply, people!) came at around 2:30 the next day: “The guitar was sent back through the finishing department to have the back of the guitar re-sprayed. They are telling me we should have it shipped by the end of next week.” I can’t prove this was a lie but since every other thing they ever told me was a lie I have my suspicions. On top of this, I was reading the same story from throngs of Carvin customers: my guitar has been sent back for refinishing. Bullshit.

Every person I talked to at Carvin gave me a different story every time I contacted them. I might as well have used a Magic 8-Ball to get answers. So I wrote back: “Thanks for the update. Wow, I gotta say, this is by far the worst experience I've had buying a guitar. I get different versions of events every time I call.  Last week it was finished and "on its way" and now it's being repainted.   I have absolutely no reason to believe anything that is told to me any more. This situation is unacceptable. How can I get a refund on my money so I can get on with what little remains of my summer?”  I didn’t get a reply so I decided to call and it just so happened that I ended up talking to the very same fellow who sent me the email. There was no way in Hell I was getting my deposit back, period. I put the Carvin out of my mind until the evening of the 31st (surprise, surprise!) when they emailed saying my guitar was “ready to go.”

II.

On August 13th, UPS kicked my new guitar up to the house and I opened the box. Having just received another guitar in the mail a few days earlier that was packed extremely well with layers of bubble wrap, etc., I was surprised at the total lack of padding in the Carvin shipping box. There was just the guitar case in a cardboard box and that was it.

I pulled the very nice, tweed, G&G case out and opened it up: Wow! It was without a doubt an attractive guitar. My biggest fear was that the finish would look like a hack job but the painter(s) did awesome work.

Here’s what I ordered and received:

CT6M; Quilted Maple Top; Emerald Green + Sapphire Blue Burst (Earthburst); Abalone Logo; One-Piece Mahogany Back; Ebony Fretboard; 14” Neck Radius; No Fretboard Inlays; Stainless Steel Jumbo Frets; Black Hardware; Strap Locks; Tweed Case; C22B and C22J Pickups.
Total Price: $1760 and change

The quilted maple top is very nice and the finish is top notch. The fretwork looks really good; I’ve seen better but the frets easily rate an “A”. I specifically requested that the ebony fretboard be just as dark as the black hardware with no brown streaks and they got that right too. Carvin got that fretboard looking uniformly black by, ironically enough, 'ebonizing' the ebony, i.e., staining it black. Putting a dab of naptha on my fingers and running it along the wood results in stained fingers:




A thorough cleaning of the fretboard with naptha and a T-shirt revealed a few brown spots...but not bad...and one trashed T! It's all good.




The neck profile is wide and thin -- not as comfortable as, say, a PRS wide fat or a Pattern neck.

The Tune-O-Matic bridge is rock solid in the body; the nut slots are filed well; the action is low with no string buzzing and bends are virtually effortless on the stainless steel frets in combination with the 25” scale length.

Based on my past experience I was convinced that I’d need to replace the pickups and the C22B and C22J are no exceptions. They have a flabby and indistinct low end. Full chords are a garbled jumble of clashing harmonics. The neck pickup is a muddy mess lacking any kind of string clarity or definition and the bridge pickup is overly hot with a harsh and bitter top end.  Both the volume and tone pots work fairly well across the full range of motion and this guitar will encourage the use of the tone and volume knobs quite a bit -- as in after a while you'll want to just roll the volume down to zero. The split-coil sounds are utterly worthless as are the 'in-between' tones.

The stupid thing with Carvin is that they build state-of-the-art American-made guitars but the wiring, pots, and pickups are close to what you'd expect on cheap import guitars.  Pity. Be sure and set aside $300 - $400 for new pickups -- I had to replace everything associated with the electronics.

The newer covered pickups (as on my SH575) sound somewhat better but still mediocre at best. If you dig the sound of the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover, PRS 57/08, PAFs, etc., you will probably despise these Carvin offerings and replacing them may (but not necessarily) require some router work to make standard hum-buckers fit the cavity. If you order one of these get the metal-covered pickups because when you throw them away the cavity will be ready for whatever pickups you want to put in there.

After a couple of years of owning this CT6 I tried to give it away but it came back. Selling it meant taking a bath on Ebay so I shelled out about $350 for some Rio Grande Tallboys, new pots, new wire, and its usable now. But I had to switch to pure nickel strings to get a decent tone.





III. Needed Improvements, Problems, and Recommendations:

Above all, Carvin needs to overhaul their customer support and service department. For crying out loud, if you're going to eliminate the dealer then you'd damn sure have your communication skills down. This is supposedly a 'family' business in the information age and they cannot be bothered to communicate with the customer base? I've dealt with guitar companies in the past, medium-sized firms, where the shop foreman gives me his number and tells me to call him any time I need anything or have a problem!

Beyond the communications and customer service problems:

1. Carvin needs to improve their packing materials and case. The tweed G&G case does not quite fit the guitar and it appears to put stress on the neck in the same way the plastic case apparently does. Carvin needs to step up with a model-specific case. If this is going to be their flagship (or, by now, one of their high end) instrument then it needs a case that actually fits properly;

2. The input jack washer needs to be replaced with felt because it doesn’t quite fit flush against the body;

3. Offer some neck-width choices.

[Update, now you can get custom neck carves, however, this costs a lot and, more importantly, voids the return/evaluation trial period so you're taking a risk and these new carves DO NOT give you the choice of neck/nut width...still the same old thing so the problem persists. Stand by your instruments. If you offer neck options then be willing to accept a trial period and returns.]

4. Massive upgrade on the electronics, please.  This stuff is just unacceptable.  You don't pay this much for hair-thin wire, chintzy pots, and trashy pickups. Just be sure and factor in the additional cost.

IV.

This was not my first experience with Carvin. I currently own an SH575 that no longer sees much playing time. I owned a DC135 in the late 90s. It was almost the most pitiful guitar I ever played (it came in second behind a Steinberger that was so bad it didn’t even qualify as a musical instrument) but the neck was fast and the pickups were replaceable. The neck on that 135 was never stable and I sold it after a few years on Ebay for $125 (ouch!). Later I bought some AP11 pickups for a FrankenStrat. They sounded pretty good, actually, but the five-way switch and pots were low quality and noisy. Finally, I owned one of their “vintage” tube amps -- a VT50 head and cab affair. The clean channel was good but the lead channel was buzzy, brittle, and shrill at all volumes. I unloaded that after about a year, for a relatively high price, to some boob who thought that it was going to be collectable -- if Carvin amps were wine they'd be on sale for $3.99 per cardboard box at Sam's Club so don't fool yourself into thinking they're anything above Crate or Peavey.

If my guitar is an example of what Carvin is producing these days then they are capable of making some very nice guitars at a nearly unbeatable price. But their output seems erratic with inexcusable lapses in quality control. What especially kills me about Carvin is the systematic failure of their customer service department. If you call and ask two different people the same question you’re likely to get three (or five) completely different answers. The left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing and each person you talk with has a different excuse for why your guitar is nowhere ready to ship or what is going on at all. On top of it all, Carvin’s sales staff can be ignorant of their own products and option availability is often dependent upon who you talk to -- if you don’t get things your way with Joe Schmo then hang up, call back, and ask Joe Six Pack for it; sooner or later you’ll get a sales guy to say it’s no problem. Of course, you’re likely to not get what you ordered and, apparently, they’ll just go ahead and ship something out as long as it’s relatively close to what you ordered. And you’ll never know until the day your guitar arrives because Carvin cannot or is unwilling to communicate with their customers.

[Update: I think some of the guys I dealt with at the time have been fired and the last time I dealt with Carvin I got the sense that, while still clueless, the new guys actually cared and were trying hard to make things right].

For a lot of people it doesn’t matter when their guitar is completed because they don’t have anything specific they need to accomplish. Others actually have projects and schedules. The later group might very well not find Carvin a reasonable company to deal with. Ultimately, I was looking for a mahogany guitar with a maple top and hum-bucking pickups -- a lot of guitars could have worked. If Carvin had been up-front about things at the beginning and told me that I was looking at something like 16 weeks then I would have felt differently (and gone with another guitar). Instead, the company, out of incompetence or deceit, fed me (and others) bullshit for weeks on end resulting in bad feelings. Buying a guitar sight-unseen is difficult enough and shipping charges are expensive if you and your guitar fail to “bond.”

Here's the deal with Carvin, in my estimation: they are the ultimate 'me too' company.  They don't really have many unique ideas or designs and in some ways, where they fail to keep up, they are just stuck in the past. Carvin is often referred to as the poor man's PRS and there's some truth to this except you have to rearrange the judgement: Carvin is "Man's poor PRS."  Like plankton Carvin drifts with currents, making seemingly lower-priced versions of guitars produced by their competitors.  Their guitars sound generic or horrible to players with an affinity for classic/vintage tones and their physical proportions don't make a lot of sense in some cases.  I dig companies that make their own hardware and pickups (like G&L and PRS for example) but while Carvin does make pickups my impression is that they just make them because they can do it on the cheap, avoiding running up the prices of their guitars -- cheaper to make these duds in-house than to shell out for something nice I suppose.

Since I wrote this review Carvin branded guitars have given way to the Kiesel brand. It appears that they are trying to stretch out on the design front but, honestly, what I'm seeing online looks like a freak show of clashing colors and bizarre aesthetics.

After it was all said in done going the Carvin route did not actually save me any money: the electronics overhaul + all the other time and hassels and aggravation could have been avoided by just buying a PRS Custom 22, etc. -- which this guitar is pretending to be anyway but without all the PRS awesomeness.

Carvin has all the potential to make killer instruments with all the right ingredients; I just wish they would.  Their menu-based approach to guitar-building and all the possible options is so compelling that it's hard to resist going for a Carvin but, ultimately, after going through three that each fall significantly short of where they need to be, it's hard to recommend them.