Carvin, we'd wager, isn't in your top-five list of guitar brands to check out. If you're a Steve Vai fan, the Legacy 3 head will have probably piqued your interest, and Allan Holdsworth aficionados will of course be keen to hear the guitar on test here. But even if you're not remotely bothered by that player, Carvin should be on your radar. Why? Because if guys of this calibre are using Carvin gear, surely we should all take notice.
Each Carvin guitar is a custom order - and there's a long list of options on top of the standard features to get your head around. A couple of months ago, we placed our order, and far quicker than you'd receive a custom-spec instrument from Fender's Custom Shop or Carvin's neighbour, Taylor, here we are with the results.
These new Allan Holdsworth signature HH guitars recall the headless Steinberger design of the 80s. From top to tail the guitar is approx 785mm long but boasts a full-length 648mm scale (longer than the FG1) and a 24-fret fingerboard.
The body has more meat on it than the original Steinberger and is made of wood, rather than hi-tech plastic. The neck, which is quoted as maple, is glued to a single-cutaway chambered alder body, which retains the slab-like contour of regular 44mm thickness.
Peering inside the copper foil-shielded control cavity you can see that, there's plenty of air and what appears to be a block under the bridge and one for the neck joint. The neck profile is fairly chunky - 21.3mm at the first, 24.7mm at the 12th - with a fully shouldered D shape and we have a slightly trimmer 'nut' width of 42.8mm and a 508mm (20-inch) radius to its ebony board, with neatly installed jumbo frets.
We get 22 adjustable poles to each of the standard H22 'buckers and a master volume and tone with black Strat-like knobs. That leaves just enough room for a three-way mini-toggled pickup switch and a side-mounted jack on a metal plate that has the country of origin and the serial number stamped on.
There's no nut as such; instead, we have a zero fret and a string anchor at the top of the neck. At the other end, we have a bridge assembly with individual lock-down saddles and six knurled-knob tuners. The strings' ball ends slot into the bridge end and are locked in place at the nut although it appears special double-ball strings could be used.
Made by a Korean company called JCustom Headless Research, these parts appear to be very close cousins to Steinberger's original parts, now no longer made. Neither bears any 'licensed by' logos, but the parts seem of excellent quality - the impression you get from anything with the Carvin logo.
While it's not impossible to play seated, it's certainly a lot easier with a strap, Holdsworth-style. It's a lightweight and comfortable guitar and you're presented with basically just a neck and fingerboard, and as ever, without a headstock you have to get used to naturally playing 'higher' on the 'board. To many, this guitar will look like a toy, but it certainly doesn't sound like one.
"There's a beautiful feedback tail to the notes at higher gain, almost as if there's a Sustainer onboard"
In some ways there's a 'hollowness' to this mini axe. It gives even the bright pickup, played clean, a quality tonality: the mix is rich and the neck pickup fuller. Sure, there's not loads of deep low end but it doesn't sound thin either - your eyes are telling you one thing but your ears beg to differ. And the way the guitar sits sort of makes you want to play more complex chords, Holdsworth style, especially with some chorus.
The tone control certainly helps to create some older, jazzier tones underpinned by a good clarity. Reducing the volume thins things a little, too, and because not only the 'board but also the controls are right under your hands, subtle adjustments quickly become part of your style and sound.
Upping the gain, the HH2 laps it up. You might not be able to replicate Holdsworth-style complex picked arpeggios at the speed of light, but as the gain and volume increase, so does the resonance. There's a beautiful feedback tail to the notes at higher gain, especially on the fuller neck pickup, almost as if you have a Sustainer onboard; again, bring some modulation and delay to the party and it becomes quite otherworldly. It's beautifully in tune and stable, too.
What we're keen to do here is to evaluate just how Carvin's electric guitars shape up in comparison to larger, often more expensive brands. The answer is very, very well. Not only is this instrument extremely well made, via the extensive range of options Carvin is putting you in the driving seat, whether you're a 'name' or not.
Although the HH2 is limited in appeal, its full-scale compact concept creates a truly pro 'travel' guitar that packs a very professional tonality. As a studio/travel guitar, its big sound far outweighs its small size.