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 Frank Gambale 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.
The Gibson ES-335, when used as a design template, has thrown up perhaps more interesting interpretations than any other classic guitar. However, few quality companies replicate the original's laminate construction - it's simply too expensive to create the moulds to press the laminate tops, backs and sides. Instead, with a few exceptions, most small makers reinterpret the ES-335 as an all-solid-wood semi.
The FG1 is exactly that. The two-piece mahogany back is hollowed out, leaving a relatively thick back and sides and a centre block that extends from the neck joint to just behind the stud tailpiece. It's topped with a 22mm-thick slip-matched 4A maple top, which connects with the centre block but is carved inside and out to create a visually different semi. Across its spacious lower bouts it measures just over 14 inches (357mm) but only 16.25 inches in length (410mm) - smaller than the ES-335 and more akin to the ES-339.
The back is flat, not arched, with a solidbody-like rim depth of 45mm that, thanks to the top arch, is closer to 60mm (58.5mm) in the centre. Overall weight is approx 7.25lbs, lighter than most solidbodies. The more compact-length neck joins the body around the 19th fret but the heel is sculptured into the body and looks more like a through-neck design - though it's classed as a set-neck.
The profile is a medium-depth C, although the shoulders are quite full - 20mm deep at the first, 22.4mm at the 12th - with a nut width of 43.4mm and Gibson-like 'board radius of 305mm (12 inches). It kind of feels like a souped-up Gibson, although the fret wire is more vintage Fender.
It's certainly well finished with a dark brown 'burst to the maple top - with PRS-like natural maple edge - and the bursting is replicated over the sides, back and neck. Again, all very classic. Less so is the back angled three-a-side headstock, which is quite modernist with little string splay from the well-cut friction-reducing nut to the Sperzel locking tuners.
Hardware is straightforward, but a nice touch is the recessed tune-o-matic unit, which has the effect of reducing the height of the bridge and makes for what is a very comfortable playing experience.
Pickups are Carvin's own and use 22 pole pieces per pickup in the usual half-adjustable, half- slug fashion. There's a standard C22B at the bridge with a Gambale-designed unit at the neck; wiring is in the standard Gibson ES-335 style, with added coil-splits on each of the pull/push tone pots.
Despite its chambered construction, the FG1 sounds more like it's halfway between a solidbody and an ES-335-style semi. Whether it's the long neck, or indeed the pickups' voicing, the overall tonality is quite strident and bright-edged compared with a couple of other semis we had to hand. It sort of throws the FG1 over to the Fender side of the tracks - think dual-humbucking Tele Custom - but so long as you're not expecting a darker, more Gibson-esque tone, that's no problem.
Indeed, with some volume reduction and selecting the split-coil modes - voicing the neck-facing single coils of each pickup - there's some very useful Fender-y character here. There's a nice percussion to the attack that works really well with some more modern digital reverbs and modulation effects.
In full-coil mode, and with the volume fully up, there's a thicker voice on both humbuckers, a good width between them sound-wise and above all, a clear character that should help more complex chord voicings and intervals. It possesses a mean 'woman tone', too, with some old-school crunchy gain, and it also does a pretty good taut, bright Brit-jangle or Kinks-esque R&B bark. Overall, there's certainly a lot more here than the assumed fusion intention.
While 'vintage Gibson' isn't a phrase that springs to mind, there's little doubt this has many bases covered with effortless playability right across the range of the 22-fret fingerboard. Once again, if you're a player that uses your volume and tone controls to shade your tonal colours, there really is a lot to like.
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.
The FG1 is a superb, bright-voiced, more compact ES-335-inspired electric that's worth every pound of its asking price. A guitar this good should not be ignored.