1965 Carvin 8DHG-5B

The 1950s saw an explosion of lap steel guitar brands. For a while, it seemed like every corner store sold them, and every store had its own brand as well. Manufacturers like Valco, Kay and Harmony pumped out affordable student-level steels in incredible numbers, often sold in batches to businesses whose ties to the music world were tenuous at best. Instruments were available at electronics dealers, department stores and even auto parts stores, and they were also available for purchase through mail-order catalogs. Into this last category jumped Carvin.

Carvin was founded in 1946 as the L. C. Keisel Company. By the time the name changed to Carvin (an amalgamation of Keisel’s sons’ first names) in 1949, the company was building its own lap steels and distributing other brands’ instruments through flyers. In 1954, Carvin switched to a more conventional mail-order catalog, which continued to be its method of distribution until the internet age. The early catalogs contained guitars, amps and other instruments, but they were dominated by lap steels ranging from simple 6-string models to monstrous consoles featuring four 8-string necks. The basic design philosophy would remain unchanged into the 1970s: simple, functional instruments with minimal decoration but affordable to a wide variety of musicians.

While the company never achieved massive success without a network of brick and mortar retailers, it did sell a large number of instruments to customers on the west coast. Its steels were reminiscent of another builder, fellow Californian company Fender, both sonically and aesthetically. Carvin’s pickups were bright and crisp, and when mounted on maple bodies they provided similar cutting power to Fender’s early trapezoidal pickups. Every steel model was available with a choice of A or AP pickups; the latter offered individually adjustable pole pieces for $10 more. Screw-in legs and cases were offered as accessories.

Carvin’s hardware didn’t vary much throughout the history of its lap steels. This 1965 8DHG-5B is one of the first to have a sunburst finish, though the burst is so light that it almost appears to be one of its natural-finished ancestors. It has a cast aluminum nut and tailpiece, as opposed to the molded plastic hardware that was found on earlier instruments. It has three built-in leg sockets, but, although the case has room to store them, it probably did not come from the factory with legs. Indeed, it plays very well sitting on the lap; its light weight is easy on the knees. The pickup is a bit noisy even for a vintage single-coil pickup, but strategic angling of the player’s chair can minimize this pretty easily. The most unusual feature of this particular instrument is the wood used for the body. Carvin normally used cheaper, plainer maple for its instruments, and it was probably just a fluke that this steel ended up with a remarkable birdseye pattern.