Lowell Kiesel, founder of the Carvin Corporation, died in San Diego on December 28, 2009. He was 94. Carvin, based in San Diego, is one of the oldest manufacturers of guitars and amplifiers in California.
“His office is still here,” says Richard Cruz, Carvin media relations director; Kiesel remained fairly active in the company until the end. “He would come in anytime he felt like it, twice a week on average. This was his company.”
The son of a Nebraska farmer, Kiesel was born in 1915. He told a biographer that he made his first guitar in a high school shop class at the age of 15. He became proficient enough at Hawaiian, or lap steel guitar, to perform professionally.
“He was broadcast on the radio back in 1935,” says Cruz. “We have those tapes in our archives.”
Following the emergence of electric guitars in the 1940s, Kiesel developed and began winding his own pickups. In 1946, he founded the L.C. Kiesel Company in a garage in Los Angeles and began production of his first AP-6 guitar pickups using the motor from his wife’s sewing machine to wind the coils.
“I don’t think people were selling pickups that weren’t attached to a guitar back in those days,” says local vintage guitar collector Barney Roach.
Kiesel’s AP-6s are said to have had a historic impact on the country sound of the 1950s and later on the surf rock sound of the 1960s when guitar maker Semie Moseley installed Carvin pickups on his Mosrite guitars, which were made famous by the Ventures.
“He used to make pickups and sell them to Les Paul,” says Roach. “I don’t think many people knew this.”
Roach says he met with Kiesel a number of times, most notably at Carvin’s 60th anniversary party in 2006. “It was a big deal. They had a tent with a museum outside with the sewing machine. Mark [one of Kiesel’s five sons] asked me to escort Lowell down from his office to the party. It was kinda like walking a rock star through the crowd.”
Kiesel moved the company to Nebraska briefly but was back on the West Coast by 1949, this time as Carvin, a name made by combining the names of his sons Carson and Gavin. The company left Covina for Escondido in 1968 and moved to its present location in Rancho Bernardo in 1995. In addition to manufacturing a full line of guitars, bass guitars, amplifiers, and PA gear, Carvin pioneered the concept of factory-direct marketing of guitars and amplifiers.
Of the brand’s widespread influence, this post on a message board at seymourduncan.com perhaps says it best: “I think we’ve all had, or have, some Carvin stuff at some point.” Joe Walsh, Steve Vai, Alex Lifeson, Allan Holdsworth, and Willie Nelson are just a few of the stars who have used Carvin gear or who have helped create signature equipment within the Carvin product line.
“He represents,” says Roach, “an era in our country that will never return.”