Kit Review: Carvin Guitar Kit GK1T Stratocaster-Style

| August 4, 2011 | 1 Comment

In this article I’ll be reviewing the Carvin guitar kit GK1T. Many players reach a point at which they want to have a deeper relationship with their instrument – some way to understand the guitar better and to make it fulfill their needs as a player. One of the ways in which a player can achieve such goals is to build his own guitar; unfortunately the skills and tools needed to do so are prohibitive for most guitarists. The next best thing is to work from a kit where a good deal of the challenge of building a guitar from scratch is bypassed, but there is still plenty of room for customization. Even compared to five years ago, today there are a plethora of kits available, but some of the best are the Carvin guitar kits.

carvin guitar kitThe Carving guitar kit GK1T is based on the familiar Stratocaster formula, and uses the same exact components as Carvin’s Bolt-T guitar. “Bolt-T” designates it as Carvin’s Bolt model with the “-T” indicating that it includes a Wilkinson tremolo. The Wilkinson tremolo stays in perfect tune, doesn’t require a wrench to change strings, and is a great addition to this guitar. The GK1T kit sells for $449 at Carvin’s sale price, and for comparison, the assembled Bolt-T guitar is $799 at Carvin’s sale price.

A great thing about the Carvin kit is that you can customize such options as a tapped humbucker instead of an S-S-S (three single-coil pickup configuration. Other options abound, such as headstock layout (six inline or three by three tuners), inlays, and pickguard color. Fret size and fretboard radius are also key elements of producing a guitar that fits the player’s need, and Carvin offers choices in both.

Carvin GK1T Instruction Example (Click to Enlarge)

For my kit, I chose the humbucker option, the 3×3 headstock, mother of pearl block inlays, and 12” radius. With the basic body wood of alder and neck of maple (with ebony fingerboard), I reasoned that the guitar would offer me the best of both worlds: the snappiness of a Fender with the fingerboard feel of a Gibson. Other neck and body wood options are available. I also opted for the Wilkinson vibrato over the hardtail bridge.

The kit took a few weeks to arrive. In fact, I had to call Carvin to inquire about its status once the usual delivery time was exceeded. Nevertheless, customer service was very helpful and I received my kit shortly afterward. Upon unpacking the kit, I was deeply impressed with the materials. The alder had a substantial weight, but not too heavy. The neck was beautifully constructed with a jet-black ebony board, precisely inlaid pearl blocks, and superb fretwork. The materials and workmanship easily exceeded that found on guitars for which one might pay four or five times more than the cost of the kit. The fit of the neck into its pocket was perfect: snug, but it did not need to be forced. The pocket was tight enough that the neck would stay in place without falling out.

The hardware was top notch as well. The Sperzel locking tuners and Wilkinson vibrato were both finished in a frosted chrome. The Wilkinson felt hefty in hand, just as one wants a vibrato to be so that the bridge compensates in mass with what it loses by not being directly anchored to the body as a tune-o-matic is. The pickguard was pre-loaded with Carvin’s own pickups and the only wiring needed to complete the guitar was to attach wires from the ground and output jack. Carvin makes this easy for those who would prefer not to solder by supplying small wire nuts for the task.

Putting the guitar together is as simple as using a screwdriver. Unlike some other kits, all holes are drilled and the pieces line up perfectly. The biggest challenge for many kit builders will be the finish. Carvin suggests tung oil, since it is easy to apply and the success rate for beginners is high. I used the oil on the neck and loved the silkiness it provided. I could very easily see why customers often request oil rather than lacquer on the necks of luthier-built guitars. I used tung oil on the body, too, but must admit that I did not find it as pleasing there. For one thing, alder simply does not have the natural beauty that maple does, even if the maple is not figured. For another, the tung oil offers no resistance to dents or scratches on the body. Some players would no doubt prefer this easily “reliced” nature of the finish, but I like a guitar that can show some resistance to wear and tear.

My solution was to sand off the tung oil and go with paint. I’ve always loved classic Fender colors, so I opted for Daphne Blue. This color, along with other custom Gibson and Fender colors, is available in spray can form from ReRanch Guitar Finishing, which also offers some useful advice for first time finishers. Once I applied a primer and several coats of the blue, I finished with a coat of clear lacquer, again from a spray can, but this time procured from Nitrocellulose lacquer needs a few weeks to cure before it can be sanded and buffed, so I had a short wait before I could complete the project. A few weeks later the finish was ready to go and I could finally get to the fun part of bolting the guitar together, installing strings, and giving it a try.

The sound? Bright and resonant, just as one would expect from a longer string scale length and with woods like alder, maple, and ebony. This brings me to the only caveat I have about the Carvin kit. Carvin pickups have a reputation for being somewhat sterile sounding, and I found that to be true as well, both for the single coils and the humbucker. Certainly, they produce a clear tone and don’t at all sound like cheap pickups, but they don’t have the midrange response that many people, including myself, prefer.

Since I wasn’t crazy about the Carvin pickups, I decided that I would take the guitar in another direction. I had an EMG 81 active humbucker pickup I hadn’t been using and decided to build a superstrat of sorts – something missing from my collection. I couldn’t use the S-S-H (single-coil, single-coil, humbucker) Carvin pickguard since I decided this superstrat needed only a bridge pickup, so I began to look around for a strat-style pickguard cut for only a bridge humbucker, which proved surprisingly difficult. Finally I stumbled upon, which is run by WD Music Products. Any pickguard one could possibly need is available there. Within a few days I had my pickup installed on my new pickguard, and I’ve had a blast playing the guitar ever since.

Clearly, the one-EMG-pickup-Daphne Blue-with-Les Paul-Custom-inlay guitar I built wouldn’t be for everyone. But of course that is the point: I made a one-of-a-kind guitar that find my needs as a player. I can’t recommend the Carvin kit highly enough for anyone who, like me, wants a top quality guitar that plays and sounds great and offers the opportunity for understanding the construction and finish of guitars better. Even with the paint, pickguard, and pickup as additional costs, I had a guitar that far exceeded comparable instruments at the same price point.

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Category: Electric Guitar Kits

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  1. avatar Christopher Lee Burnett says:

    As you said, I wouldn’t go for a single active bridge humbucker personally, but I have to admit that you put together a gorgeous guitar.

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