It All Started With a Dream…
Born in 1915, young Midwest-based musician Lowell Kiesel found his calling in the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. At the age of 15, Kiesel had his first brush with building guitars in his high school woodshop class. Later as a young adult balancing farm work and practicing guitar, he eventually pursued music in Wichita, Kansas. Kiesel continued to craft personal instruments as well as his own pickups, bringing a one-of-a-kind sound to his playing. He decided to commit to a musical career full-time and leave Nebraska. So, in 1936, Kiesel relocated to Los Angeles, where he would meet his life-long partner, Agnes Dorothea Jorgensen, and aid in the World War II effort by building fighter planes. After marrying Jorgensen, Kiesel decided to share his product and founded the L.C. Kiesel Company in 1946. The company started out making pickups sold through dealers but would eventually offer an assortment of instruments.
Lowell Kiesel’s wife, Agnes, tremendously helped at the start of the business. Not only did she use her sewing machine to wind the pickups, but she also handled a few business aspects, modeled for product photos, and assisted in the creation of the annual catalog. “She was a very capable person… She had a good knack to do it,” Lowell Kiesel said in a 2003 interview with NAMM. After four years of business, the Kiesels realized that selling through third parties hurt both the company and the consumer due to the upcharge set by the dealers. So, due to contractual ties to these parties, the L.C. Kiesel Company closed and Carvin was formed.
A New Start
Without selling restrictions, the same company under a different name could further operate. The product line expanded into instruments of all sorts including double and triple-neck lap steel guitars, electric mandolins, and an electric guitar. The direct-to-order business model was established with the introduction of the first full-sized catalog in 1954; Kiesel Guitars still holds this concept at its core via the internet and phone.
The Age of the Lap Steel
Though the L.C. Company offered a handful of Hawaiian lap steel guitars, newly-rebranded Carvin sold a wider selection. The line saw high-end upgrades such as sculpted bodies and ornate inlays. The instruments ranged from $28.90 to the fully-loaded quad-neck guitars at $219.00. The Hawaiian lap steel stole the scene until the mid-60 until they were finally phased out in the 70s in favor of the modern electric guitar.
As Carvin neared its 25th anniversary, there was a drastic change in the guitar shop. Lowell and Agnes Kiesel’s son Mark Kiesel, a 20-year old draftsman, learned of the planned closure of the guitar and bass division at Carvin. Adamant to save instrument production, Mark Kiesel left his job and took over the department. Under his leadership, guitar production and design kept up with the preferences of the 70s; the demand for the electric guitar soared to an all-time high, leaving no place for the Hawaiian lap steel at Carvin. So, the instrument that had defined the manufacturer for decades slowly fell from the limelight.
Whereas the 70s was a turning point for Carvin instruments, the 80s were a progressive overhaul. The iconic Ultra V and V220, which are still available to this day, saw their introduction, famously used by Jefferson Starship’s Craig Chaquico. At the beginning of the decade, only a mere three models were available compared to the 11 offered by 1989. Not only was there a plethora of models to choose from, more color options, electronics, and hardware, just to name a few, were now available. Noticeable features that stand to this day include neck-through constructions and premium ebony fingerboards.
Introducing the Custom Shop
Not only did the 90s bring forth models that directly inspired the guitars made by Kiesel today, but it also introduced the notable custom shop. Players could now customize their guitars into thousands of combinations including but not limited to color, woods, and hardware. Perhaps the most popular model of the decade, the AE185 emerged and remains in the Kiesel line-up to this day. In 1996, Carvin would go on to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Carvin guitars continued their upward trend seen since the 70s. The popular CT and CS, which are still in production, saw critical acclaim with their unique spin on classic styles. Throughout the decade, a solid stream of guitar and bass models would come and go but it wasn’t until 2013 that Carvin instruments saw a massive reinvigoration. Jeff Kiesel, Mark’s son, took an interest in production and design, and shortly after released the PB and JB basses. Notable guitars from the time period include the SCB, DC600 series, Allan Holdsworth’s HH2, and Jason Becker’s JB200. Sadly, matriarch Agnes Kiesel would pass away on October 26th, 2007, and her husband Lowell Kiesel followed two years later on December 28th, 2009.
Back to Kiesel
Come 2015, internationally recognized Carvin Guitars evolved into its own entity separated from any other production facility, reverting to the Kiesel name in the process. Now established exclusively as an instrument manufacturer, Kiesel Guitars immediately released some of their most popular models of recent times including the Aries and Vader. Just a few of today’s guitars to see critical acclaim include the Zeus, Type-X, and the Delos. The manufacturer continues to push the limits of what standard, high-quality materials and premium, customized instruments look like.
From Place to Place
The L.C. Kiesel Company was first formed in Los Angeles, California in 1946. The business briefly relocated to Gothenburg, Nebraska, but the cold weather proved to be undesirable for the Kiesels. Moving back to California about a year later, Carvin instruments would never leave the state again but would move around from location to location in the southern region. Just a few of the relocations include Covina, Baldwin Park, Escondido, and San Diego. After nearly 20 years in San Diego, Kiesel Guitars moved to Escondido in 2017 and remains there to this day where every Kiesel instrument is built.
We’re mighty happy to send you this material and know that you will immediately recognize [KIESEL] as products of out-standing beauty and quality
-Agnes Kiesel (excerpt from the 1954 catalog)