I got my first Carvin guitar in 1999. Over time, I’ve sold all of my other guitars and basses and now play their instruments exclusively (though the Carvin guitar brand was rebranded as Kiesel last year). Kiesel tends to incorporate new features in nearly as fast a timeframe as, for example, Apple updates iOS hardware. When that happens, I sell whatever instrument I had, which just became obsolete, in my mind, and upgrade to the latest and greatest, as soon as I can afford it. This year’s new feature combination was something that I’ve been waiting for, for most of my guitar-playing life: Kiesel’s first instrument that is both headless and multiscale. I ordered one as soon as they allowed customers to do so.
I’ve owned a headless guitar before, and I’ve owned a multiscale guitar before, but like Kiesel, I never had both of these features in the same instrument. If I can help it, I’ll never buy an electric stringed instrument that doesn’t have these features, again. I don’t consider them alternatives to headstocks or single-scales; they’re just better designs that humans hadn’t figured out how to mass-produce until recently.
As with new iOS devices, the latest Kiesel guitars are always the best instruments to ever have existed for the job, and are expensive, but, due to unique value, not exorbitant. (This one came in at $1,925.) You can find a bunch of other reviews about the touchy-feely reasons for why Kiesels play well, or look and sound good, so I don’t need to cover that. I’ll show the instrument to you, but then get to its technical aspects which, while as good as it gets right now, aren’t as good as they could be. I’m always interested in upgrading to an improved model; I have no interest in using old technology for nostalgic reasons.
The neck is three pieces of walnut and two pieces of maple, and the body wings are swamp ash (with Kiesel’s “Antique Ash Treament”). The finish is Satin Matte, Translucent Moss Green, with custom “Teal Burst” edges (that didn’t turn out looking teal, but a green that I’m fond of nonetheless). The look isn’t exactly what I expected, but it’s got a woodsy/nature vibe which is kind of refreshing, considering I only ever play indoors. It helps stave off cabin fever, slightly.
…But when the lights go off, it’s an alien spaceship!
Along with Dunlop Straploks, stainless steel jumbo fretwire is a hardware option I always get. The hard material is for lessening wear, given that I use stainless steel strings (though I’m currently using Kalium’s hybrid strings because I can’t find a pure stainless steel one that can function as the 8th string).
The jumbo size choice is because Kiesel doesn’t offer scalloped fingerboards. For a player who bends strings, which I do enough for it to matter, fingerboards just get in the way; you either need a scalloped fingerboard or very tall frets in order to be able to dig into the meedley mee strings optimally. As they did with the headstock, hopefully Kiesel figures out a way to get rid of the fingerboard soon. Until then, I’d like even taller frets.
At 26 inches, even the VM8’s high string’s scale is long, for a guitar. There’s room for more than 24 frets even with the jumbo wire. Switch to sharper frets, and we can have better intonation and even more frets. I’d take moving the neck pickup halfway to the bridge if I could have another octave’s worth of notes.
Kiesel offers a choice of scale on some of their instruments. When they offer a longer multiscale Vader, I’ll be switching. I owned two other 27-inch single-scales Carvins. Starting there and going down closer to 30″ is a better match, for me, than going shorter on top (especially if more than 24 frets are involved).
Headlessness and Muters
Although tuning pegs and the massive headstocks needed to mount them are obsolete, string muters are not. There needs to be more room for them on future Vader iterations. I named the one I use “The Bugger” (short for “board hugger”), which is an invention of Catie’s and mine which works better than anything else as a string muter, and can be tightened down to function as an equally effective capo. It’s a sort of artificial finger, using heat-formed acrylic for bone simulation, sorbothane for flesh, and nylon for skin. I hope that somebody makes a commercial product like this in the future; FretWraps are unfortunately the closest. They’re abysmal by comparison as muters, don’t function as capos, and cost too much.
The bugger fits on the Vader, but precariously: it’s not far enough away from the open position fretting hand. I’ve just been removing it entirely when not in use. It’s nowhere near as tedious to get on and off as with a beheadstocked instrument, but I miss the optimal usability of sliding the bugger over the nut, and having it be stopped by the headstock widening. (I’m still using that technique with my Carvin XB76 bass, which I’ll be playing until Kiesel makes a headless multiscale 6- or 7-string bass).
The stock pickups are not worse than any of the countless aftermarket pickups I’ve installed over the past two decades. But unfortunately, every single non-neodymium pickup on the market is made for luddite buyers enamored with obsolete technology; Kiesel’s are no different.
Neodymium pickups exist, and they can reproduce high frequencies, and have reasonable signal-to-noise ratio, unlike alnico and ceramic pickups. (They can also exhibit a lot of string pull, but that’s your job to mitigate before I buy your pickups.) Kiesel’s pickups are noisy and dull, the same as EMGs, Duncans, Bare Knuckles, Dimarzios, and every other non-neodymium-using manufacturer’s. They don’t have to be.
I had Q-tuners in a 7-string guitar and 6-string bass in the late 00’s. They sounded great. From what I can tell, the “Q 2.0” that is available now isn’t as sonically flat as what I had, and it won’t fit in a multiscale Kiesel. Cycfi is the only Q-tuner’s competitor I’ve found. I think their products should be standard options on all Kiesel instruments, but there’s no way I’m personally dealing with that company ever again.
I was really excited to get Cycfis and started down the road to acquiring them around the turn of 2016. Are you familiar with “doesn’t read the whole email” syndrome? That’s what I experienced with Cycfi’s inventor. I wasted many hours collaborating with him via email (which is a bad medium for this, but he wasn’t willing to join Quip, Slack, or anything else more appropriate), being assured of how great the electronics were going to be, only to realize, after the Vader arrived, three months later, that he hadn’t ever actually looked at what the pickups were supposed to go into. He’s got the world’s best-sounding pickups, but there’s no way to get them in a multiscale Vader.
I want to pay Kiesel (whose representatives have social competence) to either deal with that for me, or make a better product, if possible. The Vader looks and plays like something appropriate for 2016 but its pickup technology is old, sounds old, and makes me want to be old. Specifically, old enough that I’m dead, so that I no longer have the ability to feel let down by it.
I wired up the guitar to have a balanced signal, using a TRS jack. The noise rejection this brings would be more important if the pickups didn’t have the standard low signal-to-noise ratio that we’ve come to expect of electric guitars, but when neodymium replacements come around, I’ll be ready! Regardless, all guitars ought to come standard with balanced wiring. It would help move the industry forward.
I’d really like to not have any physical controls on the guitar itself, but that hasn’t become practical yet.
The most important thing for me is to have control of which coils contribute to the signal coming into my DAW (usually Logic, sometimes MainStage). There are two humbuckers, and so, four coils total, on the Vader. If I were to to use four channels, then I could have all sorts of capabilities like nondestructive blending and phase control. But I’m not going to plug that many cables into my guitar.
My current solution involves using a three-way blade switch to select between neck and bridge pickups: standard stuff. But in addition to that, I installed two other three-way toggles, to effectively do the same thing, per-humbucker, treating each coil as a pickup. As you can see above, that comprises all of my controls. Master volume and tone are things for which I use DAW automation or my SoftStep. Ultimately, I have no ability to affect phase or volume blend between coils, but at least I have access to all fifteen on/off combinations of coils. I just run the selected coils in parallel; I find series wiring to be useful, but not so useful that I’d have more holes drilled. Instead, I just use EQ to emulate the effects of series wiring.
Aside from only five of the fifteen coil combinations being hum-cancelling (which would be solved by using Cycfis), this scheme is more useful than what came stock. I like designing wiring schemes but hate actually doing the wiring, so it’d be nice if Kiesel offered custom wiring from the factory as an option, but this is the least of my issues with the instrument. I’m mostly just letting you know why I have switches instead of knobs.
My Next Kiesel
Supposedly, Kiesel has a multiscale bass in the works. I play bass as much as I play guitar; as an exclusively extended range player who tunes in all fourths, they’re all pretty much the same instrument to me, albeit with different ranges. If it’s headless, I’ll be picking one up ASAP. Ideally, it’s going to be at least as long on the low string as Dingwall‘s 37 inches. I’d like even longer, especially if Kiesel can make us a 7-string with a low F#. Hopefully it incorporates some of the other improvements I went into above, but if it’s just a bass version of this first multiscale Vader incarnation, it’d still be the best bass out there.