Kiesel Guitars – the new incarnation of Carvin, a company with a long history – has established itself as the place to go for custom guitars in the last few years. That’s always been Carvin’s speciality, but since Jeff Kiesel took over management of the company a few years ago, a whole bunch of new models have been introduced, like the headless Vader. I fell in love with this design after playing a few different Vaders at NAMM this year, so this review is of my personal Vader. Being a custom guitar company, you can order all sorts of specific features and even supply your own pickups from any brand.
Let’s run through the basic specs first. This is a neck-through seven-string guitar with a 25-inch scale. You can also choose a 27-inch baritone scale or multiscale in six-, seven- or eight‑string models. In my case, the neck is made of five‑piece black and white limba, with a zebrawood fingerboard and no inlays. The body wings are made of alder, a wood I particularly like the midrange response of, and the top is flamed maple. This guitar has two humbucker pickups, although you can specify different pickup configurations, and the electronics consist of a Master Volume control, Master Tone control and five-way Pickup Selector switch.
Every element of this guitar was selected for a particular reason related to synesthesia, a condition where a sensory input will set off other sensory resonances – for instance, the number two is blue to me, three is a sort of rusty brown, four is red, and so on. I selected the specs and colours based on specific emotions I wanted this guitar to evoke. The Aqua Burst finish reminds me of a shade of blue I often see in my dreams; I selected zebrawood because I like the balance of colours and the whole idea of ‘light and dark’ in one playing surface. I always feel like I play more ‘sunny’ on maple and more ‘dark’ on rosewood, so this is a way to bring balance to the force, if you will. I went for an oiled finish on the back of the neck, instead of satin or gloss, because I wanted to be reminded that the guitar used to be a bunch of trees. The body has a satin finish but the back is unpainted, because I love how alder looks in its natural state, and I like how the natural-coloured bevelling looks against the Aqua Burst finish. The bridge is a Hipshot/Kiesel unit capable of very Floyd Rose-like operation: divebombs, three semitones of backpull and that cool ‘flutter’ effect when you hit the bar and let it bounce back.
The pickups are a set of Seymour Duncan Magnetars, a model the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop makes for me. The bridge pickup has an Alnico 8 magnet on deck – which is hotter than Alnico 5 but not as harsh as Ceramic – and a DC resistance of 13.89k, which puts it just a little below the Pegasus. In other words, think ‘hot PAF’ output instead of ‘high output.’ The neck pickup has an Alnico 5 magnet and measures 9.30k, a hair hotter than the Sentient neck pickup.
So what’s it like playing a full-sized guitar that’s less than a metre long thanks to a shorter body and lack of a headstock? Funnily enough, it feels pretty damn natural. You will immediately notice how light it is, which seems to help the resonance. You will notice that you have to be careful not to rest it on your thigh because you can nudge the tuners, but that’s what straps are for. But mostly, you’ll notice the insane resonance of these little neck-through beasts.
The sustain on this guitar is even greater than my non-chambered Les Paul, which is one of those extremely bite-heavy guitars. It’s a very nuanced guitar with great faithfulness to your left-hand phrasing. The neck is very comfortable and the fretwork is great – in fact, there isn’t so much as a blemish or wonky spot anywhere. Sonically, the Magnetar is a very percussive bridge pickup with a bit of an early Van Halen feel to it, crossed with maybe a DiMarzio Evolution minus the harshness, and with great harmonics in the midrange.
In single coil mode, it’s snappy and a little Telecaster-like. The neck pickup, on the other hand, splits into authentic Strat-esque sounds with absolute ease, and I actually find myself using this mode a lot more than I usually would on other guitars. It’s very earthy and a little gritty, just like a good ‘60s Strat neck pickup. In humbucker mode, it feels more like a PAF Pro or a Duncan ’59, but with more output and high-end, and really sparkling harmonics that wouldn’t feel out of place in a bridge pickup. And the middle ‘out of phase’ setting might not be for everyone, but it’s very useful for coaxing extra textures out of overdubs when recording.
The bottom line
Since this is a custom guitar, you can pick pretty much any option you want, including wood type, pickups, fixed or floating bridge, stainless steel frets and super deluxe ‘Kiesel Edition’ finishes – hell, you can even supply your own top wood if you have sourced a piece you love from elsewhere.