September 2004

Carvin Allan Holdsworth HF2 Fatboy Guitar

In that brief interval following World War II and just preceding the introduction of the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul, the electric guitar was essentially an archtop acoustic instrument: carved from solid tone woods, retrofitted with magnetic pickups and plugged into low-powered tube amplifiers. Proceeding from the popular L-5 design of the 1920s, the archtop guitar evolved as a rhythm instrument, with a bass-bar style of internal bracing, its acoustic qualities augmented for maximum attack and projection-the better to chunka-chunk its way through a big band.

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Carvin Allan Holdsworth HF2 Fatboy Guitar

However, the complex acoustic characteristics of carved spruce tops and maple backs didn't necessarily translate through the pickups, cables and amps in use at that time. In fact, when you pushed the instrument a little harder to project over a drummer, all those lovely overtones and timbral resonances could generate feedback. And God forbid that during the carving process the luthier tap-tuned the spruce top to a specific note. The player might find himself alighting upon a low D on the 10th fret of the sixth string only to have his whole rig howl like a hound in heat.

The leading jazz players of the day encouraged makers to construct guitars out of multi-ply laminates-to preserve the sonic signature of an acoustic chamber and minimize the effect of a vibrating top and a reflective back, thus focusing the relationship between string vibrations and magnetic pickups. The subsequent popularity of electric-acoustic boxes such as the Gibson ES-175 proved enduring; and with the introduction of the thin-body ES-335 (with its acoustic wings and solid maple center block) the age of the semiacoustic electric was upon us. And it is from this lineage that electric guitar innovator Allan Holdsworth's new semiacoustic signature model descends.

With its vaguely Telecaster-like contours and rounded edges, this light, compact and comfortable guitar has a nicely balanced look and feel. It sports a 25 1/2-inch scale, 24-fret, set-in maple neck with an ebony fingerboard featuring a 20-inch radius. I was rather surprised by the chunky, rounded, old-school profile of the neck, with its small headstock and high quality Sperzel locking tuners (the tuning pegs for the E and A strings sit opposite the remaining four, which took some getting used to). Still, the Fatboy's neck was comfortable, though the articulation and tuning stability would've been worlds better had the HF2 been outfitted with something other than a stock set of .009-.042 strings (which didn't intonate worth a damn). Even before I slapped on a set of .011-.048 strings, one could plainly discern how much the neck contributed to the instrument's biting percussive chunk-working symbiotically with the Fatboy's 2 3/8-inch deep, chambered semiacoustic body. The slightly arched top and back of the standard HF2 are fashioned from white birch, while the rounded sides and floating twin beams that form the guitar's semiacoustic internal frame are fashioned from alder (thus allowing the top and back to resonate freely, according to Carvin).

My sample featured an optional flame-maple top in a suave dark-cherry sunburst with a matching flame-maple headstock and gold-plated hardware. The maple top added a definite touch of brilliance to the HF2's acoustic response, a tonal signature that was accentuated by an equally brilliant pair of humbuckers with a hot, richly detailed output-which lent an appealing acoustic-electric sparkle to the Fatboy's jazzy percussive character. Straightaway, it reminded me of a more focused, controllable, slightly souped-up version of a Gibson ES-330 thin-body acoustic. The guitar speaks quickly with a sweet, snappy response and a lean, penetrating attack that made for a very believable amplified jazz sound (a little on the bright side, but not brutally so). String bends and legato effects were easy to execute, long jazz lines had a fluid sound and feel and the leading edge of transients held together pretty convincingly even when pushed to distortion-within reason: this guitar is not optimized for a cranked, long-sustaining sound. I found that I could articulate a popping right-handed picking attack, and that the acoustic box sound remained taut and coherent even when I employed fairly high gain.

Carvin is a mail-order outfit, but the company offers customers a trial period of 10 days. If not satisfied, you can return it for a full credit or refund (minus the freight costs). As such, given Carvin's host of set-up, hardware and finish options, this unique sounding guitar is definitely worth a serious audition.

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