© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited. Hybrid spin–mechanical systems provide a platform for integrating quantum registers and transducers. Efficient creation and control of such systems require a comprehensive understanding of the individual spin and mechanical components as well as their mutual interactions. Point defects in silicon carbide (SiC) offer long-lived, optically addressable spin registers in a wafer-scale material with low acoustic losses, making them natural candidates for integration with high-quality-factor mechanical resonators. Here, we show Gaussian focusing of a surface acoustic wave in SiC, characterized using a stroboscopic X-ray diffraction imaging technique, which delivers direct, strain amplitude information at nanoscale spatial resolution. Using ab initio calculations, we provide a more complete picture of spin–strain coupling for various defects in SiC with C 3v symmetry. This reveals the importance of shear strain for future device engineering and enhanced spin–mechanical coupling. We demonstrate all-optical detection of acoustic paramagnetic resonance without microwave magnetic fields, relevant for sensing applications. Finally, we show mechanically driven Autler–Townes splittings and magnetically forbidden Rabi oscillations. These results offer a basis for full strain control of three-level spin systems.