Luthier Steve Gilchrist was born in 1955 in Warrnambool, a town in the state of Victoria in the Southeastern part of Australia. His first mandolin memories come from just looking at and holding his brother's old bowl back mandolin. Later on while attending art school and building surfboards, his interest in mandolins surfaced again and he began drawing plans from magazines and album covers of Bill Monroe as there were no actual F-5's available to him for study. Using Monroe's fingers as a scale reference he actually drew plans, built molds, and constructed his first instruments.
At 21 he moved to the state capital of Melbourne where he continued to build instruments, but more importantly, he began getting a lot of work repairing instruments. This, of course, gave him access to original instruments and the quality of his work began a rapid improvement.
In 1978 Steve returned to Warrnambool where he established Gilchrist Mandolins and Guitars. The following year he traveled to the U.S. to gain better access to wood and materials for his work, and to find and study more original instruments.
During his visit he became friends with reknowned vintage expert George Gruhn. At Gruhn Guitars he studied and researched dozens of classic vintage instruments and met many talented musicians that, in turn, inspired a new level of motivation and development in his work. It was during this time that he met his longtime friend David Grisman, who as Steve says," then and now, has encouraged and inspired me every step of the way."
After this intense sojourn to the U.S., Steve returned to Warrnambool to set up a new workshop. He worked diligently filling the orders that had been generated from his exposure in Nashville. Throughout the 80's he continued to supply instruments to Gruhn Guitars as well as taking direct orders from customers around the world.
In 1992, through an association with David Grisman and Dexter Johnson, Carmel Music Co. became the exclusive U.S. distributor of Gilchrist guitars and mandolins. Over the years we have had the pleasure of working with a great number of wonderful and talented musicians including David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Compton, Aubrie Haynie, Ricky Skaggs, Buck White, Tom Rozum, Matt Flinner, Andy Statman, Jerry Garcia, Tommy Comeaux, Butch Baldassari and members of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, G.E. Smith, Evan Marshall, and many more.
Steve lists his main influences as, "Lloyd Loar and all the engineers and craftsmen at "The Gibson" plant between 1910 and 1925."
Q - A couple, or maybe more, years back you reduced the number of models you are
willing to build. Is that a permanent decision, or do you expect you will do
custom orders for different styles in the future? Do you only build to order
at this point or do you also build for dealer sale?
A - Since 1992, my instruments have been distributed in the U.S. exclusively through Carmel Music Co. About 8 years ago I began offering a number of style options. These were largely cosmetic options and while fun to design and build, they became an increasingly larger proportion of my yearly output. Nothing wrong with that, but as it increased, it began to absorb time from my preferred hardcore activity of building my standard Model 5. A couple of years ago I discontinued those style options then stopped taking orders altogether so I could work through the mountain of orders taken through Carmel and concentrate on further developing my Model 5.
Once all those orders are delivered I will be building batches of mostly Model 5's and offering them directly to folks on my "non-deposit" want file. From time to time there may be a "classical", "artist", "model 4", mod.5 mandola, etc., available, but I will be focusing on the Mod.5. For me, that's where the art and the challenge is and has always been.
Q - Have you done any experimenting with the native Australian woods in building
mandolins, or do you pretty well stick to what we Yanks consider the
'traditional' woods, spruce and maple?
A - I have experimented in the past, but the local species have a different tonal response to the harder timbers. Any timber, of course, if carved correctly can produce a good sounding instrument, but specific species have their own qualities that lend themselves to different musical applications.
Q - Steve, I don't know if we heard from you on the subject of the Virzi tone
producer at the Mando Builder's Super Summit. Do you have any opinions,
experience on the Virzi that you would care to offer?
A - I have played and studied a number of instruments with the device but wasn't impressed with the individual instruments enough to be inspired to experiment with the virzi concept. The instruments that inspire me to get up in the morning and run to the work bench are a couple of 1922 F-5's that are remarkably similar with consecutive numbers, both non-virzi. It would be an interesting direct comparison if one was installed with the devise. Perhaps one day while the owner is out to lunch?
Q - Have you ever worked with any alternative materials for a mandolin?
Particularly composites, such as carbon fiber / epoxy laminates.
A - No, I'm a Luddite. I like great wood, real shell for inlaying and glue that you can eat when times get tough. Ahh...actually I do use graphite to reinforce the back of my pickguards, but I guess that doesn't count :)
I guess my fellow countryman Greg Smallman pioneered the use of carbon fibre for the lattice tops of his guitars. I haven't seen instruments by mandolin makers that use it.
Q - I'm very interested in hearing you comment about the evolution in your
product and art as a luthier. What structurally are you doing differently in
constructing a mandolin now compared to ten and twenty years ago?
Techniques in construction that you have changed? How would you compare the
materials (wood) that you now have access to compared to ten and twenty ago?
Has the sound of the mandolins you produce evolved or has it remained more
A - Cosmetically and acoustically they are more consistent and more refined as new instruments. What happens over time as instruments dry out and play-in is the invisible magical ingredient in luthery. More than 20 years ago I developed the X bracing pattern to produce a more supple soundboard and therefore more bass response. The use of red maple and european spruce complimented that sound very well. Ronnie McCoury's mandolin is a good example of that combination.
More recently I've been developing my ability to understand and carve the harder wood of red spruce and rock maple with // bracing. These timbers offer another range of frequencies that for me hold the key to what I'm trying to achieve tonally now. Mike Compton's more recent // braced model is a good example of this. I must also add that I'm playing the instrument a lot more these days and find that this is a great asset to my building.
Q - Steve thanks for being a guest. What are feeling on the rising prices, of
mandolins. There has been a lot of discussion on Co-mando about instrument
value etc. Do think there is dot com type bubble developing in the mando
world or do you think there is no where to go but up?
A - The price of instruments, contemporary and vintage, is obviously controlled by supply and demand. The recent spurt in the vintage prices probably has a trickle down effect on the current makers, and in context to the violin trade, is neither unreasonable nor unexpected.
For my work, I see it as two markets at work. The fixed market of prices that I committed to years ago when I took the orders, and the open resale market that has nothing to do with me and is out of my control. It is a little disconcerting however that instruments that I deliver can be resold the next day for 3-4 times what I'm receiving, but that's the way of the market and I'm not complaining.
My market has always been mostly bluegrass which was very steady and consistent. The current "bubble" is a bit like what happened to the arch-top guitar a few years ago when it broke out of it's natural "demographic" into popular culture. It went crazy for a while until people satisfied their lust then things settled down again. I think the same thing will happen with its little brother, that is, demand may subside but the relative value of the instruments will be reflected in their intrinsic quality. Hell, what do I know...I'm just a woodbutcher trying to make everyone else wealthy!
Q - I've followed your progress since the early DGQ days when Darol Anger ordered
an octave mandolin, if memory serves me right. I would like to congratulate
you on not only building fine instruments, but also for your work ethic.
You've built over 500 instruments, that is quite a legacy! Clearly you work hard to build so many instruments. I was also surprised to see & hear you pick some Monroe style mandolin, you're quite a fine picker too. So when do you find time to pick?
Do you take mando breaks during the day? Do you plan on continuing to have the output of instruments you've produced in the past? I'm lucky to have a few Gilchrists and your mando creations have certainly inspired my playing. I understand there is going to be a book on your work, well deserved!
A - It's one thing to follow your passion, it's another to have your peers value that work. I am grateful to all my customers for allowing me to indulge myself in building mandolins.
I certainly plan to keep producing mandolins with even greater passion in the future. I'm 48 this week and looking forward to another 30 years of productivity. My inspiration is Strad whose golden period was when he was over 60yr old.
As I mentioned in the last post, playing the instrument is increasingly very important to me. Not only is it fun, but it helps me find the limitations of my work and where to expand them, plus gives me a greater appreciation of the talent of my customers and their perspective of the instrument. I play recordings of Monroe and my customers constantly while I work and punctuate my work pattern with learning a tune, phrase, or rhythm pattern through the day. I love Monroe and his powerful attitude to the music, his uniquely mandolin style. I'm inspired to build mandolins like he played them.
Q - Have you ever been tempted to experiment with shapes beyond the Gibson F & A
(a la Monteleone, Rigel)?
A - No, not just for style sake. I did remodel my "A" body to make it more suitable for the 15 fret neck, but that's a functional choice. I love John's Grand Artist. It's elegant and a great contribution to the instrument.
Q - I recently got to play an 81 Gilchrist with a reddish finish and a vine inlay
in the fretboard. It was a crusher--loud and with wonderful tone. How many
did you make with the vine inlay on the neck?
What's your take on the tone bar bracing versus X bracing these days? Were all of your early mandolins X braced or did you build both from the start?
A - That's the only vine I've build apart for an ala early Gibson vine a few years ago. X allows for a more supple top (more bass), // a stiffer top (more mids). The difference between the two is more noticeable with the softer spruces, not as noticeable with red. My first mod.5's were // until I moved to Gruhn's where I began experimenting with variations of the X. Its immediate gratification resulted in a lot of demand for that sound. It's in the last 5 years or so that I've had the space to revisit the // and work on understanding its contribution to tone.
Q - I am fortunate to have a Model 3 and Model 5 built for me when the waiting
list was only 18 months. I did things kind of backwards, the M3 has parallel
bars and the M5 has X-bracing. Your catalogue that was available at the time
mentioned you were successful with the X-bracing and used this as your
standard bracing. Can you explain in more detail about this preference and
how you chose this standard? Since you are reducing the number of styles you
are building, will you continue offering both types of bracing in those
models? What type of bracing have you put in Mike Comptons mandolins, and
Ronnie McCoury and other well known musicians? And since you are not taking
orders at this time, when do you anticipate opening your list up again, I
need a Model 5 Cremona with parallel bars? I have to admit though that my
third Gilchrist, the Model 2, is as loud as the other styles and has the most
beautiful tone of any A2 style mandolin I have owned or heard.
A - The previous answer should have answered most of your question. Likewise, I will continue to build X & // with different wood combinations for the tonal variations they offer.
That's right, oval hole mandolins can be just as loud as F-hole models, it's just the frequencies of the "F" allow for greater projection and less tonal overlap with other loud instruments, ie., bluegrass ensemble.
Q - Sharon Gilchrist, a distant cousin of yours (?), plays a reddish, vine board
inlay F5 loar copy you made years ago, can you tell us about the original?
Rob in Durango also has a similar one from 1981. How many did you make? Both
are atop the sonic food chain, imo.
A - From my memory and without looking up all my records, I've only made 4 vine f/board mandolins. #145 in 1984 (tobacco), #212 in 1991 (red mahog.), #360 in 1997 (blonde artist), #384 in 1997 (custom mod.4). I have seen at least one other with a vine that I didn't do.
I believe you are referring to #212. It was built for the late Henry Garris in trade for maple lumber. Henry was the second owner of the one of a kind red '24 Loar.
Q - You've been making instruments for many years now and construction approaches
have changed due to new woodworking machinery. How have your methods evolved
over time and have they been influenced by newer machines? Do you use CNC
techniques for any of your building and if so what sort of impact has it had
on your overall approach?
A - I don't have a CNC machine. I do have a number of machines and jigs for wood preparation and component making. A lot of the components are machined to template on an overhead pneumatic pin router and plate carving is done on a basic pantograph carver. Nothing too fancy, just 1920's technology. A lot of jobs I find more enjoyable and efficient done by hand. I have always liked working hard and don't mind the occasional drop of blood or blister. Hand shell cutting and french polishing at full speed, I like the feeling of resourcefulness and independence well developed and well used hand skills give.
Q - Steve i own one of your early mandolins, #7975 (late 79) do you remember
specificly which loar/loars your early model 5s were modeled after? when did
the logo (headstock) change....and when did you start up with varnish....mine
A - The first F-5's I built were drawn from instruments on Monroe albums, photos in magazines and photos George Gruhn sent over to me. Probably a Feb,'24. I was using lacquer and "The Gilchrist" logo. (Don't you hate that). I didn't see a real F-5 until I went to work for George, a 1922 from memory. Instantly switched to spirit varnish and dropped the "The". About April 1980. Began cutting the coca-cola-esque logo the following year. Designed it while at Gruhn's but it took me about a year to develop the skill to cut it. Was it worth it?
Q - I see Ron Pennington's mandolin (number 148) regularly. I think it has to be
the most beat up mandolin I've ever seen still in use and making great sounds.
I understand you saw it again about five years ago, it even looks worse now and has the curly-que thingee broke from the head stock. When Ron got it from Paul it still looked great. I'm sure knowing that is is well loved and played a lot must be a good feeling for you. I would like for you to elaborate on the following questions..
What was your inside reaction to what it looks like now? Does this ever cross your mind when you are doing all that labor intensive sanding and polishing to make a nice finish?
BTW I love to play it, and even though it shows a hard life, it plays and sounds like a dream.
A - I'm just grateful enough to know that such good players choose to scratch-up my instruments. Tone is often in direct proportion to how much playing they've had. Mr.Monroe's mandolin would be a good example. I do put a lot of effort into staining and varnishing, but realize wear/rough wear is inevitable.
Q - I own one of your Mod 5's (#97390) and it is the best instrument I have ever
owned. Like everyone else on this list I am in awe of your work. I play
this instrument a lot and have put a few minor but noticable scratches in the
finish, mostly on the front. The varnish finish clearly contributes to the
tone but can be scratched with a finger nail or a pick pretty easily. Is
there any light touch up method that can be used to repair the scratches?
A - Living in relative isolation to my main mando base, it's good to know that all those instruments I've been "hurling" across the Pacific for so long are being picked and scratched and appreciated. Thanks to all! Varnish is a must for me, even with its vagaries. When things get too bad, it can relatively easily be touched-up again with the french polishing procedure by anyone competent and experienced.
In the meantime, small scratching can be made less conspicuous by rubbing with light fragrant oil such as lemon oil. It doesn't actually re-blend the varnish, but merely makes transparent the white powdered varnish of the scratch and looks less obvious.
Q - A while back I heard a rumor that you were planning on moving to the states.
1. Is this true? 2. Do you have a time frame? 3. What effect would this have
on your production (I'm assuming a major one).
A - 1. Yes.
2. Your summer.
3. Because of the machinations involved, I'm setting-up a beach-head facility to do part of my work there and it's been arranged so this will be the least disruptive to my schedule.
I must stress, this is NOT an invasion....I'm only coming to eliminate music of mass destruction.
Q - When you do a setup of an instrument, what is your process? I'm interested to
know what your choice in nut materials is, how you intonate your bridges, and
the effect that tailpiece, bridge feet, and nut materials have on tone. For
example, what characteristics of the sound (high/mid/low) are influenced by
the tailpiece, nut, or bridge materials, and what of that is completely
dicated by the instrument carving itself? And finally, do you ever wish you
had a shorter surname for the peghead inlay?
I've seen a couple of your old Gibson A-model style oval-holed mandolins on the market in the last few years, and was wondering if you could describe what you did that was similar to and different to the classic Gibson style? Do you ever make this sort of instrument any more?
A - My choice of MOP nut, ebony two foot bridge and my cast tailpiece are all to maximize clarity (hi/mid). The intrinsic voice of an instrument is primarily cast by the soundboard and size of the air chamber. Everything else contributes subtle effects to the tone. Set-up is vital for good tone as a good set-up maximizes the potential energy in your picking hand reaching the soundboard. More the better. I have also modified my scale length to eliminate the mando problem of sharping in the first position, particularly the A string.
When I first started cutting shell, changing my name by deed poll seemed like an option. Then I learnt to cut properly and the desire went away. :)
My first "A" models were simply the 10 1/8" wide Gibson body. In 1992 I remodelled for my 15 fret Mod.3 by using the slightly smaller "F" body as a basis and then adjusted the length of the headblock so the bridge is placed in the middle of the soundboard...unlike to original A-5.
Q - Is there a chart somewhere that lists the model number of the Gilchrist
instruments and a corresponding date of manufacture? Also, is it possible to
get details of one's mandolin which contains information about the actual
construction of an instrument? For example, I have #201 and while I know it
has a one piece back, I do not know what type of bracing is inside nor the
actual date it was built.
By the way, great instrument, I am very pleased to own it.
A - No general information on all models out there, but I believe a book is going to be published, possibly this year.
Up until #82144, the serial number started with the year prefix, ie.,1982 From #145 - #258 no prefix (N.B. There is a list of these numbers in "George Gruhn's Guide To Vintage Guitars"). Prefix resumed again at #93259.
#201 was completed in 06.91 and most likely X braced as were most of the models at that period.
Q - I'm the very happy owner of #94298. I must tell you that the first day I
played her, I was not happy with the tone and playability. Charlie fixed the
setup nicely (he had it REAL high at first), and with the lower setup it was
a dream to play. But, the tone was not balanced. Clear as a bell, but no
bottom. This is an X-braced instrument but it was all mids and highs. I was
playing a '83 Flatiron A5-1 (Model 3 copy) and liked it's all around tone
Now, after eight years, I love the Model 5's tone. It has changed dramatically for the better. Is this typical? I hear others talk about how good your mandolins sound "wet". It has taken a quite a few years for me to love this instrument, and now it's a "death do us part relationship".
Oh, and I look forward to our musical liberation this summer!
A - You can take the credit for the raising of 298. Although X braced, it is rock maple and red spruce, the hardest species. Red spruce is always the dominant factor over bracing patterns. Softer species allow more of a contrast between X or //. This combination holds the potential for the most powerful instrument in time as the bass develops to match the mids. When I started using red spruce, it took me a while to learn of its benefits and how to utilize it...a narrower window to work with but potentially a very powerful instrument. I think my current instruments are pretty consistent from new and I'm encouraged by how they are developing, not that I get to hear them very often.
This is the greatest ongoing challenge for me, trying to make new instruments sound like the best of the old but still build-in/allow room for their development. I love that process of maturity instruments develop once they leave the nest. Their own subtle voice, influenced by the owner, their technique and their environment. They're not living creatures, but sometimes they sure act like it!