In 1963 at the age of 9, I got my first cheap drugstore variety acoustic
steel string guitar. I realized very soon that it was really only worth $12
and saved up for a Yamaha FG120. It was used, so I made my first attempt at
setting up a guitar. adjusting the neck and dressing the frets. I actually
made it play better. I think I was about 11 and was playing Beatles and Duo
stuff with a good friend who taught me all the chords and harmonies.
I found Bluegrass through a guy I met in Grade 11 who became a best friend
and musical partner for many years (he died 18 years ago). Dave had "big
ears " and had a great record collection. Bill Monroe, Django Reinhardt,
Bob Wills. I had found the music I really loved; brilliant acoustic
instruments played by masters. He also collected vintage Gibson and Martin
guitars and I was fascinated by the way they were made and the esthetics of
the wood and designs.
In 1973, for the first year after high school, I went to live on a farm, a co-op run by several instrument makers and their families. They just kind of took me in. a kid from the city looking for a place to find himself. I apprenticed in the loosest sense of the word. I made coffee and cut firewood for the wood stove in the log cabin workshop. I watched as they sat hunched at their benches carving dulcimer heads and planing Red cedar tops made from driftwood hauled off the local beaches. Eventually they allowed me to plane my first dulcimer top. I was hooked. I moved back to Vancouver, got a house/shop space, took up playing the fiddle and mandolin, began building dulcimers while learning to repair instruments, and played in oldtimey bluegrass bands. Since then I have done much more of the same. Dulcimers led to guitar and mandolins and Bluegrass to Django and back to Bluegrass. I played in bands and built and repaired instruments. The music has been the main reason I love to make instruments. In the last 4 years I have quit gigging and now make mandolins full time. These days I am mainly making mandolins and a very few guitars.
I spent many years doing repairs as my main income. I've restored hundreds of Martin guitars as well as all types of stringed instruments. This has given me an insight into what makes a great instrument work well, and its failings. I incorporate this knowledge into everything I build.
Q - What do you think is the most important component that shapes the tone of a mandolin?
Graduation, material selection (wood species and grade etc), bracing or something else?
What are your personal favorite wood types, as in species, cuts, grades, figure type?
What kind of finish do you prefer on your instruments?
Do you have an opinion on the Virzi and it's effect on the tone of an instrument :-)
A - The most important component in the making of the mandolin is..... everything! Seriously, the whole is the sum of all the parts so each and every part must be made with it's contribution to the whole in mind. Choice of wood; density, weight and stiffness probably are the most important aspects to start with and appearance being the least. I aim for a certain weight in the finished instrument... stiffer and slightly heavier makes a brighter treble and that distinctive Bluegrass tone, middy and punchy, while a lighter more flexible one tends to be woofier and sweeter.
"Sound is round".... I keep this in mind when I'm carving and sanding all the parts as want no sharp edges anywhere including the tone bars. I discovered years ago that even sanding the edge of the binding to a round corner makes a significant difference. Graduating the top and back are the next most important aspects to getting the 'diaphram' working correctly ... leaving enough mass in the center of the top to produce smooth, clear treble notes, thin enough in the recurve to 'pump' the air giving a big woof on the bass.
I am really into Red maple these days but I am starting to use denser maple like sugar and even hard rock maple. 90 % of my orders are for slab one piece backs and they produce a great tone, warm and woofy. So much can be done in the graduating of the plates that I feel one can achieve similar results from many types and densities of maple. I love the look of 30 degree off quarter sawn backs.... the figure is like interlocking fingers and has so much shimmer.
I am so happy with the tone and look of the varnish/French polish finish I am using these days. It has the wonderful quality of not leaving any tension on the surface allowing the top to vibrate freely. French polish alone drys with considerable tension as well as lacquer. This is why when an old guitar or mandolin gets that crackled finish look it starts to sound more open...
I have virtually no experience with Virzi tone reducers... it would be unfair for me to comment beyond the fact that the ones I have played really sucked but that tone is not what I try to achieve so ....
A - I'm so pleased to participate in this forum and I hope I can
answer all of your questions authoritatively .
Regarding the severe radius of the mandolin fingerboard I believe John Monteleone is responsible for starting that with the Grand Artist he made for David Grisman. It was a giant leap forward in the playability and comfort of the left hand. I think this has made it so much friendlier to a lot of players who started on guitar and were already used to a radius. I have never made a mandolin with a flat fingerboard, mainly because no one has requested it, so I always do a slight radius at least (16") and as severe as a 7" which is like John Reischman's Loar.
There are no structural problems with doing this and actually there is a significant gain. Given that the edge of the fingerboard stays the same thickness , in order to achieve the radius the middle or D and A area linearly is higher or thicker adding stiffness to the neck which I believe translates into more volume and power. Also now the bridge has to be higher in the D and A part which makes more break angle over it again adding power. Some players find it a little difficult adjusting to the radiused saddle but like all new things it sometimes just takes a little time to work it in and eventually all find it easier to facilitate single note playing. It's also easier on the left hand to make chords.
Andrew's neck is not a direct Loar profile but still in the ballpark as far as general shape and size. I'm all for larger necks that fill the hand between the thumb and index finger. Neck stiffness is so important to the stringed instrument's ability to produce volume and sustain. Not everyone likes too much sustain in a mandolin but this is the area where rich tone resides too.
The only thing I can think of that I wouldn't do is make a ridiculously small neck unless the person was really tiny. .other than that I am open to trying almost anything short of strange set up. A customer recently asked me to make the pairs of strings at the nut really narrowly spaced. I explained why this isn't a good idea but he insisted. Well, I was right, the E and A strings felt like one big string on the finger and was very uncomfortable. Since then he has had the slots widened apart and all is well. Set up is so important to the production of tone and volume and to the ease of the left hand.
Q - Please discuss your preference for a non adjustable truss rod on your instruments. Also, please describe the woods and construction you would use on a pure bluegrass instrument versus one that leaned more toward blues or jazz.
A - Well, I have been a fan of the non adjustable truss rod for many years for two reasons. One is that the carbon fiber is really strong and just won't bend beyond a certain point. It allows the neck to be very rigid yet resonant. The other reason is I have seen too many instruments that were poorly adjusted making the setup very bad and stressing out the neck being too bowed. I have started using adjustable truss rods because so many customers want that variable and I completely agree that it is a good thing. I can't say yet if there is any noticeable loss of tone or sustain but I've been using harder woods for these mandolins to try and compensate.
I feel that the harder woods make a better, cutting bluegrass instrument.. more middy and somewhat trebly. I think the softer woods I generally use make the sweet warm tones that are better suited to blues and jazz. Also so much is dependant on the player and the type of pick used and where they actually pick the string. You know... closer to the bridge or not. This might be off topic but I am always amazed at the completely different sounds different players get from the same mandolin....
Q - It seems that most players desire the "loar sound". What are your primary goals in building an instrument? Do you try to recreate that tone? Do you have a signature process or method that you feel makes your instrument stand apart from others?
A - I have tried to emulate one Loar in particular.. that is the Reischman Loar, and John is pretty happy with the way it sings. It's louder and slightly stronger in the treble than his Loar but it doesn't have the 80 year bass yet. I am getting down to taking smaller increments off the tone bars and the graduations all the time. I think I am achieving a wonderful consistency mandolin to mandolin partly as a result of my CNC carving the plates exactly the same every time and then me spending my time fine tuning only.
I guess my signature process is so multifold that it would be hard to narrow it down into one sentence but it is a result of that saying "Sound is round". And very careful attention to weight and stiffness of all the parts. Also setup and neck feel are so very important to how the mandolin plays and powers the top.
Q - How have you seen the construction of the mandolin change during your career as a builder? What types of modifications or features are being requested ie: neck width, radiused fretboard, ornamentation etc. How do you draw the line with a buyer between what you do as a craftsman and what they want to have done. I would assume that there are times when you simply say, "No, I'm not going to do that."
A - For me the most dramatic evolution in mandolin construction is the use of the computer and the CNC. I have all my designs carefully rendered and can make any part off these designs; cauls and moulds and negative carving forms etc.
Players like my 1.125" nut width but I do get request for wider and the moist common on is for the bare oiled neck, like a violin. Mostly I do the much haloed Flower pot and the Fern as I am in that "Gibson-esque' market.
95% of the time I am making something very traditional but once in awhile I get to stretch out and learn something new. There have been times I should have said NO to something but I like to try what the customer wants before I say it isn't going to happen! I have learned some wonderful things this way.
Q - Michael, what size fretwire do you normally use? Could you give us your opinion on the pros and cons of different sizes, such as standard mando wire, guitar medium, or banjo wire?
A - I have used Stew Mac's medium guitar/ banjo wire for many years as the small wire available is too soft and needs constant dressing and early replacement. I like the feel of the smaller wire as long as it is tall enough. A lot of players complain about the struggle they have with their left hand... loss of speed and the need to grip too hard. This is a result of the fret being too low causing the flesh of the finger to contact the fingerboard before the string is locked on the fret.
Q - On plate graduations, is there a minimum thickness in the recurve area below which you will not go? (Both for tops and backs). On topwoods, I realize it depends on species and hardness, but is there a maximum thickness in the recurve, above which performance of the plate suffers? And how far in from the rim is the thinnest point of your recurve?
A - I have always like the tone of instruments that have enough wood to sustain and develop sweeter and sweeter tones as the years go by. I don't know if there is a rule one can adhere to, only experience with the different woods. Obviously too much wood in the recurve area will not allow the woof that is so inherently desirable in the mandolin but too thin will not allow the vibrations to get to the edge where all the power is sprung from.
As a ball park figure I would say that for a top of Adirondack spruce the recurve should be no thinner than .060" and no thicker than .22 in the middle. I aim for around .075 and .190.
I have never aimed for immediate volume with a thin top rather leaving enough wood for the instrument to develop tone.
My recurve is thinnest .675" from the rim. One factor that affects this is how wide the kerfing or linings are. I round my kerfing from the side up to the plate leaving only about .125 of surface plus the side for the plate to glue to.
Q - What is your opinion of the new environmentally friendly finishes?
A - I don't use lacquer anymore and the varnish I use is pretty tame..turpentine and linseed oil and shellac.
I have seen the water based lacquer in action and the finished result is really quite good.
Q - I played an F model that you made at the first Kaufman mando camp in 98'. John Reishman had brought one down to sell on your behalf, I believe. Aside from playing his wonderful Loar your F Model was one of the best mandos I have ever played. My question is the age old mando topic A vs F models, what is your opinion of each as far as comparisons go, I have developed the opinion that each mando has to be judged on it's own merits, not what style it is. I think John Monteleone made the same point.
A - Ditto...
Q - What are your feelings of varnish vs. lacquer (tone, durability)? What product and how often do you recommend it for body of a varnish instrument?
A - I really like the way varnish is open right away as a result of it's lack of tension and thinness. The varnish finish I do seems to be very durable. My test mandolin looks great after 4 years of abuse...
Use just a soft damp cloth to clean and maybe a little lemon oil violin cleaner.
Q - What maintenance do you recommend for a bare neck?
A - Just boiled linseed oil.
Q - What and how often do you recommend it be done for conditioning the fretboard?
A - Same for the fretboard when it looks dry. If your hands are dirty when you play grime will build up around the frets. Paint thinner and a cloth will clean that off, then use the linseed oil.
Q - Have you experimented with different kinds of tailpieces on your mandolins? What kinds? How do they affect the tone?
A - I really prefer the trad stamped Gibson style as it has the least effect on the tone. The heavier cast ones add sustain and a bell- like quality which can be really good for some mandolins.