We are truly honored this week to have John Monteleone as our Celebrity Guest of the Week. It is frequently said as a matter of course that someone needs no introduction, but we all know that John Monteleone needs no introduction to this group.
John Monteleone is one of the world's foremost luthiers, widely respected as a builder of mandolins and guitars. After getting his start in the business working as a repairman for Mandolin Brothers in the early '70s, John struck out on his own as a luthier. Initially, John built F-5 copies. In 1977, John decided to see if he could improve upon the Gibson design and came up with the Monteleone Grand Artist. David Grisman saw one of these new mandos and asked John to make one for him with a special arched fingerboard. Grisman became a highly visible endorsement for the Grand Artist mandolin. John was selected Frets Magazine "Luthier of the Year" in 1982, 1983, 1984,and 1985. Over the years, John has won many other prestigious awards.
The Grand Artist design incorporated a number of innovations. In addition to the arched fretboard,John designed a one piece cast tailpiece to replace the classic (rattling)Gibson design. He invented the small pickguard attached to the neck, which has been adopted by many other builders. He enlarged the body scroll, leaving much of the scroll hollow, making for a larger sound chamber. He came up with his own headstock design and elongated the body scroll. In addition to his F-5 copies and Grand Artists, John also built his Baby Grand (two pointer) and Style A and Style B non-scroll mandolins.
I had to laugh when I reviewed Ginny Hollon's excellent profile of John in the Spring 2000 issue of Mandolin Magazine. Ginny mentions that the Grand Artist tailpiece included a built-in string damper. I walked into my den and took a good look at my Grand Artist and noticed that feature for the first time. All of my other recent mandolins have required leather strips woven into the strings above the bridge to dampen the strings. Not the GA. I never thought about why before. John had already taken care of me on this common problem.
As one of his most challenging projects, John built an entire matched set of mandolin family instruments for the Modern Mandolin Quartet, two mandolins, a mandola and a mandocello.
David Grisman, Don Stiernberg, Paul Glasse, John Jorgenson, Russ Barenberg and many other prominent players helped to popularize the Grand Artist as a new standard in mandolins. Although David Grisman has become associated with his vintage Loar mandolin in recent years, for a number of years he was primarily associated with his Grand Artist, which he has used on many recordings. In the movie "Grateful Dawg," Grisman can be seen playing his Grand Artist on various projects.
John advises that he has made a total of 98 Grand Artist mandolins. David Grisman, a pretty knowledgeable student of the mandolin, was once quoted on the Grand Artist design: "The John Monteleone 'Grand Artist' mandolin is, in my opinion, the first positive innovation in arch-top mandolin design and construction, since Lloyd Loar and company first put together the original F-5 models nearly seventy years ago."
In recent years, John has devoted most of his attention to crafting spectacular archtop guitars, as well as flat top guitars and the occasional mandolin family instrument. However, he has found time to come up with yet another innovation in the mandolin field, his Radio Flyer mandolin design, a design going several steps beyond the Grand Artist. In accepting the invitation to participate as a CoMando Guest of the Week, John indicated that he has been wanting to get back more into the mandolin scene. Well, we are glad to welcome John back.
You ought to do yourself a favor and take a look at John's website, literally a feast for the eye. Here is a link to John's bio page. http://www.monteleone.net/bio.html Learn more about John's career and philosophy and then gorge yourself on the beautiful instruments.
One of John's most interesting activities in recent years was his participation in the famous "Blue Guitar" project. John was one of a number of top archtop guitar builders commissioned by the late collector Scott Chinery to build a guitar to certain specifications, most obviously, in a specific shade of blue as specified by Chinery. The project was conceived as a tribute to the late, legendary guitar builder Jimmy D'Aquisto, a close friend and mentor of John's, whose last guitar was a special order blue archtop model for Chinery. (An excellent book on the life and work of Jimmy D'Aquisto is "Acquired of the Angels: The Lives and Works of Master Guitar Makers John D'Angelico and James L. D'Aquisto," available on Amazon.com). John's "Blue Guitar" was a spectacular and, as usual, innovative design.
Here's a link to the book "Blue Guitar" on Amazon. If you want to see some beautiful art, order yourself a copy of this book. "Blue Guitar" is the coffee table book of all coffee table books. John's Monteleone Rocket Convertible Blue Guitar is notable for its spectacular beauty as well as for its three soundholes, two on the top side, all of which can be opened or closed by the player with sliding panels. This feature was added at the request of Scott Chinery.
Here is Amazon's editorial on the book Blue Guitar:
After acquiring over 1,000 guitars, collector Scott Chinery bought one that refueled his passion for the instrument. It was an 18-inch archtop guitar designed by Jimmy D'Aquisto, a man considered by many guitar aficionados to be the greatest luthier who ever lived. D'Aquisto finished off his creation with a blue sunburst design that inspired its new owner to commission a series of blue guitars because "blue just seemed the perfect color to jolt people out of the old, staid, traditional way of looking at the archtop." Chinery tracked down 22 of the world's finest luthiers, sent them each a bottle of Ultra Blue Penetrating Stain #M 520, and told them to make the archtop guitar of their dreams. The results are as beautiful as they are varied. Bozo Podunavac named his creation, which features an intricate abalone and pearl inlay, the Bozo Chicagoan. Bill Collings created the Collings Custom in his state-of-the-art, climate-controlled workshop in order to ensure the highest sound quality. Linda Manzer, inspired by the intoxicating French liqueur, constructed the Blue Absynthe from ebony and curly maple. A solid history of the evolution of the archtop and anecdotes about guitar making by the featured luthiers help expand readers' appreciation of the craft and are a real treat for guitar lovers."
John was recently one of four featured builders (4 different instruments)on the CMT two-hour feature piece on bluegrass music hosted by Vince Gill. No doubt one of the reasons John was selected is the seemingly incongruous fact that one of the most prominent contemporary mandolin builders happens to live in New York City.
I am proud to say that I am the owner of Monteleone Grand Artist No. 44, owned for many years by listmember Peter Mix. This mandolin is my most treasured possession. I've told John a number of times that my mandolin collecting ambition is to have him build me a one of a kind blue Radio Flyer in the Scott Chinery blue. The Blue Mandolin. One of these days!
The above is surely a poor attempt at a summary of the legendary career of this great builder. The good news is we have a whole week to flesh it out. Welcome John Monteleone as our Guest of the Week. Get me your questions or I'll spend the whole week asking John my own questions.
Q - John, thank you for agreeing to be on the CoMando list to answer questions. We have all admired your work over the years and your interesting interviews in Mandolin Magazine and American Lutherie. I understand that you have used German spruce on your Grand Artists. Would you care to comment on your marrying of Adirondack red spruce and big leaf maple on the Radio Flyers?
A - I am looking forward to being the Guest Of The Week and answering as many questions as I can. This first question has to do with the choices of woods used to construct the bodies of my mandolins and why certain combinations are made.
I have been making mandolins now for about twenty eight years. I'm sure that Adirondack red spruce was available in the early days but who knew where to get it was the first problem at the time. Nobody could supply it. I used German spruce in lieu of Adirondack because it is not too dissimilar in weight, and density. German is perhaps not quite as strong as the red especially going across the grain. There may be folks who'd argue with me, that's okay, but I believe that both of these spruces are of the red variety and are very closely related in species.
If world world geology is correct, and I think it is, the American and European continents were once connected. That would explain the family resemblance of these spruces. And that would also make an good arguement for our two varieties of maples, three really, European, North eastern red maple, and western big leaf maple. These three classes of maple can be further broken down to more specific growth species of different regions of both continents.
The employment of Adirondack red spruce and Eastern red maple, which includes the Ohio valley to the Vermont range, was readily available to present day manufactureres in the early days from around 1900 until WW II. The red spruce grows all along the Adirondack mountain range but for me it is the northern most region that produces the best stuff, as it can come from a more severe condition of slow growth.
It may have been that it was a stroke of luck that the "Golden Period" instruments were made from these materials but they proved out to be a superior and ultimately most successful combination of materials for the production of guitars and mandolins, both flattop and archtop. We would prove this theory later when the supply of red spruce ran out and Sitka spruce was used. Time is an important factor in helping us understand how the properties of sound wood can mature, or not.
It wasn't until I could locate a nice and usable supply of Adirondack red spruce in the early 1980s that I made the change from using German viola spruce on all of my mandolins. I also needed a few years to air dry this spruce before using it. I now have a lifetime supply of extremely gorgeous red spruce that ring like church bells. I began to use the red spruce on Grand Artists from the mid 80s to the present. I do sometimes like to pair up tops and backs with choices that I think are sonically better combinations to yield a certain range of dynamics, or particular colors or textures in resonance. Some of this can be purely experimental and some of it can be very specifically aimed at an attempt to capture a particular response.
Big leaf maple was not commonly used until other supplies of European maple and eastern red maple became unreliable in supply. The big leaf maple is nice and light but it is a bear to carve cleanly and nicely. If you have ever dug a chisel into European maple you will know what I'm talking about. You can get spoiled on it. It's like cutting butter! It's so clean a cut from edge tools. Big leaf grain can go in screwball directions and drive you nuts. If I asked Jimmy D'Aquisto why he never used big leaf maple during a time when his supply of Euro was thinning out, he'd say " I just can't get used to that crap. I'll never use it" And he never did.
My maple of choice is eastern red. I like its medium hardness as well as being light in weight. In my stash of interesting and special woods I have some lovely Belgian maple that was sent to me by a friend and fellow luthier fifteen years ago. I have only gotten to it now. Man, this is some amazing stuff. I can't wait to string it up.
The topic of wood selection would require reems of paper to explain fairly. I hope that this answers your question at least a little.
Q - As a mandocello player, I'm interested in your experience and ideas concerning the mandocello. With your Grand Artist mandolins you developed an innovative instrument that took its inspiration from the Loar but looked beyond it as well. Was there a design for the mandocello that you used as a baseline from which to develop a unique style and sound of your own?
Did you use the standard Gibson scale length (25")? How many 'cellos have you made? And how would you characterize a great mandocello (is it power, a singing sustain, vibrations reaching the player)? Are there other contemporary luthiers, or companies, whose mandocellos you respect? Any reflections on the art of crafting a fine mandocello would be appreciated.
A - I was drawn into the complete mandolin family of instruments beginning with my term as repair and restoration specialist with the Mandolin Brothers back in 1973. I made my first mandolin in 1974. As well as having a desire to make a reproduction of the Loar style mandolins it wasn't long before I wanted to reproduce the mandola and mandocello, alla Gibson design.
When aspiring luthiers ask me about where to get started making any kind of instrument I always recommend that they begin to replicate one of the icon models of whatever it is they want to make. If they want to make an archtop guitar I tell them to copy an L-5. If it's an F-5 I tell them to copy an original example as close to 1923 as possible. If it's going to be a mandocello I tell them to copy a K-4 from the same period.
I modeled my designs from these examples when I first began to build. It wasn't long after that that I realized the the mandolin family of instruments was in a state of decline by 1924. Any further development from that point on was not going to happen until 1977, when I introduced my first GRAND ARTIST model mandolin. There were several features on this mandolin that differed from the old F-5 that I felt needed to be applied in order to make the instrument more playable, more user friendly, and dynamically more sensitive to a greater variety of music and touch.
Among the short list of new innovations for an American carved archtop mandolin that I applied to my new mandolin were the abreviated ebony pickguard, the arched fret board and bridge, redesigned cast tailpiece, the streamlined S shaped sound holes, and the hollow scroll.
Now, I give this above information to you so that I can better explain my approach to the mandocello. You did ask me about mandocellos! I'll save the mandola discussion for another time. The original Gibson mandocello K-4 design happens to be a very good one. Of course, there have been many different makers of mandocellos but the Gibson is still the foundation model I believe.
There were some ideas that needed to be changed to make certain improvments to help bring it into more modern and useful techniques of playing. Mike Marshall was the first guy to come along and challenge the instrument. He was playing with Grisman at the time during the early DGQ years. David even then, was a great promoter of all mandolin family instruments and music. It was not uncommon to visit them and find both of them, along with Mark O'Connor, including mandocellos in lots of their music. They were placing more demands on this instrument and Mike had asked me in 1982 to make him one that could be capable of much more dynamic response. Until that time most mandocellos were not being played as a solo instrument. He needed it to be very lyrical in the treble, less metallics, fatter and solid in the highs, more even note transition right on down into the basses with bottom end to match and not overpower the rest. His new mandocello was first featured on a tune called "Gator Strut" from "Live At Montreux".
I incorporated many of the ideas that I has used for the GRAND ARTIST mandolin to design the GRAND ARTIST mandocello. I think that eliptical sound holes work better on the larger bodies and so I made the oval soundhole broader. I kept the Gibson 25" scale because it is still manageable to play. Any longer than that and it becomes an impossible hand spread for comfortable playing. And since mandocellos are very expensive to make and are not high on everyone's list of 'must-haves', not many of them are made by anyone. To date I have made four of them....I think.
Because it was too impractical to make a cast tailpiece for a mandocello, to keep the weight down I gave it an ebony tailpiece. I believe that this was the first use of an ebony tailpiece on an American mandolin family intstrument. In 1996 I introduced the first ebony tailpiece on my RADIO FLYER model mandolin. I will save the tailpiece discussion for another time also, as it is perhaps one of the most important topics of all, and the least understood.
Perhaps the most important differences in the approach to my making all of these instruments is the way I carve and graduate my tops and backs. And since the art and skill of luthery is so imperically driven, it is not so easy to satisfactorily give a technical explanation on how it's done, especially here. However, after many years of experience in repairing, restoring, examining, and evaluating not only the great and not so great examples of fine fretted instruments it was possible for me to put together from my own intuitive knowledge what I believe to be a highly sensitive method of carving and graduating.
This experience is not mine alone. It happens to be the thumbprint of every luthier out there, and what makes us each uniquely different from one another.
Well, I hope that I haven't gone too far astray from your original question, but it helps to fill in some of the gaps along the way. Time to go and do some sanding for now.
> John says that Mike Marshall's Loar once had a Virzi and fearlessly with no thought for his own safety says:
> "This mandolin had originally sported a Virzi tone reducer in it, which
> was removed before I worked on it. Once a Virzi is removed there are
> two remaining notches left on the inside wall of each tone bar, where
> these stupid things used to be attached. I don't know what they were
> thinking. But I would have loved to have overheard the convincing
> salespitch that Mr. Virzi sold to Mr. Loar. Amazing!
Q - WHOA!!!!!!!!! How do you really feel about Virzis, John!
An unprovoked attack on the memory of the Virzi brothers who are no longer here to defend themselves. This is almost a sacrilege! John, have you ever seen the video "The Sound of the American Mandolin," featuring Tony Williamson and our own Maxwell McCullough. I have that tape and I'll send it to you if you haven't seen it. I thought that Tony and Max pretty well proved that the Virzi's in various old Gibsons enhanced the tone. At least to my ears. They did side-by-side comparisons of As, F-4s, and F-5s, w/ and w/o Virzis. Your gonna hear about this one!
A - Let it be known that I don't intend to step on anyone's toes, and I may have rattled someone elses cage or two, but I'm have great difficulty trying to recall anyone who ever said to me "gee, I wish I had that Virzi back in my mandolin". Nor have I ever been asked, thank God, to make one and put it in their mandolin.
It's not often that you will see folks come to the defense of Virzi either. Sure, I'll take you up on your offer. I'd like to see the video but I'll tell you right now that chances are that the microphones, recording, and related engineering might not reveal a fair judgement. However, I do have an open mind about these and other things. You can't be a luthier of good reputation and not comtemplate the good and the rediculous. Perhaps it was during one fo these open minded sessions that Mr. Virzi had one too many thimbles of grappa.
Regarding the installment of a foreign object inside and under the bridge of [let us say] a Loar mandolin; you could hang a bees nest in there and still be able to appreciate its wonderful tone, if it's there to begin with. And I will speculate that the tone will sound sweeter, not to mention buzzier.
In fact, technically speaking, one could suspend a variety of objects in there of different material even, and because you are adding mass to the bridge area you stand a chance of increasing the sustain, one of the so-called advantages of the Virzi. But we gain questionable sustain at the more likely sacrifice of other more important tonal positives. Now, if the Virzi is so good why aren't they requested and built in as standard practice?
The argument for Virzis, if there are any, may remain to be a debatable issue for those few. The argument against them is more convincing. Ask anyone who has had them removed. This issue by the way is not a new one. It's been going on for some time, probably since they were first installed.
If I may quote myself from an earlier response to this question, "But I would have loved to have over heard the convincing sales pitch that Mr. Virzi sold to Mr. Loar", " I don't know what they were thinking." Well, perhaps it was also this very lunatic proposition that contributed to leading Lloyd away from Gibson in the first place. Who knows?
Do you know where you Virzi is?
Q - I'm lucky enough to have one of your F5's. It is # 64......possibly built in 1982, that is what I was told......if I'm not mistaken you were already making Grand Artist's before this, for several years.....so this is probably a late F5. Was there a transition period where there were still Bluegrass players who wanted an F5, while others were more accepting of your new designs. How many F5's did you make? Or do you even know? In what year did you start only building GA's? Is #64 an '82?
My F5 has some GA appointments, the Monteleone cast tailpiece, arched fingerboard, an abbreviated pickguard, and the bridge saddle doesn't have Loar bridge F5 type offset compensations, it has an angled ridge across the saddle, more like a guitar. It is a wonderful instrument, sweet highs, and loud, w/ great bottom end. THANKYOU!!!
Another question, I've seen later GA's where the bridge saddle is compensated more like a Loar, how have your bridges varied over the years, what type saddle would you make for an instrument today?
And last question, I was trying to trade a mando plus cash for a Radio Flyer last year, unfortunately they found a cash buyer while considering my offer, so it now lives with someone else.........I was told you've only built two Radio Flyers.......I consider it a landmark mandolin design, I was surprised to hear there were so few........is that number correct and how do they sound in comparison to the GA's? I imagine the radical larger F holes, would sound different........congratulations on building a mandolin of the future, I find it a very inspiring design.
A - Nice to hear from you. Your #64 Style-F was made in 1981. My prototype GRAND ARTIST model began with ser #12, in 1977. It has just passed its 25th anniversary. Yikes! Can that be? Because this model was so different from anything else in those days I wasn't too sure of how well it would be received. It incorporated all of the changes that I wanted to see in the F model but needed to first feel my way into it. I gradually brought these ideas to my F-models as well over time as my customers began asking for these features on their mandolins too. I was building both models concurrently until I eventually phased out the F model.
Your question about bridges; I fooled around with compensated saddles until I finally decided that the standards of string design for mandolins were not conforming to the diagonal saddle concept like that of guitars. So I switched back to a full compensated saddle for better intonation of standard sets of strings.
Re: Radio Flyer mandolins; yes, at the moment there are only two of these out there. One of these is called "The Black & Tan". I started making this mandolin while I was doing a master class in Italy. The Radio Flyer model is much more difficult and time consuming to make becuase of its curly maple wood binding, a challenging task unto itself. There are a few more Radio Flyers in the works now. Yes, the sound is a bit more open but it retains the overall response of its brother Grand Artist.
They have been extremely well received.
Q - I have been an admirer of your work for a long time. I really like the way your instruments design seems to just "flow" naturally and unrestrictedly. I've never had the opportunity to play one, but someday I hope to own a Radio Flyer. Now, my question: Of all the beautifully designed and great sounding mandolins that are available today, who's work do you admire, other than your own, and why.
A - That's a tough one, I haven't seen a whole lot of the new stuff that's out there, and I don't want to leave anyone out, so I'll have to play it safe here. But yes, there are one or two who have impressed me.
I will however tell you this. Jimmy D'Aquisto once gave me a valuable piece of advice. He said, " don't waste your time looking back at someone else. Keep your eyes straight ahead. Oh alright, you can take a peak to the side once in a while."
Q - First off, thanks a bunch for joining us as a CGOW. It has been difficult for me to follow the volume of posts lately, and I hope someone hasn't already asked this. In your mandolins, do you build with a regimented wood selection (i.e. red spruce / eastern red maple) or do you try to cater to the specific needs of the customer when building? I'd be interested in your observations on some the common tonewoods used in mandolins these days, as well as any comments on some of the untraditional woods showing up, i.e. walnut, redwood, cedar, douglas fir, myrtle, etc...
A - I think I already answered something like this earlier. To be brief, I stick the woods that I have known and trusted for all these years. Once in a while I may try something for a different kind of effect. One example of this is with the mahogany that I used on a recent mandolin, The "Black & Tan" version of the Radio Flyer. And I have made a mandolin once out of Brazilian Rosewood.
Other than that I use the old tried and true.....maple and spruce combination.
I can't blame others for experimenting with other woods. Fine.
Q - All of the several 10-string mandolin-mandola's I've seen or played (including the one Mike Marshall had) on had deficiences, either on the low end or the treble. Is the 10 string (CGDAE) a viable instrument, or will some portion of the pitch range have to be compromised?
Or could a possible answer be to have a scale length and body cavity midway between mandolin and mandola, using an in-between tuning (DAEBF# or Eb-Bb-F-C-G) as well?
A - Yes, I tend to agree with you in that the 10-string mandolin with its mandolin scale of 13.875" places a burden on the low C string. When I was still building these mandolins I had specially made double wound strings made for them. This did help alleviate the problem somewhat and gave it more body of sound. A lot of guys who replaced these strings probably ran out of them and used guitar guages instead.
Another problem for a lot of players is that it takes some getting used to five courses of strings. You have to alter your style and adapt to a different approach of playing.
This was however, a compromize that some mandolin players were perfectly willing to accept.
My 10-string model was intended to be easier to play than having a 10-string mandola. It's longer scale would then place the burden on the E string. The guage for it would be too thin and prone to breakage.
I suppose that a decent 10-string could be made on the 15.875" scale and possibly magegable. Even then though is the E-string problem. One solution to this is to change the overall open tuning of the pitches to accomodate the tensions. Experimenting with guages would be in order.
Q - I recently read the GAL Quaterly's recap of your presentation "Designing the Archtop Guitar for Sound," given at the convention a few years ago. In the lecture you describe the asymmetrical X-bracing design you have (had) adopted for guitars. I am about to begin a pair of mandolins using archtop guitar body shape and proportion. Have you explored the asymmetrical X-brace design on mandolins, and do you feel it has the same merits it exhibits on guitars?
A - I haven't made a guitar shaped mandolin. The asymmetrical tone bars might work okay on your design. When it comes to the regular mandolin shape there is frankly not enough real-estate there for great advantage.
Let me know how it turns out. Good luck.
Q - I know you were involved some years ago in a project on building together with Mario Maccaferri (the builder of the Django Reinhart Selmer Guitar) some of his Selmer style guitars copies. I'd like to know how much important was for you his influence.
Also you were in Italy three years ago to make a workshop in Pieve di Cento, Mario Macaferri's hometown. Do you considered this a kind of legacy?
A - My friend ship with Mario Maccaferri was one of the great highlights of my career. I was fortunate to live about an hour away from him. I used to visit him just about every week in the Bronx, back in the 80s and 90s. He was one of the most naturally talented men I ever met. I learned from him how to make his style of jazz and classical guitars. I am the only luthier who can say that he studied with Maccaferri. That's an honor and priveledge that I treasure. I miss him very much.
Mario's work did have some influence into one of my flattop guitar designs. I sort of borrowed the body outline to make a steel-string flattop guitar with fixed pin-bridge. This combination had never seen the light of day before. But the porportions were too perfect to ignore for making this guitar into this new configuration. Mario was very pleased with my Hot Club model.
And yes, I invited to come to Italy in summer of 2000 to help celebrate the lives of Maccaferri and his mentor, Luigi Mozzani, another very talented craftsmand and musician. I gave a master class in Pieve di Cento on carving mandolin tops and backs. I'll never forget that day of carving a mandolin top under the cool shadow of one of the entrance gates to the city. It was so hot that day that the class members carried a workbench down three flights of stairs and into the street for me....and back up again!
It was a very special feeling for me that I was invited to come to my grandfather's homeland and teach something about mandolins to THE GUYS WHO INVENTED THE THING!
It feels like a part of me and I can't wait to go back there. The food is absolutely amazing! And forget about the wine, so good it's ridiculous.
Ciao Massimo, and thanks for the question.
Q - Clearly, you have been one of the innovators in modern mandolin family instrument designs. Where do you see the designs evolving to with the advent of new materials and growing interest in mandolin family instruments?
A - I believe that the real survival of any instrument lies within its musical and structural integrity. It must remain faithful to the music. The istrument must continue to serve a purposeful means of musical expression. The basic construction principles of foundation will need to always be there in order to call it a mandolin, guitar, or whatever the instrument is. How the mandolin is used and what is written for it will point it into its own direction and popularity, which I think is safe enough for the near future.
Stinged acoustic musical instruments in general I believe will have an endless future. Along with wind and percussion instruments[inclusive of keyboard] they are the most near and dear to the heart and soul of the expression of human emotion and the human condition. The incredibly simple ability to touch and set a vibrating string into motion can never be replaced by any other kind of synthetic means. If it is, then it should be considered to be a new and different instrument, not a mandolin. The vibrating string is the key to it all.
The use of materials to make these instruments can be one of the changes that may influence the way that they are made. Shortages, restrictions, discovery and innovation can lead to new ways and new alternatives to design. The basic form for the mandolin in its various forms has now been pretty much set and established, and this is what I would expect to see in the future. The appearance of how these things will look is subject to popular opinion and to traditional values. So....yes, things could change in this area but you will always have to bring it back to ground zero and maintain the original idea of the instruments musical foundation of necessary elements not matter what color it is or what you inlay it with.
Q - I am the proud owner of a left-handed Grand Artist mandolin that you made in 1982. Are there any other left-handed Monteleone mandolins out there?
A - I believe that I made another lefty Grand Artist in 1992. So, if your's is ser#79 there are two leftys. Thanks.
Q - I'd also like to know what you think of the current trend among some builders to apply the Selmer design ideas to the mandolin.
A - More power to them. Why not, if it's working?
Here's an interesting fact not may folks know. When Mario set out to design his Jazz model he was more or less....on an assignment for Selmer, as they requested that he come up with a design for it. Not knowing much about jazz he went to the nightclubs of Place Pigalle in Paris to do research. He decided that what he needed to make was something that sounded like a bundle of metal rods being smacked on a table top. A funny description, needless to say.... an even wierder perception, but look at what the results were.
He told me that he borrowed the construction method of making the spruce top from the Italian mandolin. Another fact not many know is that Mario was a full time luthier who made an extensive line of mandolins along with the guitar and violins. He had a catalog of mandolin family instruments that covered about half a dozen different ranges of voicings.
Q - Ask john if he is the luthier that has a jar full of shavings from someone's Loar that was re-graduated... either the neck, or top, or tonebars?? I think Grisman's or Mike Marshall's...
A - Yes indeed I do!
I have in my shop a pasta sauce jar filled with the Loar shavings from Mike Marshall's mandolin. It makes a lovely specimen and converstion piece. I spoke about this restoration project on an earlier answer to the list.
Q - Don't I remember reading that you regraduated the top on Mike Marshall's Loar? What all did you do to it? And why? And how did it all turn out?
A - When Mike acquired his Loar was constantly reminded about the difficulty of playing it. It had a beautiful tone but required too much physical effort to get it out of the instrument. We talked about it for a while and decided that in order to enjoy this mandolin in the now and the future that something had to be done about it.
I divised a way to remove the back, with its binding intact, and to be able to remount it almost completely undetected, and to keep the neck angle intact as well. Once the back was removed I mapped off the graduations of both top and back. I found that they both had some very odd undulations of graduation which were not kosher. It was more like a rolling mid-western countryside. I realized from the beginning that there may have been an over abundance of spruce, and suspected possibly some on the maple too.
My suspicions were true.
This mandolin had originally sported a Virzi tone reducer in it, which was removed before I worked on it. Once a Virzi is removed there are two remaining notches left on the inside wall of each tone bar, where these stupid things used to be attached. I don't know what they were thinking. But I would have loved to have overheard the convincing salespitch that Mr. Virzi sold to Mr. Loar. Amazing!
Anyhow, the tone bars were considered to be text-book damaged and needed to be replaced. I regraduated the top, while still attached to the sides. The back was regraduated as well. I had carefully removed the labels intact before doing the work, and then carefully put them back.
I reglued the back and with minimal touch up work had the whole mandolin back up and singing again. To look at it you wouldn't know that anything was ever done to it.
Mike was extremely pleased with the results, as was I. The mandolin retained its Loar voice but it now had much more bravado. The response to Mike touch was immediately more dynamic and sensitive.
Q - When you mentioned tailpieces, it immediately made me start thinking of all the different tailpieces that are out on the market today. I wasn't around when they came out, but were your Grand Artist mandolins the first to use a solid 1-piece tailpiece rather than copying the Gibson design? As you probably know there are MANY great tailpiece designs out there now...Allen (a few designs, including yours), Price, Gilchrist, and Dudenbostel, among others. I'm surprised that you would say the tailpiece discussion is one of the most important topics of all - could you explain some more?
Personally, I didn't notice much difference in sound when I changed the tailpiece on my older Kentucky to a solid cast tailpiece, but the strings were easier to change and it did look very nice. Granted, it wasn't a top-end mando so maybe it didn't receive the full benefit of the change. Some people say that they get a better tone (maybe more sustain?) when using the solid tailpieces.
A - On American manufactured mandolins, aside from bowl-back mandos, there were very few tailpiece designs available. Of the original designs, Gibson had theirs, Lyon and Healy had theirs, and the rest seemed to be supplied by Grover. There may have been one or two customary exceptions through the years.
Yes, my one piece cast tailpiece was the first use of such on a mandolin from anywhere that I know of. It came about because I was frustrated with the supply of flimsy stamped brass tailpieces from suppliers of the time. They would break at the bend quite often. And the bent hooks would also break off. The covers were poorly fit, and there were no damping pads made for them.
I also began to think about string tension, and how to even up the tensions among the sets, and how to put their free-end lengths in a better suited relationship to each other. I designed the layout of the hitch pins to correlate with the peghead string posts more closely than before. Of course, it's impossible to lay them out in a true proportional correlation, as that would place the tailpiece length several inches off the tail of the instrument. That's not a practical solution. It is, however, possible to put them into a compact position which is at least in the right direction. I believe that it made a difference.
My cast tailpiece also has a string damper built into and under the leading edge of its forward lip, where a piano felt damper is installed. And this tailpiece also has string guides built in which separate and organize the strings to their proper route to the bridge. My early models had a rivet type of hitch pin. I later switched to silver-soldering in the hitch pins at a back rake angle to better facilitate string changing.
My mandolins always have my own tailpieces from lost wax castings on them. The process is long and laborious but worth the effort, and a necessary asset to my design. They have become associated with my mandolins over the years. I had refused many requests to supply my tailpieces to other folks, telling them that they could buy one but it comes with a mandolin attached to it.
Some copies of my cast tailpiece were first used on the "DAWG" model mandolins made by Kentucky, back in the 80s. I later liscensed the production of these copies to Randy Allen, who does a very nice job of manufacturing them. He also designed his own stylistic model based on the Monteleone tailpiece.
Q - Besides tailpiece technology, another topic I would like for you to discuss would be bridges. What are your thoughts on one piece vs. two piece adjustable? How about maple vs. ebony? I have tried about all possible combinations and have mixed feelings on the subject. Also, in relationship to tailpieces, do you agree with a 15 degree string break angle over the bridge as being the optimal angle on all mandolins? And how about the standard height of bridge off the soundboard?
A - This is a great topic for volumes of discussion, becuase there can be so many different conditions of influence. However, for the sake of keeping things simple I'll do my best to stick to the questions at hand here.
Let it be said that a bridge can be made of just about anything that will hold up the strings in a reasonable position of practical playing. Common experience narrows our choices down to one or two materials that are known to work well. My first choice is ebony, as is my second choice too. My third choice might be......ebony. You get the message. Sure you can use maple, rosewood. Sure you'll get one particular element of sound to shine through but, when all is said and done, a well made and well fit ebony bridge is going to be the best all arounder in many ways. Balance, brilliance, even spread of dynamics, open and clean notes, strong attack, warmth of tone, strength and durability; these are just a short list of attributes to this material.
Of course, it is fun to try different materials to see what we can do with tone. Years ago we used to cap the bridge tops with either bone, ivory, or mother of pearl...for a glassier and edgier sound. Way before that was the aluminum bridge top. Dave Apollon used one of these to get his brilliant metallic tone.
Now, one-piece bridges, yes, I used to make these for my earliest mandolins. They were made of ebony and had a full contact across the top of the mandolin. My intent was not specifically to accomodate bluegrass. I wanted to bring about the most complete resonance that I could coax from the instrument as possible. These bridges sounded really smooth and extremely well balanced. The obvious problem was its inability to be adjusted. I had figured out a means to do this later on but....sometimes we just can't get to everything on the list of to-dos.
The two piece bridge is still one of the best and practical designs to use. There is seasonal movement with nearly all sensitive instruments which require the ability to adjust.
The cut-out on the bridge base is also another area for consideration. How much of a cut-out is necessary? Well, I like the cut-out particularly for stronger tonal focus on the two tone bars. It will also work somewhat with X braces mandos but it is more effective with the parallel tone bars. You can also dispense with the cut-out to smooth over a situation of wilder imbalances of bass and treble.
One could spend an enormous amount of time just playing with bridge combinations alone.
Long live ebony!
Q - I have been using cast tailpieces on my instruments, and I think I can hear a difference, sometimes in volume or tone, most often in sustain. I have wondered about trying a suspended ebony tailpiece, as with an archtop guitar. Can you give any insights as to the feasibility of this , pros/cons, probable effect on tone, volume and sustain? Intuitively I am tempted to think it might have a dampening effect.
A - There is nothing wrong with using the cast tailpieces on your mandolin. The tonal advantages that you hear are in part due to the extra weight of the piece. You can also bend the tailpiece upward away from the top of the mandolin if you feel that you need a more direct route to the bridge. If you do this remove it from the mandolin first and then remount it until you have that direct line.
An ebony tailpiece will not mute the mandolin in any way. I am still weighing out the pros and cons myself regarding comparisons between cast and ebony. One advatage to the ebony model that I provide on a few of my mandolins is the ability to raise or lower the height of the tailpiece to accomodate the down bearing pressure on the bridge and sound board. This can help to dial in the best response for each individual mandolin.
Q1 - John, the dolphin soundholes on your Radio Flyer model look (from the photo on your site) like they are larger in total area than the usual f-holes. Optical illusion?
A1 - Yes, it may be hard to believe but the aperture of the dolphin sound hole on the Radio Flyer is actually smaller in area than the S-hole on the Grand Artist.
Q2 - Recognizing that smaller soundholes will likely give more bass, and larger soundholes more treble emphasis (please correct me if you disagree), is there a standard range (in square inches or millimeters) for the total area of the two soundholes of a mandolin?
A2 - There is perhaps a relative range among the different designs which by experience over time has given us what we have. There is no scientific evidence to support real numbers of aperture, or even placement. This is all done through empirical experience and example. You could open the holes up even more and you'd be raising the low end air resonance of the box.
Q3 - Do you ever vary the area of the treble side vs the bass side soundhole?
A3 - No.
Q4 - Do you ever vary the distance of the two soundholes from the rim, or should they always be symmetrically placed?
A4 - The distance between sound holes can be adjusted inward or outward to find the most even treble to bass balance. However, there is again, by experience trial and error we have arrived at a fairly standard placement of sound hole relationship to the footprint of the bridge, which yields the optimum area for maximum response of the sound board in its most effective correlation. To achieve a really good sound on a mandolin, or any instrument, one has to always keep in mind what the general concensus is on what is considered "the ideal" sound. If one strays away from this too far the instrument may be put at risk for leaving the boundaries of good, fine, or great tonal possibility.
So, a certain amount of conformity is not to be abused. Experimenting is good, however, deviation from the norm is not a great idea unto itself without great reasoning to support it.
Thanks for the excellent questions.
Q - My questions are from the perspective of a hobby builder; you said in an earlier post:
> Perhaps the most important differences in the approach to my
> making all of these instruments is the way I carve and graduate
> my tops and backs.
Lawrence Smart, in his 1998 GAL article, said that the thinnest point of his recurve is about 3/4" in from the edge of the body, and that for a top, it will be in the vicinity of 40% thinner than the thickest portion of the center. For backs, he said the ratio would be more radical, 40% to 50% thinner. (Not trying to pin Lawrence to this, he may say differently now.) Can you comment on your recurves (location, deep or shallow?) , and your use of any such rough guidelines, recognizing that each piece of wood is different? As you graduate from center to recurve, do you try to keep a relatively constant degree of thinning, or will you use a more abrupt curve at some point in the plate? And is this more notable on the underside of the plate? Is there much difference in your approach between top plates and back plates?
A - It is perhaps too great a topic to cover and explain well in this environment. Lawrence Smart is correct with his explanation of gradutations. I don't usually measure mine but I'm sure that we are not too far away from one another there. I believe that the basic objective that we are all shooting for is a particular and common range of sensitivity to weight, density, and flexibility for both tops and backs that brings us all into the arena of fine resonance.
If you were to saw apart a completed archtop which was well graduated you would find something of a logarithmic taper happening from center to outer regions, somewhere around 3/4" from the edge, and then back up again to the edge itself.
More than carving to particular sets of numbers I rely on all the empirical senses to guide me. I use flexing and thumb pressures and tapping and visuals to assist me in zeroing in on final graduations. I will fine tune this after glueing top and back to sides. Quite often I will string the mandolin up in the white and then make further adjustments, while fitting the bridge and tailpiece, then prepare it for finishing.
Q1 - I gather from your prior posts that you use tonebars exclusively, and do not use X bracing on mandolins. Have you ever experimented with shifting the bass tonebar across the body of the instrument, almost approaching an X brace configuration?
A1 - No, I only try things that seem logical to me. Stromberg made a diagonal tone bar which I thought was in interesting indeed. But it was specifically successful only on his Master 400s and not on any of the other models. In fact, some of this idea supports my approach to asymmetrical tone bars that I use on my guitars. I don't use this at all on my mandolins.
Q2 - Do you run your tonebars right across the recurve and up to the kerfing, or stop short of that?
A2 - Yes
Q3 - Do you believe that the tonebars should be the same species as the top, or would you use, for example, red spruce braces on an Engelmann top (perhaps for added strength?)?
A3 - I like the tone bars to be very stiff and with absolute zero run-out of grain. Mostly red spruce tone bars.
Q4 - Is the tonebar placement on the StewMac F5 blueprint about correct in your opinion?
A4 - I don't know. Haven't seen it.
Q5 - Should the tonebars be fitted absolutely vertical to the cross-sectional plane of the instrument, or vertical to the inside surface of the top plate at the point of contact, ie. tilting slightly inboard?
A5 - I like it vertical, perpendicular to the inside surface.
Q6 - Do you glue on the top plate before the back, and if so, do you shave down the tonebars before or after installing the plate? (I have been gluing on the back plate first, so that I can easily clean up any glue squeeze-out; bad idea?)
A6 - I like your method. That's what I use.
Q7 - Finally, on my first two instruments, I inadvertently introduced some "spring" into the tonebars, by clamping them with cam clamps in a jig which supported the top plate only along the recurve, with the center of the plate "floating". (I was worried about leaving clamp marks on the top.) The footprint of the tonebars is quite visible on the top, especially approaching the recurve. These instruments sound great, and were very responsive from day one. Should I anticipate a weakening of tone or volume with the passage of time, because the tonebars may "give out" from being pre-tensioned? These were Engelmann bars on Engelmann tops.
A7 - I don't think I'd worry about fatiguing of the tone bars. I allow some pretensioning as well.
What would concern me is your bars showing or telegraphing through the top and being visable from the front. This might indicate to me an over clamping situation. Englemann is a softer spruce and might account for the transfer. I don't use this spruce.
The bars should fit the surface to which it is glued with absolutely no air space between them. It should not require heavy clamping. You can also place a veneer of maple on the top to protect its ourside surface from clamps leaving marks there too.
Q - John, I wanted a Monteleone sooooooo bad in 1979--but the price of $1800 or
so might as well have been a million for me then. Where's my time
machine when I need one, and could actually scrape that together? Anyway, I
never bought a Monteleone, but I did buy a new Kentucky Dawg in 1988, which I
am still playing. I have always wondered about the process of your going
to Japan, sharing your design with Sumi (and were there others?), and most
of all your reactions to the authorized copy of your Grand Artist. I might
add that I got the chance to play Glenn Bradford's GA #44 alongside mine and could feel the family resemblance. It was like the difference between driving a good fast car and a really great fast car--the engines were humming in both, but when I mashed the pedal on the Monteleone, it really took off! Thanks for your time with us this week.
A - I'm sorry that you couldn't aquire one of my mandolins way back then. The creation of the Kentucky "DAWG" model mandolin brings back fond memories of visiting Japan in 1982. I met all the boys in the Kentucky workshop in Matsumoto, in the Japanese Alps. They were very intensly focused on developing this mandolin. I also designed a mandola and a mandocello for them but not many were made.
Sumi was among the most talented workers in the shop. From what I understand he is making his own mandolins and guitars now.
The demise of the DAWG model happend becuase of my lack of control over the final products. It was too impractical to monitor the manufacturing from such a great distance. But that's what is necessary to make sure that a fine instrument is being made. You have to stay on top of it all the time. I didn't get to see too many of the mandolins that were coming over to our shores. Things became too difficult to continue that way. Too bad. A lot of pretty good mandolins came out of that.
Q - John, my 1980 Grand Artist No. 44 has what appear to be MOP insets in
the bridge on the E and A strings. I don't know if this is something you put in
originally or a previous owner (mainly Peter Mix) put on. I know Peter had the tuners replaced with Schallers. Was this to make the E and A strings brighter?
A - In my confusion I forgot to answer your question about the mop inserts on your bridge top. These were sometimes added to satisfy a customer request to bring out a more glassy and brittle treble response. It is one of the ways to color and balance the dynamic range of response. Bone was another material used. And I think I spoke about this in another earlier answer about bridges. There are so many ways to make bridges using a variety of materials and dimensions. You can also make the same bridge out of the same material and drop them onto your table saw and listen to the differences among them. If you have enough of them to compare you will find that there will be a variety of pitches and livelyness to them. This can be helpfull when choosing up the right candidate for a particular application. Good violin makers always listen to bridges before making a selection. I've rejected many pieces of ebony that I'd blanked out for bridges and tossed them away.
Because it is what it is doesn't always mean that it is. You can quote me on that.
Q - Is wood the only option for great tone and resonance? I
know plastics, graphite, ceramics and metal have been used with some success,
but can anything else compare to carefully cured and graduated wood? I ask
because I worry about the availability of wood species in a world where
natural resources are being mined, not farmed.
A - I can't respond to how the mandolin might evolve into the use and acceptance of materials other than wood. There hasn't yet been anything better. Until that happens we will see many attempts to replace wood but I think we'll have enough wood to go around for a while, especially to the independant luthiers. Smalltime luthiers like us don't begin to make a dent in wood supply. It's the factories that are too hungry for a steady supply of reliable material and it is perhaps they who are in the mad scramble to come up with solutions. They are already doing things with flattop guitars in this direction.
Unless the general consensus of opinion changes definition to accept the sound of these new materials as being state of the art, which could happen by the way, I believe that the particular resonant qualities of wood are too much of a delicacy to be replaced. Time will tell but not for a while.
Q - I have some construction questions as relates to binding F-style
I have just a devil of a time getting the plastic binding (source StewMac) to bend evenly in the scroll areas. I have tried the hot water and heat gun methods but invariably end up with some less than smooth bends. Any tricks o the trade you can offer?
Do you, or have you, bound F-styles with wood and if so what woods do you like for that application?
What method do you use for cutting your binding channel?
When installing purfling, do you pre-join the bottom purfling to the binding or bend and install each separately?
A - I use a heat gun to soften the binding for pre-bending the shapes. I sometimes use little forms that I can quickly place the heated piece onto and make a repeatable bend. I use laminated white black white nitro cellulose ivoroid on many of the mandolins. It's easier to bend than wood, which I use on only a few mandolin designs. It is very challenging as they are steam bent on irons. I use either ebony or curly maple for these bindings. And yes, there can be a percentage of breakage on the way to success. That's why they take so long and cost more.
Q - I have read that the Waverly tuners may be back in production. In your
opinion, are they worth the expense? And would you recommend them for your
Grand Artist mandolins?
A - That's fair question that deserves an honest answer.
I have used the Waverly tuners on several of my mandolins. They are beautiful and very well made, however, I did run into a mechanical problem with them, which I have addressed to Stewart-MacDonald. The problem has to do with the potential loosening of the adjustable thrust bearing. I wouldn't have noticed this until this actually happend to one of my clients on a gig. There was no way to fix it properly on the spot. On checking it out I noticed a second bearing on the same set to be working itself loose. If this can happen once it can happen again.
You see, the normal tension of the string applies a rotational force to the string post which in turn applies axial pressure to the worm gear, which is thrust against a bearing or a stop so that the worm shaft is captured in a working position.
The current configuration shows that this thrust bearing, which is threaded, is on the outboard [closer to the tuning knob] side of the mounting plates. They are only held in place with Locktite. This is not acceptable to me. This thrust bearing should be mounted on the opposite side of the worm. In this way the worm and shaft would be axially forced against a solid non adjustable bearing surface. This would permit the threaded bearing to be placed inboard on the plates and could better serve as a means to adjust the play, with nearly no use of Locktite, although it may be wise to use it just to insure against vibrating loose.
Now, it is possible to remedy this with a little machining skills. The shafts can be removed and flipped end for end and still rotate normally. The only problem here is that for some strange reason the two ends of the worm shaft are not the same diameter. They vary by several thousanths. So, if you did reverse the shafts you will find that the side closer to the knob will have this indifference in excess play. And the threaded thrust bearing would have to be reamed out to fit the opposite end.
This should not be necessary to do on an expensive set of tuners as these are. The price is justifiable if they indeed do work properly. As of now, until a change is made I cannot use them. So, I am waiting for an answer from Stew-Mac.
While I am at it I should mention that the Waverly design seems to have been specked out for Loar reproductions and original replacements. I find two problems here. The first is that the shafts on the originals were not exactly positioned so that the buttons would well clear the sides of the peghead. You will notice evidence of damage from everyday tuning on most Loars. I speculate that had the Loars continued on past 1924 that this design may have been improved. As it is, mandolin tuning machines were never high on any manufacturers list of things to make better.
The second part of my problem with shaft lengths is that Waverlys will not conform at all to my original headstock design. The buttons won't clear the peghead at all. I had several sets specially made to accomodate my design, but this is not easy for the company to do. They'd like to provide a standard set of lengths. Since I am not in the habit of reproducing someone's mistakes in design, and since I like to have an original concept in design, which does not stray terribly far from tradition, I find that the current configuration of Waverlys won't allow for much leeway in design for present and future mandolin makers, who will be confined to a predetermined peghead design.
Aside from my comments, I think that the Waverly mandolin tuners could be the best that anyone has to offer, changes included.
If any of the other makers share an opinion, or otherwise, on this please let me hear it.
A - Yes, I tend to agree with you in that the 10-string mandolin with its mandolin scale of 13.875" places a burden on the low C string. When I was still building these mandolins I had specially made double wound strings made for them. This did help alleviate the problem somewhat and gave it more body of sound. A lot of guys who replaced these strings probably ran out of them and used guitar guages instead. Another problem for a lot of players is that it takes some getting used to five courses of strings. You have to alter your style and adapt to a different approach of playing. This was however, a compromize that some mandolin players were perfectly willing to accept. My 10-string model was intended to be easier to play than having a 10-string mandola. It's longer scale would then place the burden on the E string. The guage for it would be too thin and prone to breakage. I suppose that a decent 10-string could be made on the 15.875" scale and possibly magegable. Even then though is the E-string problem. One solution to this is to change the overall open tuning of the pitches to accomodate the tensions. Experimenting with guages would be in order.
Q - John, Do you wax a new tailpiece for each mandolin or do you have a mold? What type investment do you use and which casting method, induction, centrificul, or just plain old gravity? A - Each tailpiece was made from a wax casting of the same that I made myself here in the shop. I send my waxes out to a foundry that does this work. I believe that they do a gravity cast.
Q - You Wrote:
> When Mike acquired his Loar was constantly reminded about the
> difficulty of playing it. It had a beautiful tone but required
> too much physical effort to get it out of the instrument.
Then you proceeded to remove the top, redo the bracings, etc. etc. But I'm not sure I understand how that made it easier to play. You said you kept the neck intact. Was it so overbuilt that the action had to be really high to get good tone out of it, and now the action could be lowered with good results still? Or, maybe I'm missing something here.
A - Perhaps I didn't explain myself too well there. This was a case of making some corrections to the interior graduations of this particular mandolin. It was stiff playing and there was too much mass of spruce and maple there to allow it to open up. I removed the back, not the top. I didn't want to disturb the neck and all of its associated parts. There was no need to. What I meant by securing the neck was that I wanted to keep the same angle because it was perfectly set for the right height already. The action was not too high. It was good from the start. The only problem for Mike was the resistance to right hand input, if you know what I mean. The body felt too tight. He is a very stylistic and dynamic player who's touch runs from pianissimo to double forte. The notes were certainly in there but they were not coming out freely and openly. An instrument that fights you back is going to be very enjoyable for too long, no matter who made it. However, when everything is working nicely the entire instrument is loose enough that the overtones are clearly heard. The mandolin begins to gel into a harmonic synergy which is immediately apparent to the player.
So yes, it was overbuilt, and that was mutually agreed upon by both Mike and myself. We also gathered more outside opinion just to be sure before we proceeded with the work.
It all went back together with the same neck set and bridge set up that it had before, but now it was like playing a really fine sounding Loar, as it was intended to be.
Q - On the subject of the differences between f-hole and oval hole instruments. I personally prefer playing round hole instruments, and have found that I usually have to work twice as hard to get the sound I want out of an F-hole instrument. But I'm often playing rock or really bluesy stuff and/or am trying to achieve a stinging electric guitar-ish tone quality, which to me sounds more appropriate and fitting for that genre of music.
One thing I've noticed about many F-hole instruments (Smarts, yours, vintage F5 ferns, etc) is that they maintain a consistant tone quality. For instance, I played on a Smart A5 which, to me, was a real Doyle Lawson sounding type instrument. Play it softly, you've got that sound at a low volume; play it hard, you've still get that same sound but a much louder volume. On certain types of tunes, it sounds great, but I had a hard time making it do what I wanted it to on the gutbucket blues things. (I'm not making any value judgements as to what is "better" - it would be like comparing a street bike to a dirt bike, everything relates to the context of usage.)
A - Yes Niles, I know what you mean. I think that if the instument is sensitively made, and not overly sensitive to the point of negative, that the overall range of response will stay together. The harmonic structure is richer and can support more diverse dynamics.
It seems that instruments that are put together more to a receipe than by more careful processes tend to fall into possible conditions of breaking up. They are not able to find a harmonic sensitivity to these different touches. Also, their body resonances may be too strong and overwhelming to allow for more subtle responses to happen. Subtlty is over powered.
Q - With (Gibson) oval holes, on the other hand, the tone seems to change in correlation with the intenisty of the attack. Play soft - you get one sound, Play hard - you get a different kind of tone from the instrument. Others have described this quality as a negative as "breaking up" or "maxing out" at louder volumes. I tend to think of it as "overdriving the top" and being able to access a particular controllable tone quality when I want it.
A - Actually, I more or less answered this one above. But, I am a real fan of oval hole mandolins. I make them once in a while. One of my favorite mandolin sounds is Ricky Scaggs when played in Emmy Lou Harris's Hot Band. He played a round hole Gibson A model, which had a haunting and lovely woody sound to it. That mandolin blended so well with her voice.
Q - I'm curious as to exactly what, and why, is occuring. Is it actually "overdriving the top" which introduces some distortion into the instrument sound (separate from the rattling and buzzing from whacking the strings so hard (ala Brozman))? What is the luthier's take on this (seeming) phenomena? Thanks.
A - Well, again, I think I sort of answered this above. But I think you understand what tried to explain. A really fine mandolin is one that has been built to a fine set of conditions which liken it to a high performance race car. It is so easy to fall short of too far of your mark for excellence in high performance tone and playability.
Q - John, Your sense of aesthetic design has been an inspiration for me
(and many others) for quite some time. I'm wondering what sort of training,
both formal and informal you have had to help you nurture this gift.
Thanks (both Glenn and John)
Thank you Lawrence,
Your execution of design isn't so bad yourself. Nice work! I have had a few questions from others on the list wanting to know about my back ground in design and about my experiences and methods of design. I'll try to answer them all here.
I am self taught in just about all the aspects of making instruments. I was however, very lucky to have grown up in a creative environment. My father was a sculptor, who'e early training was in the Beaux Arts School of Design in New York in the 30s. A lot of what he learned seemed to rub off on me in childhood. He was a great painter, photographer, jewelry maker and draftsman too. He later opened his own pattern making shop, where I became acquainted with many of the wonderful techiniques of mold making, casting, template making, blueprinting, modeling, design, drafting, and a bunch of other useful stuff. How could I not learn from all of this?
My father's uncles were also active in the architectural world too. That is where I suppose my love for art deco came from. We used to visit the city quite often. A few of the more interesting old buildings in New York were worked on by my great uncle. My father had worked in his studio before WWII. The elevator doors and frieze work castings in the Empire State Building were modeled in his workshop. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington was also modeled in his shop.
Anyhow, I use the old fashioned method, pencil and paper, to work out my designs and concepts. For me, a set of french curves is more important than CAD will ever be. I always leave enough room for interpretation as I'm working with the actual materials. I like listening and taking my direction from these materials as I go. While working on any one article to go on the instrument, I never loose sight of the complete picture. The eye must be able to move around and not be magnetized by imbalances. Lines should flow evenly throughout from top to bottom.
Regarding carving and CNC, someone asked about that, no I don't use CNC for anything. It's beyond my application. I'm a one man shop. And yes, I still use my old pantograph for hogging out. I happen to love the carving process and using finger planes. It's a nice quiet way of listening to the wood as you coax it along to a path of singing voice.
Q - I know that you are swimming in interesting questions and can't possibly answer all that have been posed to you this week. However, I want to ask one more on a subject I have given a lot of thought to over the years. I have discussed this subject with Lynn Dudenbostel and Mike Kemnitzer just last week. The question is: Are you a perfectionist? If so, is that a good thing, a bad thing, or something in between. If you are not a perfectionist, how would you verbalize what you are?
When I first started to practice law, over 30 years ago, I worked for a very excellent group of lawyers in New Orleans. One older partner I regarded as sort of my mentor and he gave me a lot of good advice I still use to this day. He once told me that "learning to practice law is learning to compromise with perfection." You can always make something better, he told me, by spending another week on it, or another day, or another hour. Determining where to draw those lines is a constant challenge. I believe that a true, honest-to-God perfectionist will have a very hard time making a living as a lawyer. Being a world class luthier may well be a different proposition altogether. I would love to have your thoughts. Besides, we need some esoteric questions here!
A - A perfectionist is one who finds himself stuck in a quagmire of indecisions. One of the most difficult things that I had to learn was when and how to let go of a piece. When was it really done?
And when you find yourself doing business as a professional with a family to feed, bills to pay, and so on, you begin to focus on these things too. And yes, I agree with you that learining just where to draw the line is a challenge. You could go on for ever trying to second guess your instincts. And it is really difficult to avoid a compromise of any kind. I don't like compromises. Compromise doesn't spell quality, nor does it spell finesse.
I think that rather than being a perfectionist I use perfection as a goal. Real perfection is not really attainable, but for me it is rather a usefull tool of direction for the pursuit of fineness.
True perfectionism unto itself can be a hinderance to creation. It can get in its own way when making decisions.
I believe in being looser than that while maintaining the highest of standards and allowing myself to flex a little on the way to perfection. I like to think that I can sometimes get fairly close to this thing called perfection. So, I don't know what I'd call myself as I don't think I fit the textbook description of perfectionist but I like the results after all is said and done.
Q - John, since you've tackled the Virzi question and the bridge question, I wonder if you will weigh in a few more controversial topics about our favorite instrument.
Q1 - Many people claim that the scroll makes no difference in sound, that a good A-5 style sounds as good as an F-5, that (and this really gets to the heart of your design) the shape of the scroll doesn't make any difference. I suspect you disagree, and that the elongated scroll on the Grand Artist is not just a design element.
A1 - The Grand Artist scroll is more hollow than it is on the F-5. I
tried to eliminate as much material as possible to reduce unecessary weight and
to gain an ounce of interior cavity. I elongated the scroll to give the design
a different character of line to the body and at the same time to drop the body
resonance just a touch, however small that would be.
When I made my Style F models I also hollowed out its scroll block for the same purpose.
I believe that the overall difference between A bodies and F bodies is nearly imperceptable. In a blindfold test with really fine examples of both models one would be hard pressed to tell the difference. However, I think that there can be a difference in another way. I believe that the F bodies can possess broader pastures of colors and textures. The complexity can be one or two grams extra. Here again though, I've heard some amazing A bodies that can defy explanation. I recall some older Givens and Nugget A bodies that were excellent sounding. I loved the original Loar A-5 and used it as inspiration for making my own Baby Grand, Style B s and A s.
We like to believe that the perhaps more elegant lines of the F body is giving us more, but there are too many other subjectives that can alter opinion.
Q2 - People also say that the f-holes don't have any effect on sound. You changed the shape of the f-holes on the GA, and the dolphin shape on the Radio Flyer is really radical. So, again, a design element only, or a change that affects sound?
A2 - Here's an interesting set of facts on these sounds holes. I have measured the perimeter circumference of the three different model sound holes in question, F-5, Grand Artist, and Radio Flyer. I haven't done the math but I'm sure that someone out there blessed with more mathletic skills than me can come up with the formula for giving the square inches. The figures are doubled for total square inches.
The Grand Artist has a perimeter of each sound hole = 11 and 5/32"
The F-5 is pretty close with a perimeter = 10 and 15/16"
The Radio Flyer perimeter = 10 and 5/16"
It is interesting to note that the Radio Flyer has the smallest numbers for sound hole aperture, which appears to be an optical illusion. The F-5 is very close to the Grand Artist.
It was my intention when designing the Flyer sound holes to keep them at least the same size aperture or less to maintain the sweetness of sound. The placement of this design encroaches more into the bridge area a bit which emphasizes the treble. To not sacrafice the bass response I moved the lower end of the sound hole outward to capture more of the lost portion of upper sound board and to pick up more tonal real estate from the bass tone bar. The shape of aperture is very important for shaping the sound. Think of the singing human voice and what effect the shape of the lips has on quality of resonance.
Q3 - Similarly, I have seen people say that the pickguard has no effect on sound, that the Gibson model pickguard doesn't obstruct sound at all. You came up with the abbreviated pickguard--again, merely for looks, or an effect on sound?
A3 - For several reasons. Folks are still argueing about this topic. It's a matter of perception by both the player and the audience as to how much the pickguard is effecting projection. I wanted to just eliminate the whole question by making a shorter guard that took the question out of the picture. Next, many pickguards were taken off because they were a nuisance. The brackets were always a problem with vibrating and coming loose. I thought that the proportions of these huge guards were unnecessary, cumbersome and not proportionate to the lines of the instrument.
I also set them a little lower on the neck to help eliminate pick noise. And, I like to have a point of reference for my right hand when playing. Although I don't touch it all the time I can feel it sometimes and it can be a helpful aid to accuracy. I think a lot of players like the comfort of having it there.
And last, I hated those plastic guards. Plastic was considered a futuristic luxury in those days. But for me, a fine piece of ebony makes a more natural compliment to the whole design, simple, musical, and elegant.
Q4 - I love the look of your designs so much that I would still like them if they were only design elements. But I remember from the Mandolin World two-part interview that you were interested as much or more with sound as design when you made these changes. I was just hoping you would weigh back in on these topics that we have debated on here off and on. Thanks!
A4 - Yes, I still feel the same. I owe an allegiance to the basic concepts of the instrument in question. You can't build a fine house on a lousy foundation. You might fool some folks but not for long.
John Monteleone wrote:
> Here's an interesting set of facts on these sounds holes. I have
> measured the perimeter circumference of the three different model
> sound holes in question, F-5, Grand Artist, and Radio Flyer. I haven't
> done the math but I'm sure that someone out there blessed with more
> mathletic skills than me can come up with the formula for giving the
> square inches. The figures are doubled for total square inches.
Q - This cannot be done. A circle contains the most area for a given length of perimeter. Make a circle of string, then stretch it between two fingers or pencils and it will be apparent that there is now much less area enclosed by the same loop of string.
If I wanted to know the area of an f-hole, I would copy the shape onto graph paper and count squares, which would be inaccurate. The smaller the squares the more accurate this would be.
Actually, I'm sure there is a computer program easily available to do this. Finding the area of an irregular shape in two dimensions is a very difficult problem, much more difficult than determining the volume of an irregular solid, believe it or not.
A - I know that it is near impossible, for me at least, to come up with a formula for measuring it. But I wonder, if you take this enclosed loop that we are referring to and let's say we wrap it around two 1" dowels for example; then take the same loop and put it around two 1/2" dowels we will end up with one of the loops being narrower but longer than the other loop. Will not these two loops have the same square inches of aperture? It seems to me that they will have the same area, however, the shape is different, and now relates to the difference of aperture. The shape of the sound hole will behave differently and with varying responses and projections based on the shape of the sound hole configuration, but having the same square inches of area. The best way that I could demonstrate this is with a perimeter measurement using thin plastic binding, like a string but better. Yes, when the ends are drawn together and put into a round circle they will each give a different diameter. My point is that depending upon how this given length of string is compressed into whatever shape it is, the area remains the same but the aperture changes, therefor effecting the change in sound.
Let me know if you come up with a formula. Thanks for your input.
Q - No. The loop wrapped around the 1" dowels will be contain a greater area. The largest possible area contained by a given perimeter (loop) is a circle; the smallest approaches a line. The shape approaching a line would be a loop stretched between two dowels of infinite thinness; clearly such a loop would contain an infinitely small area.
A - Please let it be known, and I'm sure you will, that I stand corrected on that circle and string theory.
Q - I am the proud owner of a ten-string Grand Artist mandolin/mandola, and it is my most treasured possession. I have also seen photos of a ten-string cittern, or octave mandolin built by you. How many ten-strings have you built? Did you design and fabricate the tailpieces yourself? What is your philosophy on building non-traditional configurations?
A - I'm very glad that you like your Grand Artist 10-string so much.
I had made five or six of them. Yes, I made those tailpieces. Of the citterns, I made two.
Q - The goal of maintaining even balance, and consistent tone and volume as you go up the neck strikes me as being one of the more difficult things for a builder to achieve. My question is, how is this achieved, or what are the most important elements controlling it. (I am assuming accurate and well executed fretwork as a given.)
A - I don't know if I can isolate a specific answer for you. It all comes down to the empirical readings that one makes when evaluating each of the particular parts of the puzzle. I put my mental state in a condition of totality of the instrument. By that I mean that as each of the fashioned individual parts are coming together there is a cohesive relationship to all of them which gives me a sound picture of that intstrument. I can hear it in my head while I'm building it. It's always fun in the end to see how close I came to this imaginary sound.
It goes without saying that excellent fret work is a must for guaranteeing that these things that you've worked so hard for can shine through. There is so much co-dependancy on all of the integral parts of the instrument. It's only as strong as its weakest link.
Q - Why do you prefer lacquer to varnish?
A - The finish question has been going on for years. I suspect that it will continue especially as newer finishes are forced along the way to us luthiers. Of course, varnish is perhaps a safer alternative than lacquer regarding the legal use of certain volatiles.
The success of any of these two catagories depends mostly on how well they are applied. The family of varnish is vast. Even lacquer qualifies as a varnish by definition. I have used nitro-cellulose lacquer almost since the beginning. I did use a varnish on the first five or six mandolins and then switche over. The formulation for lacquer was seemingly better in those days. It was far easier and faster to use of course, but the coatings had a warmer transparency similar to the warmth of varnish. The finish thickness was about the same for both. Each of these finishes can be built up too much easily and too fast. Thick challenge for any finish is to offer good protection but to be at its thinnest to not interfere with the performance of the wood.
I have not been too impressed with the way that lacquers have been formulated these days. They are having to conform to legal issues, which effects the product. It's still pretty good but it will change I think in the near future.
I do like varnishes and I have been considering them again once I have arrived at a useable formula. I have always used a particular violin varnish that I've made specially for them. I wouldn't use the same formula for mandolins. It is too soft. I like a harder and more brittle finish on a plectrum instrument. Bowed instruments sound less harsh with a softer varnish.
And there's the matter of being used to using the materials that work best for you, and that you are most familiat with. You learn to handle them accordingly. So, I'll stick with nitro lacquer for the time being. It works for me.
Q - I recently bought a new Gibson Sam Bush, label date of November, 18,
2002, and it sounds so resonate and open right out of the box. I can't
imagine it getting much better over time as it gets more play time. My
question, the top is I believe Sitka Spruce, but an instrument that
sounds so open and woody from the get go, is there a chance that could
A - Well Jim, one nice thing about Sitka is that it is like that out of the box. It will be very nice and pretty much stay that way with some improvement through time. It won't go bad, unless it was too thinly carved.
Q - I have a Master Model as well, but the red spruce on that instrument is requiring some breaking in to feel responsive and sound woody and resonate. Is this just a characteristic of Sitka Spruce? Maybe you could shed some light as to what I'm experiencing with the Sam Bush. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, I'm just afraid it might be carved too thinly and will loose its tone over time.
A - This is normal for red spruce. Longer breaking in period but bigger development in time. Slow but steady until one day it may seem like a door was opened on your mandolin and you hear all this beautiful low end together with the rest of it. Like a finely cellared great red wine, it has big rewards.
Q - I have a question about the playability of a mandolin. My Grand Artist has been played by many people and virtually all of them have commented on the easy playability of that mandolin. My brother-in-law played it back to back with the famous Dude No. 5 of Chris Thile and his comment was that the GA played like butter. What things have you implemented to make a more playable mandolin?
A - There seems to be a lot of discussion about action from the user group on this subject. They have been doing a lot of measuring of nuts and saddles and such.
My approach to action is not to the numbers or thickness guages. They are much too inaccurate for each instrument. There is no allowance for the differences in string tensions among different mandolins. I'm talking about the feel of the strings, and the idiosyncratic layout of the fret board and frets, and the angle and height of the neck off the body and the height of the bridge, all taken into consideration.
I believe that the difference in tightness or feel of the strings can be effected first by the harmonic nature of the instrument in question and second, the tailpiece to bridge set up. If the mandolin is not tight sounding, and it has a very full harmonic capacity it will add to the ease of playing, as the resonances are more vibrant and forthcoming.
I also use the arched fret board, which is a more natural and comfortable association with the fretting hand. It may seem like small potatoes to some but it's these really infinitesimal things that make big differences to many players. The arched board feels better.
It also helps to have a truss rod that is really effective.
Q - I would like to ask John what his opinion, if he has one, on bridges
made with fossilized ivory. Does he like them, tonal charecteristics-anything.
A - I'm not sure if you mean the whole bridge, or the bridge top, or for saddle cap inlays. I posted something prior to your question regarding saddle cap inlays to influence treble response, or to correct a problem with such.
I've not seen any of the other parts made from this material. It would seem too hard for a bridge top. I have however used this ivory on guitar nuts and saddles. It works nicely but you need to consider its density and if that is what you want to use for the tone intended. I'm not too thrilled with the discolorations in them.
My all around favorite is steak bones supplies by my butcher. After my dog has had her way with them I leave them out in the yard for seasoning. They still retain some of the fats which I don't remover. I leave it there for natural lubrication. The density is just right for me for a nice unadulterated natural tone.
Q - Mr. Monteleone, what recording do you feel best captures the tone and
character of your instruments?
A - Any of Paul Glasse's recordings, any of Don Stiernberg's stuff, especially his latest, "Unseasonably Cool" on Blue Night records. "The Emory Lester Set" on Northumberlans Records.
These are good starters.
John M. said:
> It goes without saying that excellent fret work is a must for
> guaranteeing that these things that you've worked so hard for can
> shine through. There is so much co-dependancy on all of the integral
> parts of the instrument. It's only as strong as its weakest link.
Q1 - John, do you hammer (maybe I should say tap) or press your frets in?
A1 - I hammer them in Ed.
Q2 - Do you put any glue or other adhesive in the slot before installing?
A2 - I use a reduced solution of pva glue.
Q3 - Chamfer the fretslot first?
A3 - Always.
Q4 - Wet the fretslot first?
A4 - With the glue.
Q5 - What size wire do you prefer, or is this strictly client choice?
A5 - I still use exclusively a small wire that was made about 25 years ago, not available any more.
Subject: Thanks to John Monteleone
As John Monteleone's week as CGOW draws to a close, I know I speak for everyone on the CoMando list in thanking John for all of the time and thought he has put into this week. John you were great. I am sure that you have sparked renewed thought and discussion among many on our list. I hope you can find the time to get to a few more of the questions before you run out of gas. We aren't too strict here on CoMando and we would welcome continued posts, even if you run over into Tony Williamson's week. We will look forward to having you back in March for the Mando Builders Super Summit. If you need anything around the country, you have markers with all of us. Just ask.