Will grew up in Cross Lanes, West Virginia near Charleston. His
musical life began early as his Grandfather, Dad and Uncles all played. He
began really playing music when he was 10 and his dad purchased instruments
for him and his siblings. Will received a Banjo, two brothers guitar and
bass and his sister a fiddle. Before long they were playing at Church and
doing radio shows in the Charleston, West Virginia area.
Will built his first instrument, a fiddle, for a school project when he was 14. His dad was a carpenter and had decided he wanted to build a mandolin. When he was 16, Will went to work for Joe Dobbs at Fret n Fiddle in St. Albans, West Virginia. This was a wonderful place for a budding young musician and builder. Many of West Virginia's great musicians frequented this music store and Will became acquainted with several of them including Buddy Griffin, Kevin Call, Robert Hale and others. He also began giving lessons at the store around this time. One of his greatest influences in building at this time was Jerry Collyard. Jerry is the in-house Luthier at the Fret n Fiddle even now.
College took Will to Berea, Kentucky in 1987. Once there he immediately began playing with the college Bluegrass band and several other local bands. Here he met Michael and Raymond McClain as well as countless other musicians. While at Berea he built himself a banjo. In 1990 he and his wife, Wendy opened their own little music store and repair shop in Berea. The mandolin building business began. The performing business also picked up. He was the founding member of Strings Attached that included Danny and Randy Barnes and Shane Ingram. They were the 1992 Kentucky State Bluegrass Band Champions and won the Kentucky region of the Pizza Hut Bluegrass Showdown that same year. 1993 began with a new job for Will with The Charlie Sizemore Band where he stayed for the next 4 years.
Still plugging away at building and repairing in the basement of his home in Berea, performing took him away from home more and more. In 1995 Will and Wendy and their 3 children moved back home to southern West Virginia and bought a small farm. The mandolin business began to grow and the wonder of Internet sales opened doors never before dreamed of.
Will built a couple dobros and guitars but the love of building and creating mandolins soon won out. For the last 3 or 4 years the mandolin business has been the main breadwinner in the Parsons household. With new and innovative ideas as well as creativity Will is fast becoming an internationally known builder. Having just released his new band, Meridian's, first album Will divides his time between building and performing as well as some Little League games and 4-H activities for the kids. He does a lot of studio work playing multiple instruments and appeared on several songs on the CD of West Virginia songs produced by the West Virginia State Lottery, both on mandolin and banjo.
He is pleased to be offered the position as CGOW as well as being recognized on the Luthier's Roundtable coming up. For a small town Banjo playing, mandolin builder this is all very exciting.
Q - Do you have any general comments on the building and selection of oval
hole mandolins? I've noticed in some pictures of your ovals that you
seem to favor a rounder hole rather than an actual oval shape - any
thoughts on how the shape alters tone, e.g. round vs. oval vs. the Weber
A - I have tried a few round sound hole shapes and I really don't feel that I have noticed a differance that I thought was attributable to the shape of the hole. I do prefer X bracing on a round hole mando though. What I like in a round hole instrument is for the notes to respond quickly and warmly. It doesn't have to cut or have a great chop but I don't like for it to sound too hollow or gourdy.
Q - My first year at Kamp Kaufman ('99)I was just awestruck by all of the
great mandolins. Seeing and trying out all the mandolins is one of the best
things about Kamp in my opinion. That first year I saw two of your mandos
and they really jumped out at me. I've seen several more since. Your
mandolins are just incredibly beautiful (sound good too). How does the look
look of your mandos vary from the classic Loar look or does that just vary
with what the customer orders? Your mandolins are absolutely gorgeous.
A - I have never set out to make an exact Loar copy so all of my mandos are unlike Loars in some way although I've never really tried to make changes just for the sake of making changes either. I do think Loars are a good standard for us builders but I don't think there is one perfect way of buiding a mandolin. The mandolins I build now are different from the ones I built last year or the yaer before that ect. As I have new ideas all the time,that is reflected in my building. That is are large part of the joy in the process. I am very glad Loar was so inovative and if I am going to emulate him at all that's the area I want to do it in.
Q - You may or may not remember, but I bought an F style
mandolin from you years ago. I recall it having a
pronounced neck angle which resulted in a higher than
normal bridge setting. I assume the intention of this
design was to put more tension on the top? Comments?
Also, I recall that you were using a slightly smaller rib thickness than the the standard "Loar" spec. and I wondered if you had a reason for that as well. Thanks.
A - I do remember the mando and as a matter of fact I still have a CD of mandolin music with you and the mando pictured on the jacket. Back then I was experimenting with neck angles and the height of the neck above the top at the body joint. I do use a slightly higher bridge setup because any instrument settles a bit over time and this allows the bridge to be lowered without running out of room. It is true that a higher bridge creates more drive to the top and that a bridge that is too low won't provide enough drive. I like the bridge to be somewhere between 5/8 and 3/4". Rib width has also varied some over the years as I suspect it has for most builders but I have settled for the time being at least on 1 7/16". I believe some of the Loars varied as well so it would depend on which one you were comparing it to but it is entirely possible that yours is slightly narrower than most Loars. It was good to hear from you and when are you going to do another CD?
> When I build a mando I know I'm gonna use an ebony bridge so
> I build an instrument that is gonna sound best with an ebony bridge.
What type of adjustments do you make to the mandolin building process to accommodate an ebony bridge? Maple? Rosewood?
Subject: Question for Will Parsons
Date: Monday, February 03, 2003 10:17 AM
Q - I'm sorry we Kentuckians lost you to WV. My Mom went to Berea College back in the 50s until she married my Dad; they wouldn't let you be a married student there then.
My mandolin is a Carl Cates Bell Master, made in Berea. I was wondering if you were familiar with Carl and his work from your time there?
A - I do know Carl from the 8 or so years I spent in KY. We used to compare mandos and ideas quite often and picked sometimes. Carl is a great guy and built some fine sounding mandos. I'd like to hear from or about him if anyone is in contact with him.
Q - How much mandolin do you play ? How does playing multiple instruments help playing one and help playing with a band?
A - Great questions. I have played the mandolin longer than any other instrument. As most of you know I am primarily a banjo picker but I do a lot of studio work on banjo,guitar and mando.
Playing multiple instruments is very beneficial in a band setting because it helps you understand what your instrument should be doing in relation to the others. Us banjo pickers are notorious for stomping on the other instruments and we do that because we can and because we are not listening and apreciating the others.
Playing more than one instrument helps with your primary instrument as well because it introducesyou to new techniques and ideas. I often play guitar licks on the banjo or banjo lickson the mando.
Q - I've read about variations in nut materials, but have there been experiments with alternate bridge saddle materials? By that, I mean the part where the strings contact the saddle. I may have been hallucinating, but I remember seeing violin bridges with harder materials embedded in the edge of the saddle.
A - What kind of bridge works best depnends on the instrument. I agree with what Monteleone said a couple of weeks ago and that is that ebony is the best material most of the time with no inserts. This is especialy true for finer instruments since they will almost assuredly be built with an ebony bridge in mind. When I build a mando I know I'm gonna use an ebony bridge so I build an instrument that is gonna sound best with an ebony bridge.
Q - I'd be interested in hearing some of the CGOW- who have all be GREAT!- and/or the luthiers on the weekends- share their views on mandolin maintainance for the rest of us (non builders or collectors). I'm thinking about basic care and feeding (and polishing and cleaning and humidifiying and tweeking and.)
A - I'll tackle this one and I hope a few others do as well. Wood is always in a constant state of flux so how to care for it depends on the environment it has been in or is used to. The biggest thing to avoid is any drastic humidity change. This is difficult to do if your gonna go out and play much. Mostly just don't let it get too dry which can cause the wood to shrink and crack but going from dry to humid can cause the wood to swell and the glue joints to fail.
I think every player should learn how to make minor adjustments to the truss rod since seasonal change makes the neck move one way or the other. Probably other builders and repairman will disagree since someone who doesn't know what they are doing can strip or break the rod.
Q - What is the width at the nut of his f style mandolins?
A - My standard nut width is 1 3/16". I vary from that a little either way if a customer asks for something different.
Q - Does Will offer a mandolin kit? I'm wondering since someone asked about
the "Parson's" mando kit recently...
A - The flat mandolins and kits are not available right now. They were a lot of fun and did keep the electric bill paid here for a few years. The demand for carved mandos has simply pushed them out but I would like to find a way to put them back in production sometime but I don't know when that will be.
Q - new hobby builders often ask about which tools to buy, what is really
needed, etc., and of course they have different budgets in mind. We are
about to address this on the Saturday Morning Luthiers Corner, an
off-shoot of CGOW (a Q&A forum for novice or hobby builders), and would
welcome your comments.
A - It really depends on how much of the process you want to do and how much you want to purchase all ready done such as buying a kit or hiring out some of the work. I do all of the work except actually making the metal parts such as the tuners so I have more tools than a hobbiest probably wants to invest in. The tools that I think are the most important are first the non-powerd ones and they are a few good knives, a couple of finger planes, coping saw, jewlers saw, fret or razor saw, binding cutter, small hammer, calipers, flat files, fret file, chisels and gouges. The best power tools include a band saw preferably 12" or better, stationary belt sander, drill press, router, table saw, and a small rotary tool. Also plenty of sand paper and a high tolerance for sore fingers. For those of you who are married, it helps to have a partner who is tolerant of a great deal of sawdust in the bedroom and the laundry. I am sure I have forgotten some important tools but thats all I can think of now. I remember having lots of questions and noboby to ask so I am willing to answer questions now or later (when you remember the really pertinent ones).
Q - You described the oval hole tone that was your target, and
that tone was your goal, not duplicating a specific
instrument that has already been made.
Can you describe the tone you want from a bluegrass instrument, and why you think that is the most desirable tone? Is that a function of the mandolin in a band?
What are some of the other tonmes you try to develop in a non-bluegrass instrument?
A - I am really glad you asked that question. I do think there is a pretty specific " bluegrass tone " and I also think that most of us are after that tone whether we are builders or players. I have not heard from many celtic, country, or rock players ect.. Even in those genres I suspect the rules and goals are basically the same in regard to an acoustic instrument. What I like in a bluegrass mandolin is a quick response with a mellow strength that you can feal in you ear drum as well as hear. That probably sounds a bit ambiguous but it is really hard to describe tone. I want the chop to be strong enough to compete with a banjo and the single notes to be easily audible as well. I put more emphasis on volume than a lot of others but what good is tone if it can't be heard. One of the highest value the early builders placed was on volume and projection. How an instrument mics is of course important but strings stretched across a 2x4 can be appealing if it's miced right. So the optimum situation is to have good tone and good volume but I have yet to see a mandolin that was really loud but that sounded bad (unless of course it was out of tune) because the rules that govern volume also govern tone to a large extent. It is true that some good recordings can come from situations that do not abide by acoustic rules but that is because recording is basically not acoustic. As a performer and a studio musician I value both areas but I especially like an intument that does well in both an acoustic or a well miced arena. I have played instruments that sounded good over a mic but didn't sound good by themselves and those instruments are not much fun to play at home on the couch. Most of you probably have experienced an instrument that was so much fun to play you just couldn't put it down and that is my goal when I build a mando. As an aside I do prefer f holes to a round hole for most situations.
Q - What do you think of Virzis?
A - The Dreaded Question...
Give me a moment, I'm feeling a bit dizzy! My experience with Virzi's is limited but up to this point it has not been very positive. An endorsement from a player like Thile is quite a persuasive argument but I think we should be really careful about keeping it in context. I am sure there are a lot of great instruments with Virzi's in them but we don't all need for our mando to perform the same way. Because it works for Chris in the studio is no guarantee that it will or should work for all of the rest of us. It follows that a Virzi will increase sustain and some high frequencies but so will a number of other design changes that are not always considered positive. I talked very briefly to another prominent builder at spbgma about Virzi's and during the conversation I made the comparison that Les Paul's solid body guitar also had increased sustain and high frequencies but I don't think dreadnoughts will ever be surplanted by them. Two entirely different functions each with their own merit and place. I will end by saying that for me Virzi's reduce a lot of the things that I work hard to accomplish in my mandos. I tend to agree with Monteleone on this one although I do see other people's perspective. I am not quite willing to sacrifice volume for tone because I don't believe it is nescessary. There are a lot of good builders on both sides of this argument and my opinion is just that, only an opinion.
Q - How do you think the fact that you are an accomplished player affects your building?
A - I certainly don't think it hurts. I think a certain level of proficiency is nescessary for the builder to understand what his or her goals should be. It is probably more common for an individual to concentrate on either building or playing but I think both endeavours compliment each other nicely and I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to music and woodworking throughout my childhood. The answer is, yes playing has effected my building, I believe in a positive way.
Q - I've got a walnut F that you built for me in '99. Recently there was a
discussion of alternative woods (anything other than maple or mahogany) on
the list. Could you discuss some of your experiences with various woods?
BTW - My Parsons has gotten very favorable reviews from all who hear her, including one relatively famous Texas fiddle player who's ear I greatly respect.
A - I'm glad you and others are enjoying your walnut mando and I'll try to answer your question about alternative woods. I have done some experimenting with various woods that are native to the area I live in because I think it is the duty of all of us to to make the most efficient use of the resources we have close at hand. It is our responsibility to act in any way we can think of to reduce waste so as to take good care of the world we have been blessed with for ourselves, our children and their children. With this in mind, it makes good sense to use woods that are that are the easiest to replenish to the area from which they are harested, those typically being the natives. I am lucky to live in an area where Red Spruce, the king of mandolin top woods, is a native and there are good programs in place to protect the natural stands that are left. I can feel good about using this wood believing I am not contributing to its ultimate demise. If I lived on the west coast I would be using Sitka primarily and doing what I could to insure that it was used responsibly. Now to finally get off my soap box and address the real question, I'll try to describe some of the woods I've used and like. Obviously, I prefer Red Spruce for the top. Typically I like maple for the rest but Black Walnut runs a close second and it is only in second place for two reasons. The first is that I have not used it as much as maple and so can't be quite as certain of my opinion of it. Secondly, it is a bit harder to finish as it is more poreous than maple and seldom has the atractive figure of curly maple. The tone quality is somewhere between maple and mahogany, what a lovely combination, and some of the best mandos I've built have been walnut as many of you can attest. I have also used Wild Cherry and I find it similar to maple typically. I have used mahogany but I don't like the idea since I can't be confident that the harvest of it is being carried out in a responsible manner. I know some of you will say that the musical instrument industry doesn't really have much affect on the over use of any wood but still I think it is the responsibility of all of us to do every little bit we can. There are a lot of very satisfactory alternative woods and I have only just begun to explore them.
Q - Who are some of the other mando builders you admire?
A - Thanks for your consideration but the fewer questions there the less likely I am to give the wrong answer. There certainly are some builders I admire not the least of which is John Monteleone, especially after reviewing his comments of a couple of weeks ago. Steve Gilchrist is also one that I very much admire. I believe that these two men have basically set the standard for the rest of us in most areas of mandolin building. Of course to there was that old guy, Loar somebody or other. I should also mention the two men who had the biggest influence on my building and they were my father and a luthier named Gerry Collyard. My father was a woodworker and so influenced me for obvious reasons. Gerry was the in house luthier at an acoustic shop called The Fret N' Fiddle where I worked for a few years as a young man. Gerry was much more than patient with someone asking endless questions than anybody could be expected to be. Thanks Gerry.
Q - What affect does the shape of the arch have on tone and volume?
A - Its a little after midnight and I've just finished carving a top from a beautiful piece of red spruce. It is about 14 grains per inch which is what I think is just about perfect. Anyway I got to thinking about some of the questions I've not heard or read so far and one of them is; What affect does the shape of the arch have on tone and volume? Probably a lot of people don't realize what affect it really does have but in my opinion it is of paramount importance. If any of you have compared the sound of a Steiner pattern fiddle to a Strad style you have probably noticed a big difference in the shape of the arch and the tone. Of course almost all of us have noticed the tone differences of a flat mando compared to a carved mando but those are the two extremes with lots of degrees in between. One of the primary reasons for an arched plate is for strength. But vibrations have a shorter distance to travel through a flat plate and so for that reason a flat plate is more efficient. But a flat plate is not nearly as strong and also there are tones an arch produces that a flat plate doesn't. With this in mind there are endless possibilities of combinations of flat and curved surfaces to try. I personally like a bit of a flat surface directly under the bridge with a gradual and consistent arch all the way around to within about an inch of the edge. There of course is the trough or thinnest point. This thin area allows for the greatest freedom of movement with the least amount of sacrifice to integrity. I also like to leave a slightly heavier area in front of the tail block and neck block since those two areas are under a great deal of pressure from more than one angle. If I think of something else I think you all will be intersted in I'll holler at you in the mornin.