Stay in Tune vol # 104
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
I'm sure you have all heard the saying "When it rains it pours" Well right now it's raining mandolins in my shop. I have six different old mandolins with repairs ranging from cracked tops, missing bridges,missing frets, broken tuning machines, loose braces, bad nuts (what's that?) to refinishing the whole instrument. Of course I have few stray guitars that wandered in too, but I don't recall having this many mandolins all at one time before. The problem with mandolins, don't get me wrong, I love mandolins, is that most of them I see are the ones that someone found in the attic from their dad, mom aunt, uncle, brother, sister or cousin use to play 30 or 40 yrs ago and they would like to see if there is anything I could do to fix it up again. Some of the older ones are cool but have lived a life that would probably be better off in retirement mode now. That is hard for me to say because I'm a firm believer in bringing older instruments back from the dead and wanting them to sing just one more song, but having so many of them sitting on my bench at one time is just a little over whelming for me.
The mandolin is a descendant of the Arabic style "oud" It starting arriving as an 8 stringed instrument into America as early as 1850's with the Italian immigration. It continued to become very popular because it was relatively easy to play and was affordable to the masses. In around 1900 Orville Gibson set out to design a new mandolin that was constructed with a carved top & back much like a violin. This seemed to increase the volume of the mandolin which really started to set off the mandolin craze of the 1920's. Companies like Gibson, Martin and Lyon & Healy would hire salesman to go around the country and start up mandolin orchestras in many small community’s to be able to feed the ever growing popularity of this new foreign instrument. I read somewhere that on any given day you could visit the Lyon & Healy factory and see 10,000 mandolins in various stages of construction. This probably explains how come I have so many of them sitting on my bench, along with the fact that many of them are nearly 100 yrs. old
Many of the older Neapolitan style (bowl back or round back) instruments that I see have seen from the late 1880's , up to the early 1900's that were built in Europe were mass produced to meet a huge growing market that was starting to explode in around 1900 in America. Some of these instruments are surprisingly well built , but far too many of them were also built without too much detail in mind. The backs often crack from the many small "stave’s " that are used to produce the curvatures of the back. Often times the frets don't hold up very well through the years, Before 1930 it was common for manufactures used bar frets . These are straight bar wire that is press fitted into a slot. Over the years with all of the humidity changes they tend to lift or slide around or even fall out on occasion. Now the type that are almost universally used are the "tee" shaped ones with a tanged bar that presses into a slot , but will not come back out because of the tangs on the wire. It acts a little bit like a fish hook. it can be hammered in but wont come out very easily.
I have a few that have had the tops cave in because the way they are built. They are known as "Bent Tops" It is an inherent "design flaw' that requires the top to be cut on the underside of the top right in front of the bridge to allow the top to have a radical bend so that the strings will have the proper "brake angle" Without the proper bracing and all of the tension that is being produced by the strings the top cannot hold up to this much pressure.
Even though all of the different problems that occur to these older instruments they still can be repaired and brought back to life with a little love and care ( and money). For many of them it is well worth the effort . Many of them sound very good and they all have their unique voice. The Neopolitan styles sound different from the "A" style bent tops and the "F" style surely sound different from the other two.
It's hard not too talk about bluegrass music and icon's like Bill Monroe when you mention mandolins . Mr. Monroe is known as the "Father"of bluegrass and has done more for the popularity of that style of music than anyone before or maybe even after. He took the "F" style mandolin to a whole other level. It's hard to listen to any "bluegrass" music today with out hearing some of the techniques that Bill Monroe made popular in the 40's 50's, and 60's.
There are still many very good manufactures of mandolins out there today. Of course Gibson, Collings, Eastman Weber, Red Diamond , just to name a few. The price ranges can run from 500.00 to 5,000.00 and more. As with most things you usually get what you pay for. Sometimes it's a little hard to distinguish the quality between the 3,000.00 and 5,000.00 dollar ones but if your spending that kind of money on an instrument I would think you would be able to tell the difference. Or at least you will tell everybody that you do.. Well, it's time to get back to fixing all of those old beautiful mandos. Well see next ime in the voice.
Keep Smiling !
Patrick from Liam Guitars/ Wood -n-Strings