Of course we all remember Lex Luthor from the Superman comics, and if you as old as me, you may remember what he originally looked like, completely bald and with a middle age paunch. I bear more than a passing resemblance to that character.
But that’s not why I chose the name for the blog.
In the world of mandolin making , there is a Superman.
His secret identity is, or was, Lloyd Loar. Working for Gibson in the early part of the 20th century, he designed the classic mandolin forms that endure as the standard for luthiery. The F-5, made popular and famous by its most renowned player, Bill Monroe, is the most sought after, and most copied mandolin in the world. Loar explored acoustics and harmonics with a passion, always trying to improve instrument performance, and never fearing to experiment with new ideas.
But as I get deeper into instrument building myself, I find that the vast majority of my peers are involved in duplicating Loar’s instrument to a pathetic degree. For example, Loar designed an elaborate peghead that, while elegant in its own peculiar way, is structurally unsound because there is a scroll that tends to snap off if you bump it against anything. The reaction of the mandolin making community has been to invent a metal reinforcement to prevent the scroll from snapping off, rather than find a different, more practical, and possibly more attractive alternative, as I am sure Loar would have done had he continued working. The scroll on the peghead is a visual reference to the scroll that is part of the body of the F-5, and this scroll also has become de rigeur for Loar’s followers I see that scroll as Loar’s signature, and while there has been discussion among makers about the contribution of the scroll to the instrument’s acoustics, I’m not buying that on face value, and the arguments for that don’t make a lot of sense when you compare acoustic properties of other instruments. If it does, then Stradivarius missed something, and I haven’t heard a lot of complaints about his instruments, which are, after all, a bowed version of the one we are talking about.
I even read one discussion about how the silly little breakable scroll on the head contributes to the sound. This is the stuff of religious cults, not logic or acoustic research. And these believers constitute an army of makers who, unlike Loar, don’t experiment with their instruments, going so far as to graduate the thickness of their tops to Loar’s specifications with a micrometer, in the ridiculous assumption that the wood they are using has the same properties as what Loar used.
My reaction to this is to feel like Lex Luthor did about Superman; living in a world where any achievements are judged against an unnatural standard, and full of complacency because Superman has all the answers to all the problems.
I think they are forgetting an important part of the picture. Loar was a superb craftsman and engineer, and acoustic genius, but also an industrialist; he was designing instruments for mass production by the largest maker in the world., in a factory setting. I’m positive that if he were alive today, he would continue to try to improve design, both acoustic and aesthetic, until they laid him in the grave. Making exact copies of his instruments strikes me as being similar to recreating a Model A Ford from raw steel, and the techniques employed by most modern mandolin makers are similar to the machinist skills involved in that fruitless enterprise.
I became infatuated with antique woodworking tools some years ago, and came to appreciate the art of working with those tools to, as George Nakashima might say, convince the wood to become what it desires to be, rather than treat it as something less organic, less alive, by using machinist techniques. And whether my endeavors in this realm are fruitful or not, that’s going to be my approach. In my limited, though somewhat successful efforts so far, I’ve found that as I work the wood to make a top, it begins to sing to me at some point, a song I could never hear over the drone and racket of power tools. Every tree is as different from the next as every person is different from another, and if you ignore that principle, you may as well make your F-5 out of plastic.
This philosophy puts me at odds with the worshipers of Superman, who cannot appreciate my evil genius. Lex Luthor’s genius became evil because, in the shadow of Superman’s achievements his were sub par.
Whether I ever make an instrument to compare with Loar’s or not, it will be Mine.
Regards, Lex Luthier