Archive for June, 2012

Octave Mandolin

It was St. Patty’s day, probably 1980 or so, and I’d found myself at Cavanaugh’s at 23rdand Chestnut in Philadelphia, considered by some as the only legitimate spot to celebrate this holiday where everyone pretends to be Irish and drinks so much that eventually they’re persuaded to drink beer with food coloring in it and experience barfing in technicolor at some point while trying to find their way home in one piece.  So many people had had the same idea, and soon the bar was packed beyond capacity, and in spite of the excellent band playing traditional Irish music, my cohorts and I had decided to leave, on the basis that we were never going to be drunk enough to make the over packed conditions tolerable unless we were able to move our elbows, which was quickly becoming impossible.  On my way to the exit, at a rate of about 1 ft/min. I found myself squeezed by the crowd into a full body press with an attractive young woman, which was awkward, though not entirely unpleasant.  Since our position couldn’t be ignored or changed of free will, I said, “I think under the circumstances, I should introduce myself.”  She didn’t miss a beat and said,” I’ll say. According to my Mom’s rules, I think we just got engaged.”  I still laugh at that line.  But I no longer try to drink with the Irish on St. Patty’s day.  It’s fighting above my weight class.

I love Irish music.  I can’t play it, but I love listening to it.  The choice of instruments, the beautiful lilting melodies, the incredible tempo, you just can’t sit still while it’s playing.  And one of the important instruments in the Irish musical enemble is the “Irish Bouzouki..”

When I first started hearing the term Irish bouzouki , it was kind of jarring, like Norwegian sitar or French balalaika, or Belgian Conga (OK, forget the last).  The traditional bouzouki from Greece was introduced into Irish music in the 1960’s by Johnny Moynihan of “Sweeney’s Men,” who later brought it to “De Dannen” one of my favorite groups, whose huge but acoustic sound can mesmerize me.  A big part of that big sound is likely the bouzouki, which is close in size and voice to the octave mandolin, but usually tuned to GG-DD-AA-DD as opposed to the octave mandolin tuned to GG-DD-AA-EE.

The scale length is usually longer on a bouzouki as well, but fact is, many now use the two interchangeably.  What I have here is an octave mandolin, with a 20” scale, structurally similar to the mandocello I recently built, with a folded flat top with minimal bracing on the part behind the bridge. It has a BIG sound.  I didn’t do a scroll headstock on this one, or the “Bohemian” back, instead going  with a more traditional carved maple two piece back with a purpleheart center strip.  I’m working on another one with the scroll, etc., as well as a mandolin sized version of the Bohemian mandocello that has me very excited. But I really do love these OM’s.  I think I’m going to have to start learning some De Daanen songs.



Judy and I were not able to take a real honeymoon after we got married.  Our attempt at a romantic road trip from Philly to Key West in my 1967 Plymouth station wagon came to an unromantic end on Christmas morning (we got married on dec. 23rd, and I’ll never do that again!), when a bearing went out on the rear axle. We squeaked into the only service station near Darien, Georgia that locals told us might be open,. because the guy lived there in the garage office.  He was there all right, but was no mechanic.  His brother, who was, had capriciously taken Christmas day off, it seems.  So we sat in the office with him, grease everywhere and coffee cans with two inches of water soaked cigarette butts in each, and waited for my brother and my dad to come get us (they lived a mere 40 miles away as luck would have it), Lum (short for Columbus, the town where he was born) told us he lived there alone with his brother and his five little nephews, and spun the chamber of his Smith and Wesson revolver with the five bullets as illustration, and we all laughed, But shortly afterward, Judy and I decided to wait outside for the remainder.

A couple years later, when we were a little more flush, we decided to take a real vacation, and at the suggestion of a travel agent decided on Ixtapa, Mexico.   It was being heavily promoted in those days, big fancy hotels on the Pacific beach, everything you could ask for.  But we were both more interested in the local culture of nearby Zihuatenejo, a little fishing village that the astute movie fan might recognize as the destination of Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption.

A local guide told us the story of the name.  It was from an ancient, dead  language of Oaxaca, and meant False City of Women.   It seems that some adventurers from the other side of the mountain range that separates the coast from the interior had returned to their village from the coast with stories of a city on the water that was populated only by women.  Predictably, this led to a larger expedition of enthusiastic  and lonely men across the mountains, who found when they arrived that there was only this fishing village, normal in that it was about half men and half women.  Hence, the name.

We can only guess the motive of the false correspondents;  maybe all the men were out fishing when they had arrived,. Or maybe they just meant to say that there were a LOT of women there,. Maybe they just wanted to exploit the absence of the men in their own village by cavorting with the women at home while the rest went to the coast in search of greener pastures.  There’s a lesson in here somewhere about the benefits of healthy scepticism.

There are a LOT of stringed instruments being sold today that are made in China, but which have stalwart, traditional sounding American names that suggest history and integrity, names like Eastman, Kentucky, The Loar (for crissakes).  I’m not going to disparage them, or their customers, because quite frankly, it’s hard for me to compete with the prices that  production in a Chinese factory makes possible, although my mandocello prices compare with Eastman’s. Mine aren’t done when the foreman says they’re done, they’re done after I’ve played them for a month or so and am satisfied that I won’t regret sending one out into the world with my name on it.  No two of mine will ever be identical, which rules out mass production. But the karma is included free of charge.

Many people, some of whom I respect a great deal, tell me that Chinese instruments are every bit as good as any other.  To which I tend to question why it is that musical instruments would be the only product from China of which this is true.  Every tool orr utensil or article of clothing I’ve bought that was made there failed on the first or second use. It’s like they make visual representations of real objects, functionality be damned.

Other enthusiasts will state with great certainty that these instruments are carefully made in craft shops by seasoned Chinese luthiers who are well compensated for their careful work, and tell tales of American visitors who have seen this to be true.

To which I tend to reply, Zihuatenejo, Baby.