Posts from the ‘mandocello’ Category

Bohemian Behemoth

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I’m a member of a Facebook group called “the Mandocello Enthusiast,” and in a recent discussion thread, a member named Yvonne (who plays in the Dayton Mandolin Orchestra) commented on how much she loved the mandocello that she’d been playing of late, a Stahl/Larson Bros.model from the early part of the last century, and she posted some pictures of it and a similar one. It was teardrop shaped, , and with a folded spruce top that mystified me at first as to its construction. After sleeping on it, I woke up understanding how it was done, so never underestimate the value of dreams.
This is the type of top used on most bowlback mandolins, and I immediately understood its advantage. The crease, which is created by cutting a straight groove across the grain on the underside of the top, and bending it under steam, adds rigidity to the top in the same way as when you fold anything, like a cardboard box. The area behind the bridge to the tailpiece, about a third of the top, needs minimal bracing as a result, which creates a separate soundboard in effect , for the lower register, and I could imagine how this effect might be used to great advantage, particularly on the cello and octave mandolin.

So I determined to make a similar design, which has yielded this mandocello, which I’m calling the “Bohemian.”
The name is derived from two converging ideas. First, Yvonne had mentioned that she lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and I have a history with that delightful little hamlet that brought back a flood of memories. Home of Antioch College, it’s located about 7 miles from the town in which I lived for my high school years in the late 1960’s. The contrast could not have been greater to the Air Force town, Fairborn, in which I lived. Antioch was so radical at that time that it made Berkeley and Brandeis look like William and Mary. At a time when Student Power was gaining ground, not just as a demand of student protest, but as an educational philosophy, at Antioch, that war was over.
The Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, which is still in operation, seats a capacity crowd of about 60 as I recall, and I took in a lot of great movies that I might not have seen otherwise, Fellini, Wertmuller, early John Waters (years before Pink Flamingos) and on one occasion, a filmed stage play of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Chareton Under the Direction of the Marqquis de Sade.
The plot was basically that in the course of performing this play about a patriot of the French Revolution, the inmate/actors become so passionate that they overthrow the director of the asylum. It foretold the fate of Antioch, in a way, because the inmates were running the asylum at Antioch. Having become a magnet for young people seeking social change, it was unfortunately located in an idyllic village far from the problems of modern society. This resulted in a pervasive paranoia, I think, and a game of radical one-upsmanship ensued.
But as a young radical aspirant, it seemed like heaven to me, and as a 17 year old, I spent much time on the streets there and wandering the trails of nearby John Bryant State Park.

On a warm late spring evening in 1970, I sat on the grass in a park on the edge of campus and listened to Canned Heat and Van Morrison perform great sets. In between acts, someone had dreamed up a stunt involving a huge plexiglass half-sphere with 20 gallons of jello in it, and sought volunteers (female, of course) who would jump in and slide around. Not only were there no takers, but a chant started, and quickly took hold of the crowd: “F—Warner Brothers, F—Warner Brothers,” a reaction to the Woodstock movie that was seen by many as exploitative of the “Movement.” I got a kick out of it, but also began to see the students at Antioch as being kind of pathetic.  There was, after all, no film crew on hand.           When I went to Temple University in North Philadelphia the next fall, it was abundantly clear to me that the least of our problems was Warner Brothers.
As a result of the personalities and lifestyle choices that would befit a faculty that was amenable to such a curriculum and campus, the town had what one would call a “Bohemian” atmosphere, and the small businesses that supported the student population were not Kinko’s and Starbucks, they were headshops, alternative bookstores and the art house theater. At one such bookstore I would regularly pick up a copy of the L.A. Free Press, or the Voice (which was less mainstream in those days). The same store is where I bought my first John Fahey record (on Takoma, of course) which I still have and play to this day. It’s also where my Dad sold his first dulcimer, the first of many hundreds he would end up selling all over the country.

So “Bohemian seems to suit an instrument whose origin, in an obtuse way, lies in Yellow Springs.

I made an unusual back for this. I was inspired to visually mimic the bowl back that one might expect to see on such an instrument. I glued up solid triangles of padauk, with strips of maple in between, then carved an arched shape out of the resulting slab of wood. The effect was visually pleasing, and while the inherent weight of padauk added a pound or two to the instrument, it is highly resonant and sonically reflective, making it an effective back for this.
After completing it, I ran across an article about a style of mandolin making in parts of Germany which uses this exact idea. So, Bohemian. 

Here’s a video of the amazing Joe Brent playing it:

Joe’s very entertaining tumbler of mandolin reviews is here.

Sometimes you fall in love with an instrument as you’re building it. In fact, I usually do, which can make it difficult to be objective once it’s all done. So I’ll leave it to others to judge it. But my personal assessment is that, as Yvonne had suggested about hers, this cello has remarkable clarity and tone across the range that it plays, thunderous lows, and sweet highs. I’m almost finished with an octave mandolin version of this, and I can’t wait to hear that…


Isabella Mandocello

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage       In the beginning, there were 3 television networks to choose from.

Sometime in the early ’60’s, new channels began to pop up in the UHF band, that had the feeling, early on,  of almost being Pirate TV, since they had little comercial support, and therefore broadcast a lot of stuff that you would never see on network TV;   B-movies, public domain cartoons (including Max Fleischer classics that had been neglected for too long) and, as if to accomodate my exhuberant pubescence, foreign films from Europe, but mostly from Italy.  Sometimes shown in the Late Night slot, they were worth sneaking down to watch when everyone else was asleep, because they seemed to be Top Secret contact with the world on the other side of the Puritanical Iron Curtain.

They often starred exotic, dark, and confident women with names like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabridgida, and the much lesser known Isabella Mandocello.

In my search for unique forms for my instruments, and to address the fetish for scrolls in the mandolin community without building yet another Lloyd Loar ripoff, and to create an instrument that really looked like a mandocello and not a guitarocello, it occured to me to make an instrument with a violin type scroll integral to the headstock.  While looking for similar instruments, the only luthiers who seemed to be doing something close were Italian.  So in tribute to them, and to the beatiful work that they do, I am calling this the Isabella line, and the first of the series is the Isabella Mandocello.

The neck and headstock are carved from a single piece of big leaf maple  from Marksman Woods, who found the perfect chunk for me to work with.  It is reinforced with 2 carbon fiber rods with a HotRod two way adjustable truss rod in between.  The top is a Sitka spruce wedge set from Alaska Woods (thanks again, Brett!) and the back and sides are from a nice slab of Honduras mahogany given to me by my friend Matt Sowell.  Rosewood fretboard, bone nut and solid ebony adjustable bridge.

I  made a custom trapeze for this, which creates downward pressue on the strings behind the bridge, which increases the angle, and therefore the pressure that transmits sound to the soundboard.  The body is based on Loar’s K- style, with carefully tuned tone bars and f-holes, producing rich response across its range.  It is strung with a standard D’Addario mandocello set of strings.

LouAnn, Queen of the Rodeo

I wrote an ironic waltz about a rodeo,
a long, long time ago.  Here’s a verse:

Here’s lovely LouAnn, she’s the queen
of the show

Her bodice it glistens with golden lame

All the bronc riders know her

but she saves what she can

For the oil man she’ll marry someday.

It’s a Rod-e-o

It’s a Rod-e-o,

It’s a wild and a westernish


Come a ti-yi-yay

Come a ti-yi-yo

It’s a rod-e-o,

rod-e-o show.

It was kind of corny, and I never sang
it outside my house, but it had a lovely melody and a hypnotic
cadence.  It comes pre-programmed into this mandolin, assuming you
know what strings to fret.

I came across an amazing bunch of what
I now know to be African mahogany one time, while picking through a
stack of Philippine mahogany at a lumber yard.  Philippine mahogany
often goes by the name ‘luan” and at the time was much cheaper than
clear pine (about a buck a board ft.) and was a good stable
alternative for trim that would be painted , particularly outdoors,
as it has excellent water resistance.  It’s so cheap that it’s used
as the veneer skin on underlayment plywood, the cheapest of the
cheap.  The boards are somewhat nicer that the rotary cut veneer, but
could best be described as beige in color, and not of much use to

But I came across several boards in the
stack which were too heavy, too red in color, and which rang
melodically  as I moved them around in the stacks. Just under 12”
wide, they had remarkable ribboned figure, and no cup at all.  I
bought as much as I could based on what I had in my pocket, and on
the fact that, lumber storage was not a feature of the house I lived
in at the time.

I used it, over the years, in several
projects, a couple pieces of furniture, and when I first learned to
hand cut dovetails, I made a fully dovetailed chest in which to store
the more precious items in  my antique tool collection.

Flash forward a few years, and I don’t
have much left, but its density and figure make it perfect for the
back of a mandolin, being wide enough to do in one piece, it carves
beautifully (with sharp enough tools) and it rings like a bell.  The
flashy figure, the “calico” binding of purpleheart and holly, and
the fact that it was found in a stack of “luan,” made the name
that I gave it as I worked inevitable.


Here are sound smples recorded by the terrific mandolinist, Mike Plunkett:

04 Ta Scendi Dalle Stelle

05 Cherokee Trail

06 Cherokee Trail 2

07 Ashokan Farewell

About Redhead Mandolins

I build musical instruments, mostly in the mandolin family, in my workshop in Woodbury, NJ.
Although I’ve played mostly the guitar my whole life, I’ve always been enchanted by the sound of a well made mandolin, and in recent years, have also come to love the sound of the mandola, octave mandolin and mandocello, and have studied the art and science of their construction through my own research. I have a limited repertoire on these , that I play for my own amusement, and not publicly.
In this blog, I write about the inspirations/consternations that are part of the creative process for me, in a way that is hopefully entertaining even to those with only a marginal interest in instruments. This has proven to be confusing to some mandolin purists who visit this site, who don’t always get what the non-mandolin jibber jabber is all about.
There is a large number of mandolin enthusiasts who believe that a scroll is an especially important feature of a mandolin. The scroll that was designed by Lloyd Loar in the early part of the last century, is, I believe, his signature. Mr. Loar left us a wealth of acoustic knowledge and research, and I don’t think it is necessary to steal his designs in order to make an instrument that is beautiful to look at and to hear and play.  I’m not saying I’ll never build an instrumennt with a scroll, but I have no interest in the exact replication of someone else’s design for what was, after all, a factory produced instrument. My Lex Luthier post elaborates on this.

I try to make each of my instruments unique in appearance, while staying strictly within the parameters of good acoustic design, using the bounty of forest products that are available that are beautiful to look at, have good acoustic properties, and that are harvested responsibly.
I chose the name “Redhead” because of my predilection for using Padauk or bloodwoood as the veneer of choice on my headstocks, and is not in any way related to the color of the hair I no longer have.

If you would like to contact me about purchasing an instrument or custom ordering ne, I can be reached at

Mandocello Redux

One way to tell you’re approaching geezerhood is when you start to tell stories that begin,” About 25 years ago…”  The other is when your digital pictures come out badly, and you have to apologize for the quality.

Sorry about the pictures, I’ll get a kid to take some new ones.
About 25 years ago, the small carpentry firm I worked for got a job installing some very large crown molding in an apartment in one of the fine old buildings on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.  The client was the mother of one of our regular clients ,and also had a son who was a very well known TV game show producer and personality (Gong!)  As it turned out,  she was a bit of a perfectionist.

This crown was unwieldy, probably 12″ overall from bottom to top, made of molded foam encased in some coating that when painted would appear to be the original elaborate plaster molding that was in some other parts of the apartment.  At $30. a running ft, 1985 prices, it needed to be cut and handled and put up very carefully.  The room was large with only a couple irregularities, but it was still necessary for me to build a miter box that I could use with a hand saw, this being in the days before large sliding miter saws that one could use now.

Everything went fine, except that there  was a pair of windows on the wall overlooking the square, the top molding of which came within a foot of the 12 foot ceilings before the molding,  and so now were about 4 inches from the bottom of the crown. The problem was, the gap was 3 1/2 inches on one end, and 4 1/4 on the other end 7  feet away ( I think you’re getting the picture that this was no ordinary apartment.)  It was an old building, and either the ceiling or the windows had settled.  It didn’t matter which, because there was nothing that could be done,.  There are tricks you can do with crown, that I won’t go into here, but this stuff was so inflexible, and there was no obvious hump in the ceiling that could be scribed.  We crossed our fingers and hoped that the overall magnificence of the job we did would cause her to overlook a minor flaw that would be even less noticable once it was painted to match the ceiling.

She walked in from her shopping trip, eyes immediately going to the windows, and said, “Well it’s crooked!”  We patiently explained about the age of the building, the nature of the product, the paint ,etc, to which she replied, “Well, if that’s how it’s going to look, I don’t want it.  Just take it down.”

I put in a call to my boss, who rarely came out to any job, because I knew he was not going to be happy about the $3,000 in materials that no one would ever use, even if we could salvage it, to say nothing of the cost of a couple days putting it up.  We stood around staring at the gap, my boss, myself, and Frank, the older plasterer who worked with us.  He thought maybe he could reason with her, but Frank assured him that she was adamant.  Finally I said,” You know, I can fix this, but you’re not going to like it.”

There were 3 legs of vertical trim on the windows, and I explained that I could cut 3/4″ off the top of one end, 3/8″ off the middle, leave the other one, and lower the top molding to be parallel with the crown.  OK, it was a radical approach.  The boss looked around the room, measuring I’m sure,  and multiplying  by $30, and 15 seconds later said “Do it.”  Frank, who was old school,thought it was crazy, but I pointed out the large reveals at the top, and the dark finish om the wood.   He just shook his head.

So that’s what I did.  I’m not proud of it, except that it worked.  Frank was still there after I had left, and told me she walked in, looked at it, and said, “Well, that’s better!  How did he fix it?”  Frank said, “I’m not saying anything.”  And then she provided the punchline, that I’ve used a hundred times in the years since.

“Well, I just don’t know why he didn’t do it right the first time.”


The first mandocello I built looked great and sounded wonderful.  I thought I had made the neck too narrow at the top, but it was playable.  But the neck developed other issues.  It’s amazing the amount of force that is required to tune one of these up with the large gauge strings used, more or less 300 lbs., enough to cause a slight bow in the neck, and since I had used a non-adjustable truss rod, there was nothing that could be done.

This one, I made a wider neck, also laminated, but this time reinforced with carbon fiber rods AND and a two way adjustable Hot Rod truss from StewMac.  I did an f-hole top this time, to suggest a traditional cello, and again did a little marquetry on the back.  This detail has another purpose, one that should never need to be served, but having applied it with hide glue, it could be heated up and removed  to access  the neck without taking the top or the back off.

I think it came out pretty well.  I just don’t know why I didn’t do it right the first time.

Sitka spruce top, rosewood back and sides, padauk and lacewood reinforced neck, marquetry of bloodwood, ebony, holly and maple.


Here are some sound files, recorded by Mike Plunkett:

01 El Noy de la Mare

02 Living in the Country (Bahaman Folk Song)

03 Shenandoah





The Dad Factor

My Dad made dulcimers.  He ended up making a lot of dulcimers.  The best estimate my siblings and I can come up with is somewhere between 800 and 1000.  They kept getting nicer and nicer, too, though he only raised his price for one maybe once in 30-odd years.

The family lore is that I was responsible for his pursuit of what started as a hobby, but became a lifestyle for him. I had bought a dulcimer kit on a trip out west, and when I put the kit together, I wouldn’t let him help or participate, in spite of his experience in woodworking.  There were a couple reasons for this; first, it was an incredibly easy build.  Second was my uneasy relationship with his Shop, which was not always the same shop, but he always had one, and it was his sanctuary, one he deserved,  for respite from 4 kids and a demanding job.  My older brother Bo was more welcome there than I was, and when I would try to join the two of them, they would do an elaborate dance, subconsciously, I’m sure, that made me feel like wherever I stood was in the way.  So I’d leave.

I’ve often said that my dad taught me everything I know about how to be a man.  I’ve had to figure the rest of this shit out for myself.

There may have been paybacks in my mind when I saw him chomping at the bit to get involved in my project.  My Mom says he would sneak out to the shop after I was done working on it to assess my progress.  He was surprised and pleased when I finally finished it, but what rocked his world to the core was when I strung it up and started playing it, the dulcimer being second in difficulty of playing to the kazoo, but he didn’t realize it at the time.   It became his mission, I think, to get these instruments into the hands of all who thought they couldn’t play an instrument.

Growing up, our house had always had 10 or 12 instruments laying around, auction finds that he couldn’t resist.  Aside from the pump organs, which were playable, but for young kids were like trying to play a keyboard while working on the StairMaster, they were all variations on the zither.  Like the Guitar-Harp Zither, that resembled neither, and upon which I am willing to bet no one ever played a tune and had someone observe “Wow, that was rockin’!”  All these old zithers, and autoharps with missing pads on the chord bars, needed to be tuned with a piano wrench, which even if we kids had one, we had no reference for an actual note anywhere.

These monsters are a relic of the time just before the invention of the radio and the phonograph, when people were desperate to bring some music into the house, but not smart enough to buy something they might actually be able to play.

Try to find tabulature for this!

When my brothers and I started playing guitar, and getting better, I think my Dad started to overcompensate for the years of bringing crappy, unplayable instruments into the house to torment us with their potential, only to plunk and twang unmelodiously in return for our efforts.

So about the time he started making dulcimers in earnest,  he started buying and trading in all kinds of playable instruments, to the point where when you entered his house, it was difficult to find a place to sit or to lean an umbrella, because they were everywhere.

He kept making dulcimers up to his last days, but the collecting and trading tapered off out of necessity and waning interest, I guess.  He had one instrument of note when he died, and Bo  sent it to George Gruehn in Nashville to sell on my Mom”s behalf.  He loved the craftsmanship of this one, and I’ve only realized as I’m writing this,  I had forgotten about it until now, I swear to you.  But I think the Old Man continues to inspire me.

It was a circa 1920 A model Gibson mandolin.


Padauk headstock veneer, I'm considering the name "Redhead Instruments "

Before I had even finished making my first mandola, I realized I would have to make a mandocello.   Especially after hearing one playing a Bach cello suite, here.  I recently finished this one,  which is in the old K style that I prefer, and have bought the wood to make another, which I’m looking forward to.

I’m happy with the looks of it, but I’m thrilled with the sound, rich and deep and full.  I only wish I could play it like Mike Marshall, but all things in due time.  But my plan is to sell this one, and probably the next one, too, so who knows.

I didn’t have a plan or blueprint for this, so I worked from as many pictures of vintage Gibsons as I could find, and used construction details from the mandolin plans.  It has a well arched top, and like the A mandolin, this eliminates the need for exessive bracing, using only a single cross grain brace right below the soundhole.  I  modified a trapeze tailpiece intended for a guitar, adding a piece of ebony at the front as a tensioner and guide for the strings.  I reslotted the tailpiece to accept both ball end and loopend strings, and in fact, I’ve used a combination of the two on this, as I preferred the sound of bass guitar  strings for the lower C set to the loop end ones that came with the D’Addario Mandocello set.

The back and sides are rosewood,  I’d like to do a carved maple back next.  I dressed the back up with a little bit of marquetry where it meets the neck, using some checkerboard trim I had made up for a banjo resonator, and that was too pretty to sit in my parts drawers.