Posts from the ‘mandolin making’ 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.

A Minor Digression


Several weeks ago, I became ill from the copious wood dust, much of it exotic and of varying degrees of toxicity, that is a byproduct of making musical instruments.  I’d been using a respirator recently, after having noticed the effects of not wearing one, namely, hacking up lung and gasping for breath, which are a distraction from the job at hand.  So I’ve been reorganizing my shop, installing a dust collection system and air filtration system, and even with these precautions you will not find me out there without a respirator, at least when cutting and sanding is going on.

As a result, I’m not ready to post new pictures right now, but I’ll be back at it soon enough, I’m working on a series of violin scroll headstock instruments, at least one each of mandolin, mandola and mandocello, possibly an octave thrown in.

But I wanted to post something here, just to keep the blog breathing.\

Two Christmases ago, I made a banjo for my son Travis, and he is finally getting around to playing around with it, although he has no experience with any fretted instrument.  ( By way of encouragement, Trav, the learning curve for your first instrument is very flat for a long time, then curves rapidly upward with your comfort level.)

I also made kalimbas for all three kids, out of scraps of 5/4 padauk that were too small for any mandolin parts, but were perfect for kalimbas.  I think they came out pretty nice, although I don’t think any of them have actually played them much.  I use the one I made for myself to test the sound of a mando before the strings are on, by holding it against the body where the bridge will be.   If anyone who stumbles onto this blog is interested, I’d be happy to share the design, which is quite easy, yet elegant, as they appear to be cared out of a solid block.

The source of inspiration for the banjo and the kalimbas was undoubtedly Bela Fleck’s movie Throw Down Your Heart, which I had watched several times the preceding fall If they had watched it, they might have been inspired by the kalimba playing of some of the people in the movie, particularly this woman:

I heard this several times before I realized the lyrics were in English, or pidgin, at least, and although I try to keep things secular around here, I love this song, and it brings to mind Marc Cohn’s great line “Ma’am, I am tonight.”

But there was another song in the movie that moved me so deeply that I experienced a moment of  dharma bum kensho, or glimpse at enlightenment.

Certain music has always served as a meditative shorcut for me, and I first noticed this when I was maybe 14 or so, listening to Dve Brubeck’s Time Out, and finding myself in a transcendental state of awareness and relaxation that was profound, even though I had no context for it  other than that I enjoyed it.  Certain Indian ragas can take me there in no time at all,  other recordings that I won’t go into here also have this effect.

But as I watched Bela’s movie, I drifted off, more like sleep I’m afraid, only to awaken,( but not fully),  to the sound of a voice that seemed to be singing from across thousands of years and across thousands of miles.  In my dream state, I flew on that song, which it turns out, is about a songbird who cries for mankind’s suffering, across the world to India, Japan, Hawaii, New Orleans, Nashville, Ireland, down to Greece and then the Middle East ,and finally across the Sahara to Mali, from whence it originated.  And all along the way, the music in those places stopped, so that it could listen to its Mother.  I woke up invigorated and inspired in a way I seldom have. I don’t expect you to hear the song the way I did, but I wish you could.  The singer, Oumou Sangare, is a superstar in Mali, and to me as well.

So, my shop is nearly sanitized, my lungs are back to 80% capacity, and I’m excited to get back to work on the stuff this blog is really supposed to be about.

Sunburst Octave Mandolin Blues


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the only recordings made of Robert Johnson.

My love of the blues started when I was 16, listening to the eclectic mix being broadcast from WYSO, the radio station of Antioch College.One late night as I was trying to sleep, I heard Taj Mahal playing “Corrina,” and I was hooked. I started buying the old classic recordings, often in anthology form, lacking a good record store that would have carried albums by individual blues artists. Some amazed me, like Big Bill Broonzy, and Rev. Gary Davis, with their fingering and picking ability.

Bukka White stunned me with his originality, , you can hear influences of traditional work songs and some songs lean a little toward traditional blues. But for the most part his playing style, the tunings he played in, the melodies and the heartbreakingly personal lyrics are as fresh today as ever. Despite his Delta origins, I feel like Bukka White was playing something other than what we think of as traditional blues. I believe he was an unschooled musical genius of the highest order.

“The Blues” appears to be a simple structure or format, but it is made elegant by the endless improvisational possibilities it inspires, and by the blues scale, originating in African music, a chromatic scale with a lowered third and seventh, which when alternated with the normal third and seventh, produce the patterns we recognize as the blues

But no one who plays the blues will dispute that Robert Johnson, in his short, mysterious career, established himself as the King. By the time I got around to listening to Johnson, I already knew a bunch of his songs, covered by other people, like ‘Crossroads,” “Love in Vain,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”

His guitar work can still drop my jaw, and the intricacies that may be lost on modern listeners unaccustomed to the crappy recording technology of the time, are better explained by another blues aficionado, Kieth Richards.

There are sad blues, and happy blues and pissed off blues, but no one has captured the essence of the lonely blues as well as Robert Johnson did in Crossroads:

I was standing at the crossroads
trying to flag a ride
Nobody seemed to know me
Everybody passed me by.

When I bought my Gibson L-00 in a little music store in Brunswick, Ga back in 1972, I was told that it was ca.1938. It was beat up a little, looked like it had never seen a case, but remains to this day one of the best sounding guitars I’ve ever heard. I paid $100 for it, and was offered $1000 for it 3 days later by a working musician from the N.Y. Area who was in town. I turned him down, because I knew I had found my instrument, and the looks of it, and the fact that it was an orphan from a southern state convinced me it would be the perfect conduit for channeling the blues.
Years later, the mystique was embellished by seeing one of the few known pictures of Robert Johnson, playing what appeared to be a guitar identical to mine. That he was playing up until his death in 1939 allowed me the fantasy that this could actually Be his guitar, and even though I knew how unlikely that was, no one could really dispute it. Recently, using the ever increasing resources of the web, I located a page that dates Gibsons fairly precisely on attributes other than serial numbers, which are fairly unreliable for early Gibson instruments. There is a banner decal at the top of the peghead that reads, “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough,” and it turns out that Gibson only used that decal on the L-00 in 1941 and 1942. So it’s not Robert Johnson’s guitar, but I knew that. It’s MY guitar.


I recently made an octave mandolin, and although I typically finish my instruments using the French polish technique, I decided to do a tobacco sunburst as a tribute to my guitar. Using Color tone spray lacquers from Stew-Mac, in Vintage Amber, Cherry Red and Tobacco Brown, and then a number of clear coats, I think I got it pretty close. To get an exact match, I’d have to throw it in the back of my pickup for a year or so.


I like the sound of the octave mandolin, and as a guitarist accustomed to a fat neck, wide fret board guitar, I find it a little easier to transition to this than to the mandolin, although what I like about the mandolin is how little distance your fingers have to travel to play fast scales, etc. I’m going to make another one of these soon, to sell, but I think I’m going to keep this one for myself. It just looks like it’s mine.

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

O-de-o

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
woodworkers.

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.

LouAnn.

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 nevfahs@verizon.net

Rhapsody in B/W


20 years ago, or so, I was working
in a condo on Locust St. which was owned by a gentleman whose prize
possession was an Aeolian Duo-Art piano, and hundreds of piano rolls,
arranged on shelves that covered every wall, or nearly so.  As I
learned from him, this instrument was a “reproducing piano” which
differs from a player piano in that it had hundreds of air hoses
inside , arranged and connected in such a way that they controlled
the force with which the original pianist struck the keys, the pedals
he used, as well as the notes.  The effect was a virtual performance
by the original pianist on a full sized grand piano in your parlor.
Rolls were made by by some of the best contemporary soloists, and
occasionally by the composer himself.

In 1987, a cd was released of George
Gershwin’s piano rolls, one of them a Duo-Art full reproduction
version of  him playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” which gave me a new
perspective on a tune we’ve heard (or at least heard parts of) all
our lives.  The biggest surprise is the tempo at which he played it,
in parts probably twice as fast as you’ve heard, the great
instrumental ability he had, and the overall playful and upbeat
feeling he conveyed in it, which contrasts with most orchestral
versions I’ve heard.  It no doubt is one of the best pieces of
American music ever written, and maybe the daunting task of bringing
a fully orchestrated version to life imparts a seriousness that was
never intended. The effect of watching and hearing this is like seeing the ghost of Gershwin, 26 years old when he wrote it, having a lot of fun playing it, a rock and roller at heart.

George G. originally wrote it under the working title “American Rhapsody,” but his brother Ira convinced him to call it Rhapsody in Blue, after seeing an exhibition of Whistler paintings, with names like “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” etc.

THE MANDOLIN
The black and white binding, made of holly and ebony, that I made for this mandolin, reminded me of piano keys, which reminded me of Gershwin, so I think a good name for this one is
“Rhapsody in B/W.”

Here are some sound samples of the “Rhapsody” mandolin recorded by my new friend, Mike Plunkett.

01 Jesu, joy of Man’s desriring

02 John Brown’s March

03 Irish
European flamed maple backs and sides, Highly figured Englemann spruce top (from Alaskawoods.com) black and white rosette, ebony and holly highlights, I even located a black tailpiece for this.
I made the sides deeper for this, by 1/2”, it has great volume as a result, a surprise effect was that the sound is bright and not as round as I would have expected.