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


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





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 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 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.