Player's Review 3/30/12:
– Because I read guitar reviews to learn about other instruments and the luthiers who made them, I find reviews that gush about particular instruments to be boring. I’m pleased that the writer loves their instrument, but then I question how much of the review is really descriptive, and how much is colored by that ‘honeymoon feeling’, especially since those reviews rarely seem to have anything to say about the instrument that is not superlative. So no gushing here, even when there is reason to. Specifically, if I ever use the word 'stunning' or any of its derivative forms in these reviews, may I be flogged repeatedly and unmercifully with a handful of rusty Black Diamond guitar strings (12-string, medium gauge).
– I am on record that I have found it a rarity to encounter an instrument that I would call ‘Exceptional’ (which is my subjective category for the small handful of the finest instruments I have ever played), and my personal quest is to own a few of these Exceptional instruments. This is the yardstick against which I evaluate instruments.
– Evaluating a mandolin is a personal, subjective thing, involving qualitative judgements, but in describing the experience to others I strive to be as empirical and methodical in my descriptions as possible. The terms 'poor', 'fair', 'good', 'very good' and 'excellent' fall along a five-point quality continuum that most should be familiar with.
– How would you describe the taste of an orange to someone who never ate one? Similarly, all discussions of tone ultimately devolve into metaphorical language as we attempt to describe in words that which can only be experienced first-hand through the senses. We also tend to choose metaphors that are value-laden (‘sweet’ is good, ‘muddy’ is bad, etc.). I will strive to use value-neutral terms unless a value-laden one seems more accurately descriptive.
Around 1981, when I was gigging full-time, I visited John Monteleone's shop on Long Island where I played an oval-hole Grand Artist model he had hanging on the wall. This was the first 'hybrid' I had seen, combining an F4's oval-hole with a F5's 15-fret neck and floating fingerboard extension. With the exception of the sound hole, it was virtually identical to the f-hole Grand Artist John had built for me the year before, but with a unique sound, blending, I thought, the best qualities of oval- and f-hole. I bought it on the spot, and while the f-hole was my main gigging instrument, the oval became my favorite, and the one I played for fun. I had also once owned a superb 1915 F4 (of which I was the second owner!), with the classic vintage oval-hole sound. When I went back to playing solo, I re-focused on guitar, and as my growing family placed increasing financial demands on the household, all of these mandolins passed into other hands. A few years ago, my interest in mandolin was re-kindled and I acquired a great little 1920 Gibson A model, but I chafed at its short, thick neck, flat fingerboard, and modest volume and projection. So I began looking for a luthier who could build me a long-necked oval-hole with a radiused fingerboard and raised extension, and a sound reminiscent of my oval-holed Monteleone. After months of research online and haunting the discussion forums at Mandolin Cafe and Mando Hangout, my search led me to Oregon luthier, Stephen Holst.
I had helped in the design of a few of my guitars, but in Steve I found a custom builder who was willing to let me take the lead in designing virtually every feature of my 'ultimate' F4, stepping in only when my imagination conflicted with practical realities. Photoshop jockey that I am, I sampled photos from a few of Steve's other instruments to make a mockup of my 'Dream F4,' sent it to him and said "Make me this:"
As you can see from the photos of the real instrument at the top, except for a slimmer scroll and a slightly wider tailpiece, it's pretty much the same mandolin.
Playing an instrument is a complex sensory experience involving Sight, Sound and Touch, and here are my thoughts regarding each of these dimensions for this mandolin.
Visually, I was aiming for a design that made reference to the lines of both the classic Gibson F-style and the Monteleone Grand Artist, as well as Steve's own guitars and mandolins, but with a fresh and original look. Several features of the design were simply my tweaks of elements borrowed from Steve's other instruments. Even though some of these tweaks were relatively minor, they often required building new forms or other additional work, but Steve never lost his enthusiasm for the project or his commitment to my satisfaction. He said 'yes' to pretty much everything.
As an homage to my 1915 F4, I also wanted a deep, rich red color, which would be complemented with black binding and ebony fittings. A single line of thin white purling was used to define the contours of body, headstock, fingerboard and rosette. I specified a single piece of quilted maple for the back & the same for the sides, for its great looks and as a departure from the book-matched flamed maple on the Monteleone and Gibson. The 3-piece neck is ribbon curl maple with a contrasting black center strip. I developed a headstock profile that made reference to the classic Gibson contour, but had a unique shape integrated with the rest of the mandolin's design. Its rounded point would be a motif replicated along the center axis in the tailpiece, truss rod cover and fret markers. The EVO frets were selected for their durability, but their gold color also complemented the brass string posts in the tailpiece, the headplate's metal flake logo and the relic brass of the tuners. Finally, I don't care much for pearl, but I do love beautiful wood, so, where decorative accents were needed, we used deep red cocobolo and ebony to complete the red & black color theme. The varnished cocobolo on the head plate and heel cap will hold its color fairly well, while the polished but unfinished cocobolo in the pick guard, fret markers and tailpiece will eventually fade and darken to look a bit more like fine Brazilian rosewood.
The Holst's lines, coloring and gloss came out pretty much exactly as specified, with a 'fit & finish' that is very good-to-excellent. I have owned instruments with nitrocellulose and UV polyester finishes, but this is my first experience with an oil varnish finish. It is glassy and appears a bit thicker, especially along the edges, than those I am used to, but I understand that it will continue to cure for several months, shrinking into the wood, and losing a bit of its gloss. Steve said he tends to leave the finish slightly thicker along the edges since, as those are principal contact areas when held in playing position, those are areas that tend to get the most play-wear. This mandolin's serial number is 12201212, which Steve translates this way: "The serial code is a combination of number and date. Yours is the 122nd instrument I've made and the date the back was completed and glued to the sides was December 12 of 2012."
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
At 2.4 pounds I consider the overall weight typical for a mandolin equipped with a truss-rod. Like most such mandolins, the balance point is weighted a bit toward the neck, but the Holst doesn't feel particularly neck-heavy. When seated, with the left knee raised in playing position, the small, treble-side points are not as functional as those of a typical F5, which provide secure contact points on the top of the left thigh and inside of the right thigh, but that was a trade-off I was willing to make for a sleeker, more contemporary design. Once the finish has cured a bit more I will fit a ToneGard on the back, which I have found helps secure the instrument in playing position when pressed against the body, without dampening the volume or projection. The rounded-V profile of the neck fits my hand exactly. When I say 'exactly' I mean just that. During the build process, I sent Steve drawings and other impressions of my optimum neck mass, profile and fingerboard radius. From these he made a pine mockup of the neck and sent it to me for testing. I spent a lot of time gripping it over several days, made some fine adjustments with sandpaper, and then sent it back for him to use as a template. The actual neck feels just like the template. The string spacing at bridge and nut, as well as the spacing between the strings of each pair was specified to match that of my vintage A model, and nut and bridge are radiused to match the arc of the fingerboard.
Much of the impetus to have this custom mandolin made for me, and indeed, my first Monteleone, came from a desire to have an instrument whose playability was maximized for my abilities. As I told Steve, I wanted all of the challenges to come from the music, and not from a struggle with the instrument to produce it. This instrument's playability may be its greatest virtue. The hard EVO frets, 6" fretboard radius, low action and customized neck profile provide a playability that is almost perfectly matched to my style. The technical challenges of playing have become so transparent on this instrument that I now have no excuses for not playing my best – a daunting proposition, but just what I asked for.
For a fair assessment, let me start with the sonic goals I gave Steve for this instrument. First, I described my impression of the vintage oval-hole sound to him as having these qualities:
1. A low-to-mid range (G & D) with strong, throaty depth and warmth to the timbre; not overly bright on any of the wound strings.
2. A mid-to-high end (A & E) that has a pure, bell-like clarity with little overtone complexity or metallic edge to the timbre.
3. A volume and projection that are more suited to small intimate spaces than large, open ones or jam sessions with more than a few instruments – a moderate dynamic range without a lot of headroom.
4. Less 'pop' to the attack of individual notes than one would find in an f-hole instrument.
A bit more sustain and less percussiveness than the average f-hole.
6. Only fair-to-good 'chop,' or explosive projection when playing closed chords.
In a nutshell, for this mandolin I asked for the tone/timbre of a vintage Gibson oval-hole as described above, but with more of an F5's volume, 'pop,' and projection, and even more sustain. I found several audio and video clips online of mandolin sounds similar to what I was looking for and sent them to Steve. He concluded that our goals would be best served with an X-braced red spruce top matched with traditional maple back & sides.
A good instrument sounds good even when it's new. For the first week or two under tension, the wood needs to adjust to being part of a mechanical system for producing sound, to "forget it's a tree," as some have said, but then most of its characteristic sound begins to emerge. It will still sound immature for some time as the finish continues to cure and continued playing brings out more of its sonic qualities, and its voice will ripen once it has some years of playing on it, but fairly soon its essential qualities become readily apparent. This instrument was first strung up on March 1.
Steve told me I could expect the trebles to come into their voice first in a new instrument, with the low end to come along a bit more gradually. Perhaps because I'm a sucker for a good low end, and tend to give it more attention, I found the opposite to be the case, but the balance now seems to be fairly stable. When the strings are played individually, the balance is very good-to-excellent anywhere on the fretboard. When strummed, there is good note separation and all strings can be heard distinctly.
I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm strum, then leaning in close until the sound fades to silence. I do this 4 or 5 times, then average the times. I’m usually within a second each time. My 1980 Sobell cittern is my benchmark instrument for a long sustain at a ridiculous 42 seconds. My three custom guitars all have a sustain between 30-35 seconds. I expect a mandolin to have a sustain somewhat shorter than a guitar, so I consider this one's 20-22 second sustain to be better than average, and very good-to-excellent for my purposes. The sustain has increased by a second or two over the weeks since I first tuned it up. The D and A tones have the longest decay, with the harmonic partials falling away after about 10-12 seconds. UPDATE 4/15/15: As with other mandolins I have played, the sustain has lengthened over time and the low end is now a bit longer than that of the midrange and trebles.
Volume & Projection
For an oval-hole, the volume is very good-to-excellent and exceeds my expectations a bit. This is perhaps due to the raised fingerboard extension, allowing the entire top to vibrate as a single plate – one of the virtues of the hybrid design. When heard from six feet away, while played by another, the projected volume seems at least equal to that heard by the player – another pleasant surprise.
This quality describes both the energy required to move the strings (its sensitivity) as well as the speed at which it responds to that energy (its 'pop'). The Holst's sensitivity is good and I expect it to improve with playing. I've found red spruce tops to require a bit more energy to move, especially when they're new, and this one is no exception. Its 'pop' is very good, reminiscent of a good F5, and another feature I've found typical of red spruce tops.
The depth or spaciousness of the sound is what gives it dimension and presence. I think of it as how far down in the body the sound seems to come from and how completely the sound chamber is pushing out sound. As one might expect of a new instrument, this mandolin still sounds a bit tight, but it already shows great promise in developing a deep, woody voice.
The character of the harmonic frequencies as an indicator of how completely an instrument seems to be vibrating is what many call resonance. However, I make a distinction for it here as a measure of fullness in the sound I can both hear AND feel. This is a very resonant box already, which I expect to only improve as playing loosens it up, but it already vibrates pretty freely, and there are some chopped chords at various positions that make the instrument really throb in my hands.
Overtones are the harmonic frequencies complementing the fundamental tones. Some limit the definition to partials of the plucked strings, but I use it to encompass sympathetic vibrations in the unplucked strings as well. As luthier Alan Carruth puts it, "An acoustic (instrument) acts as a complex filter, reducing the output of some frequencies and enhancing others relative to the mix the plucked string produces. Every (instrument) is a bit different in this regard." An instrument that generates a lot of overtones is said to be 'complex' or 'sparkling,' while one with fewer overtones is said to be 'dry.' These complementary frequencies add tonal color and give the sound personality. I wasn't looking for a lot of complexity here, but more of the fundamentals, without a lot of extra frequencies coloring the notes. This is one reason we chose a red spruce top as having a dryer (dry=less overtones) tone than, say, Euro spruce. This mandolin's tone is as dry as I'd hoped for, although its strong sustain means that the open string frequencies (G, D, A, E) all ring out clearly when those notes or their fifths are played on another string. UPDATE 4/15/15: The mandolin's overtones have noticeably increased in number and complexity giving the timbre a sweet, choral quality.
If the sustain and overtones give the sound 'personality,' timbre describes the quality of that personality, combining the fundamentals, overtones and all other resonant frequencies generated by both the vibrating strings and the vibrating wood to create a particular instrument's unique voice. It's what makes a middle 'C' played on a clarinet sound different from a middle 'C' played on a trumpet. It is this 'quality of personality' I believe most folks refer to when they speak generally about an instrument's 'tone,' and this is a subjective area where metaphor becomes the standard currency. To reiterate, the goal here was to combine the tone of a vintage oval-hole with some of the greater volume, projection and 'pop' of a great f-hole. As regards the tone, it's hard for me to find fault with this instrument. It has a vintage oval's dark woodiness on the low end, and its purity and sweetness on the high end. There is a creamy quality throughout the tone, especially when equipped with flat-wound strings. The low end has a pleasing warmth, and the trebles don't sparkle with a lot of overtones so much as they glow like pure, silver notes popping off the strings with no hint of harshness – exactly what I was hoping for.
The task I set for Steve Holst was straightforward: to build a mandolin to my design, that would replace my wonderful oval-holed Monteleone hybrid. Granted, it's been fifteen years or more since I sold it, but the Holst sounds strikingly similar to my best memory of the Monteleone. In looks, playability and tone the Holst hits the mark pretty closely, and the areas in which it is less than perfect are relatively trivial, especially considering its many virtues in the most important of its qualities, its voice. It is still a fairly 'green' voice, and I expect to hear continued development in its depth, response, volume, sustain and resonance as it gets played in and everything loosens up, but for a new instrument, I find it to have an elegant, gratifying tone that is both exciting and familiar. Tone is something you can't do much about; an instrument either has it or it doesn't. To my great satisfaction, this one has it, and I hear much potential in an instrument that I already find impressive, and have high hopes that it will become a truly outstanding mandolin. So is it Exceptional, my own subjective category for the Best of the Best? Time will tell, but I think the fact that it compares favorably to a Monteleone is already pretty exceptional.