View Full Version : "Classic" Celtic Manod
Is there a type of mandolin that could be considered "the" mandolin to use when playing Celtic music.
Flat top/round/oval hole, arched top/oval hole, A style/F hole, etc, F Style/f holes, etc.
At the moment I'm using a Mid-Mo, M3, and like it a lot, but am ready to upgrade.
If I do any playing other than Celtic, it will just be dips into other musical genre.
The Celtic mandolin would be a Sobell. Following his lead, the style of mandolin now most widely associated with Celtic music is a teardrop-shaped oval-hole flattop, flatback, with clear blonde top. With your Mid-Mo, you're already pretty much there in the style. Going towards UK builders such as Fylde or Freshwater would be more of a sidewards move than an upgrade, so I'd say that there isn't really a clear incentive to change instruments unless you want to go straight for the Sobell.
The bonus features on the recent Planxty DVD gave a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the Irish mandolin. In some of the brief historical clips from the early 1970s they included, Andy Irvine was playing a Portuguese bandolim, complete with the distinctive Portuguese tuners (http://www.mandolincafe.net/cgi-bin/ikonboard.cgi?act=ST;f=7;t=19003;hl=portuguese+tun ers). In the same clip, Donal Lunny was playing a Greek bowlback bouzouki. In another clip, seemingly of much the same vintage, both Andy and Donal were playing flatback mandolin/bouzouki, much as they do today. So, it seems that during the two or so years of Planxty's original line-up, they were the impetus for Sobell (presumably) to start building what has since become the quintessential "Celtic" mandolin. It seems further that the immediate inspiration was the Portuguese flattop.
Yes, I would agree with that. The Indian rosewood backed small and large bodied Sobell instruments define for me what people now appear to term the "celtic" mandolin. Personally, I don't think the f hole style instruments suit the ring and long/short notes needed when playing Scots/Irish melodies. I'm sure Dagger would concur. Only my opinion, of course. I played a maple bodied Sobell mandolin recently, and , although I thought it was beautiful, I didn't like it as much as the small bodied Indian rosewood mandolin I had Stefan make for me in 1983. It has matured into a sensational instrument, and it records quite beautifully. He is the man for me, faultless workmanship and a unique sound. Just look and listen to Martin Simpson's guitars, and Andy Irvine's mandolins - stunning!
Get one if you can. How is your's shaping up, Bob Devellis?
pictures of my Sobells here
I'd have to disagree with the notion of Sobell as the Celtic mandolin. #With respect to Irish bouzoukis, octave mandolins, even mandolas, this is no doubt true. #But mandolin has never been a terribly popular in Celtic music, and there is simply no "standard" Celtic mando ala the Loar F5 for bluegrass or the Sobell bouzouki. If anything, vintage Gibson A's seem to be the most popular among recorded Celtic mando players but they are far from predominant -- you'll find plenty of players with flatbacks and even quite a few F5's.
A few examples from my own CD collection:
- Mick Moloney -- vintage Gibson A
- Seamus Egan -- vintage Gibson A
- Declan Corey - Foley flatback
- Simon Mayor - Vanden F5
- Paul Kelly - F5 (unknown maker)
- Luke Plumb - Gilchrist F5
- Ian MacLeoud - Sobell A + Stuart flatback
- Mary Shannon - F5 (unknown maker)
- Andy Irvine - Sobell A
- Tim O'Brien (US) - Nugget A
- Martin Murray - vintage Gibson A
- Michael Kerry (US) - vintage Gibson A
- Paul Kotapesh (US) - Gibson A
I had a Mid-Mo M-2 for awhile and now have a teens Gibson A1, and from my limited experience there is no comparison in tone or volume. I've found my Celtic mandolin, but there are a lot of other good options out there and the Mid-Mo will work too.BTW my favorite player is Paul Kelly who plays an F-5 (I think made in Dublin).
warning- I'm about to prattle...
If I'm not mistaken, Paul Kotapish recorded most of his disks on either a Flatiron A (his earlier recordings such as the first Open House recording), a Nugget A5 (middle/recent, wake the dead and later Open House disks), or a Gilchrist F5 (probably on the most recent wake the dead or anything he's done in the last couple of years). Michael Kerry's is a truss rod 1921 Gibson A2 with a paddle head.. Mick Maloney's was a 190x Gibson A with an inlaid pickguard, seamus egan has several.. I recall I nice 3-pointer F (190x again) on the cover of one of his CDs. John McGann should make this list.. he plays a Ziedler F5 that has a lovely tone. So should Gary Peterson of the shetland group "Hom Bru", who plays a Kentucky F if I'm not mistaken.
Personally I think the rosewood-backed Sobell sound (Kevin's & Dagger's especially, which are very well played older ones) is lovely, and makes a very particular bell-like tone. The Sobell's are a complex note that sound best played on individual strings, and do not like over-heavy stringing or picking. Various old Gibsons will give a bit more seperation if the player is hitting a lot of chordal notes..
From having a Sobell mandola, I went Ga-ga for Stephen Owsley Smith's mandolins/mandolas/bouzoukis because they have more of the separation I like plus much greater ability to handle dynamic range (harder and softer picking) without the note blowing out. The SOS mandolin that was in the classifieds here recently is likely a prime example of this.. My SOS mando was on one of my tracks (the scottish strathspey/reel set ending in the Shetland Fiddler). It's not widely known, but Terry Woods used a very early Stephen Owsley Smith mandolin on many of the Pogues recordings (you can see it in the "Dirty Old Town" video even), as well as a Sobell bouzouki/OM on stage.
Since that time, I was really taken in seriously by my Lebeda F5. I bought it nearly on impulse, selling a few I'd had for years to cover it. I'd never played a really really hot f-holed mandolin before, and I was just floored by it. The main difference vs the smith was snappier articulation, more volume, and a tone with more focus on the bass. I like to to double-stops in the style of old-timey fiddlers, and this was the best instrument I'd played by then for that.
While still somewhat on the honeymoon for that mandolin (still my main one at sessions, it's a cannon), I was fortunate enough to borrow Jack Schult'z Virzi Loar F5 for around 5 months.. That was truly incredible, and I've prattled on about it elsewhere at length.. Basically it takes many of the great traits of a super-fine F5 (punch, seperation, clarity, volume) and the virzi, I feel, smooths them back a bit.. also creating a bit more sustain and a gentler first hit on the note. All that is great for celtic tunes. I recorded 6 tacks on it so far, including 3 very straight up traditional jig sets, I think it was really fabulous for that sort of music. To be perfectly honest, this is my holy grail tone now. I'd love to have a virzi F5 from a builder who really "gets it".
While the Loar was here, I briefly had my hands on a Nugget A5 as well. I found that to be staggeringly complex, unearthly loud, and capable of outragously wonderful sustain. I backed off from it really though, as it also presented like a super-sobell to me.. it was so senstive and booming that a lot of my favorite tricks (playing drone strings along with melody) weren't appropriate for it. It was such a fine instrument that I wrestled with changing my style to keep that one, but in the end I decided to take Jack's Loar as the ideal tone I'd seek (and will likely never be fully satisfied again !)
While I was over in Nashville recording the Loar prior to handing it back to Jack, I stopped by Gruhn's, and went batty over two instruments.. a 3-point F like Seamus Egan & the Dawg have used, and a '23 snakehead A. The 3-pointer is very very snappy sounding, lots of click in the attack, and makes the mando sound a bit like Tommy People's bowing when you hit triplets. They get this sort of snare drum effect. The bottom end is mostly missing, but it's really cool played in an ensemble as it has a commanding rhythm to it.
Tim O'Brien's various Nuggets are also a good place to look at Celtic tone.. his original Nugget is similar to the one I described above that I'd had, his newer one (the Collings/O'Brien model) has more seperation, but some of the tightness might be due to it's comparative newness.
The snakehead is in the same zip code as the Loar (in fact, minus the G and the bass tones, very hard to tell them apart in some ways). It's very loud, clear, and articulate. Definitely my favorite instrument that I've ever owned. It's still short of the Virzi Loar, but hey.. to me everything is http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif
I also tried a couple of non-virzi'd loars while I was in Nashville, along with a Gilchrist, and several recent master models. All of these had the shared feature of having great "Chop", that mixture of treble in the attack and the bass thump with it that decays quickly.. the sound of the mandolin player hitting chords in a bluegrass piece. Great stuff for playing the sort of hot old-timey stuff you'd hear at a fiddle contest.. also, it goes without saying that they were fantastic bluegrass lead mandolin instruments.
Somewhere in all that time I also picked up an old national resonator mandolin. It's very loud http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif It also has a very interesting sound to it, and likes to be played in open tunings. The thing booms and resonates like crazy, so playing lots of notes on it is great.
But what all this is building up to, is really there is no ultimate that does *everything*, because all of them do something special. I started out by fixating on a Sobell because I loved the Pogues' Terry Woods's tone, and Gerland Trimble's as well.. Then things evolved and I tried lots of stuff (which I still do, I like to strum everything I meet really!). One lesson of it all is that every mandolin has something unique and interesting to offer, and the most fun is discovering that.. I'm probably going to be a mandolin horse trader for life !
I'd have to disagree with the notion of Sobell as the Celtic mandolin.
Sorry, I may not have expressed myself clearly. #What I meant was that the Sobell style (whether by him or modelled after his lead) is the one that's most readily identified as a "Celtic" mandolin. #You are certainly correct that there are many excellent players in the genre that play other styles of instruments and that it never got anywhere near as standardised as, say, bluegrass. #To your list, one could add, for example, Dave Swarbrick (1910s Gibson A) and Chris Leslie (Ozark F5), so clearly there are many excellent Celtic (*) players who do not play flattops. #I personally alternate for Celtic music between a bowlback and a vintage German flattop, which work just fine for my liking.
(*) Yes, I know neither of them is Celtic, but both have played many many Scottish, Irish and Shetland tunes.
Interested to hear that Dan often play a Lebeda F5, because so do I and whilst I really like it, I can't halp but feel that in Irish sessions other mandolin players give me looks as if to say that I'm not playing an "irish" mandolin.
Anyhow, I think that in celtic music there is more of a tradition of playing open type chords on songs with the mandolin (or octave mandolin etc - ie planxity) than tunes, and that for this type of playing a sobell style instrument is probably best, but I think that for playing tunes it doesn't really matter. In many ways bluegrass style instruments with loads of volume and attack are closer to the tenor banjo than "celtic" style mandolins, and there is more of a tradition of using the tenor banjo for playing tunes. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif
Take a look at Chris Baird's work:
Have him send you some more pics and soundclips. These are definitely a step (or more) up from Mid-Mo. I believe he even has some rosewood, if that's what you want.
mancmando- ignore the dirty looks if you like that mando. It's strangely a bigger problem in the states.. but there are a lot of "keepers of the flame" or "session nazis" who kill the session by trying to restrict into being what they consider to be "proper". I run from those kind of sessions as fast as I can. The best folks to play with are often also the best ones to hang around with, easy-going, good sense of humor, and open to other people's ideas!
A "Real" Irish session will have music of all sorts basically by whomever shows up. If there's a guy who wants to play blues harmonica, it tends to happen (at least once).. And if there's a a guy holding an F5 in one (happens to me a lot), he might get asked to play a bluegrass tune.. so I've had to learn a few http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif
But seriously, think about it.. if you try to pin down to a "golden age" model of what's good and what isn't, you should join an anacrhonism society, wear period clothing, and do "re-enactments". If you want to play in a session, find some folks you like to play with and have some space in your mind for somebody with a new thing to add to it. Technically you'd need a really *traditional* (read "anachronistic") session to have nothing more than Uillean pipes, flutes, Harps, and fiddle.. Guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, even accordians are later additions.
On the flipside, don't go in expecting to change the local blues jam into a strathspey session.. and if you're getting dirty looks because you're throwing the other guys off the scent by playing something loud that doesn't fit in, consider backing off and melding to the group vibe. So little time for them to learn their own music, I have a hard time with understanding why folks like that cand find a need to be bossy to other players.
Thanks for those words of encouragement Dan. I live in Manchester where there is a fair bit of Irish music and some of the sessions are great (ie eclectic, friendly, fun etc...), and whilst I really enjoy sessions, my experience of them is that the ones that are the "best quality" tend to be the most precious and least friendly and that the friendly/fun sessions can degenerate into a musical mess, (but when the best of both combine it is great.....).
Anyhow, I know a guitarist called Martin Taylor (not the Martin Taylor) who keeps threatening to take me to a session in London next time I'm down, and he says that sometimes you turn up to a session (on Tuesday I think) which he sometimes attends, so there could be 2 Lebeda F5's in the same session which would be pretty awesome!! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif
Oh heck, if it's the same Martin I know him well. Guitarist. Monday nights in Richmond.. Yes, definitely come down and warn me in advance, I'm not always there http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif
Nice one Dan, definitely something I'll try and do in 2005..... http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif (yes it is almost certainly the same martin - professional stilt walker) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif
I've not actually played enough f hole instruments to judge.
Most people I know have oval/round hole mandolins. I've tried a lot of Buchanans at his workshop - pretty good in my view.
I'm less keen on Fylde mandolins. A friend of mine had one that was far too quiet. Having said that, we have a Fylde guitar which I like a lot.
I tried a few Moon mandolins at Celtic Connections in January. A good mandolin player I know called Bob Massie (Anna's father) has got one which he says he prefers to his Sobell. Apparently it's got a great pick-up.
I have 3 mandolins. My 10 string Sobell which I always use for gigs; a 1912 oval hole Gibson A model which I quite like for sessions and a cheap f holed thing called an Encore which I use for holidays/camping etc. Against all the odds, it's actually quite a good instrument and sounds fine for Celtic stuff.
I don't really have strong views on what is THE ideal Celtic instrument. If you like playing something, it's loud enough and you like the tone, as far as I'm concerned that's fine.
Thank you all for your thoughts and comments. I must admit to being a bit overwhelmed at the depth of information provided. Overwhelmed, but gratefully so.
From what I've read, and from what my addled brain allows me to sort through, the name Sobell pops up more than any other, as do the oval hole style mandos rather than an f hole,although some folks do use an f hole from time to time.
The reason for my asking was not with an elitist attidude, but more to find out which style of mandolin produces the best tone for Celtic music. I'm sure you all would agree you don't "need" a Sobell to play Celtic music.
Recently, I played a Breedlove McKenzie at my local music shop, and loved the tone, and to my ears, it sounded quite good while I was playing Celtic tunes. To date, the only oval hole I've played is my Mid-Mo, but I'm hoping to visit Mandolin Brothers after the holidays and while there I'm going to play lots of mandolins of all stripes.
Simon Mayor (http://www.mandolin.co.uk/) plays a mandolin made by Mike Vanden. There are some sound clips on his website. It's an A style/f hole mando, and it's got a sound to die for. Vanden's mando's are out of my price range, and perhaps Sobell's will be as well.
In the final anaylsis, I think what Dagger Gordon says sums it all up, "If you like playing something, it's loud enough and you like the tone, as far as I'm concerned that's fine."
Thanks again for taking the time to educate a new lover of Celtic music.
A few years ago I went to hear the senior All-Ireland mandolin competition at the fleadh in Listowel. I noticed that almost all entrants were playing F-style instruments (I didn't get a close look at any of them, but I think most of them were Gibsons) - one played a bowl-back 'Neapolitan'.
Personally, I champion the flat-topped, flat-backed instruments. I play one of these made by myself, loosely based on the Gibson A-style, but without the carved top and back. The best mandolins of this type that I have played are probably those made by Joe Foley - excellent tone, sustain and setup (although I find the neck cross-section a slightly odd shape).
Well, since kmmando asked, I'll chime in.
As some may recall, I'd ordered a new Sobell, was unable to actually get it because of a backlog in Stefan's shop and resulting price increases, and found a used one that needed a bit of work. It's a 1976 cedar-top rosewood-back large body 8-string. I just got it back from the luthier this past Wednesday, and it's really an amazing instrument. The work (done by Greg Hanson in Raleigh) was also superb, including some cosmetic improvements of an earlier repair to the top; new nut, saddle, bridge, and tuners (all reversible); fret leveling and polishing; and stabilization of some nascent cracks in the back. It looks and sounds fantastic. Although he set it up with somewhat heavier strings (.011 - .040) than I prefer, the sound is really incredible. In many ways, these instruments are better described as "alto citterns" than regular mandolins. They have a resonance, sustain, and bit of twang that's very reminiscent of Sobell's larger instruments. To me, the sound is very Irish. It's also very powerful, with remarkable projection for an oval-hole instrument. It may be my loudest mandolin, surpassing even my Collings which isn't a shrinking violet. Part of that may be how it sounds to the player rather than the listener. With the possible exception of finding it harder to get snappy pull-offs with the heavier strings and longer gauge that the Vega cylinder-back I've been playing a lot of lately, I'm pretty gaa-gaa over this instrument. I'll probably try a lighter gauge to see how it feels but the tone right now is really glorious and may be worth trying to get my left hand to do new and different things.
Having said all that, I have to fundamentally agree that Celtic music of various sorts can sound magnificent on a variety of mandolins. The cylinder-back's sweet voice is just perfect for some things, especially airs. Although f-hole mandolins in my clumsy hands can make reels sound a bit like American fiddle tunes, I'd never suggest that they're not suited to Irish music. Oval-hole Gibsons also work like a charm. Part of this compatability with many mandolin types is because there are really a variety of "Celtic" mandolin styles, ranging from the banjo-like precussive styles, to the lyrical, courtly interpretation of airs and slow jigs, to the more ensemble-oriented style with mandolin playing counter-melodies and droning accompaniment. So, no one sound is as established an orthodoxy as is the case in bluegrass (to take an obvious example). But I do have to agree with others that the Sobells do seem, to my ear, more "purpose built" for Irish/Scots/etc. than do most other styles I've encountered. Not having a Sobell or similar style instrument is certainly no barrier to making wonderful Celtic music. But for me, having one has certainly enriched the experience.
You will find that Sobell instruments are very expensive with a long waiting list.
Breedlove is considered to be a good guitar/mandolin maker.
I haven't ever seen a Breedlove, but a guy I know has one. I've been told it isn't very loud, but I haven't seen it myself so I really can't say.
Volume is an important issue when buying a mandolin. If you are happy with the Breedlove and you think it's loud enough, I would buy it. I generally advise people to play an instrument before buying, although I accept that's not always possible and clearly out of the question if it hasn't been built yet!
I can't see you going too far wrong with the Breedlove. If you decide to get something else later, I expect it would hold its value quite well should you want to sell it.
It sounds like you might be having a good Christmas ...
... Great thread!...
Paul Kelly plays a Monteleone F5 I'm pretty sure..
There has already been 2 Lebeda's at Dan's Tuesday session. (and the new SOS F'ish model). #THAT was a fun night..! Thanks Dan.
Kevin's Sobell has a killer tone. #I'm no Sobell expert and have played less than 5 but Kevin's (if it's the same one he had a ZF) is somehow louder than most. Sweet!
We regularly do mando tasting at my local session. The most recent was Lebeda F5 vs. 25 Snake. #Lebeda was preferred by all... Probably cause' it's a cannon. it's beat out an 1918F2 and when compared to the 20 AJr, people were split 50/50. Leb was louder but AJr, was "rounder". #Whatever the heck that means...
I've had a coupla' bad looks from session people when I take out the F5. Including one lady (in Ireland) say to me. #"You know this is an Irish session where we play IRISH traditional music, right?" # (can ya blame her? I showed up with a ball cap, I'm a loud Yank, and play an F5...) #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif #
But as soon as I played a set (after I was invited to of course...)... all was good... !
Another nice mando to consider for Irish is a Stevens... # www.guitars.de
I've recently visited the boys in Munich... totally a cool shop... ( I was at the place they make them, not the munich repair shop). #I had a problem with my mando, and they were great to deal with... fixed the problem free of charge...although the mando is 3 years old.
Next week at the session will be mando tasting again.. Stevens, Lebeda...
I just read on COMANDO, that Mary Shannon plays a mandolin made by Peter Coombe of Australia: Here is what Peter said there:
"Ignoring the fact that there really is no tradition of mandolin in traditional Irish music, Mary plays electric so she can be heard against her sister, the famous Irish accordian player Sharon Shannon. It is also because of the convenience of being able to plug in and it all works when
on tour. Sharon and Mary do a lot of touring. At home Mary plays an oval hole mandolin I made for her. She does not take this instrument on tour with her I assume because of the risk of it getting damaged or worse, stolen."
Not really the same subject at all, but you've probably noticed that David Grisman has a new 'Tone Poets' project underway; this is different from the 'Tone Poems' series where the idea was to feature a bunch of vintage mandolins and guitars.
In 'Tone Poets' the SAME mandolin and guitar will be played by a range of great players. The instruments are a 1922 Loar mando and a 1933 Martin guitar.
The interesting thing will be how different these instruments might sound with different people playing them. I thought that 'Tone Poems 1' with Grisman and Tony Rice sounded surprisingly similar throughout, despite there being a lot of instruments used,
What I guess I'm really saying is that the player's own style and ability is what really matters, and so long as the mandolin itself is well set up and plays easily, has good enough tone and, as I keep saying, is loud enough to hold its own against other instruments, I'm not convinced that it matters as much as people think what kind of mandolin you have.
But you've got to feel happy with it, and feel that the instrument itself is not holding you back.
I've never noticed a particular standard (though there's not a lot of Fs), but the celtic mandolinist would benefit from having more than one style of instrument. My ears tend to prefer oval/round hole mandolins in my hands regardless of top shape or body profile...not sure why. I use a Moon flattop most of the time. I recently tried an oval hole Breedlove archtop which was superb. Slightly different tone, sustain, and timbre can work wonders for the player's inspiration and feel of a tune.
More mandola in the genre wouldn't hurt either.
It certainly is true that Mary Shannon has one of my mandolins. I made it for her in March last year, and there is a picture of Mary with her mandolin on my My Webpage (http://www.petercoombe.com/highquality15.html). As you can see she was pretty happy, and I was, to be perfectly honest, very nervous and greatly relieved that she really loved the mandolin. I also made a mandolin for Brendan O'Regan, and his instrument is very similar to the one that Mary has.