Players partial to souped-up vintage reproductions or the inventive spirit of Rigel will be pleased to learn that Rigel’s founding luthier, Pete Langdell, is still building heirloom quality mandolins and guitars in Vermont. Proof arrived here 2 weeks ago in the form of a cylinderback mandola commissioned last December, about a year after I was stunned by the sound of Jimmy Gaudreau’s cylinderback at a concert. Although a little hesitant to place an order so soon after Rigel’s production shutdown last summer, I found Pete receptive to undertaking a new project from scratch while moving forward with his instrument restoration practice. Although a time-consuming year of transition for Pete pushed the delivery schedule back a little, I feel fortunate to have received a custom piece from such an accomplished builder within 8 months. Given Pete’s current interest in returning to instrument construction as his core business, now is the time to get in high on a new order list of custom instruments under either the PE Langdell or Rigel name. No one should go bargain hunting though; this is truly custom work from the hands of a master.
As a studio woodworker myself, I really appreciate the fine handicraft on display in the mandola—sensuous lines, crisp details, flawless execution of complex geometry, and rich maple figure. It’s the voice, though, that takes center stage—the ringing trebles of a harp and resounding basses of a little dreadnought. I think the plangent tone reflects more than just an oval hole. In Pete’s take on the classic Vega CB, the acoustics benefit from an increased scale length (~17 inches versus 15 inches), a slightly canted (creased) top, and a carved (not pressed or laminated) back that needs no bracing (the old Vegas rely on heavy back bracing).
There’s no doubt then that I’m taken with the mandola, but what does that really say about its quality? Having spent most of my life playing other instruments, how much do I truly know about the proper sound of a mando? Would seasoned professionals share my enthusiasm for Pete’s CB? Fortunately, four of my favorite pickers living in the DC area have already test-driven the new arrival and have offered some favorable comments. Jimmy G. came by to check out the near-twin of his Rigel CB, which provided the specs for my instrument. He played a little jazz piece that startled me with its reedy basses. His occasional duo partner Orrin Star (my teacher) took a different tack during a recent session by cutting loose on the CB with some jaunty fiddle tunes. Admittedly, these guys can make anything ordinary sound heroic. Even so, I was delighted to hear the rich tone coming out of that rippled soundbox. Finally, I was able to gauge the CB in a full-band jam that included Danny Knicely and Tara Linhardt, superb performers who traded the mandola back and forth throughout a string of traditional tunes. I was surprised how strongly the CB rang out in the mix. And I had thought a mandola would be lost in the shuffle!
It’s time for a few pictures. As a new poster on the board here, I’m not sure whether my first attempt at putting up photos will succeed, but here goes: