One of the best times I’ve had in recent years was mandolin shopping last week with my brother, David Johnson, in his hometown of Nashville, TN. I had just come from looking at the fabulous herd of Givens at The Parlour in Knoxville. If you can get there to play them, you’re in for a treat; especially wonderful—bell highs and woofing lows-- was the near mint 90s A-6. I got very close to buying before my wife, Ann, reminded me that Nashville might have a few mandos to play, too.
David and I A/B’d (even using the same kind of picks) most everything under $ 10,000 at Gruhn, Cotten, The Corner, Two Old Hippies, etc. We also looked through Craigslist, and paid a visit to the gracious Andy May. Makes we played include Givens A &F’s, Kimble F, Collings A’s, Bulldog F, Parsons A, Rattlesnake F, Gibson F’s, Summit F’s, Ellis F (the week before at a festival), Eastman Giacomel, Cross A & F, Breedloves, Rigel, and a Hicks F (and probably some I’ve forgotten). I kept notes and thought that the Mandolin Café folks might be interested. Everything below is my opinion and taste, of course, and I have no financial interest in any of the businesses. (Oh, and A or F style wasn’t a factor for me and not looks, or money under $10,000, only sound.)
Most bang for the buck: the Parsons A at Gruhn was a complete surprise for the money, $1500 I think. Great volume and balance and a complex, played-in tone.
Most disappointing: a Weber signed 90s Gibson F (I won’t say stores’ names if I’m negative). Thin sound.
Most consistent sound: the Collings A’s at Gruhn were uniformly good, just a little too much treble B
Most cool: the Givens A-6 at The Parlour I mention above with the very high serial number—one of Givens last and it looks unplayed but sure didn’t sound unplayed. I think I’m partial to Givens wide-open, but nicely colored sound.
Best looking: the Kimble at Cotton, which is an EXCELLENT instrument tonally
Runners-up: that Givens A-6 at The Parlour, and the Kimble at Cotton
Best lunch in Nashville: that Indian buffet right down town
What I bought: the winner at the end of the search (and I wasn’t determined to buy one on this trip since my mom lives on the same lake as Lloyd LaPlant, and my son lives in the same town as Greg Boyd, and we’re visiting them both this summer) was at Gruhn, a lacquer Summit Artist made in 2011. Big volume, well balanced, smooth action, and good (sharp) neck angle with lots of room on the bridge for adjustment. Tone was there already but I intend to play this mando ‘til I die, so I hope it just gets better. I didn’t know anything about Paul Schneider ‘til I had decided on this mandolin and looked him up on the web. Nice pedigree! And his shop turned out to be kind of on our way home to Virginia, so I called and he invited us to stop by. True one-man shop with everything done there. He showed us around and went into the details of his building, showing us his method of selecting tops, securing the neck, et al. Impressive.
Thanks: my great brother, David Johnson, and my indulgent wife, Ann.