View Full Version : A. Lawrence Smart Mandola, A Style, 1999

Oct-05-2005, 7:10pm
Here are some photos of my A. Lawrence Smart Mandola, #104, signed July 12, 1999. A beautiful instrument with wonderful sound. What does it sound like? Imagine a really fine dry sherry, rich, complex, a hint of raisin, a warm glow to it, a hint of sweetness, viola-like, satisfying. I understand Chris Thile and Mike Marshall bought Smart mandolas recently (Thile did--Marshall may have bought a mandolin). And I have one, too! Here's a front view of the mandola in its custom-made Mark Leaf Case.

Oct-05-2005, 7:14pm
Here's the end of the fretboard, a Lawrence Smart trademark--the jazz guitar-like tip. Note also the tasteful initials on the fretboard at the 12th fret--the only inlay on the fretboard. You can also see the hygrometer in the case

Oct-05-2005, 7:18pm
The headstock in the Mark Leaf Case. Nothing is entirely glossy on this mandola, but it's shinier than satin. It looks REAL, rather than highly buffed. Usually Smart puts his initials or name on the headstock. This is a custom inlay. What is it? It looks to me like a yucca plant in bloom, but the flowers are blue.

Oct-05-2005, 7:20pm
No, it's not a yucca. Delphiniums? Anyway, in this photo you can see the delicate blue pearl inlay. Also note the characteristic and beautiful shape of the top of the headstock. It's supposed to look like the two Idaho hills Smart sees from his workshop window.

Oct-05-2005, 7:23pm
Nice Monteleone-style gold-plated cast bronze tailpiece. Note the very nice engraving. Also, this mandola is WIRED. I think it has K&K dual pickups in it, which, for my money, are the best around. You should hear this thing plugged into my AER Alpha acoustic amp. It sounds exactly like the mandola with nothing subtracted and nothing added but volume. Nice!

Oct-05-2005, 7:31pm
Here's a little-bit sideways view of the top. The bridge is beautifully crafted. If it's not custom made, I suspect that it has at least been sanded down to make it smoother. Also not the beautiful bound ebony pickguard. This is attached only by two brass screws into the neck extension, but it's nice and solid and about an eighth of an inch above the top of the mandola. The pickguard itself is about a sixteenth of an inch thick. There is an ebony rib about a quarter inch square just under the edge of the pickguard closest to the strings, and this rib is screwed to the neck extension. There are also, I think, three ebony ribs about a quarter inch wide and an eighth of an inch thick that extend out from that central rib to support the pickguard. All together, it's sort of the way a leaf is designed for stiffness.

Oct-05-2005, 7:32pm
Oops, forgot the photo.

Oct-05-2005, 7:33pm
Here's a sideways view of that clever pickguard.

Oct-05-2005, 7:34pm
A sideways view of the headstock.

Oct-05-2005, 7:38pm
The back of the A. Lawrence Smart Mandola. Note that it is a one piece maple back. Not quilted, and not your usual beautiful curly back, but an unusual and beautiful shimmering sort of curl, sort of like sand settling under ocean waves, or the northern lights. Note that the intense carving of the back has left it looking sort of like a topographical map of an island, and the shimmer looks like valleys here and there.

Oct-05-2005, 7:39pm
Another view of the back with less island and more shimmer.

Oct-05-2005, 7:43pm
Anyone recognize these beautiful engraved gold tuners? I don't know who made them, but they are nice and smooth and nicer looking than the usual upscale Grover or Schaller or Waverly. I don't know if the buttons are pearl or imitation.

Oct-05-2005, 7:44pm
Back of the neck.

Oct-05-2005, 7:53pm
Love that inlay. And, I don't even know what to say about that back!

Oct-05-2005, 7:54pm
Here's another shot of the Mark Leaf case. They are rare, and as I understand it, they are custom made to fit the instrument exactly. I hear Leaf closed shop in 2002, but ratings I've seen on the web say his cases offer better protection than Caltons. This is a BIG case--it's eight inches thick! It's built like a surfboard--fiberglass over styrofoam. There is a thick neoprene gasket all around the rim, so when this thing is buttoned up, you should be able to toss it in the swimming pool without a leak. Handy if you drop your mandolin off a cruise ship or something, and if the ship sinks, you can float for days ON YOUR MANDOLA! Or even surf of it! Hey, that's better than the James Bond movie where he uses a cello case for a toboggan. Anyway. This thing is carefully padded so the strings and fretboard are firmly held down, and there is a fitted, angled foam pad that presses exactly against the headstock. The body fits snugly--you have to remove your strap. The velvet-covered foam under the back is scooped out to fit the shape of the mandolin back. I mentioned the hygrometer. There's also a compartment under the neck that seems big enough to hold about three dozen sets of strings and a thousand picks and a cleaning cloth. Also, if you pull of the padding under the headstock, there's room for that passport under your other name and a few thousand in large bills, just in case.

Oct-06-2005, 7:35am
wow thats just great awesome pictures. Yes Thile does have a smart dola and he played it at the nickle creek concert in portland last sunday. It has a darker top but man did it sound good. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Oct-06-2005, 9:29am
Lawrence really knows how to build them! John Reischman has a Smart mandola as well.

Oct-06-2005, 10:15am
Very nice dola! And a killer case!!! I'll bet it sounds fabulous!

A guy in the Bay Area has several nice Smart instruments including this mando & dola matching pair. The dola sounds outstanding! I hear Lawrence is completing a batch of mostly dolas, right now. I'm headed to McCall in a few weeks,
another trip to the source.

Tom Smart
Oct-06-2005, 11:14am
Arthur: a guy in the bay area??? Lawrence tells me that guy, whoever it might be, is enjoying his new mandola very much.

Blue, that's a fabulous looking instrument, and I especially like that slab-cut back. The back of my F-style mandolin is also cut on the slab and has a very similiar look, though the stain is darker. Also, I haven't seen that headstock inlay before...very cool. He's been known to do a columbine on that headstock shape, but that's certainly not a columbine. Lawrence knows his mountain flowers, but I don't, so I can't identify it. In answer to another question, Lawrence does make his own bridges.

Mike Marshall bought his Smart mandola a few years ago. I hear that whenever he appears in a show with Edgar Meyer, Meyer pauses at some point to gush about how that mandola is his favorite sounding instrument.

Thile bought Lawrence's personal mandola earlier this summer. I'll attach a photo of that one. I'm glad to hear he's playing it in shows. Just this week, Lawrence finished a new batch--the first bach he's ever had that is all mandolas, I believe. One of them, he's making for himself to replace the one Thile bought.

But the best news, from my point of view, is that one of them is for me. I should be getting it next week. He just emailed to say I owe him more money, dammit. But it's well worth it, and I can hardly contain my excitement.

Lawrence doesn't post on this board (or any board, for that matter), but he truly does appreciate all the kind words.

Here's Thile's mandola:

Oct-06-2005, 11:46am
I've got a nice Smart Darkface 'dola that is one of my favorite sounding instruments I've ever played...
A real rib-rattler...

Here's a lousy pic, but you get the idea...

That B&O ribbon mic is really a great mic for recording the 'dola, BTW...

Chip Booth
Oct-06-2005, 12:53pm
I was at his shop a month or so ago, and got to poke at the unfinished dolas. They are all F holes as I recall, and one was for Lawrence himself. I saw them with the backs attached to the sides, the tops cut and braced but unattached. He was cutting necks while I was there. And they were all spoken for, dang it...


Oct-06-2005, 4:32pm
Tom ... as nice as the picture of Thile's 'dola is, the instrument itself was just mind blowing!!! I got to play it a bit earlier this summer and it was absolutely amazing in every possible way that an instrument could be be amazing ... from workmanship to sound!!

Congrats on getting your instrument! Please be sure to post some pictures for us!

Oct-06-2005, 5:29pm
Any idea what one of these beauties cost?

Eric http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Tom Smart
Oct-06-2005, 6:54pm

I don't have a digital camera, but maybe I can borrow one. I wasn't going to post anything about it (and still might not) because I don't want to appear to be shilling for my brother. I'm happy to answer questions if I can, though, and a request for photos strikes me as a reasonable question to respond to. If I get around to borrowing a camera, that is. Anyway, mine is supposed to look a lot like Thile's, except there are no notches in the f-holes. By the way, Lawrence tells me you're "a hell of a picker."


Prices, specs and more photos are on L's web site. There's also an interesting article he wrote regarding his building techniques and philosophy. It's called "The Modern Mandolin," and it's under the "Press" link. Here's the web site address:

www.smart-instruments.com (http://www.smart-instruments.com)

Oct-06-2005, 9:20pm
Alas! I'm heartbroken! So I got this beautiful mandola in the mail yesterday, and I spent hours playing it and also photographing it for you. It sounds wonderful--so rich and full. Thursday night I take part in a bluegrass jam with somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen and a half other musicians for an audience of about 150 people in a room with poor acoustics. We stand on a stage. The sound system is okay in the hall, but there's only one monitor speaker, and it's limited. Usually half the musicians are standing in the back strumming--lots of guitarists who don't know what they are doing and don't have access to a mic unless they are singing, but they still make a racket. Usually there's a mandolin (me), a dobro or two, a banjo, and sometimes a steel guitar, and we take the solos.

So I'm so proud of this new mandola, and tonight there were two other mandolin players who showed up, so I was showing off, letting them try out this beautiful new (to me) instrument. But when we all started playing, I couldn't hear myself. Standing right up at the mic I couldn't hear myself. Unless most people were quiet, I couldn't solo, because I didn't know what I was playing. Sure, I could play chords and hear them, but no one else could hear them. The problem was that the mandola's main pitch is in a guitar's midrange, so all these people flailing on their guitars weren't really heard by the audience, but they were stepping all over me. Usually, with a regular mandolin, I'm way above the guitars, so I don't have much trouble cutting through. But I can't do it with a band like that with a mandola, great as it is, and I'm not a rich enough collector to just keep it around if I'm not playing with it regularly. The leader of the band asked me to leave it at home in future and just bring my mandolin.

So it looks like I'm going to need to sell it or trade it for another mandolin, and I'm feeling very bad about this. I mean, just today I put up on eBay a Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjo, a Weymann banjo-mandolin, and a Beard dobro so I can pay for this mandola. Sure, I could keep it, but do I want to keep something that lovely just to play around the house and not get to share? It sounds SO GOOD! It's just dripping with honey, it's so rich, but not too sweet.

My wife plays viola in an orchestra. I suppose I should have realized that a mandola is to a mandolin what a viola is to a violin. A viola in an orchestra gets a few bars of solo time now and then, but generally doubles behind the violin, which gets most of the solo work because those high notes carry better. The viola provides the warmth and fullness. I guess if Chris Thile plays his Smart mandola, the rest of the band holds back a little and gives him room. The people I play with don't even seem to know I exist. Alas! Poor mandola! Woe is me!

Oct-06-2005, 9:22pm
"The problem was that the mandola's main pitch is in a guitar's midrange"

That's it's strong point...

Dump the guitars.... http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Oct-06-2005, 9:26pm
Thile plays into his own mic too, rather than a 1-mic setup. He has monitors..... Can't tell you what you should do, but it sure looks like a heck of an instrument. If you already have a mandolin that you like, maybe you couldn't go wrong in having a longer necked cousin in the house. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

Oct-06-2005, 9:30pm
Sounds like it is time for you to consider organizing a smaller ensemble, of players who listen.

Oct-06-2005, 9:33pm
i played lawrence's personal mandola this past march at the mandolin festival in concord, nh. it is the nicest 'dola that i have ever played. good for chris!

Tom Smart
Oct-10-2005, 12:28pm
Usually half the musicians are standing in the back strumming--lots of guitarists who don't know what they are doing...

I couldn't hear myself...The problem was that the mandola's main pitch is in a guitar's midrange, so all these people flailing on their guitars weren't really heard by the audience, but they were stepping all over me... The leader of the band asked me to leave it at home in future and just bring my mandolin.

...I guess if Chris Thile plays his Smart mandola, the rest of the band holds back a little and gives him room. The people I play with don't even seem to know I exist.

I haven't seen Nickle Creek in a while--but the last I heard, Chris Thile had fired all those guys who used to stand behind him in a row flailing on their guitars without knowing what they were doing.

I believe he replaced them all with just one guitarist who does know what he's doing. Your band leader might take a clue from that...

But seriously, you're describing a train-wreck of a jam. I wish there were a way to fix it, both for your sake and for the audience. But if the leader isn't willing to lead (i.e., "this jam is for proficient pickers only; others are welcome to listen and learn"), then it's probably unfixable. That's exactly what happened with one of our most popular local jams, and I just don't go to it anymore. It's too depressing. I know many other good musicians who feel the same way, and just avoid it.

If a better jam doesn't exist in your area, maybe you could start one of your own. Other than that, I don't know what to say. I feel your pain.

It's a shame that SOME people will devote years to learning their chosen instrument, but won't take 5 minutes to learn proper etiquette. They're missing out on some good music.


Oct-10-2005, 12:49pm
Keep the mandola! Just keep looking for the right setting to play it in. I have the same problem with the guys I play with, just two guitar players, but they sure drown out that mid-range, so I still play mandolin when I'm with them. But I'm still looking for that fiddle player or other mandolin player to make up a group where the mandola can show. One other thought which I haven't tried personally, but how about playing up the neck when you need to get to a higher range to be heard, my mandola has a heck of a punch up between the 7th and 12th frets. Anyhow keep the mandola and keep looking for the right venue.

Oct-10-2005, 1:25pm
if it sounds so good, keep it. there are always wasy of using it. i was bummed as never played a dola, want something in that range for solo work (om is too much of a stretch for me)and there were none to be tried in my music emporium trip the other day (the big acoustic store in my area). if you have other mandos, and like the dola- let that honey drip (i like your analogy). it sure looks pretty too!.

Steve Davis
Oct-10-2005, 3:43pm
I wish I had the $5800 you want for it. I've had the good fortune to play several of his instruments, (also in Concord, NH by the way,) and they were superb.

Oct-10-2005, 5:28pm
BlueMountain surely you are joking!? My suggestion is to find another band/venue to play in. Do not, I repeat, do not offer this up!

man doh
Oct-10-2005, 5:59pm
Get new friends and keep the 'dola.

Oct-11-2005, 9:57am
Thank you for your words of support. The more I play this thing, the more I fall in love with it. The tone is LUSCIOUS. I think it should be named "Sweet Baby," as in "Rollin' In," because it's so warm and full that I don't want to put it down. What's more, the strings look like they're a year old or more. New strings should arrive today (what, you think mandola strings are found in every music store?). I look forward to hearing what the new strings do.

Join a different band? Hey! Come on! If YOU had the opportunity to PERFORM every week for three hours in a "jam" for an audience of 150, wouldn't you put up with the inconveniences? I've played guitar nearly forty years, but I'm new enough on mandolin that no band that gigs regularly would have me, but the fingerstyle guitar background means I'm learning very fast. It's exciting to come home every week feeling that whatever the hassle, I've learned something new. What's more, some weeks the only musicians who show up are a bunch of guitar strummers, a dobro, a bass, and me. That means I get to take a break on nearly every song. That's a great way to learn flash. (And a great opportunity to experience multiple crash and burn situations, but they decrease in frequency, and no one boos when I choke. Builds character.) A couple weeks ago there were only five of us, and only one guitar, and that was great. However, the open jam means these strummers keep wandering up on stage and playing in the background. The audience can't hear them, as they aren't miked, but I can. I have one of those hearing problems (thank you, chainsaw) where it's hard two distinguish someone talking if there's background noise at around the same frequency (my youngest son, who mumbles, and the dishwasher, for example). My mandolin is higher than guitars, so it's not too hard to hear. But the mandola is so close to the guitar mid-tones that hearing myself is very frustrating. Of course, it does have a pickup, so maybe I should plug in one of those personal pocket amps. No, that won't do it.

Meanwhile, I've had some very nice trade offers, but I'd really prefer a fair cash and trade offer. I need to decide soon. The ad is in the classified section.

Oct-11-2005, 3:00pm
I'm just glad it's a mandola and not an octave, so I'm not tempted to do anything stupid. It's a beauty.