View Full Version : Who are the top classical builders?

Bill Foss
Jul-07-2010, 8:34pm
I come from the bluegrass world and am familiar the top makers in that area (Gilchrist, Nugget, Gibson, Dudenbostel, Weber, etc.). Who are the top makers and builders in the mandolin classical world?

I realize this topic could be fraught with opinion and subjectivity. I don't mean to start a controversial thread. I'm just interested in a primer or survey on some of the top makers/builders in general.

Graham McDonald
Jul-07-2010, 11:04pm
It all rather depends on how you define a 'classical' mandolin. In Italy, and some parts of northern Europe it is a Roman or Neapolitan style bowlback, as built these days by Lorenzo Lippi (Milan), Hendrik van den Broek (Holland) or more recently Brian Dean (Canada) in the Roman style. Neapolitan mandolin include the long established Calace and others in Europe and Japan. In Germany a 'classical' mandolin is just as often built with a bigger rounder body in the style developed by the late Reinhold Seiffert around 30 years ago and there are a number of very good builders of these such as Albert & Mueller, Alfred Woll, Thomas Dotzauer and Klaus Knorr. The Cafe builder's list has an extensive listing. Bowlbacks are almost always a 13" scale (rather than the longer 13.875" Gibson scale)

In the US (and here in Australia) classical mandolin music is played on just about any style of mandolin from bowlbacks of all kinds to Gibson F5s and everything in between. The Gibson F5 was originally conceived as an instrument for classical music,so it all really comes down to the sound you want to get or hear in your head. A few builders (such as Dave Cohen) now offer a carved mandolin with a 13" scale for classical players, but at the other end of the scale (so to speak) Brian Dean has recently completed a mandolin for classical player Joe Brent with a 15" scale.

I suspect there will be other opinions :grin:


Jul-08-2010, 6:45am
In Japan everybody seems to love Calace's Bowlbacks.
Some other well-known Japanese makers are Oona, Kawada, Noguchi, Ishikawa, and Ochiai.

Jul-08-2010, 8:03am
I think (and sure hope) that we are safe from controversy as long as we stay in the plural, so to speak, as per the original post: the pool of fine builders is a fairly innocuous database, as referred to quite ably by Graham. Now... if one were to attempt to argue about THE finest builder (in the singular), then tempers might in fact flair up. But such a question would be foolish, IMHO, and the result(s) arguable, if not meaningless.

I, for one, would like to see some more even cross-border representation. There are, for example (as Hiin points out), MANY excellent Japanese luthiers; they are, however, little known here, in the U.S.— or so it seems to me, based on my own ignorance. There is also a weak luthier-to-dealer-to-customer chain, so that there are precious few U.S.-representatives of builders based abroad. While the benefit is of course the economy that comes with the lack of a (profit-seeking) intermediary, the downside is that the American mandolinist often seeks the instrument of his/her dreams from afar, sight unseen.

The best thing about all this, of course, is the ever-growing facility that the internet provides.

Three cheers, then, to the bits and bytes that make all our contacts possible!


Jim Garber
Jul-08-2010, 8:58am
A few other makers to throw into the mix: from Naples, La Bottega del Mandolino.com/new/ (http://www.labottegadelmandolino.com/new/) and from Ferrara, Gabriele Pandini (http://www.gabrielepandini.it/). I have onwed and played a Pandini for a number of years. Carlo Aonzo plays one of his early ones and has been responsible for bringing quite a few over to the US for us bowlback starved players.

Also, in North America, two other makers: Peter Sawchyn (http://www.sawchyn.com/) (Canada) and Daniel Larson (http://www.daniellarson.com/mandolins/classical_mandolin/classical.htm) (US).

As for non-bowlbacks: Rolfe Gerhardt / Phoenix Mandolins (http://www.phoenixmandolins.com/) makes a model specifically tailored to a classical players sound and playability.

Jul-08-2010, 10:33am
A few builders (such as Dave Cohen) now offer a carved mandolin with a 13" scale for classical players, but at the other end of the scale (so to speak) Brian Dean has recently completed a mandolin for classical player Joe Brent with a 15" scale.

My Brian Dean Grand Concert mandolin only has a 14.25" scale -- I think for 15" I would need an extra few fingers! I can wholeheartedly recommend Brian's instruments (http://www.labraid.ca), and believe him to be the finest North American luthier working today. I also own a Pandini similar to Carlo's, and as Neapolitan instruments go, it is fantastic.

I've come to believe that classical music can be authentically made on (almost) any kind of mandolin, including American flatbacks. It is of course a very different sound from bowlback instruments, and arguments will forever rage as to the merits of either. I love them both, and continue to play both. I generally use the Dean ("Pähkinä") for music written after 1800 or so, though I've used the Pandini ("Isabella") on a very modern piece by Pieter Snapper called 'Sburator' for mandolin and tape to nice effect.

I've played instruments by most of the luths mentioned above (except the Japanese makers, whose work I am unfortunately unfamiliar with), and can only add that it is wonderful that there is such a wide range of choices available to players, and the more, the merrier. Joseph Campanella Cleary (http://www.campanellastrings.com/mandolin) is another North American luthier whose work I admire. I've recently been communicating a lot with Paulo Sá, who teaches at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro -- he is a wonderful classical player in addition to being a virtuoso in the Brazilian tradition, and of course he performs on a Brazilian 'bandolim'.

Point is, I suppose, that there is really no such thing as a 'classical' instrument, any more than there is a difference between a violin and a fiddle. The difference is in the player, not the instrument.

Jul-08-2010, 12:07pm

I somewhat disagree with Joe Brent in regards to flatback instruments, which is not a surprise to anyone here, I'm sure. Different tastes....different walks of life. To define the "most popular" classical mandolin makers is a bit subjective and will always cause disagreement. Just like the last post I read on best F-style makers or was it Loar copies? There was possibly a lynching at the end of that post. I didn't stick around. I recommend getting familar with the names that are mentioned the most. Here is my personal list of names:

German Style:
Klaus Knorr
Alfred Wolle
Seiffert (deceased) - instruments are very saught after.
Brian Dean (super happy with mine)
There are a few other names that aren't always mentioned but have very good players representing them.

Gabriele Pandini
Calace Firm (one of the few firms to withstand the test of time)
Daniel Larson (Vega/American style)

Brian Dean
Hendrik van den Broek
Embergher - if you have the money and can find one; go for it.

Flatbacks that work for classical music (my opinion - put the guns away gentlemen)
Phoenix Neoclassical
Lyon & Healy model A - C (student of mine just bought a lovely model C - gorgeous Italian tone with rich bass).

As mentioned by the other cafe members, it all comes down to personal taste.....and money, of course. If you have enough of it, you can always find the perfect instrument for you.


Bill Foss
Jul-08-2010, 2:23pm
Thank you all who responded! Lot's of good, well articulated information presented with charm and expertise. This is a good start for me who is interested in exploring this area.

Graham McDonald
Jul-08-2010, 4:49pm
Of course, I managed to get info wrong (my apologies to Joe Brent and Brian ) and leave people like Rolfe and others out. It would be interesting to know more about the Japanese bowlback builders...


Jul-08-2010, 5:27pm
It would be interesting to know more about the Japanese bowlback builders...

Consider that your research project ;-) After all, Canberra is closer to Japan than New York is, right?



Graham McDonald
Jul-08-2010, 6:27pm
The next stage of the research into mandolin history will be taking me to the US in October, when I hope to talk to lots of mandolin builders and collectors. Japan would be interesting, but there is the small factor of money :( It might be closer, but it costs about the same if not more to get there from here.


Jul-08-2010, 7:04pm
True, alas. Distance and cost are often curiously divorced; for example, I often fly from New York to my parental home in Europe's southeast end for less than I do to my wife's family home in the Caribbean, right off Florida's tip— and, due to the tropical indifference to season, there's hardly such a thing as an "off season" ticket. Pricing, profit-maximizing, and all that...

Perhaps Hiin would be the perfect person to start a thread on Japanese luthiers. (*hint, hint*)



Jul-08-2010, 8:02pm
I know a lot of "classical" players who like the sound and playability of the old Lyon & Healy Style A, B and C mandolins, especially in their short-scale versions. The concertmaster of the SF Mandolin Orchestra plays a (long-scale) Lyon & Healy Style A.

I personally also like the sound of the Vega Cylinderbacks for classical playing.

Not being made today, of course, though Gypsy Mandolins just built a cylinderback. But readily available on the used market.

PS -- I see that Chris beat me to it about the L&H. That's what comes of not reading the entire thread before posting.

Jul-09-2010, 3:45am
I'm not that knowledgeable about mandolin luthiers...
I only started playing mandola about 1 year ago, and still have much to learn about different kind of instruments and the sound that they can produce.
But we have a mandolin specialist shop here in Fukuoka, maybe I'll ask around next time I get there.

Jul-09-2010, 4:44am
.....and no one has mentioned Vinaccia or Ceccherini yet?!? Incredible!!

If anyone is interested, I have started a page on Japanese luthiers on my mandolin site, as I have a contact in Japan..... but of course playing them and knowing what they sound like is something else...


Jul-09-2010, 6:29am
I have names and sites of some Japanese luthiers, but I have played none of their instruments:
Kanou Kadama
Yoshihiko Takusari

Their top model costs US$11,300, and the waiting list is long.

Jul-09-2010, 7:02am
Some example of Ochiai mandolin's sound:


Mr. Aoyama, the first mandolinist on the video is an example of well known player using Ochiai mandolin.

Jul-09-2010, 7:57am
Thank you very much for the video of Mr Aoyama. The mandolin sounds lovely. I know that Mr Kizoh Sakakibara prefers mandolin by Mr Kanou Kadama, do you have Mr Sakakibara's video?

Jul-09-2010, 8:18am
I tried to search it on the internet, but I don't find it, sorry. I'll try to ask around, maybe somebody on my club have his CD.

Jul-09-2010, 9:34am
Dear Hiin
I have several of his CDs, but I have never seen him play, so I ask hoping that you have it.

Bill Foss
Jul-09-2010, 12:26pm
.....and no one has mentioned Vinaccia or Ceccherini yet?!? Incredible!!

If anyone is interested, I have started a page on Japanese luthiers on my mandolin site, as I have a contact in Japan..... but of course playing them and knowing what they sound like is something else...


Please give us the link to your site!

Jul-09-2010, 2:31pm
you should find the japanese collection I have so far, here....
I'd ber grateful for any other photos...... Dave

Jul-09-2010, 5:16pm
Wow...those are some beautiful instruments Wong. A few of my relatives are over in Japan right now...here's to hoping they bring me back a surprise :)

Bruce Clausen
Jul-09-2010, 5:46pm
Nice to see Kanou Kadama (also Kanoh Kodama, etc.) among leading Japanese mandolin builders. He was the builder of a very nice classical guitar I owned in the eighties. An example of his work is displayed here:


Maybe your relatives will think to pick one up for you, Kristin.:)

Jul-10-2010, 2:10pm
The best classical mandolin is a Loar signed Gibson F-5. (O.k. maybe not really...) To play devil's advocate, I did just recently hear Thile perform his concerto and just purchased the Mike Marshall/Caterina Lichetenberg CD and both of those guys are playing their F-5's? Yes, I know they are crossover guys, but they are two of the most high profile mandolinists out there playing classical music on their flatbacks, and we all know about the original intentions of the F-5 when it was developed.

Seriously though, to the OP, as you already knew there is no consensus as to what is the most appropriate type of mandolin to play, let alone who are the best builders. I will say that there are great recommendations in the previous posts and most of the big ones have been mentioned, along with other lesser known makers. I should also add that the Vega Pettine model to the list, as it is a highly regarded early 20th- century American bowlback.

May I posit that there is no one appropriate type of mandolin for "classical" mandolin? If you are concerned about accurate historical performance practices you would play Baroque music on a mandolino, Paganini on a Genovese mandolin, Calace on a Neapolitan bowlback, and a modern composition on a flatback...Don't mean to hijack the thread. Just a thought. :)

Jul-10-2010, 3:41pm
Thanks for posting that video Hiin! I really enjoyed it, what a lovely piece!


John Hill
Jul-10-2010, 6:28pm
...but they are two of the most high profile mandolinists out there playing classical music on their flatbacks...

Why are F-5's called flatbacks?

Jul-10-2010, 7:40pm
They usually aren't per se, but for bowlback players anything non-bowl, whether it be a flat-top, carved top f-style, carved top oval hole, etc...is often referred to as a flatback instrument, as that is what they are in comparison. The example of the F-5 was just to illustrate that there are examples of mandolinists playing classical music on non-bowlback instruments. Sorry for the confusion.

Jim Garber
Jul-11-2010, 11:37am
.....and no one has mentioned Vinaccia or Ceccherini yet?!? Incredible!!

My initial assumption was that the OP was asking about contemporary makers of classical instruments -- note the list of makers of other mandolins he mentions. Most of the posters were addressing that initial question, I believe, which is why the other older, defunct makers were not mentioned.

Jul-11-2010, 12:06pm
Ditto. I was (rightly or wrongly) focused on the present-tense "are", as in currently active builders. If vintage instruments are also meant in the original inquiry, then yes, of course, many illustrious names ought to be brought up.

I also gladly own my positive view of modern mandolins built by reputable luthiers, as fine, workable, reliable "player's instruments". In fact, I own one of those instruments, too, and am overall very happy with it :-)



Jim Garber
Jul-12-2010, 7:52am
Why are F-5's called flatbacks?

I usually refer to them as carved tops, never flatbacks, tho I suppose they could be called that but only in context in speaking of bowlbacks -- as Buzz noted.

Benjamin T
Jul-12-2010, 10:40am
Following up on Mandobuzz, I would have to add that a mandolin with an extended fret board is a great help of a "classical" mandolin imho, as it extends note only the physical range, but also the repertoire as well. I will also add the Galiano mandolins to the melieu to add another American made bowlback. Here's to hoping D'Angelico graced mine with his hands!