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View Full Version : How old is too old for playability?



JLeather
Oct-13-2010, 10:59am
Hope this doesn't open up too big of a can of worms here. I have a nice F-model, a Buddy Davis, that I play frequently at jams and the occasional gig. Good chop, nice bluegrass mando. I've been pining away for an old oval-hole mando for a while now, ideally a Gibson, for some of the slower stuff I play and just because I've never had one (a touch of MAS). Is there an era of Gibson production that is too early for the instrument to still be useful in a gig-setting? One where it will have to stay in tune and be playable for possibly a few hours at a time, in varying temperatures, etc?

I would absolutely love an F2/F4 from the 20's or earlier (any F2/F4 for that matter), but it is well out of my price range right now. I have seen some excellent deals here and there on A Jr's from the early teens, and several A2's and 3's and similar from the teens/20's that I could stretch for. The question I have is how old is too old for a regular player? Can an A Jr from 1908, with the proper setup, be counted on for gigs? For that matter, can a Snakehead A be counted on? Would certain parts have to be upgraded, like the tuners for instance?

If the answer to my question is "no, a pre-20's Gibson A cannot be counted on for regular duty" is there an alternative mando I could get that is similar in tone to the old oval-holes but a bit more modern? One of the jam master F2 clones maybe? I'm not particularly interested in a flat-top like the AN's or a Mid Mo.

fatt-dad
Oct-13-2010, 11:31am
Won't have volume you're used to, but there's no reason to exclude one if it's been kept up over the years. Heck, even if it's come unglued, a luthier can get it right again. Just goes into the final price tag.

Buying from Elderly, Mandolin Brothers, Vintagemandolin.com, Gruhn, etc. will help filter out the troublesome, but there'll be somewhat of a retail premium.

have fun!

f-d

Michael Eck
Oct-13-2010, 11:35am
I've got an all-original '21 A that I still gig with frequently. Stays in tune just fine, sings loud and sounds great. Had a minor glue job done on one little edge of the back two years ago and that's about it.

Go for it.

Capt. E
Oct-13-2010, 1:05pm
I don't think it is a question of age, but one of condition. Has the instrument been well cared for, maintained, etc? There are thousands of A models from the teens that see regular playing.

F-2 Dave
Oct-13-2010, 4:55pm
I have a 1910 A-4 that I love. I believe that its every bit as loud as my '21 F-2. Still not as loud as my Collings MT, but that's not an apples to apples comparison. Almost any Gibson teen's oval can be set up to play well. Some are actually loud. When you go back much further that, you start getting into some different critters. Definately collectible and cool, even valuable, but not all great players. JMHO

Mandolin Mick
Oct-13-2010, 5:17pm
I have a 1936 Gibson A-Century. Stays in tune and is louder & easier to play than anything else I've ever played. No cracks & neck is in great condition.

Bob DeVellis
Oct-13-2010, 5:27pm
I have a 1913 A3 and a 1917 F4 that are both rock solid players. If cared for along the way, these instruments can last just about forever. Gibsons are more substantially built than many of their contemporaries. The arched body makes them especially strong, i think. And nothing else sounds quite like them.

Bob A
Oct-13-2010, 9:39pm
It may be true that some very old Italian bowlbacks are too delicate to drag around and gig with, but Gibsons of the period were all pretty overbuilt. They sometomes require some maintenance; backs come loose or the transverse brace needs to be reglued, or a re-fret might be in order, but so long as this sort of thing is attended to, they'll be playing long after you've turned to dust.

JeffD
Oct-13-2010, 10:22pm
The question I have is how old is too old for a regular player? .

I don't think it works that way. Every particular vintage mandolin has to be judged on the condition it is in. I think you can be reasonably assured that if there are no issues found with a particular mandolin, as determined by someone qualified to know, that the mandolin can be counted on. If there is a reason to think the mandolin unreliable, a qualified person would be able to discern the problem and advise as to whether it can be repaired.

Dave Hanson
Oct-14-2010, 2:43am
200 year old violins are still being played, no reason why old mandolins shouldn't.

Dave H

Goodin
Oct-14-2010, 7:28am
ditto with what everyone else said. although, many very early Orville built Gibson mandolins are experimental and may be difficult to make playable. The A model I examined at Gruhn's from 1898 was not playable, and I imagined if it was playable it wouldnt be very loud compared to more modern mandolins.

If you are looking for a bluegrass mandolin I would advise against a 20's F-2/F-4. They are excellent mandolins but they don't work well for bluegrass. They don't produce a good chop and the short neck makes it hard to do chop chords up the neck, and they are a tad bit quieter than an F model. They are ideal for old time, celtic, classical, and the like.

fatt-dad
Oct-14-2010, 7:41am
My 91-year-old father and my 90-year-old mandolin are both doing just fine.

http://sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc3/hs325.snc3/28842_1289150352705_1348602705_661330_4366174_n.jp g

f-d

JLeather
Oct-14-2010, 9:22am
Yeah, the short neck has me concerned as well. I do like to play chop chords up in the high G and high C ranges. A 12-fret neck might be a bit limiting.

Rroyd
Oct-14-2010, 9:57am
Great picture, f-d!!

journeybear
Oct-14-2010, 10:16am
I'm with those who say if it's in good shape, play it! I have a 1917 A mandolin and 1916 H-2 mandola, and they are great sounding and very playable instruments. These were well-made, made to be played, and have probably gotten better with age. Even the thirty years I put into playing my 1966 F-12 couldn't make it sound better than the A, and even though I would like to have it back (stolen three years ago), having an instrument that sounds this good helps keep me from missing it. :mandosmiley:

Me, on the other hand ... :))

acousticphd
Oct-18-2010, 11:57am
One where it will have to stay in tune and be playable for possibly a few hours at a time, in varying temperatures, etc?

I don't know of such a mandolin (stays in tune during play for hours at a time in varying temperatures - seriously?). I know I've never owned one.

I have a couple of teens Gibson A-style mandolins. IMO, the biggest playability factors are the condition (straightness, flatness) of the the fingerboard, condition of the frets, and having the nut slot depths and angle and bridge set up as optimally as possible. A second big factor/difficulty can be tuning, but the above factors can have as much to do with unreliable tuning as the old machines themselves.

I have used a 1915 style A Gibson regularly for several years in gig/dance situations. It's reliability depends on number of things, including how aggressively and how long it is played. There are cases where I might be playing both rhythm and/or melody nonstop for ~8-10 minutes in a medley of several tunes. Always, always requires tuning afterwards, and sometimes a bit of sneaky tuning during the set. But this is not much different than most other mandolins, I don't think. Otherwise why is virtually every performer you see up there with a tuner clipped to their headstock? My main Gibson is currently in cranky condition, including a lot of fret wear, but a thorough setup would probably remedy most of the issues.

So yes, I believe an old Gibson, set up nicely, would do fine. But I also would say that an old Gibson, with its sustain and resonance, will probably shine the most when played a little differently from your F5.

JLeather
Nov-05-2010, 9:35pm
In case anyone is curious how this is turning out, after much deliberation there is now a 1923 Gibson A3 in transit to my house courtesy of the cafe classifieds. I know it won't be an instrument like my F5, but I am definitely looking forward to exploring the A3. I'll continue this thread once it's here and I've had a chance to jam with it a few times.

JeffD
Nov-05-2010, 9:40pm
I know it won't be an instrument like my F5, but I am definitely looking forward to exploring the A3. .

True enough, but your F5 will not be an instrument like the '23 A3. :)

allenhopkins
Nov-05-2010, 11:08pm
Own a 3-point Gibson F-2 black-face, Ser.#6208, FON 324, which I guess would make it 1906 or so. Eminently playable, and I used it for over a decade in a Celtic band (Thistledown), also in a Jewish-music trio (Love & Knishes). Still works fine! Here's (http://www.allenhopkins.org/music/grinecousine.mp3) a little sample of what it sounds like...

Bill Van Liere
Nov-06-2010, 1:19pm
Wonderful sounding instrument with that setting Allen.

allenhopkins
Nov-06-2010, 10:10pm
Wonderful sounding instrument with that setting Allen.

Thanx, Bill. I still pull the ol' gal out from time to time, although I've been using more modern instruments (1987 Gibson Army-Navy Custom, 2009 Eastman DGM-1 and DGM-2) more lately. Plus my ever-faithful $25 Strad-O-Lin "beater."

CES
Nov-06-2010, 10:27pm
I agree that there's no reason you shouldn't be able to find an older mandolin to fit your needs, providing it's been cared for/maintained, or you're willing to get it up to speed with repair work...

As for modern alternatives, check out Bill Bussman's Old Wave mandolins...mighty fine, indeed, and you could probably get the 15 fret neck you like as well...there are other options, of course, but he's the first one to pop into my head tonight...for perhaps less expensive alternatives, Howard Morris is making some nice, affordable instruments as well...

Good luck!

JLeather
Nov-15-2010, 2:56pm
So my "new" A3 is here, the refinished one from the classifieds. Definitely a good player. No structural issues, new hardware, straight neck, etc. Even with a set of very light strings on it it really rings. I have pretty big hands so the neck isn't a problem for me, though it does feel a bit strange. However I've come to an interesting conclusion; I don't know how to play this instrument. Sure it might be tuned the same as my F5, but nothing I do on my F5 works on the Gibby and vice-versa.

For instance, a two-finger G chord on my F5 doesn't sound very good. On the A3 a 2-finger G sounds amazing, but a chop G sounds darn-near terrible. This is an issue since my style is primarily moving chop chords broken into scales way up the neck. The Gibson seems determined to keep me down below 3rd position or so (I don't know if they're called 'positions' in mandolin circles but I'll revert to my classical violin training for a bit).

I believe that to play this mando I'm gonna have to go back to basics and learn an entirely different set of chords and scales. In the end it oughta help me whatever instrument I'm playing. Anyone have any suggestions for re-learning how to play an old A-model?

JeffD
Nov-15-2010, 3:09pm
, but nothing I do on my F5 works on the Gibby and vice-versa.

For instance, a two-finger G chord on my F5 doesn't sound very good. On the A3 a 2-finger G sounds amazing, ?

I have found that open strings sound, to my ears, better on an oval hole instrument, versus an f hole instrument.

Chip Booth
Nov-16-2010, 9:47am
Yeah, the short neck has me concerned as well. I do like to play chop chords up in the high G and high C ranges. A 12-fret neck might be a bit limiting.

I am not surprissed you are needing to learn some new chord positions. When I read the statement above my first thought was "well you won't want to play like that on an oval hole anyway". Enjoy the new tonality and opportunity to expand your palette. Most likely some of that will spill over into your F hole playing and make you an even better, more diverse player.

John Rosett
Nov-16-2010, 9:55am
I believe that to play this mando I'm gonna have to go back to basics and learn an entirely different set of chords and scales. In the end it oughta help me whatever instrument I'm playing. Anyone have any suggestions for re-learning how to play an old A-model?

Get the Jethro Burns books.