View Full Version : The Mystery of Top Thickness

Feb-18-2004, 12:00am
I spent yesterday playing, examining and listening to a boatload of mandolins at Elderly Instruments. I came away even more confused about tops that I already was. Judging from the F holes, they were all over the place--everywhere from about 1/16th to 3/16ths. Quite a variance.

And the top thickness did not equate across the board to any one being better. There were some pretty thick tops on the A9 and F9 Gibsons that sounded real good, and there were some real thin tops on others that sounded great too.

To add to the confusion, there we three Michael Kelly carved top F5's. The top thickness was pretty much identical--at least to the naked eye, and considering I couldn't exactly measure the full tops. Two sounded thin and trebly, but one pretty much had the "tone"--warm, fat, percussive and bell-like without being thin or harsh.

There were $3000 mandolins that didn't have it, though they were really well made and beautiful.

I came away feeling like there is more mojo than science in this affair. Yeah, I know each piece of wood is different in terms of stiffness and all, but it began to seem like luck of the draw by the end. Would anybody care to comment or help to enlighten me? I don't want to take potshots at any builders but there were some really expensive instruments that looked expensive but sounded like a lot less than the sticker price.

Chris Baird
Feb-18-2004, 12:41am
A mandolin's tone is dependant upon how well all the parts take the energy from the strings and how those parts work together once they are excited. Good tone is generally associated with a complex overtone series. Science hasn't dedicated much time and effort to mucical acoustics. There have been a few dedicated scientist who have learned a lot but only in lower more simplistic modes. Dr. Cohen, who posts on this board, is one of only two scientist that I've ever heard of who has done acoustical experiments on mandolins. So, no there is relatively little science going on in mandolin building. And the science we do have can only go so far in helping to keep a consistant signiture tone. There will always be some luck of the draw. But, you can't really evaluate a mandolin or draw any generalized conclusions about construction without taking into account the whole of the instrument and how it functions as a system. There are a number of configurations, thick and thin, that can be made to sound good if all the parts are working together.

Feb-18-2004, 1:10am
No potshots either, but here's a quick story that unscores the importance of trying out as many of whatever particular mandolin model that catches your fancy:

I had the opportunity to play 3 instruments (HD-28 Martin guitars) that came into Hoffman Stringed Instruments in Raleigh (now closed). The three instruments had consecutive serial numbers, so I would guess that they had to have been made around the same time. They were stock models, and were essentially the same...but they were vastly different...One of the three just sounded head(stock) and shoulders better than the other two. This, in turn, meant that one wound up being the worse-sounding of the three. One had the best feeling neck, even though they were essentially the same, I could feel slight, but definite differences...I played each in a small try-out room, using the same pick and the same licks. Then I had an employee take them and hand them to me at his discretion, while I kept my eyes shut. Again, my ears picked the best-sounding one. Then the employee, who also happened to be a resident teacher there and 2nd place winner at Winfield several years ago, went into the room, closed his eyes and I handed him each guitar...I handed him the worse sounding one (to me) first...he hit a few of his licks and asked for the next one...I handed him #2, he did the same thing, then asked for #3...and said, "This is the one right here..." He also picked the one I thought sounded best. I bought that guitar. Funny thing was, this particular instrument had what I would have judged to be an inferior top, as compared to the other two, in regards to grain and areas of light/dark lines indicating wood from that particular piece of spruce used in that guitar top had experienced weather in extremes of both drought and wetness when still a tree. It just did not appear to have as nice a top aas the other two.

Point? You line up 3 or more of your favorite brand of mandolins...there will always be slight differences, even if they are the same model. There will be one that sounds the best, and one perhaps that sounds the worst. That's why I recommend you try a number of them and take a friend along to get his/her opinions.
That thing about top thickness that Crawdad mentioned, he's right...I have seen that also...(I am not the only one I suspect that carries one of those little plastic rulers) I have not seen anything in the extreme, like an F9 with a 3/32 top, then the one next to it at 7/32...no way...but I have seen some slight variations...like string depth in the nut slots, how well the bridge fits the top, how well the frets were put in, how the neck feels, and yeah, how thick the top is. The trouble or triumph depends on how these and other variations you may find affect the whole instrument. This is the essence of "Chaos Theory"...

In theory, you could hit the cue ball starting at any given point on a pool table, and calculate where the ball will go, and what pocket it will ultimately roll into given enough time. What you cannot calculate is the small variations that begin to add up and ruin your previously accurate assessment of where that ball will go...perhaps the surface of that cue ball is not perfectly smooth anymore... it's dented, dinged or scratched. Combine that with irregularities/imperfections in the felt of the pool table top...how 'bout the level of the table itself?...anyone put little squares of cardboard under one leg to stop that small, but noticably annoying teeter? Same way at the bowling alley..use a house ball on well-worn and dented lane, you won't get the same results you would if you used a brand new ball on a brand new lane, complete with a brand new rack machine that (hopefully) places each pin in the EXACT same spot in formation...<unless you are just a really bad bowler...>

It's the same with instruments, no matter who builds them. Factor in seasonal climate changes, the set-up and alterations you/your luthier knows is gonna be done on the instrument to adjust it to your tastes and comfort level...sometimes it is like Crawdad said, "luck of the draw" to find a hoss of an instrument...

But don't worry...in all the //years// of reading new/vintage instrument inventories, reading every instrument description on every website, I'll be danged if every instrument out there is simply great sounding!...never heard one say they had an absolutely terrible sounding mandolin, and won't you just buy the thing anyway and give it a home?...(wink!)

Feb-18-2004, 3:34am
Chaos theory...good phrase. I suspect that once one gets a real great sounding one, it acts as a sort of model. The builder hopefully has some wood from the same tree and builds to the same specs in an attempt to more or less duplicate the winning model.

I doubt that any build-for-a-living luthier who has a reputation is going to come here and say they've built instruments that didn't really stand out and I certainly can't blame them. I was rather shocked to hear the differences first hand. And I must say that I would be very proud to have built any of the instruments I saw, from a cosmetic and artistic point of view. However, I would have been VERY disappointed if my museum piece sounded like some of these beautifully crafted instruments. It left me feeling like even the best builders in the world know that, deep down, its a chancy proposition to come up with a winner every time. And don't hand me that "it will open up in six months" stuff. Maybe it will and maybe it won't. My guess is that if an instrument sounds perfect right out of the gate, its not going to suddenly get worse.

Which brings me to another thing. There is a lot of advice about this very subject flying around here. I wonder how much of it is based on what worked for a builder in one given situation. Bear with me--I mean absolutely no disrespect to anyone. I realise we are dealing with a less than exact science. There are aspects to building that are tactile judgement calls based on experience, which is probably very scientific if it could be categorized. I have utmost respect for every builder out there.

Back to the three Michael Kelly's. The tops looked to be carved to the same specs--with radically different sonic results. It baffles me. Of course, I'm easily baffled, LOL!

Well, like Chris says, its a combination of all the parts working together to excite vibrations from the whole instrument. In that recipe, there are a lot of variables and some constants. One can carve the plates to certain thicknesses and one can choose the woods, glues, finishes, joints, etc. It still doesn't guarantee any uniformity from one instrument to the next. It makes me think that my first F5 is probably gonna sound like garbage, but maybe I will get lucky.

I guess I am starting to think its more mojo than science. A builder IN TUNE with the wood he is using may glean insight from his experience that science cannot duplicate or verify. I hope that is the case but my Elderly experience didn't inspire much confidence. There may be a number of configurations that can work, but my ears told me that not too many builders have got that down. Sorry.

I'm going to close by saying my respect for builders is immense. This is not meant to be a put down or attack on anybody. I guess I expected to hear nirvana at the $3000+ level. I did, a couple of times but mostly not. Like I said, the cosmetics were breathtaking but the sound was a big variable. My friend and I compared tones and at one point we asked each other--does this sound like $2000 better? We both said no. If I could have bought any of the 30 or so mandolins on the wall based on tone, my first choice would have been the Gibson A9 and my second choice would have been the one Michael Kelly F. Not the prettiest, but the best sounding, to my ear in terms of balance, tone and volume.

OK. I've really shot my mouth off. I just want to stress that I am attacking no one. I admire builders more than you'll know. I'm not trying to prove a point or grind an ax. I am just somewhat puzzled by what I heard and experienced. I wonder how much we CAN quantify in terms of a recipe and how much is chaos theory. I'm sure it goes beyond plates but I hink that is a big part of the equation. I guess I was expecting a certain sonic performance based on price. In retrospect, the price seemed to be more for the inlays, bindings, gold hardware and finishes than for the actual sound.

Man, I have to duct tape my mouth shut tonight. Thanks for listening. I am truly interested in everyones views.

Feb-18-2004, 4:57am
And I thought I was obsessed about this topic.....good post Crawdad. The break-in element cannot be dispensed with, but it doesn't clarify anything either. It is for all the reasons that you have stated that I object to huge companies (no names) making grandious claims about "best" and most desirable. The mandolin that I play day in and day out was carved and tapped by the same hands and ears that play it, and I won't argue with you about mojo; to say that I have a unique relationship with my instrument would be an understatement. Norman blake once said that he hates it when other people play his instruments, and I was reminded by your adventure at Elderly of Mike Marshall's story about getting help guitar shopping from Tony Rice after Mike was drafted to play guitar in the DGQ. Tony walked down the long aisle of Martins and simply plucked the D and G strings of each one without taking them down from the wall. He finally stopped at one and pronounced "This is a great guitar........"

Feb-18-2004, 5:04am
If I could have bought any of the 30 or so mandolins on the wall based on tone, my first choice would have been the Gibson A9 and my second choice would have been the one Michael Kelly F. Not the prettiest, but the best sounding, to my ear in terms of balance, tone and volume.
I bought a new MK butterfly in 2001. This was a mandolin that impressed me. Well made, nicely carved.
In 2002 I bought a 97 Flatiron festival F and then a Gibson A9. After playing them I decided to sell the MK this year. The MK paid for the A9. My wife plays the flatiron more than I, I love the A9.

John Zimm
Feb-18-2004, 9:01am

It's funny, when I was shopping for a new mandolin late last year I spent two afternoons at Elderly playing various and sundry mandolins, and I had much the same experience. I played several models by a certain well know company that I have decided not to bash anymore, and they didn't sound all that great to my ear. It seems like whenever I pick up a Weber to play, however, it usually sounds really great. Anyway, I got an MK that I believe has better sound than many of the top shelf mandolins I tried out. It does seem like a crap shoot sometimes.


Chris Baird
Feb-18-2004, 10:48am
You also have to remember that every builder and player is going to have a different concept of thier perfect tone. And also many custom builders try to suit the tastes of a variety of customers. So one builder may get a request for the dry jam style tone and then another order for the deep rich woody tone. Some how both mandos make it to the same shop and someone comes in to try them out and decides it's a crapshoot because these mandos from the same builder sound so much different. I've found it interesting to compare mandolins both in jam situations and also miced up. Some mandolins are just superb miced up but in a shop or some jam situation you would never know it and think it was quiet or unresponsive.

Feb-18-2004, 12:09pm
"Back to the three Michael Kelly's. The tops looked to be carved to the same specs--with radically different sonic results. It baffles me. Of course, I'm easily baffled, LOL!"

My take on this is that given variations in density, stiffness, elasticity, etc., tops carved to the same specs will all sound different. If you tightly controlled your wood supply -- like several tops from the same side of the same log -- they would sound much more alike. But with the MK's, given a set of nominal graduations, you will find a few "golden" samples which lucky pickers snap up. And it's easy to underestimate the effect of the back wood on tone production. A thick back will kill bass response. In violins, the relative resonances of the top and back affect balance, so I would venture that for mandos also, the great sounding ones not only have a certain top response but also a particular relationship of top and back resonances that make it sound "right."

Hopefully, a good custom builder will hear these things and control them much better than a mass produced model. I would like to think that the good builders occasionally pick up a piece of wood, hit it, and say "yuck" and toss it aside. What you may be hearing in the >$3000 models is a builder's "signature sound", which is a matter of taste. (I agree with Mandoplyr's assessment here.) It's kind of like going wine tasting; if I find a winery that has two wines in a row I really love, then I know I will like pretty much everything they make. Cause the wine maker makes what they like themselves, and if we have similar tastes, I like it too.

Feb-19-2004, 4:24am
Hmmm..this is all very interesting to me. I can see how different builders will have a different standard of whats "best" in terms of tone. Variety is definitely the spice of life.

I guess I need to backtrack and focus in on what it is that I consider the ideal sound and see if anybody has some guidelines or rules of thumb that might help to get me there. Obviously, top thickness is not the sole variable. So, let me try to put it into words.

The sound I like is sweet and somewhat muted treble, strong midrange and bass with a good fundamental. I am into the idea of making the instrument as loud as it can be, given these tonal preferences. I like the sound of Mike Marshall, David Grisman and Chris Thile.

Do I want to stick to spruce and maple for top and back? Do I want to graduate them as thin as the wood allows? What do I avoid to keep from making a mando that sounds thin and bottomless? I know every piece of wood is different, but there have to be SOME guidelines that builders follow or it really is all chaos theory.

I think it would be really good to have a thread outlining choices which would lead to shaping the voice of the instrument we plan to build. My problem is that I just don't have a lifetime to experiment and I know that is part of the road to expertise. May I borrow yours?

Chris Baird
Feb-19-2004, 11:02am
Marshall, Grisman, and Thile all play loars or nearly exact replicas of Loars. Their tone probably has as much to do with their skill as it does their instrument. Loars aren't thinly carved mandolins. Here is a link to a Lawrence Smart article that may help bring into perspective all the functioning parts of the mandolin and how they affect what part of tone.


I've noticed in pouring through the violin world's information that violin builders spend more time worrying about arching and violin shape than they do about graduations. One almost never hears anything about the arching or shape of mandolins and how it effects the tone. I believe that most good tone wood has the potential to produce a good mandolin in the hands of a skilled builder. But I see wood like people. Some have much more potential musically than others and some just have better voices than others no matter who crafts/trains them.

oldwave maker
Feb-19-2004, 11:51am
mojo poetry:
garrison kiellor once asked wayne henderson how he made such wonderful sounding mandolins, he said he got some real good tonewood, some sharp tools, and carved away everything that wasnt a mandolin.
I once asked peter white how I would know when to stop carving a top, he said just make 100, you'll figure it out.
there was an article in the asia quarterly in 95(?) asking kemnitzer, carlson, etc what was most important in making a good mando, they said good tonewood.
david weibe once told me the most important violin tone consideration was arching, not graduations.
sergei de jonge told me at the asia convention the more instruments he made, the less he knew.
my most trusted set of ears belong to a loar owner who teaches and performs all the time- when I take a pair to him for test driving, he likes the focused fundamental one, I like the multi-overtone one.
mike longworth of martin was interviewed a couple of years ago in vintage guitar, when asked about the early 70's transition from 500 to 5000 guitars a month production increase and how it affected tone, he basically said it dont matter, that for every martin made, there is someone out there who will think that one is appropriate for them, and they'd buy it. seems to have worked!

my engelmann spruce harvested off grand mesa in 1994 will make (what sounds to me like) a great mando no matter what the graduations, too bad it was all cosmetically impaired (like me).
the 2 best sounding instruments I ever made were from prominent late growth nw engelmann from bruce harvie, scored at the vsa convention.
china has the largest virgin oldgrowth forests left on this small planet, will eastman ever find the good stuff?
bought a hacklinger thickness gauge last year, measured every good mando I came across, very little usable information from that, since the mesurements varied so radically, even among feb18 1924 loars. I guess Im making the lemon sized thickest area under the bridge a little larger, then going thin quicker, which is counterintuitive to me, especially for 'dola and octave plates.
if you have someone put their fingers on the top of your mando while you play you will notice the sound diminishing. inadvertently building stress into the box during assembly will do the same thing. some wood needs to season more before carving, even some well seasoned wood still moves around after carving, if you force the top/back plate to the plane of the rims when gluing you induce stress. does that dissipate over time?
played the half dozed MK's at gruhns after xmas, 1 was the best mando on their wall, a couple were ok, a couple were inert. heard that among surviving stradivari violins 1/3 are exceptional, 1/3 are decent fiddles, 1/3 are merely investment opportunities.
one thing I noticed about the MK's was the arching of the top as viewed from the side. the top of the arch is not under the bridge, but back toward the tailpiece a ways, like calebs old nugget a or rolfes early unicorns. whether that is intentionally carved that way or a string tension deformation, no se jose. creates life, anyway.
like the guy sez in field of dreams: if you build it, they will come.....
sorry I have no expertise to loan you, #330, just strung up, sucks, but #329 made my life's work all worthwhile!

Feb-19-2004, 12:33pm
Thanks for that post Bill.
Your sense of humor and outlook on life are great! I thought the watermelon mandolin was one of the funniest things I'd seen 'til I saw the monkey with his hands over his ears!http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

I don't know if you remember meeting me at the ASIA symposium in 2000 or 2001, but I'll always remember the "advice" you gave me.

I'll tell this story for the benefit of all who read this.
I saw Bill's display at the symposium, talked with him a while, and showed him a mandolin that I had recently completed. As usual with other builders and with players, I asked for his opinions and any advice he could give. He looked at the mandolin, looked at me and said, "What do I think? I think you should stop building them!"

Jim Hilburn
Feb-19-2004, 1:04pm
I hope the guy getting 330 doesn't read this stuff.

Feb-19-2004, 2:10pm
Mandoplyer--thanks for that link. I think I'll enjoy that one!

Bill--great post...from what you say, its sort of hit and miss--the idea being to apply all the knowledge you can and use the best wood you can find, apply the craft and then....pray a little! I suppose itys like songwriting. I have written hundreds of songs, but some always end up better than others. Niether I or anyone else knows why. I haven't strung up #1 yet, but maybe I have a 50-50 chance that it will sing like a Loar....or grunt like a pig!

Feb-19-2004, 5:30pm
G'Day Bill, great post. Personally I think that mando makers are obsessed with graduations, violin makers seem to be obsessed with arching. The truth probably lies somewhere in between or off somewhere else. I changed my arching about a year ago, and it made quite a difference. Just build them and eventually you will learn how to make them sound good. Like Bill I have made a few that I think suck, but the owners are happy, and I learned what not to do. For those starting on their first mandolin, just get some half decent wood and make the damn thing, and stop stressing out on graduations because it probably won't make a lot of difference. Experience is the key, the maker I most respect has now made over 500 (Gilchrist). I have a long way to go to catch up (should make #100 this year).

John Jesseph
Feb-19-2004, 6:24pm
maybe I have a 50-50 chance that it will sing like a Loar....
The key is which Loar it sings like...

Feb-19-2004, 7:09pm
Or which pig it grunts like....

Feb-19-2004, 11:35pm
Or which pig it grunts like....
Well, I hope its a LOUD pig if nothing else, LOL!

Yeah, I imagine the key is to build a lot of them and learn something from each one. Thats probably the best advice there is. There is a saying in songwriting: "the first hundred don't count". In other words, you learn and grow by doing. I hope the first 100 doesn't apply to mandolins because I don't have that many years left!