• Northfield Introduces Three New Michigan-Made Instruments

    New Michigan-Made Northfield Instruments

    Many dialects are spoken in Marshall, Michigan, all of them musical — English, Chinese, Japanese, bluegrass, old time, choro, jazz ...

    Rochester, N.Y. native Adrian Bagale co-founded the Marshall-based Northfield Mandolins with acoustic designer Kosuke Kyomori and workshop manager Zhang Xi Sheng a decade ago, strongly believing, at least from the builder's perspective, in Longfellow's supposition of a "universal language." Bagale, a dedicated player who gigs occasionally, brought with him plentiful experience in the mandolin world, including stints with Elderly Instruments and Saga Music (which distributes Kentucky mandolins, Blueridge guitars and Gold Star banjos among many other products). He met Kyomori and Xi Sheng through those channels, on frequent overseas trips to oversee bringing Asian-made mandolins stateside.

    As part of the process the three men learned economies of scale. They learned what worked, and what didn't. And they learned that they all wanted to channel their passions into making "lifetime" instruments.

    Ten years on, Northfield, which began its commercial life with direct sales, is finding its niche by tweaking tradition with popular instruments like its brawnily-dimensioned Big Mon and its mahogany- and maple-backed Archtop Octave Mandolins. All are made, played and inspected in a crosstalk between shops in Marshall and Qingdao, China.

    The guitar-bodied octave was dreamt up by Bagale and company after noticing a trend — particularly on Mandolin Cafe — towards tenor guitars. Based in large part on high-peaked Martin archtops of the 1930s (the bodies of which also served as the basis for the legendary Nazareth company's modern M series), the octave is finding a home with buyers shifting from tenors as well as those inspired by players like Tim O'Brien, Joe K. Walsh and Sarah Jarosz (whose similarly styled Fletcher Brock octave almost singlehandedly launched a craze).

    Others like Walsh have also joined the Northfield bandwagon, and the brand has a strong artist roster including Mike Marshall, Adam Steffey and Emory Lester.

    Here, Bagale discusses what's coming down the pike next for Northfield.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.

    I understand new instruments are in the works?

    Yes, we are launching three new mandolins, and all will be made in the Michigan shops. We're doing a flat top octave, a budget model we're calling The Calhoun, named after the county where our shop is located, and our most remarkable F-5 yet which doesn't yet have an official name or price. This is all so new we're still a few making final decisions. The Calhoun and the Flat Top Octave have the names they'll keep and their prices on our web site.

    You road-tested a prototype of the new octave with Roger Tallroth from Väsen — what did he think of it?

    I'm really into Scandinavian folk music, especially Swedish stuff. Väsen is one of my favorite bands of all time, and Roger is one of my heroes.

    We were just about done with two prototypes last summer, and we got them finished for the annual Marshall Mandolin Summit to get some feedback from people around here. We then immediately drove one down to Kentucky, where Roger was playing, and he fell in love with it.

    He gave us all sorts of varied tuning possibilities and so forth and got us thinking about different ways to refine the instrument. We tweaked a couple things and then met back up in February at Wintergrass and handed it to him. He immediately used it. He gave us a big thumbs up, so we came back and set out to develop it further, to make the jigs and fixtures and to make a batch. We have the first few done right now. It's just a really cool instrument.

    New Northfield Octave Mandolin

    It's a distinct design from the archtop octave, yes?

    It's based on a tenor guitar body frame, but we've done a lot of things to improve the ergonomics, especially for the right arm. We basically built the neck angle into the joint and into the radius of the top, which allowed us to do a sort of reverse taper on the body. Typically, guitars taper as they go towards the heel — this has a slimmer end pin area. It allows you to get around better, it's almost like a built in armrest without there being an armrest. You can get it closer to your body, and that makes it friendlier to play. It's a really big sounding instrument for how small it is, and very minimally appointed.

    And you're tooling up for a budget mandolin?

    Keeping with that theme of widening the audience, we have developed an entry-level instrument called "The Calhoun." We call it entry level only because it will be the beginning of our product line. It might not be considered entry level in terms of its price point, which is sub-$1000.

    What makes it different from the rest of the Northfield line?

    We decided to do our version of a pancake or Army-Navy mandolin, another flat top instrument. Lots of things are different about this one. It's pretty counterintuitive even in terms of the general operating procedure, making the least expensive instrument in the United States and the most expensive instrument in China. We are definitely going against the grain there.

    When it gets down into the lower price point, if there just isn't anything you can buy that really works well, that sounds good and has the backing of the professional musician crowd, I think that's unfortunate.

    Tell us more about the instrument.

    The idea with The Calhoun, as with the new octave, is to do a couple of things differently. It's a tried and true design, but with tweaks to its bracing pattern, a radius built into the top, and a real modern day approach to things like neck shape, neck heel, truss rods and so forth. It will have a radiused board, the right types of frets, an adjustable bridge, tail pieces that aren't those clam shell things — you know, all these things that made Flatirons and Gibsons really hard to play in tune and to keep together.

    Northfield Budget Model Mandolin

    Is it shaped like the classic pancake?

    Ours is more like the shape of our teardrop A5 style instruments, although we don't make a traditional A. They are oval holed, not round holed. As I mentioned, they have some different things about them, like an elevated fingerboard, so it's not just glued flat to the top. They have a more Selmer-style heel shape, and a different sort of mortise and tenon joint, so that you can access that elevated fingerboard and not run right into a neck heel. All these things are meant to make the instrument more easily playable and not sacrifice tone. They also have kind of a reversed A or H brace inside and a cast tailpiece. And we're looking at some pickguards and armrests and things you can do to trick them out.

    Appointments?

    It's really stripped down. It's important that they sonically have good characteristics. We're going to make sure that all the joinery is flawless, and not cover it all up with a bunch of adornments that don't make the instrument sound good or play good.

    If we're going to try to make this instrument in this country, and we're going to try to make it affordable, then we have to make it out of materials that are sustainable and easy for us to get. It won't have ebony boards, and rosewood this and that, and all these tropical hardwoods that are practically extinct from not being sustainable anymore. We can't get lost in all those sort of traditional specs that would make the mandolin unaffordable, unsustainable, and, from an environmental standpoint, just kind of bad news.

    Northfield's Artist Series, which you designed with Mike Marshall, is unique in that is available in both two-tonebar and five-tonebar variations. How will the new F5 differ?

    There were a couple of recent occasions where Mike was playing in a bluegrass situation or some real hard-driving stuff where he really had to lean on that five-bar instrument. It couldn't keep up. It couldn't give him the headroom that he was used to. It became more obvious that, in that context, the E string and the A string were more important, instead of this really nice resonance in the lower mids. We put ourselves in situations, on purpose, where we felt like the five-bar instrument could potentially underperform. They were the real hard-driving, outdoor or big ensemble concerts, where there were a lot of things competing with those frequencies, especially the mid and low.

    We knew that the two-bar was better suited for that bluegrass situation than the five-bar, but still, we wanted to incorporate some of the stuff that we put in to those lower registers. We couldn't have it all. We had to put more emphasis on certain parts of the frequency range in the upper and upper mids, so we tried to approach it that way. One of the things we've done is really hone in on material and properties and use different spruces with different characters.

    New Northfield F Mandolin

    The five-bar Artist Series, which Marshall frequently plays, is more modern sounding than the new model?

    It is a little more versatile in that way. I think that's why it works so well with somebody like Mike, who is playing so many different varieties of music. It became another tool in his arsenal. He's got a lot of different instruments, and it became the go-to tool in all these choro, classical and jazz gigs — all these different things he's doing. But back to that traditional sound, we just knew that a Loar-style F5 carves out a certain sonic space. It's a real laser in terms of the mix.

    So, this will be the closest to a straight up Loar you've done?

    Yeah. This will be the closest that we've ever done, but there are certain things that we won't do. We're not making flat fingerboards. We're not making the full extension. We're going to employ some of the modern playability aspects that we know professionals prefer. We're not going to put on a stainless steel Gibson-style tailpiece. We're going to use either one of the Nugget tailpieces that we work with, or a James tailpiece, which we've been quite happy with. So, it won't be totally by the book. We're trying different things with coloring, to be able to do something a little bit more like a 1922-style burst, which is a little different, right? It's a little more golden than some of the later '24 bursts and has a different shape in terms of the pattern.

    Under the hood it's the most robustly built instrument we've ever made. We've put in every bit of development that we've encountered along the way, and we've built a lot of F5s at this point. We're throwing everything at it. We've had one prototype on the road with Mike for about six months. He's played Wintergrass and Swannanoa with it, and he's been carting it around all over Europe. We've gotten a lot of feedback. We're pretty excited about it.

    We desire to make as good an F5 as we possibly can, and we will never stop. We're obsessed. This is a sickness at this point. We're fortunate enough to know at least some of the top shelf grandfathered-in builders and we've watched them return back to really specific parameters with the F5, regarding what it can do and why it works so well in a bluegrass context; why Bill Monroe decided to play one. That's really important, but we also feel privileged to know that we are making an F5 the way we want to, and we're 30 minutes away from Kalamazoo, where it all began.

    New Northfield F back side

    Additional Information

    Comments 35 Comments
    1. dang's Avatar
      dang -
      Very cool interview! I had the opportunity to play all 3 of these instruments and I was impressed by them all

      The Calhoun had that nice loud sound you would expect from a flat top, and all the modern playability you could wish for. I know it is better then the first two or three "starter" mandolins I went through - and better then the few flat tops I have had the opportunity to play. YMMV.

      The Flat top octave was great, you can't exactly see from the pictures above but the body is pretty shallow. The feel was nice, definitely all the modern playability. Also very loud sound - you know how a flat top mando can sound really loud vs an arched top mando? this seemed to roughly translate the same but in octave form. Not a great description, and it is really tough to place these... Not quite the tone of the arched top octave but for me it was more satisfying then a tenor guitar tuned GDAE.

      I have to say if the New F-5 that is yet unnamed is the one I think it is (version 4.0?) I want one. Have you ever heard a mandolin at a jam and really liked the sound, and then you could hear that tone and recognize it when someone else across the room was playing it? It had that. It just sounded alive. Which is funny, considering that "for trees, this is the after life" . And I used another one of those words that don't really describe sound well, but I am sticking with "alive". When you get a chance you should try one out is all I can say... Did I mention I want one?

      I met Adrian (and played the instruments mentioned above) at the mandolin summit and he is a really cool guy. It's nice to see this interview; more people should know about him and what he is doing.
    1. bigskygirl's Avatar
      bigskygirl -
      Wow and thanks dang both for your post above and the review of the MM Summit, I hope to make it there at some point. I have a 2014 F5 Master model I absolutely love and have played and heard a few of the Artist Series which are great! Now this one...I really thought I was done with MAS but Northfield is making sure I’m not.
    1. Ron McMillan's Avatar
      Ron McMillan -
      Excellent interview. Adrian really sounds like a guy to watch.
    1. mandopixie's Avatar
      mandopixie -
      Northfield Workshop - ever evolving. Great to see the updates here. Thanks so much to Adrian, Michael, and of course Scott and mandolincafe for making all of this community possible.
    1. DataNick's Avatar
      DataNick -
      That new F5 looks and sounds like it will be serious...
    1. W. James Johnson's Avatar
      W. James Johnson -
      Videos of these being played, please!
    1. Drew Egerton's Avatar
      Drew Egerton -
      I got to play the flat top Octave at Bibey camp last week courtesy of Emory Lester. It was fantastic!!!! Very fun and easy playing and a really great full sound considering it has a pretty thin body. Enough volume to play acoustic in small settings and his had a pickup as well for the stage.
    1. Drew Streip's Avatar
      Drew Streip -
      There are some videos on the Northfield website of The Calhoun and the Flat Top Octave. None of the F5 yet -- although I expect some good sleuthing might uncover a recent YouTube video of Mike Marshall with the prototype (not that the audio quality would do it any justice).
    1. Northfield mando's Avatar
      Northfield mando -
      Quote Originally Posted by W. James Johnson View Post
      Videos of these being played, please!
      Hi! Lots of vids of the new octave and The Calhoun on our site on the product pages. Here’s a page of videos featuring Mike/Darol and Vasen with the new F5 from back in Feb.
      https://www.northfieldinstruments.com/video/ We’ve made a few of these new instruments and of course each now have their own recordings. Much more to show you in the coming week. Thanks to everyone for all the feedback and questions, emails and phone calls. -Adrian
    1. carleshicks's Avatar
      carleshicks -
      I have played one of the new Marshal built F-5’s a few months ago at Northfield’s shop, and it was absolutely amazing. Hands down one of the most Loarish sounding mandolins I have ever played. It cut like crazy with Mids that rang like a bell. It had the same Overtones after each played note that added an immense amount of Tone Color. What surprised me was that it had a much more powerful low end then my Derrington Master Model, without being”woofy”. I see this model making it to the top of the list of sought after mandolins.
    1. rnjl's Avatar
      rnjl -
      Hi Northfield, is the new F5 discussed above the same as the 4th Generation F5 on your website? Do my eyes deceive me or is the neck shaped a little bit rounder on the 4th Gen rather than the V of some other Northfields? Are neck shapes a custom option on Northfields? Thanks.
    1. Emory Lester's Avatar
      Emory Lester -
      Hi everyone.....on the road in Wasilla Alaska this week at the Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp, with the new flat top octave and a new 5 bar artist model mandolin.....I just received this octave a few days ago while in Myrtle Beach SC at the Alan Bibey Mandolin Camp, and what a neat instrument this is.....small and light, simple and elegant, it has a big sound that was surprising the first time I struck a chord on it.....very thin body depth and super comfortable to play.....the guys at Northfield mounted a pickup system in it for me, and sounds very warm and wonderful both acoustically and plugged in.....students and players at both of these camps have been playing and trying this one out, and I've heard quite a few say that MAS has struck again.....thank you so much Adrian, Kosuke, Peter and Derek, and all the great folks at Northfield for yet again producing a first class instrument that is exciting and makes the player want to never put it down.....
    1. Drew Egerton's Avatar
      Drew Egerton -
      Emory so great seeing you at Bibey camp! Hope that your trip to Alaska goes well.
      I am definitely on that list of students ready to buy one as soon as I can spare the funds. What a cool instrument!
    1. Bill Slovin's Avatar
      Bill Slovin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Northfield mando View Post
      Hi! Lots of vids of the new octave and The Calhoun on our site on the product pages. Here’s a page of videos featuring Mike/Darol and Vasen with the new F5 from back in Feb.
      https://www.northfieldinstruments.com/video/ We’ve made a few of these new instruments and of course each now have their own recordings. Much more to show you in the coming week. Thanks to everyone for all the feedback and questions, emails and phone calls. -Adrian
      I'm curious how the new F5 differs in construction from the 2 bar red spruce Artist model.

      -Bill
    1. Mando Mafia's Avatar
      Mando Mafia -
      Quote Originally Posted by Northfield mando View Post
      Here’s a page of videos featuring Mike/Darol and Vasen with the new F5 from back in Feb.
      https://www.northfieldinstruments.com/video/ -Adrian
      *Loved* those videos with Mike/Darol & Vasen, who are just about my favorite band! We hosted Vasen a year ago at the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville VA & made the evening extra special by having the new Vasen Brewing Company from Richmond come & present some of their beers at the show..neat because the band’s latest Cd is called ‘Brewed’.
      The Prism was where I got inspired to get a Northfield octave mando as we also hosted Joe Walsh (with Danny Barnes & Grant Gordy) & I got to check his Northfield octave out there.

      Pete Marshall
    1. jgarrow's Avatar
      jgarrow -
      Quote Originally Posted by Northfield mando View Post
      Hi! Lots of vids of the new octave and The Calhoun on our site on the product pages. Here’s a page of videos featuring Mike/Darol and Vasen with the new F5 from back in Feb.
      https://www.northfieldinstruments.com/video/ We’ve made a few of these new instruments and of course each now have their own recordings. Much more to show you in the coming week. Thanks to everyone for all the feedback and questions, emails and phone calls. -Adrian
      Hey Adrian - do you guys offer left handed versions of the archtop or flattop octaves? I can't find anything on your site specifying if that option is available. Tried reaching out through the contact us link but didn't get a response.

      Thanks
      Jeff
    1. Northfield mando's Avatar
      Northfield mando -
      Quote Originally Posted by rnjl View Post
      Hi Northfield, is the new F5 discussed above the same as the 4th Generation F5 on your website? Do my eyes deceive me or is the neck shaped a little bit rounder on the 4th Gen rather than the V of some other Northfields? Are neck shapes a custom option on Northfields? Thanks.
      Hi. Yes, they are the same. Neck shapes are a custom option on this type of mandolin. If things need to be exactly the same as another instrument, the best way would be to get a template made of a neck you prefer and have experience with. I'd call our necks more a soft V - with a little more material on the shoulders than a typical vintage style V. Not a strong or pronounced ridge but a hybrid of a V and U shape. Maybe easier to talk on the phone about neck feel and shapes. It's really a combination of the neck grip, the board thickness, the arch of the board, the frets... and your hands and technique. Hard to articulate all the variables by text. Hope this helps.
    1. Northfield mando's Avatar
      Northfield mando -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bill Slovin View Post
      I'm curious how the new F5 differs in construction from the 2 bar red spruce Artist model.

      -Bill
      Hi there. Quite a bit different actually - likely easier to talk about everything, or finish a video on our end (in the plan). I'll start with a few differences.

      For starters: This mandolin design was really based off of a few key examples. A beautiful and wonderful sounding 1922 F5, likely the best mandolin I've ever had the luck to hold and play extensively (one serial from DG's "Crusher"), an equally amazing bench copy of that mandolin made by Mike Kemnitzer in 2016 (you may have read about these projects in a FBJ article featuring Nugget - he captured THE character- I had never run across a sound like this in a brand new mandolin...which sent us deeper down the rabbit hole than we'd ever ventured. Thank you Nugget.) our current Artist Series 5 bar, and our approach to "tuning in" what we want to hear, and Mike Marshall's 1924 F5. Not to mention, this mandolin adventure was inspired by countless hours and concerts and feedback sessions with Mike Marshall and the current Artist Series mandolins (many, over the course of 3 solid and very event packed years). Critiquing, admiring, acknowledging, contemplating… and experimenting.

      -Body shape: Outline-It's a bit different. Different scroll, different waist. It's subtle but it's different.
      -Top and back thickness - thicker. Much more robustly built like the mandolins I mention above.
      -material qualities, cuts, species and combinations.
      -tone bar sizes, tapers, heights and placement.
      -arching for the top and back. recurve placement.
      -F hole size… and a little asymmetry
    1. Northfield mando's Avatar
      Northfield mando -
      Quote Originally Posted by jgarrow View Post
      Hey Adrian - do you guys offer left handed versions of the archtop or flattop octaves? I can't find anything on your site specifying if that option is available. Tried reaching out through the contact us link but didn't get a response.

      Thanks
      Jeff
      Hi there. Can do - just give us a call and we can talk about options on the 2 different instruments, variables and wait times etc.
    1. Mike Marshall's Avatar
      Mike Marshall -
      It's been a really inspiration to work with Adrian and all the folks at Northfield to pursue these developments in their new mandolins. I'm really impressed with how open and willing they are to throw everything at the canvas. To understand and appreciate the tradition, but to not be held back by it as we discuss some of the wishes that I've had over the years. has been a fun ride and it represents a LOT of time, discussion, experimentation, food and wine and hard thinking to get to this point. I believe this is the 5th Artist Model that I have had from them and with each one they are capturing more of what I've needed. Very exciting stuff! I'm glad to see all the interest.