• The 1978 Bob Givens Interview from The Guitars Friend

    An interview with legendary builder Bob Givens published over 40 years once again comes to light.

    R.L. Givens

    In order to understand the origins on this interview with R.L. "Bob" Givens it's necessary to take a step back into another time.

    A long defunct and now relatively obscure music catalog of the time, The Guitars Friend (no apostrophe), in publication between 1973 - 1983, was created by Laurence "Laury" Ostrow, an acquaintance of and seller of Givens' instruments. As part of the content of The Guitars Friend series Ostrow produced and published a short but meaningful interview with Givens, whose work is still highly respected. He preceded most of today's modern mandolin builders in turning out true world class A and F mandolins in the style of the 1920s Gibsons.

    Givens' was clearly one of the earliest modern makers to closely study the best early Gibson Loar F mandolins and much of the interview explores his thoughts on the subject. Givens passed away in 1993 from cancer.

    The Guitars Friend was an ornately hand-lettered catalog with some typesetting, augmented with photos that combined instrument sales with commentary on "hippie" culture that included but was not limited to alternative, self-sustaining, country lifestyle and more. From the description offered in one issue (shown below), TGF began as a mail-order catalog offered by Ostrow after his time at the Detroit-based music store Music, Strings, and Things, founded by his brother.

    Ostrow left Detroit in 1973 to move to the country, first to Stockbridge, Mich., then to Sandpoint, Idaho in 1975.

    Based in California since 1982 and running a series of businesses not directly related to music, we made contact with Ostrow who granted permission to reproduce the interview and other bits of mandolin information from the publication. Guitars Friend — Songs of the 70's is a collection of highlights from ten years of the catalog and is available from Apple Books and Blurb Books and can be purchased as hard copy or download. To truly understand TFG it's a must own document and well worth the price in our opinion.

    The Guitars Friend statement of purpose, reproduced below. Click for larger version.

    The Guitars Friend


    NOTE: the interview has not been edited so all content is as it originally appeared.

    An Interview With Bob Givens

    Bob Givens is a master creator of Bluegrass instruments. He's been involved in instrument building and conversions since back in 1962. He's one of the most experienced mandolin builders around and his instruments have established his reputation world-wide. We give you exerpts from a talk with Bob.

    How has mandolin design changed since the twenties?

    Not much, with good mandolins. Nothing can beat a Lloyd Loar.

    Is your design just a take-off on a Lloyd Loar?

    I started with a Lloyd Loar I took apart in 1966. But when I put one together with the same dimensions, it didn't sound the same. I don't think that Loar's F-5s sound the same today as they did in 1927. And new F-5 copies made today won't sound the same as original F-5s. So I changed my designs over the years to experiment with the sounds.

    Is there much variance among different Lloyd Loar F-5's?

    That's hard to say because it's hard to find Lloyd Loars in original condition to compare. Most all of them I've seen have been at least sanded on if not carved out on the inside. I've only seen three with the original finish in real primo condition.

    What kind of wood did Gibson use on the F-5's?

    Well, they used some pretty highly flamed stuff for maple and a couple of kinds of spruce. The shaping was all done on a carving machine and they were finished up by hand.

    Do you get any difference in sound using plain, flamed or highly figured maple?

    Some people feel there's a real difference. But I've built lots and I don't really see any pattern. Often the ones with the plain or even marred wood sound the best.

    Gibson made a variety of models. Was the main difference ornamentation, or did they use different woods for different shapes and so on?

    Gibson has used maple as the standard for the F-5 necks, but they use mahogany on a lot of the A models and the old F-4's. All the F-4's have mahogany necks. Their F-models were all the same shape, but the predecessor to the F model was larger. It had a three point body. F models have a two point body. The original Gibson mandolin, the Florentine model, was a completely different shape from the F. It did have an ornate scroll-shaped body similar to the F, but I don't know of any F mandolins with a three point body.

    How do your mandolins compare to Gibson Lloyd Loars?

    I like the sound of mine better. But then I know there are a lot of guys that like the Lloyd Loars better than mine. I make my mandolins to sound the way I want them to sound. As far as being put together well, I do as well as I can... but I've seen some Lloyd Loars that are absolute perfection, and that's hard to beat!

    Do you feel that there have been any real mandolin building discoveries since the twenties?

    There haven't been any real improvements. The design, woods, construction methods and even machines are still pretty much the same today. The wood is probably worse today.

    How were the color and finish of the Lloyd Loar mandolins achieved?

    They used hand-rubbed stains, I use sprayed on colors. One thing you have to watch is the color of the light you're working under. Incandescent and fluorescent are very different.

    Do you put a maple plug in the scroll of the peg head for reinforcing strength?

    No. I don't feel that's necessary.

    Have you played many of the Martin mandolins?

    Oh, I've played a few but I haven't felt that the sound was that strong.

    Have you played many of the Ibanez mandolins?

    Yes, I have. Nearly every one seems to sound different. I guess they're okay, for the money.

    Do you always stick to putting dots down the fingerboard?

    No. Sometimes I've done custom inlays such as a vine twisting down the whole length and other fancy stuff. But I seem to keep going back to dots. I like dots a lot.

    I noticed the floral inlays you use on the pegheads. Didn't the original Lloyd Loar mandolins use the double flower pot inlay?

    As far as I know, they had two designs they used. One was the pretty common double flower pot; the other was the fern inlay I use. The design I use now was something I refined in 1968.

    Do people use A models for a certain type of music, or is it just that they can't afford an F model?

    The two mandolins just sound completely different. It seems to be just personal preference as to the sound somebody likes. The sound of an F really cuts through. You can hear it very clearly when an A and a F are played together. An A model has a fuller, rounder sound. When you're playing real high notes, you can hear how the power of the F comes through. It has more of a percussive sound when you hit it with a flat pick.

    Would you consider putting abalone around the edge of a mandolin body?

    Well, I have thought of it. But it would get pretty tricky around the scroll. It's even tricky just to get purfling to bend around it. I've always wanted to make a completely blonde mandolin with a clear finish over the pale maple, though. Some day I will.
    Additional The Guitars Friend Information


    The Guitars Friend

    PDF - The Guitars Friend Givens Guitar and Mandolin catalog/price list (11 pages)


    PDF - The Guitars Friend general mandolin information (14 pages) - Gibson, Givens, Kentucky, Flatiron, Andersen.
    Comments 36 Comments
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      Great piece of mandolin history. There's some stuff that we could argue about but that's actually a pretty amazing glimpse into Bob Given's the mandolin builder. Lovely. This was before the grand sharing of information we call the Internet.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      This was a really, really interesting project I felt strongly about and there was so much that could have been included here, but if you even read the two PDFs attached it's a lot of content. Ostrow is a really interesting guy who gladly offered to have this shared. Enjoyed a single phone call with him. He has a lot more mandolin content and I haven't fully investigated it all and don't know that I need to but it's an option.

      As you might surmise in the article, Ostrow is still active in his calling from the late 1960s and 70s and works or teaches in a holistic health center I believe he told me.

      I learned a lot about Givens that I didn't know. I'd heard he was quite the "character" and that was certainly true but that detail is for someone else to share. Everyone should definitely read the article linked to in the Additional Information section on Charles Johnson's site that is about Givens. Quite the eye opener.

      Like every builder whose mandolins I've played, not every one was a real ringer (nothing more than my sole opinion), but the best ones I've played were nothing short of phenomenal. I ran into someone at Folk Alliance a few years ago with an F that still haunts my memory. It was immediately to my mind one of the single finest mandolins I've every played and I would give anything to own, but the current owner was quite happy with it.

      As part of this, some of you may wonder, I did contact Steve Weill who worked with him but did not hear back so possibly that email ended up in his spam folder or was just missed. Can't say. Email is not a 100% proposition and if he wishes to weigh in here he'd certainly be welcome.

      Happy to see this information come to light and be discussed. Suspect many reading it barely know the name and nothing more but Givens was the real deal in the luthier community and probably one of the first to study in-depth the work on the best Gibson mandolins for the short period in the early 1920s.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Note from Ostrow just now and happy to hear he was pleased with this. His words below:

      I was an avid reading of James Joyce and have spent a lifetime enjoying Finnegans Wake. Also no apostrophe. And why I left it out.
    1. Glassweb's Avatar
      Glassweb -
      I would have liked to ask him why he chose not to use a truss rod in his mandolins. I have seen/played a number of Givens instruments that had badly bowed necks.

      I realize there are other builders these days who do not use them, but given the choice between a mandolin with a truss rod and one without I will take the one with the truss rod every day... especially one with double action.
    1. mandrian's Avatar
      mandrian -
      Great article. Thanks for bringing this to light.
    1. mandomurph's Avatar
      mandomurph -
      Quote Originally Posted by Glassweb View Post
      I would have liked to ask him why he chose not to use a truss rod in his mandolins. I have seen/played a number of Givens instruments that had badly bowed necks.

      I realize there are other builders these days who do not use them, but given the choice between a mandolin with a truss rod and one without I will take the one with the truss rod every day... especially one with double action.
      I bought a new Givens A3 in 1990. When I took it in for a little work recently I was told that Bob Givens wanted to keep the neck slim so he didnít install a truss rod. However there were stories that he sometimes put a rat file in a groove under the fretboard for extra strength. I heard he was a real character so it could be true.
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      I just read the PDF's at the end of the article. I would like to order a Givens A mandolin and a Givens 16 guitar (I didn't even know he made guitars) at the catalog prices.
    1. Benjamin T's Avatar
      Benjamin T -
      The first really good mandolin I ever played was a Givens F. I wish I had listened to everyone that told me to get one then in 1992. I remember the Banjo Player I was playing with told me, "Just save your money, around $5,000 and get a good one." You can play this as much as you like until then. I ended up special ordering a Flatiron, which I wish I had listened to my mentors. My immediate feeling from the Givens I played was the heft of that first one. It felt like a Bluegrass Machine!
    1. Kevin Winn's Avatar
      Kevin Winn -
      Great article - thanks!

      And, yes, I'll also take two A's and two F's at the catalog prices....!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      2nd Edition print copy of The Guitars Friend on eBay for only $20. Tempting but I have so much stuff laying around I'll let someone else if they wish.
    1. elephantrock's Avatar
      elephantrock -
      I may have published the last word on Bob Givens, a two part article that appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited, January and February 1992. Bob passed not long after that.

      During his last months of productivity, Bob and his apprentice Steve Weill worked in an old Quonset hut outside of Hayden, ID. The state of Idaho had long since revoked Bob's privilege to operate a motor vehicle, so he walked to the hut from a small hotel room down the road. The only clue to what went on inside the hut was a truck muffler that hung by wire over the entrance door. Bob liked his privacy, and it took some doing to broker a meeting with Bob. After that, he opened up to a microphone and camera in a series of interviews that I conducted.

      In 1992 I bought an A6 from Bob, and soon after a Gilchrist F5 as a backup ax. The A6 and F5 are the only two f-hole instruments in my tool box, and either one can readily substitute for the other.

      If anyone would like a pdf copy of my article, or if you are really interested, a CD with all the interviews, let me know.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Quote Originally Posted by elephantrock View Post
      I may have published the last word on Bob Givens, a two part article that appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited, January and February 1992. Bob passed not long after that.

      During his last months of productivity, Bob and his apprentice Steve Weill worked in an old Quonset hut outside of Hayden, ID. The state of Idaho had long since revoked Bob's privilege to operate a motor vehicle, so he walked to the hut from a small hotel room down the road. The only clue to what went on inside the hut was a truck muffler that hung by wire over the entrance door. Bob liked his privacy, and it took some doing to broker a meeting with Bob. After that, he opened up to a microphone and camera in a series of interviews that I conducted.

      In 1992 I bought an A6 from Bob, and soon after a Gilchrist F5 as a backup ax. The A6 and F5 are the only two f-hole instruments in my tool box, and either one can readily substitute for the other.

      If anyone would like a pdf copy of my article, or if you are really interested, a CD with all the interviews, let me know.
      You'd be welcome to attach that interview here if you'd like. Just go to advanced mode and click the paper clip icon. It's the same as adding an image. Or if you have problems happy to assist.
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      I can only speak for myself but I'd love to see that here on the Cafe.
    1. Bill McCall's Avatar
      Bill McCall -
      +1. Not available on Bluegrass Unlimited.
    1. Kevin Winn's Avatar
      Kevin Winn -
      +1
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Here is the interview elephantrock put together for Bluegrass Unlimited. Not sure if Bluegrass Unlimited will have issue with this but I'd think since those issues are no longer in print nor for sale and unlikely to ever be digitized that we're OK doing that. I like to err on the side of being safe but for information that may just virtually disappear or is in the process of doing so should be preserved if possible and posting that here accomplishes that.

      Edit: new version of article with improved readability:

      Attachment 180478
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      If I ever run into Roger Sprung again I'm going to ask him about that "D-45"! This is great stuff.
    1. Russ Jordan's Avatar
      Russ Jordan -
      Interesting read, thanks. I attended a session with Randy Woods, Will Kimble, and Paul Duff at Monroe camp that was very good, with most of the focus on Randy and his history. We should have been asking questions about Bob Givens!
    1. Kevin Winn's Avatar
      Kevin Winn -
      Great reading! The photos are a nice bonus.

      Assuming the guy in the photo with Bob behind his company logo sign is Steve Weill and the other guy with full beard is Tut Taylor?
    1. Paul Statman's Avatar
      Paul Statman -
      Thanks so much. Bob Givens: The pioneer of that approach mandolin building we are enjoying today?