• 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 37 Comments
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      It would appear from the last interview posted that Bob Givens kind of created the A-5 market. It does not say that he ever took apart the Ms. Griffith Loar as is the rumor that has been around for years. I'll also note that he apparently surmised, as did Darryl Wolfe, that the body of the Ms. Griffith Loar was based on the standard Gibson A models of the time. Lot's of good stuff here. I love seeing his jig for fitting bridges to tops.
    1. dbilello's Avatar
      dbilello -
      On same weekend Russ mentions above at Monroe Camp, Randy Wood was sharing Tut Taylor stories later that evening and I specifically asked about the rumor of Givens taking apart the Griffith A. Mr. Wood indicated that never happened (at least to that instrument). Thanks for sharing the Givens article. Cool stuff.
    1. James Vwaal's Avatar
      James Vwaal -
      Thanks for posting the interview! It brought me back to Memory Lane.

      I bought my first mandolin in Missoula, MT, when I was studying at the U of M. It was a $60 beater. Two years later after graduating, I saw an advert in Mandolin World News for Givens mandolins and if I recollect correctly, the A model was going for either $650 or $675 and the F model for $950 or so.

      Anyway, with my first paycheck I called up Bob and ordered an A model. He told me that the top would be Sitka spruce. This was Autumn of 1978. I sent a check and several months later the Givens A arrived via US Post. I still own that mandolin and play it every day. It is one of the few things I still have from that time period (mostly textbooks) and pre-dates meeting my future wife. (I remind her of that and then she hits me in the shoulder.)

      As for the lack of a truss rod, the neck on the mandolin slowly warped over the years, but a refinish of the neck in 2013 brought it back straight and the instrument never sounded better than it does now. There is a Guitar Friends sticker visible on the back through the treble sound hole, and #176 penciled on the back visible through the bass sound hole.

      Thanks again for featuring Mr. Givens. His contribution to society was great IMHO.
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by dbilello View Post
      On same weekend Russ mentions above at Monroe Camp, Randy Wood was sharing Tut Taylor stories later that evening and I specifically asked about the rumor of Givens taking apart the Griffith A. Mr. Wood indicated that never happened (at least to that instrument). Thanks for sharing the Givens article. Cool stuff.
      Luthiers that held the Ms. Griffith Loar in their hands said the same thing, that the back had never been off.
    1. darylcrisp's Avatar
      darylcrisp -
      amazing article and wonderful to read.
      thanks so much for posting all this.

      d
    1. Kevin Winn's Avatar
      Kevin Winn -
      Quote Originally Posted by elephantrock View Post
      In 1992 I bought an A6 from Bob, and soon after a Gilchrist F5 as a backup ax.
      Heh. Probably the first time I've heard of a Gil F5 being used as a backup...
    1. CarlM's Avatar
      CarlM -
      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.
      I recently purchased some wood from Steve Weill. He really does not do internet much. If you give him a phone call he responds and is really good to talk to. His phone number is on his website and he makes the statement on there that eh does landline and snail mail for the most part.
    1. Bernie Daniel's Avatar
      Bernie Daniel -
      Interesting for sure and a trip back to the 70s and 80s -- a time warp. But there is another long narrative story about R.L. Givens that exists too. It used to be on line in the early days of the internet and you would find it by jusat searching "RL Givens" -- I read it at least twice. But maybe 15 years ago it disappeared -- probably the site died or was abandoned. That story covered some of the stuff discussed in this article -- but it was not nearly as long. However the other piece I'm thinking about did cover some other aspects of his life. For example his packing up part of the shop one night and leaving Nashville for Idaho. It also contained a lot of details about how he dealt (or refused to deal with) the cancer that eventually took his life. Sometime this week I will try to dig up an old hard drive from a computer I built back in the early 90s to see if that article was saved. I know that it is not a SATA drive so I'll have to do a little finagling to read it. I seem to recall that I did save a copy.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Fair amount of that information covered in the article that's linked to on Charles Johnson's web site near the end of the piece. Maybe not the same article, but reference to how and why he left Nashville and then how he dealt unsuccessfully with his own cancer.
    1. Bernie Daniel's Avatar
      Bernie Daniel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mandolin Cafe View Post
      Fair amount of that information covered in the article that's linked to on Charles Johnson's web site near the end of the piece. Maybe not the same article, but reference to how and why he left Nashville and then how he dealt unsuccessfully with his own cancer.
      That sounds like the same article I am thinking about.
    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      The article on Charles Johnson's website:

      http://www.vintagemandolin.com/givens_history.html
    1. elephantrock's Avatar
      elephantrock -
      In my most humble admission, the photo you refer to is not Tut. That is the author of the article, my much younger self, and I cannot explain what this is doing in the article. I have uploaded to the Cafe a more readable copy of the original B.U. article, minus the bearded unidentified.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Quote Originally Posted by elephantrock View Post
      In my most humble admission, the photo you refer to is not Tut. That is the author of the article, my much younger self, and I cannot explain what this is doing in the article. I have uploaded to the Cafe a more readable copy of the original B.U. article, minus the bearded unidentified.
      Actually, you emailed that new version to me. I'll replace the original post of the PDF with the new version here in a few minutes and see also about adding the audio file you sent.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      User elephantrock sent this MP3 of Givens talking about mandolins and guitars.

    1. Lorenzo LaRue's Avatar
      Lorenzo LaRue -
      ....Back in roughly 1983, I was visited by a friend, a woman that had lived near me in the Northwest Nowhere previously. At that time she was married to Bob and they just showed up in my front yard one afternoon. We didn't have long to talk, and even though I was already a mando picker, although really knew nothing at the time of who I was actually talking to, except that he built mandolins....If I only knew then what I do know now....I would have probably plagued him with way too many questions....
    1. Steve-o's Avatar
      Steve-o -
      Thanks Scott for the interesting articles. The Guitars Friend read was particularly a blast from my past, since I took guitar lessons at Music, Strings, and Things in Birmingham, MI. I later moved near Sandpoint ID, so my path paralleled Larry Ostrow’s (apostrophe intended) a bit (sans alchemy ;>). I didn’t pick up the mandolin until 2005, but it’s allure grew from my youthful experiences at MS&T.
    1. Aaron Smith's Avatar
      Aaron Smith -
      Fantastic read and many thanks for the work making it available.