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Kevin Briggs

My Mandolins

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I read JEStanek's blog about his mandolins, so I thought it was a good idea and now I am blogging about the mandolins I've owned. Like Jaime, I've had a list of mandolins that have progressively led to higher quality instruments, and now I finally have one mandolin that I am very, very happy with.

I started playing the mandolin when I was about 23. I played guitar up until that that point, and was busy relishing my Martin HD28 when my good friend Eli Heferly played a bootleg of Doc Watson, David Grisman, and Jack Lawrence for me. It blew my mind.

I was previously infatuated with Bob Dylan's music, and I guess I still am, but I had never listened to much true roots music beyond some blues guys Dylan used to listen to, and people like Woody Guthrie. The Doc Watson bootleg was unbelievable to me. I couldn't believe the quality of the instrumentation, coupled with the incredible songs, and with the banter about "picking," " great old instruments," and about just being loose and loving music together. It was such a sharp contrast to the ultra serious Dylan, and it instantly made me realize that while I love Dylan's music, I really just love "music." In short, the day that I heard that bootleg I realized that I am a "music" fan.

The first thing I did was learn most of the songs on that bootleg, at least enough to strum and sing. I specifically learned the instrumental "10 Miles to Deep Gap," which I didn't really get into at the time. I know now it's because I thought I should be able to learn it in one sitting and be able to play it proficiently from there on out, which of course is almost impossible when learning your first fiddle tune/instrumental. I didn't have any concept of real practice.

After learning lots of those songs, Eli told me that the local bluegrass group Tom's Kitchen Band was looking for a mandolin player. I thought it was an intriguing idea, and I really wanted to be in a band again after doing so off and on for my teenage and college years, so i purchased my first mandolin:

eBay No Name
This was an unbelievable mandolin. That's right. It was unbelievable. It was a flat top, oval hole monster. You couldn't play notes on the first two frets. The tailpiece was literally four nails. Each nail held two strings. I paid $50 for it, which was a rip off. However, it held its value, and I traded it in for a ...:

Stella A style
World of Music in Erie, PA credited me $50 for the No Name, I gave them another $100, and I was the proud owner of a new, much higher quality mandolin. The Stella was made of all laminate woods, and it barely held together... but it did. I was able to actually strum some chords on it. I still couldn't play on some parts of the first fret, but it was mostly functional. I had it for about two months. It also held its value, so I traded it plus $150 for...:

Alvarez A100
As much of an improvement as the Stella was over the No Name, the Alvarez was that much better than the Stella. I remember telling someone it was kind of like a real instrument, but I may have said that about the Stella too.

With the Alvarez, I was finally able to go play with Tom's Kitchen Band, because I knew that the mandolin would hold up well enough. That's just what I did, and I got a major crash course in tunes like "Blackberry Blossom" and some standard bluegrass singing songs. It was like boot camp for me, because I realized how hard it would be to actually do a good job at being a good mandolin player.

I played the Alvarez for a few months before I got the itch again, so I googled mandolins. I came upon the web site of Folk of the Wood, and I saw all of the advice that Mickey Cochran had on there. It was great, and I browsed until I found my next mandolin, a...:

Morgan Monroe MMS2
This would be my first F style mandolin, and I was pumped. Not only would it look good in the bluegrass band, but it was all solid woods, as far as I remember, and I was expecting a significant tonal change. I got a $220 trade for the Alvarez, and I paid few hundred more dollars. When I got the MMS2, I loved the way it looked, but it was my first disappointment in the world of upgrading mandolins.

After playing with Tom's Kitchen Band for a short time after getting the MMS2, I moved and was then without a band. Still, I was hopelessly addicted to this strange world of mandolins. It was like an alternate reality or something, and I was all of a sudden a mandolin player, not some guitar playing Dylan wannabe.

In my new town, I hooked up with some guys I knew in high school who were forming a band called Slimfit. They almost flipped their lids when they heard that I had been playing the mandolin in a bluegrass group. Slimfit was going to be an alt. country band, which was en vogue at the time, ala Wilco or the Jay Hawks.

I practiced with them a few times, and immediately decided I needed a better mandolin and one that would plug in, since I was now playing with electric guitars and drums. This led to...:

Breedlove Spirit
It was a long road to getting the Breedlove Spirit due to a trade gone bad with a dealer that essentially was forced out of the music retail business, but when I got that thing, it was indeed a whole new world. The four mandolins I had prior did not hold a candle to it. I remember thinking, this resembles my Martin HD28 guitar a little but. What I now know I meant was that it had some good tone, intonated well, was easy to play, and had some good volume.

I was amazed at the difference between the Breedlove and the MMS2, and I played that Breedlove for a while before feeling like I needed something else. I probably only eventually got something else because of a legal proceeding with the retail company and the trade gone bad. Without digging up the past too much, I'll just say that I was given the option to upgrade my instrument again, and since I now officially had MAS, I gladly accepted the offer.

What I was able to get was a highly customized...:

Maple/Gold Weber Bitteroot
I would not say that I initially thought the Bitteroot was leaps and bounds above the Breedlove. But, I can say that I literally felt lightheaded when I first opened the case, and that it was a visual work of art.

After playing it for a little while and deciding that I loved J75s on it, I began to experience what is the loudest mandolin I've ever played. It had a red spruce top as well, and I'm convinced that was a deciding factor in the incredible volume. It was much different from the Breedlove, but I grew to love it.

The only drawback to the Bitteroot was it had some vicious action. I never figured it out, but blamed the beefy neck at one point, so Bruce Weber shaved it down for me for no cost. This helped the feel of the neck for sure, but the action was as tight as heck. After a year or so I thought about a new mandolin again, but this time I had a better job, so I had the marvel idea of owning more than one mandolin. Eventually, I got a...:

Pomeroy Two Point
With the arrival of the Pomeroy, I officially had two mandolins worth a few thousand dollars. The Pomeroy was very nice, but I probably never gave it a fair shake because the volume was much lower than my Bitteroot. I describe the Pomeroy tone as "fine," but I was conditioned to want the aggressive, brash kind of tone I got from the Bitteroot. I'm almost embarrassed to say that within two months I decided to package the Pomeroy and Bitteroot plus some cash for my next and current mandolin, my...:

custom Weber Fern
Dennis Vance at The Mandolin Store worked with me to have the fine folks at Weber make me a fantastic custom instrument. I took the Fern F model, added a one-piece back, red spruce top, custom neck, and pearl nut, and a little more than four months later I was holding the mandolin of my dreams.

I have said it dozens of times on various Cafe posts, but i'll state here in my blog that this fern exceeded my expectations. All I really wanted was an easier playing version of my Bitteroot, since the tightness was the only real complaint I had about the Bitteroot. What I got was a completely different animal altogether.

My Fern has a complex, sustaining, woofy, responsive tone. It plays like a dream, and I barely have to strike the strings to get it to make fantastically complex, loud tone. Now, it does not have the brute strength my Bitteroot had, but I've never played a mandolin that does, and I've had the privilege of sampling mandolins that are made by builders who are popularly considered to be the "best."

With that in mind, my Fern also hangs in there with the mandolins I've played that would cost over $20k. It's pretty simple really, and it makes me very happy to have what I have. Do I battle MAS every once in a while? Yep. But, I'm going on two years of owning the Fern, and it's still with me, so I'll say that actions speak louder than words.

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