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The Fifth Course

NAMM 2010 Report #2

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Like Pacific rim mandolins, electric mandolin family instruments are showing some market development. Back down in Hall E, among the acoustic instruments Eastwood Guitars showed their wares, including a soon-to-be issued electric tenor guitar. The example on display was a yellow Mustang-shaped tenor guitar tuned dgbe (low to high). It played well and looked great in butter yellow with a faux tortoise pickguard and white pickups. It should be available sometime this calendar year, and it will likely go for around $400.00.

The highlight of the show for me was electric mandolins on offer by Jeff Cowherd of JBovier. Three 4-string electric mandolins were on display. Two were EMS models, one in translucent white and one in sunburst. The third was an EMS in translucent white. All three had maple necks, the EMS models had slab style maple fretboards and the ELS had a rosewood fretboard.

Cowherd has taken pains to design instruments that overcome weaknesses usually encountered in amplifying solid body electric mandolins. The pickups have a larger magnets built into the usual size covers. And they are wired so that the middle position on the pickup selector becomes a “humbucker.”

The four string models sounded great played through an AER amplifier. I plugged in and turned it up so I could hear the amp over the din. Moments later, a tech from a nearby booth came over and turned me down. He said, “You can keep playing, I just need to…” And down went the volume. I was apparently interfering with Al Di Meola’s demonstration of AER amplifiers. In the immortal words of Steve Martin, “Well, ExcuuUUuuUUuuse ME!”

But the real treat was getting a peek at Cowherd’s 5-string models. He had two at the booth. Both were EMS models, one was finished in candy-apple red with white pickguard and pickups, the other in butter yellow with black pickguard, pickups, and hardware.

The low C string was loose enough to allow for bluesy bending, but tight enough not to sound floppy or drop out of tune. And it gave the instrument a very attractive added range on the low end. Chords sounded fuller and single note options were broader.

I went to NAMM thinking that a 4-string electric mandolin would be a very nice addition to the music room, but I think I like the 5-string better. The 4-stingers are great, but feel a little more limited in scope than the 5-string, and the 5-stringers sound like they could compete with your standard strat for usefulness in pop tunes from country to rock.

All in all, JBovier and Eastwood are creating some exciting instruments for us electric mandolin family enthusiasts.

On the amp front, I went over to the Recording King conglomerate display and checked out VHT Amps's Special 6 models.

These are small amps, none bigger than a 1x12. They come in head plus cabinet models and combo models. I was happy to see a 1x10 combo. All examples on hand were wired point to point instead of utilizing an integrated circuit board. All examples were powered by 6v6 tubes, and covered in black tolex. Retail prices will be around $500 or $600, and like the Eastwood tenor guitar, these should be out sometime this year.

Daniel

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Updated Feb-05-2010 at 6:16pm by Daniel Nestlerode

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Comments

  1. David Horovitz's Avatar
    Daniel,
    Good to hear about the low C string qualities on the JBovier 5-stringer. How about the E string. Any weakness when compared to the D and A in terms of volume? I have a Fender 5-stringer and the E string is quite weak sounding, even after fiddling with the pickup height. I suppose the pickup itself is the real culprit. What are the likely price ranges for the JBovier 5-strings or is this not yet known/public?

    Cheers,
    David
  2. Daniel Nestlerode's Avatar
    David,
    Played through a small AER (Compact 60) amp, which was designed for "acoustic" instruments. There was no discernible drop in volume on the E string. But the choice of amp may make a big difference. Amps designed for acoustic instruments tend to have a greater frequency range and more headroom. So the upper register of an electric mandolin would be more audible through one of these than it would be through a standard electric guitar amp.

    Ted Eschliman (www.jazzmando.com) has the red 5 string in his hands right now and will be writing an review of the instrument soon.

    Daniel