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Notes from the Field

Kerman mandolin and the end of MAS

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Hey everyone. I played a Kerman mandolin the other day. And it has taken me a little while to absorb the experience. Actually, Jacob Reuven, before a rehearsal for FMCM VII let me play his Kerman.

I knew already that it is one of the greatest mandolins in the world. What I didn't know, if the one I played is typical, Kermans are the greatest mandolins in the world.

The experience was characterized by two things. Amazing sound and amazing responsiveness.

The sound - the tone is rich and full bodied. What I mean is - think of what I might mean if I said a thin tone - its the opposite. The Kerman is not creamy sounding like a vintage Gibson, but it is not thin in any conceivable way. To use more inadequate words, the tone is opaque, solid, not airy. And its character is the same at every pitch.

Every note up and down the neck had a body to it I have not heard in a mandolin. Every note had a clarity, as if the whole point of the mandolin was only that particular note. Like every note is the sweet spot. Each note clear and distinct.

We often talk about an instrument being balanced, where the high end, midrange, and bass are balanced so that none predominates. The Kerman, to my ears is unique in this respect. It sounds as if the instrument has been optimized at every note I chose. It was a complete integrated instrument, the high end and low end sounding like the same exact instrument. Not balanced, more like matched.

I tried to do a chop chord, and of course the thing will chop, but what I experienced, and had never experienced before, was what a shame a chop is. Cutting off that rich tone so quickly was robbing me. It felt like pulling up a thick comforter and then immediately throwing it on the floor. Or taking a blinking look at an amazing Van Gogh painting, but for only a few milliseconds. Letting that Kerman ring was just way too rewarding.

Responsiveness - that rich tone was there at high volume for every single darn note, but it was also there at low volume for every single darn note. As light as I could play it I could not make it sound thin. Just a touch and beautiful sounds came out.

The Kerman is the mandolin to play when you want every note to be heard clearly. Every note, loud, or soft, or fast or slow, open or way up the neck. Each note distinct like an individual ornament on a Christmas tree.

Three things that I noticed about the build, and there were likely a lot more I should have noticed. (Would love to have a luthier look at it.) One is that it is a flat top. More beautiful tone than any arch top I have heard, but it is a flat top. Two, the back is arched. I don't know if it is carved, but it is arched. Third, there are two "backs", one inside. Think of it like three plates, the front, with a round sound hole, and those other kwirky sound holes at the edges, and an inside "back", braced, with its own sound hole, through which you can see the very back, which had a pronounced arch. That's how it looked to me anyway.

I have played some really nice mandolins, and upon going home and playing what I own I have often felt pretty good. Mine don't sound too shabby. Not as good perhaps as the best, but not shabby.

But this was different. My three best mandolins were blown out of the water.

By comparison, my '23 Gibson A2 snake head doesn't have that character of a full bodied note at all volumes. The Gibson is creamy at regular volume and above, but by comparison, at low volume it is kind of thin.

My Stiver, "more Gibson than Gibson" sounded a little thunky in comparison, and it is pitched so low in tone it almost sounds muffled by a blanket. Or like a bass equalizer knob is turned up and the treble is turned way down. Now the Stiver has a ravenous barking chop, which I love, but I do not have that feeling that I would rather hear it ring.

My Lyon and Healy model A asymmetrical two point (with Thomastic strings) came the closest in beauty and evenness of tone up and down the neck and at all volumes. But the L&H does not have the volume the Kerman has. It has a nice pretty tone, but not as authoritative as the Kerman

Granted talking about sounds borders on foolish, and comparisons between a mandolin then and a mandolin in front of me now are dicey as well. So this write up is inadequate at best to describe my experience.

Jacob Reuven's playing was, of course, over the top don't do this at home superlative, and he was able to get great tone from many of the mandolins he played on that week, but, more to the point, I was able to get great tone out of the Kerman. Without doing anything special.

It is highly unlikely bordering on pipe dream that I will ever own a Kerman. But the way I feel now is that by comparison, there is just no other mandolin to want. MAS over. Day hiking the foot hills is fun, but its kind of lame in the shadow of Everest.

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Updated Oct-21-2016 at 10:42am by JeffD

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Comments

  1. mrmando's Avatar
    Bummer that he's retired, eh?
  2. JeffD's Avatar
    Well first of all I don't know that he is. I listened to some interesting stories about how Arik Kerman comes out with instruments designed for a particular player's idiosyncrasies. And also, Arik is working with his son making mandolins. So I am not sure what is going on.

    I understand most Kerman's are owned by someone who bought the mandolin directly from Arik, the few that aren't have been bought or acquired directly from the person who got it from Arik.

    For sure at some point all the Kerman's that will ever be will have been built.

    I would love to own one, but I would love to be able to hover above the ground too.
  3. Jim Garber's Avatar
    I believe that I contacted him a few years ago (his web page). IIRC his mandolins run about the same price as a mid- to upper-level F5 would in the US. I seem to recall something like $6,000USD. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Let us know, Jeff, when you get yours.
  4. JeffD's Avatar
    Hmmmm.

    I just don't know. The impression I got was that he choses the recipient, not the other way around. I figured the only way I would ever get one was to either become a world class player, or buy one from a world class player I had befriended who was temporarily insane enough to sell one to me ahead of his/her many accomplished students who would want one.

    That said, if I could just get one, for under $10,000 say, by just paying someone, I would really start to consider how I might raise the money. They are that insanely good.
  5. JeffD's Avatar
    What I would love to see is an A/B of Jacob's Kerman with a signed Loar Gibson F5. I would love to sus out what they have in common and where they differ. Its a case where the sound could (not without argument) be considered every bit as good, and yet different.

    A Kerman in the hands of one of our bluegrass heroes or say Chris Thile, would be absolutely amazing. Chris if you are listening, try one, let us know what you think.
  6. JeffD's Avatar
    To hear Jacob playing his Kerman, check out the thread of Jacob's warm up routine.
  7. Classicalcomp's Avatar
    I've been a fan of the Kerman players for a long time. Good to confirm they are that amazing in person.