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Thread: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

  1. #1

    Default Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Hello All, I have surrogate MAS since I don't play but love my just turned 12 year old daughter's progress. This Christmas she got her first mandolin and continues with violin and mandolin lessons. She is doing this no pressure, learning for the love of music rather.

    She has the Japanese A-model Aria and a similar vintage Japanese Ibanez bowl back. All good so far, I think these will be nice kick around beater models for her as she grows. The bowl back stays at our game reserve, so visitors are welcome to take it for a whirl and we aren't worried about wear...

    I want to get her a life instrument for this next Christmas... an oval hole Gibson A. So to feed my MAS and maximize our trips over the next year to the States, I am researching options. Trying to get my head around snake head versus paddle, teens vs 20s vs 30s, best models, etc. I will compile a list of things to look/out for... and will buy something during our trips to the US with a professional setup.

    Budget- it will be dependent on what is available. Seems there are a lot ofor instruments to be had at $2500 range, snake heads obviously go up.

    No's- Since this is a special instrument it must sound good. Not afraid to have someone do work on it (before we bring back), but I want it to be turnkey when she gets it. Patina and age are welcome, really just looking to functionality. The only caveat is I don't prefer the pumpkin colouring, just not my preference. Love the ivory, black tops, brown, darks, etc.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Her playing preferences are not fully developed, so that opens things up. Her hands are not fully grown, so we have no idea what her adult preference will be. I SUSPECT that all changes over time for everyone. This will be her gift to inspire, as each of my family suffered through years of military deployments and sacrifice launching our NGO. Now each is getting a special thank you,from me, so this will be hers.

  3. #3

    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Time is on my side, I am letting the obsession begin and am very open to suggestions, prefernces, opinions. Especially seeking information on the different models of Oval As, things to avoid, why something may/not be desired, etc.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    In love with this one : https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/120830#120830

    How does an A3 compare with an A4, A2, etc??? Will this be more susceptible to the conditions in Africa that others? It will be in a case, but will see non humidity-controlled environs... would hate to see the ivoroid crumble.

  5. #5
    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    The old ivoroid pickguards don't crumble like some of the faux tortoise shell pickguards do. Gibson also used them on their banjos in the late teens and 20s; I have four of them for my main playing banjos, and other than being a little discolored or slightly misshapen with the ages, they're fully intact.

    I'm not a vintage mandolin owner yet so my only observation is not based on mandolin experience... But as much as I like the old black-top Gibsons, I'm wary of black surfaces on any instrument that may be played outside in the sun, especially during the summer. I've seen a Martin black-top guitar come unzipped in the top seams due to collected heat while playing in those situations and it's very disappointing. In the same setting, clear-finish or light-colored stains on other guitars and other instruments did just fine.

    There are other things to watch out for with old Gibsons that I'm sure others here with more vintage mandolin experience than I will discuss, but if you buy from a reputable shop, you'll undoubtedly get a properly maintained, properly setup instrument. It might cost more, but in my mind it would probably be a safer bet given your level of concern for this.

    Since you're going to bring the instrument back to South Africa with you, you probably should research the CITES documentation and fee requirements for South Africa. There will undoubtedly be woods and possibly other materials on any vintage instruments that are now covered by CITES so you'll need to have proper documentation and fees arranged before you leave for South Africa or else risk confiscation. There may also be import fees that you'll need to take care about.

    These import issues do raise the question of why you're not checking in South Africa for a nice old Gibson mandolin. Various Gibson instruments were imported there in the teens, 20s and 30s and I've actually read of some very nice instruments being advertised for sale there. Perhaps you've already checked?
    -- Don

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  6. #6
    acoustically inert F-2 Dave's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    That A-3 is lovely. When you come to the states, you might want to work in a trip to Nashville. Carter's and Gruhn's should offer a great selection of vintage oval A's. Good luck on your search.
    "Mongo only pawn in game of life." --- Mongo

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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    The '20's paddle heads sound as good as the snake heads in my opinion, and I think others will agree. I have a '22 paddle that is one of the most lovely sounding mandolins I have ever played. One thing to be aware of is the nut width. I had an '18 with 1 1/8", my '22 has 1 1/4" and a friends snake has 1 1/16'. I have small hands and played the '22 for many years, but as I am older now prefer a narrower neck. I also like a neck I can play higher up for solo's. Something else to maybe think about.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

  8. #8
    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    I'd buy her a brand new Collings MT - a very versatile instrument. I'd get the standard nut width.

    You get to decide finish/color options and such - they're on the web page.

    The f-hole mandolin is popular for a reason. They are well suited for all sorts of music - after all, so much is style and technique.

    Having a new instrument from Daddy will be genuinely special! Every mark, ding, note and such in the beyond will be by her hand and and experience. All unique stories, and you were there too!

    In her life she may upgrade. She won't get rid of that though - no way!

    Just one father's thought.

    Peace and wonderful thoughts.

    f-d
    ˇpapá gordo ain’t no madre flaca!

    '20 A3, '30 L-1, '97 914, 2012 Cohen A5, 2012 Muth A5, '14 OM28A

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  10. #9
    Teacher, luthier
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Gibson oval hole mandolins vary in tone quality and projection from instrument to instrument. The model number doesn't seem to have very much to do with it.

    Although the market seems to prefer the post 1920 instruments built with truss rods and snakehead pegheads, the only marked differences between the '20's mandolins and the 'teens are the size and shape of the neck, and that the average 'teens mandolins are carved a little bit lighter than the later instruments. Although some people do not like the larger 'teens necks, I have found that most of them are quite comfortable to me.

    There are 3 things to consider when buying these old instruments:
    1. The brace behind the soundhole is often loose and needs to be reglued. This is an easy repair and should not be expensive.
    2. These mandolins were originally fretted with wire that is quite narrow and low. They will play much easier if they are refretted with modern wire that is approximately .040" high.
    3. Some of these mandolins have intonation problems because Gibson was not always accurate about their fret placement. Most of the 'teens mandolins are within tolerance. Mandolins made after 1922 or so are more variable and should be evaluated on a case by case basis. Starting in the later '20's, some of the instruments are so far out of tolerance that they cannot be played in tune at all, and require replacement of the fingerboard to correct the problem.

    Since you are in South Africa and most of the available mandolins are in the USA, returning an instrument may not be practical. If possible, it would be a good idea for someone reliable to check out any instrument made after 1922 for intonation problems before it is shipped. The A-3 that you are considering is probably OK, but it wouldn't hurt to ask Retrofret to measure the fret placement before you finalize the sale.

    One of my students has a 1919 A-3 that is a great mandolin.

  11. #10
    Registered User bruce.b's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by SAfricaMandolin View Post
    In love with this one : https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/120830#120830

    How does an A3 compare with an A4, A2, etc??? Will this be more susceptible to the conditions in Africa that others? It will be in a case, but will see non humidity-controlled environs... would hate to see the ivoroid crumble.
    That is a beautiful old Gibson from a reputable dealer. I like Fatt Dad’s suggestion of a new Collings or other high end new mandolin, for the reasons he stated.

  12. #11
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by SAfricaMandolin View Post
    The only caveat is I don't prefer the pumpkin colouring, just not my preference. Love the ivory, black tops, brown, darks, etc.
    Interesting... all this sounds fine but very much like the parent who started this thread, I would try to ascertain what your 12-year-old daughter wants, maybe not so much what you want. I am the father of two formerly 12 year old girls. By that age I would think your daughter has her own taste, at least as to the cosmetics of what the mandolin looks like.

    Will your daughter be traveling with you to the US? That would be ideal. If not I would try to at least get a sense of what she wants. Maybe show her some web sites of stores you will visit. Unless she does have an affection for vintage instruments—for instance does her mandolin teacher play a vintage Gibson? Has she ever played one? You might hate the pumpkin tops but maybe that is her favorite color (or should I spell it: favourite colour.

    Otherwise, I would agree with what our wise friend fatt-dad recommends, a nice Collings or similar ones in that price range.

    The other question is what kind(s) of music is she playing? Is she learning classical or some other genre or does it matter. What kinds of music does she listen to? Most kids want to play the music they like. Actually, most adults are the same way.

    Also, don't get me wrong. Almost all my mandolins are vintage ones and I lean in that direction. I agree that a late teens Gibson A-3 is a wonderful choice. My first Gibson was an whiteface A-3 from 1919.

    If you (and she) are leaning toward a vintage Gibson oval-hole A, I would suggest a pre-Loar era ones otherwise you will spend more for the snakeheads. 1920 and 1921 are in my mind real sleeper years. Gibson pretty much perfected these mandolins. I have yet to play one from those years that didn't sound great to my ears.

    One other bit of advice: since you don't play, go to one of the fine retailers who sponsor this site. They will not steer you wrong.

    Anyway, best of luck on your search and it is a good idea for you to come here to the Mandolin Cafe.
    Jim

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  13. #12

    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Thanks for all the inputs already, some great advice. The for sures:
    1. We will buy from a reputable dealer and have any repairs completed, extra strings, etc.
    2. My daughter will come with and be a part of the decision, the bonding of a trip like that will be on par with my son's gift (building a vintage baja together). I want to research and have insight into my famly's passions too, as they share mine with me.
    3. It will be vintage and most likely a Gibson. My kids share my love of antiques and live the idea of reusing and preserving. My wife loves her Gibson UB2 ukulele, there are sentimental feelings...
    4.more to come

  14. #13
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Excellent. It sounds like you re on the right track. It is great that your whole family is involved too.
    Jim

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    19th Century Tunes - Old Sheet Music for mandolin

    Playing lately:
    1923 Gibson A2 black snakehead -- Brentrup A4C -- 1915 Frank Merwin Ashley violin -- Huss & Dalton DS -- 1937 Gibson L-Century -- 1939 Gibson L-00 -- ca. 1890s Fairbanks Senator Banjo -- ca. 1923 Vega Style M tenor banjo -- Gibson TB-Junior -- National RM-1

  15. #14
    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    When you get closer to your trip and have your itinerary plotted out, cafe members can point you to the stores in the general vicinity that carry old Gibsons. Acoustic Music out here in Guilford has a great selection of old mandolins -- and new ones too -- in case you find that you're in this neck of the woods. I got my snake there and it's one of the best sounding mandolins of its era, if i can believe a half-dozen people who have played it, including some of my teachers at band camp. Just putting that out there.
    --------------------------------
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    Registered User Louise NM's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    You have gotten great advice, and I can't add to it.

    I hope you and your daughter have a lovely adventure looking for her mandolin, and that the journey provides memories for a lifetime for each of you. By encouraging her musical interests, you are giving her a gift that can last forever. The mandolin will be a tangible symbol of the more important intangibles. Enjoy the hunt.
    1988 Reno mandolin, Trinity College mandola, Kentucky KM 272 oval hole mandolin, a few bowed string instruments and some stray woodwinds

  17. #16

    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Quote Originally Posted by SAfricaMandolin View Post
    As I've never owned a vintage Gibson (yet), I don't have much to contribute other than to say I love the look of that one you linked. It's beautiful.

    Also, where in South Africa are you? I studied in Stellenbosch last year, but made my way around much of the western half of the country.

  18. #17
    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Just so the OP knows (and irrespective of my first post), the mandolin I'll go to my grave with is my white-face 1920 A3. So, yes, I love it! I'm the second owner and have made hundreds of thousands (millions) of notes on that mandolin. I've owned it for well over 30 years. So, don't think I don't like the paddle-head a-models. No, I love them!

    I've also owned the A2Z and the black snake A2. Sold those as they were not like my A3. They were great, but not worthy of trumping my A3.

    These paddleheads have wide nuts though. They also have a unique voice - one that I like for sure!

    Have fun.

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    f-d
    ˇpapá gordo ain’t no madre flaca!

    '20 A3, '30 L-1, '97 914, 2012 Cohen A5, 2012 Muth A5, '14 OM28A

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  20. #18
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Much good advice here. Since you have to come halfway around the world to make your purchase, makes sense to make it a well-researched and significant investment.

    Second the motion to buy from a reputable dealer. The type of mandolin you're considering verges on 100 years old; lots can happen to an instrument over a century. Gibson A-model instruments of that vintage are susceptible to their tops sinking -- the curve being flattened by years of string tension, and sometimes by failure of the single large internal brace. A dealer like RetroFret will be aware of changes caused by time, and capable of repairing and restoring where needed.

    I will say, on the other hand, that there are many vintage Gibson A-models that are less expensive than the A-3 you're considering. RetroFret in NY City tends to price toward the upper end of the market, especially with a higher-end model in excellent condition like this A-3. You can find acceptable vintage Gibson A-models between $1K and $1.5K -- not like this one, but, for example, here's a nice A-2 at Carter's in Nashville for $1.5K, and an A-3 with replaced tuners for $1.65K. An "on-line romance" with a well-displayed instrument may well lead to ignoring other possibilities.

    You asked about the differences among the various models: A, A-1, A-2, A-3, up to A-4. Basically they were differences in ornamentation and finish: more elaborate inlays, the "white-face" finish and pickguard on the A-3, additional binding, soundhole purfling, etc. Basic construction was pretty much uniform: carved spruce top, carved back, back and sides of maple or birch, mahogany neck with ebony fingerboard and headstock facing.

    With regard to the ebony, make sure you get a CITES certificate from the dealer, that the ebony components meet the "antique" definition, before you take it back to South Africa. Otherwise customs may hassle you.

    The distinctive white finish of the A-3 does require a bit more care than the black or "Sheraton brown" finishes -- shows wear a bit more. And not everyone's in love with the sound of the aluminum bridge saddle, one reason Gibson only offered it for a couple of years. The saddle's readily replaceable with a wooden one, however, if you want to change the acoustics; just remember to save the aluminum one to restore the instrument to "original." The original hard-shell case is definitely a plus.
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  22. #19
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    Played yesterday with someone that had an A jr. and it sounded great. Bottom of the like in price, but sound wise great.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

  23. #20
    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Default Re: Preparing for a Vintage Gibson A

    might let go my A , got a refret job to pay for on the A4...

    96 years of age like my late mother would have been..
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