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Thread: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

  1. #1

    Default My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    As a preface, I have no idea what I'm doing or if I'll be able to do it. But I suppose there's no harm in trying.


    After almost a decade of playing mandolin and seeing all of the incredible builds that members on this site have made over the years, I finally decided to bite the bullet and start thinking of building my first instrument from scratch. I've done setup and minor repair work in the past and completed a half-finished Gann dobro kit, but I've never dared to build something from the ground up until now.

    ===

    Aesthetics:

    After some preliminary doodles to play around with shapes, below is the first full concept sketch to visualize the design:


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    It takes bits of design elements from various instruments from 1900-1920 along with some unorthodox aesthetic considerations. The body style draws inspiration from a Bacon Artist mandolin, the inlaid pick guard is akin to those on the earliest Gibsons, and a headstock somewhere between that of a Martin Style B and a more art deco design.

    As for the color, I originally sent a concept with a pumpkin top and reddish brown sides to a friend whom I design and build model locomotives with, and he said that the colors were nice but he expected something a bit more unorthodox. I wanted to avoid making something too vivid or in-your-face so I went with a very subdued blueish-green that fades to a lighter pale green in the center, with darker, grayish-brown on the back and sides and a couple of nickel/silver accents, sort of a "Mint & Chip" palette, if you will.

    It likely will have an unbound body for both simplicity's sake and to maintain the softer look.

    ====

    Specifications:

    I'm still open to changes, revisions, or suggestions for structural specs, but as of now I've worked out the following:


    - the sketch is drawn with a 21" scale for easy playing, 20 frets total.

    - Maple neck with non-adjustable carbon fiber truss rod, ebony fingerboard and headstock veneer, 13th fret joint and flush with the top (no elevated extension). I've started finding material on making either a dovetail or mortise & tenon neck and would appreciate recommendations/pros/cons of each.

    - carved solid maple sides similar to Rigel/Mann construction rather than steam bent, with the blocks notched and glued to provide good compression strength in line with the strings. I know Rigel used a rounded-out profile to their solid sides in lieu of kerfing, but would flat sides require kerfing or would they simply be carved thicker near the joints? (or thicker in general?)

    - carved spruce arch top with oval soundhole, x-braced with a transverse brace just before the soundhole, with the graduation a bit thicker around the hole just to be absolutely sure it won't get any top sagging near the hole.

    - as for the back, I'm still deciding between a carved or flat maple back. I like the quality of tone that is attributed to each. That being said, budget and ease of construction may lead me to gravitate toward a flat back with guitar bracing.

    ===

    This is still very, very early in the design process and details will hopefully become more refined as time goes on. Woods won't be purchased until the design is finalized and full-size plans are drafted along with some clear plastic templates to help the building process.

    Any ideas, advice, wisdom, suggestions, corrections, or other inputs would be more than helpful and greatly appreciated, and even if my work ends up producing a dud, I'm hoping the journey is a rewarding one.

  2. #2

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    A couple more questions I forgot to ask:

    The body as measured on the first draft of the plans is around 17" long from neck joint to tailpiece and 13" wide at the waist. Approximately how tall does the top plate need to be in order to have enough room for an arch tall enough to take the weight of the strings for a body of this size? Are there advantages/disadvantages for a tall vs shallow arch?

    And what is a normal depth of the sides/ribs, and does this change depending on a flat or carved back? By the looks of various builds I'd guess around 2.5-3" for carved backs and a bit deeper for flat backs, but it's hard to find specs.

  3. #3
    Mandolin tragic Graham McDonald's Avatar
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Are you familiar with the term "biting off more than you can chew"

    There are several reasons why carved-from-solid sides have never become popular. They are heavy, which is generally not a good thing with stringed instruments, and incredibly wasteful of materials. As you suggest the sides have to be 2.5-3" deep so the sides and neck blocks have to be sawn from a solid block of maple that thick.

    A bolt-on neck with a mortice and tenon would be the simplest way to attach the neck.

    That Bacon design would be tricky, but certainly doable with bent sides and corner blocks. Perhaps even wide neck and tail blocks that would extend between the corner points.

    Carved mandolins have an arch height of 5/8", carved guitars close to 1". For yours somewhere between 3/4-7/8" should be fine

    A 21" scale is OK, but I would suggest an adjustable neck rod instead of a CF bar.

    Good luck with the project. I am sure it will be very educational!

    Cheers

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  5. #4
    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Start by purchasing Graham's book on how to build them ( he is too modest to mention it) .......

    http://www.mcdonaldstrings.com/bouzoukibook.html

    That will get you going in the right direction.
    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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  7. #5
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    I'm a repairer and restorer, not a builder. So you can take the following with a grain of salt:

    1. You might want to go with a neck joint at the 12th fret-- it is less confusing to a player. It might also give you a little more flexibility over the position of the soundhole and the bracing. You might want the soundhole and the bracing a little closer to the tailpiece. I believe in designs where the bridge rests in the center of the most flexible part of the top, and where the soundhole is neither too close to the bridge nor too close to the neck block.

    2. I've used carbon fiber once. It doesn't sand or file easily. A friend of mine suggested setting it in 1/16" to 1/8" below flush, and covering it with a maple or other hardwood filler strip. It will be easier to true up the surface that the fingerboard will be glued to. An adjustable rod is another way to go, or even a 3 piece neck with a nice stiff, dense wood for the center piece. Remember that Martin successfully used ebony reinforced necks during the war, and Gibson used 3 and 5 piece necks during that same time. Carbon fiber is one of those things that some people swear by and others swear at. I kind of lean towards the "swear at" school.

    3. The butt jointed neck joint on my Octophone failed some years back. I successfully installed an LMI/Stew-mac style neck bolt and it's been stable ever since. I used a single bolt located not too far from the bottom of the neck block. A mortise and tenon with a bolt would be better than a butt joint. An M & T joint is certainly easier to reset than a dovetail and can be made with hand tools if necessary.

    4. A transverse brace directly behind the soundhole is a sensible idea.

    5. If you use an X brace, make sure that the legs of the brace will pick up the outside edge of the bridge feet. Conventional wisdom on mandolins is that the outer edge of the bass foot should sit directly over the brace, but the treble foot should intersect the brace about 5/8" to 3/4" inside the edge of the foot. I don't know whether that would apply on an octave mandolin, though. I just had an old X braced archtop guitar in here for repair. The top was as stable as it could be. I wish I had taken a little time to observe the brace position in relationship to the treble foot of the bridge. I do know that if the brace is too far from the edges of the bridge, you risk top distortion.

    6. If you can, try and get an Octophone in your hands and study it. The design is somewhat similar to yours, though the Octophones had flat top and back plates and were ladder braced. It might give you some clues, though. Bear in mind that the tops on those instruments were probably a bit thin.

    7. "Solid" sides are indeed going to be a heavy and a lot of work. If you do indeed use them, I would recommend leaving them somewhat thin in the center [but not too thin] and wider at the top and bottom to simulate lining. It occurs to me that thinning the center out of a carved side might be a good way to lose a finger if you don't have a really good method of holding it securely while you're working on it. The traditional method of bent sides with linings and blocks would probably be easier in the long run. Remember, a one-shot mold can be made out of other things besides wood. I'm using a mold jig-sawed out of a piece of rigid insulation right now on a back replacement job. You can even build without a mold-- I know that Altman built some guitars that way before he got into the mandolin business.

    Good luck. You might also want to see if you can find some info on the tried and true bracing patterns used in the better grade Gibson, Epiphone, and D'Angelico archtops.

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  9. #6

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Thank you for the feedback, I've been using it to guide my revisions to the design. Attached is my current iteration that I'm tinkering with. First thing to be changed was the silhouette; the original is ugly and rectangular in retrospect, so this one more closely follows the profile of the Bacon Artist, and the bridge and soundhole are moved a bit. Headstock also got some refinement to accept A-style tuners rather than F-style.

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    More importantly, I've started to map out the internals and actually consider that this is something that must be assembled. The neck joint is moved to the 12th fret and a dovetail is shown for now, may be changed to a mortise & tenon later.

    The sides are now steam-bent maple, with the headblock and tailblock extended to form the corners as Graham suggested, and these are planned to use smaller cuts of maple glued together. The main headblock portion that attaches to the dovetail is a 3" x 3" block, and this is glued to smaller extensions cut from other 3x3 blocks of maple to reach the corners. Tailblock can use pieces about half an inch thinner.

    Furthermore, the corners are planned with squared-off parallel sections that'll allow me to readily clamp the sides to the corner blocks, indicated by the arrows. I'm hoping this will eliminate the need for a large body mold.

    The x-braces and transverse brace are also shown, though not precisely measured, so I'll be sure to keep to the specific placement under the bridge per rcc56's suggestion.

    Between now & my next design update I'll be looking more into how to block out the neck and headstock. From the feedback it sounds like a 3-piece neck would fare better than a solid maple one with carbon fiber embedded, so I may go that route instead.

  10. #7

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Ever just sit at your desk at 3 in the morning and wonder why the heck you're making things more complicated than they need to be? I asked myself this tonight, and in response, I revised the drawing to properly change the remaining sides to steam-bent pieces and kerfing. There was really no reason to make them all such large blocks if I'm going to steam-bend the two main side pieces, anyway. This leaves a much more modest headblock and tailblock and four separate corner blocks. These corners will have an additional flat surface on the inside that's parallel to the added side pieces, again to aid with clamping for gluing.

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    There we go. With any luck it's actually starting to look like a viable project.

  11. #8
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    You certainly seem to be on the right track.

    The more that at I look at your latest drawing, the more I think that the tranverse brace under the soundhole will not be necessary. Especially if you move the intersection of the X closer to the soundhole and adjust your angle accordingly.

    If you're concerned about stiffness in the soundhole area, you can always run a short flat brace about 0.100" thick between the arms of the X directly beneath the soundhole. This is common practice in flat top guitar construction.

    It may be helpful to get a look at an old Gibson mandola. The fingerboard sits on a shelf that is about 1/4" thick at the centerline. They also left the top thick at the centerline directly beneath the soundhole. Gibson mandolins also have the shelf, but they are not quite as thick. The mandolin tops are at close to normal thickness beneath the soundhole. Lyon & Healy mandolins have a less pronounced shelf than Gibsons.

    My mandola was rebraced with tone bars in the mid to late eighties. Although the tone bars are quite light and the soundhole brace was removed, there is no significant top distortion. I stored the mandola tuned up to pitch when I was playing it regularly, though I tune it a step or two low these days because I rarely play it anymore.

    If you don't want to build with a thick Gibson style shelf and leave your top thinner under the fingerboard, you might want to use some sort of transverse brace under the last fret. It probably would not have to be nearly as tall or heavy as a similar brace on a guitar.

    I still have the old soundhole brace from my mandola. It is 1/2" tall at the center, 3/8" wide at the base, and no more than 1/16" thick at the top of the brace. Its profile could be described as a scooped triangle or a scooped V. The taper at the ends of the brace are 1 3/8" long. The brace is really much lighter than one might think.

    By the way, thanks for giving the opportunity to learn a little more about what made the old Gibsons tick.
    Last edited by rcc56; Apr-21-2018 at 2:46am.

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  13. #9

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Thanks for the information regarding the top plate and fretboard shelf of the Gibson mandolas; I'll be sticking with a close-running shelf rather than an elevated fretboard based on the bridge height and break angles I calculated, about 14-14.5 degrees.

    Speaking of mandolas, I've contemplated changing the project from an octave to a 17" scale mandola for a number of reasons, mainly because of the CGDA tuning for learning cello music but also because a smaller 11" wide body would still fit in most cuts of wood made for mandolin top plates, which will make sourcing pre-cut wedges a bit easier and less expensive.

    I'm back to square one in the design phase, this time with a couple of ideas so far: first is a scaled down version of the Bacon Artist design from my octave plans, with slight updates to the headstock and inset pick guard.

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    The second design is half Bacon, half A-style, and moves the neck joint from fret 12 to fret 15 for better access to the top frets. Both designs have at least 3" between the bridge and the soundhole edge, with the bridge at the apex of the arch. And as aforementioned, both have a max body width of 11 inches.

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  15. #10

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Coletti View Post
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    I really like this! I would add a little more space (1cm or so) between the nut and the lower flare of the headstock, that is often short-changed when designing an instrument from scratch for the first time. If it's too close, you can essentially ruin playability even if everything else is perfect.

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  17. #11

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Jacobson View Post
    I really like this! I would add a little more space (1cm or so) between the nut and the lower flare of the headstock, that is often short-changed when designing an instrument from scratch for the first time. If it's too close, you can essentially ruin playability even if everything else is perfect.
    Thanks, that was a good catch, Marty. It was drawn as 1.5" from the nut to the lower flare on my octave plans, but I remeasured and it was misdrawn as 1.0" on the mandolas, so you're dead-on with the +1cm recommendation.

    Been reading through your Nautilus build logs on your site to see how your design considerations have evolved from one instrument to the next; it's really helpful stuff, especially for modern design experimentation.

    I also wanted to ask, how do you brace your oval hole mandolins? I've been listening to X-braced oval hole mandolins vs transverse-braced ones again and found myself favoring the latter in tone more often, so I've considered moving away from the x-braced design if I can keep the top stable enough.

  18. #12

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Also just for fun, I thought about how I would re-interpret an H4: proportionally it's closer to a Gibson Style O guitar, especially with the large scroll, but with a more subdued point on the treble side rather than the large squarish cutaway.

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  19. #13
    Registered User Nick Gellie's Avatar
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Interestingly Steve Gilchrist's oval hole mandolins don't the x brace crossing under the feet of the bridge. Instead they intersect at the centre of the bridge. Gives one more options in terms of the angle of the X-braces. Check out his website.
    Nic Gellie

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  21. #14

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Nick Gellie View Post
    Interestingly Steve Gilchrist's oval hole mandolins don't the x brace crossing under the feet of the bridge. Instead they intersect at the centre of the bridge. Gives one more options in terms of the angle of the X-braces. Check out his website.
    It looks like he tends to reserve X-bracing for F-hole instruments, though. Gil mentions certain options that he doesn't make available for oval holes specifically to avoid a tonal imbalance that makes the bass frequencies drown out the treble.

  22. #15

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    The bracing shape doesn't dramatically change the tone, it's more about the stiffness added by the bracing as implemented. I use transverse bracing on oval hole instruments because I use it to prevent splitting, and build sufficient structure for good tone into the geometry of the top.

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  24. #16
    Registered User Nick Gellie's Avatar
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    I like the simplicity of a transverse brace. So Marty do you do a transverse brace like Steve Gilchrist. And if so what size, shape, and placement?
    Nic Gellie

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  26. #17

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

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    Finally got around to a full color render of the "Mint & Chip" Mandola. This file still had the short headstock flare--that was changed after the file upload--but other than that 1/2" discrepancy, I've finalized the aesthetic goal that I'm after: fret markers inspired by a Martin Style A/B; headstock, body shape, and inlaid pickguard of my own design; Allen cast tailpiece; gold A-style tuners; black-cream-black triple binding.

    I've been trying to think of a name or classification of this body type in case this thing actually turns out okay and I want to build more of them. The name "bellflower" is the current name floating around in my head, and I think it may stick. Sounds a bit more elegant than "teapot," at least.

    Next step will be mapping out the graduation and bracing of the top. I remember seeing some graduation maps of the 1910s gibson A's, so if I try a transverse-braced design, I'll start from there and dig deeper into what adjustments can influence the voicing towards what I'm after: sweeter tone with the overtones associated with oval holes, good sustain and balance shifted toward the trebles rather than an excess of bass.

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  28. #18

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Nick Gellie View Post
    I like the simplicity of a transverse brace. So Marty do you do a transverse brace like Steve Gilchrist. And if so what size, shape, and placement?
    I don't know how Steve Gilchrist does the transverse brace. Mine is basically like a Gibson transverse brace, but narrower, taller, and wider.

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  30. #19

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Coletti View Post
    Next step will be mapping out the graduation and bracing of the top. I remember seeing some graduation maps of the 1910s gibson A's, so if I try a transverse-braced design, I'll start from there and dig deeper into what adjustments can influence the voicing towards what I'm after: sweeter tone with the overtones associated with oval holes, good sustain and balance shifted toward the trebles rather than an excess of bass.
    How are you going to get that "mint chip" color? If you want to see grain and get there with stain, it's not going to be that color, most likely. Maybe with Alaskan cedar or some really pound cake bleach-white spruce, but with typical spruce and typical finishes, you're not going to have enough brightness in the combination of substrate + finish to get there. Think of a canvas gessoed to a darkish cream - you're limited in what you can do if all your subsequent layers are just making it darker, as with dye.

    Look at Monteleone's recent work - he's done some mandolins kind of close to this color. Honestly I don't know how - he must have bleached the wood first, or it was a very uniquely bright piece of wood.
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    Using General Finishes Advanced Acrylic finish will help, too. It is the only finish I've ever seen which does not darken the wood at all. It does add depth to the figure, but the coating is a true water clear.

    If you don't mind making it opaque, you can get there without a lot of fuss.

    About bracing - just remember, for transverse bracing... it's not like this, which all the plans show...
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    It's like this...
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  32. #20

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    With the thinking of a 17" scale length, could you make it a European octave mandola? Anyone care to chime in on the design differences? Or is it simply a change in nut & saddle.
    Girouard Custom Studio A Oval
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  34. #21

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Jacobson View Post
    If you don't mind making it opaque, you can get there without a lot of fuss.

    About bracing - just remember, for transverse bracing... it's not like this, which all the plans show...
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    It's like this...
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    I had figured it would have to be opaque to reach that hue and luminosity, which I'm completely okay with doing even if it loses the grain since there is precedent for that. Gibson and Collings' cream-top A3's and blacktop A2's have an almost ceramic appearance, which I dig in contrast to the wood back and sides showing through.

    Thanks for the graduation maps. Is there a smooth transition into the center ridge on the oval hole or is it more of a pronounced recurve into the shelf?

  35. #22

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Leonard View Post
    With the thinking of a 17" scale length, could you make it a European octave mandola? Anyone care to chime in on the design differences? Or is it simply a change in nut & saddle.
    I'm not entirely sure on what the European distinction for an octave mandola entails, but if it's anything like an octave mandolin (tuned GDAE, one octave below mandolin), then a 17" scale length is far too short for that low of a tuning; 20-24" is more common.

  36. #23

    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Coletti View Post
    Thanks for the graduation maps. Is there a smooth transition into the center ridge on the oval hole or is it more of a pronounced recurve into the shelf?
    It's smooth.

  37. #24
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    Default Re: My First Octave Mandolin - Design & (Hopefully) Build Thread

    "With the thinking of a 17" scale length, could you make it a European octave mandola? Anyone care to chime in on the design differences? Or is it simply a change in nut & saddle."

    "I'm not entirely sure on what the European distinction for an octave mandola entails, but if it's anything like an octave mandolin (tuned GDAE, one octave below mandolin), then a 17" scale length is far too short for that low of a tuning; 20-24" is more common."

    Assuming the reference is to classical mandolin, a European mandola (bowl back, or semi-round) will typically have a scale length of 420-460mm (sometimes longer, but not common) and is, in fact, tuned GDAE, one octave below the mandolin. I own such an instrument -- an East German bowlback, made sometime in the 1970s --with a 420mm scale length (approximately 16.5 inches). The neck is somewhat wider and thicker (no truss rod) than American players would be used to. Various European manufacturers make strings for this scale length and these are thicker than would be seen in the US; examples would be Fisoma (I use these) or Thomastik. I used this instrument to play the mandola part for the recent New American Mandolin Ensemble CD. I also have a Weber alto mandola, 17 inch scale length, which is restrung as an octave using Fisoma strings, which is my main performing mandola. Works perfectly fine -- just played a concert yesterday with it (again, to be clear, this is classical, the Hampton Trio). To answer the OP's question, yes, typically, the nut and saddle could be adjusted to accommodate the thicker strings.
    Robert A. Margo

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