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Thread: What is a Celtic mandolin?

  1. #1

    Default What is a Celtic mandolin?

    A few weeks ago I asked about few friends and on the forums (including here) who their favourite "Celtic" players were. Iíve since asked some of these players their opinions about the instrument. The replies were great, and too much for just one article, but for now Iíve written a post for my blog entitled "What is a "Celtic" mandolin?

    Here is a link:

    http://www.nkforsterguitars.com/blog/celtic-mandolin/

    Thanks to all those who contributed,

    Nigel
    http://www.nkforsterguitars.com/instruments/mandolin/

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  3. #2
    Must. Keep. Practicing. Ben Cooper's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Great article! Very informative. Thanks for posting it!
    Benjamin C
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    Registered User JH Murray's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Thanks for this. I own a celtic mandolin, made in the style of a Sobell, by Nathan Curry, a luthier here in Canada. It rings like a bell. Every now and then I find myself dreaming of an F style instrument, but articles like this remind me that I already have the instrument which delivers the sound I qualities I am looking for.

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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Do you have a picture or video of this instrument? I'd love to hear it.

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    Registered User JH Murray's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Here's an album of the instrument. http://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/al...p?albumid=1361
    My playing is more at the novice level so I don't have any quality examples of its sound.

  7. #6
    Registered User mikeyes's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    A thoughtful article, Nigel, and it brings up some good points. I am taking the mandolin class at the Milwaukee Irishfest Summer school right now and Martin Howley is playing an F style Collings which he says suits the stage a lot better than the very nice Shapiro he was playing. The sound is not very authentic on this video taken with my iphone, but here is a sample



    Mike Keyes

  8. #7

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Hmmm....everyone's entitled to his/her own opinion, of course, and the opinions of a builder a skilled as Mr. Forster are certainly worth listening to and considering. But I don't agree with the idea that carved top instruments are inherently superior to flat-topped instruments. Different, certainly, and depending on taste different people may prefer one or the other, but in my view that doesn't make one or the other "superior". And I think it's really going a bit too far to suggest that when a flat-topped instrument turns out to be good it's mostly a matter of chance rather than being attributable to the builder's skill.

    Just my opinion of course, and others are welcome to disagree.

    Pete

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  10. #8

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by mikeyes View Post
    The sound is not very authentic on this video taken with my iphone, but here is a sample



    Mike Keyes
    Great sound, great playing. The "authentic" sound though is one of the points my article is about. A certain sound has only become "authentic" because of association. British and Irish musicians of the 70s used what was available, which was rarely an F5.

    I wouldn't worry, the mandolin sounds great, and if you and your F5 can project the way some do, you'll be ahead in he session "arms race."

    Nigel
    www.nkforsterguitars.com

  11. #9

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by ptritz View Post
    Hmmm....everyone's entitled to his/her own opinion, of course, and the opinions of a builder a skilled as Mr. Forster are certainly worth listening to and considering. But I don't agree with the idea that carved top instruments are inherently superior to flat-topped instruments. Different, certainly, and depending on taste different people may prefer one or the other, but in my view that doesn't make one or the other "superior". And I think it's really going a bit too far to suggest that when a flat-topped instrument turns out to be good it's mostly a matter of chance rather than being attributable to the builder's skill.

    Just my opinion of course, and others are welcome to disagree.

    Pete
    A perfectly valid point of view Pete. Luke Plumb also speaks up on behalf of flat topped instruments in the article. I also acknowledge in the piece that many like the sound of a flat top.

    I don't know your background, but in manufacturing instruments once you get below a certain price, you have to "get it done, and get it out the door."

    It's still possible to find western made instruments for less than £1000, or not far off. At this price point, there simply is no time for the finer subtleties of instrument making. A sizeable part of the "making" time is consumed in finishing and set up alone. Dimensions must be standardised to give reasonable results and few warranty issues. And like all instruments made in this fashion, some will be terrible, some will be great, but most will be between. The maker has little say in the matter.

    So yes, my experience has been that the vast majority of cheaper work I've seen (which
    is by default, flat topped, due to the ease of manufacture) and played has been poor.

    That said, carving a top won't necessarily ensure a superior instrument, that too depends on the design, the arching, thicknessing and the skill of the maker.

    The good news is that even in a tiny market like the "Celtic" or folk world, there are enough instruments available at every price point for players to get what they feel is right for them.

    And as I say in the post,

    "In the end itís all down to preferences, and what a working pro musician like Luke Plumb requires from an instrument (he plays a very nice Gilchrist F5 model) may well differ from what someone wants who plays down the pub on a Sunday night and doesnít want to worry about it getting damaged if the person next to them has had one too many sherbets."

    Personally, I'd think twice before taking a £20,000 Gilchrist to the Cumberland Arms on a Sunday night!


    Nigel
    www.nkforsterguitars.com

  12. #10
    Registered User mikeyes's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Part of the history of Irish music (and possibly other similar musics) has been the use of cast-off instruments such as diatonic flutes, concertinas, bodhrans and even mandolins - cast-off because they either went out of style or more sophisticated instruments were developed. This was a matter of economics in a poor musical country but those same style instruments will now cost thousands for the same reason that the market for quality is there but small.
    Better instruments are designated so because in the mind of most players they are better. I just played a session last night filled with fiddles and flutes all trying to make an impression on the famous session leader. The result peaked at 93 db (phone app) and my mandolin was only heard when I played in the lull (although I could hear it. ) I play a Gibson F5 and I am sure that neither my A-2 nor my Weber Bighorn would have been heard at all and both of these are carved instruments of quality.
    On the other hand, in a small group, I like the sound of my A-2 because it is sweet and full sounding- properties that don't mean much at over 80 db.
    There is no signature "Celtic" sound for mandolins as far as I can tell, but there are horses for courses and that is the reason you see so many players go for the louder instruments. The F hole carved topped mandolin has been in development for almost 100 years now from Gibson and others who have been taking ideas from each other and making improvements. The original Loar design was for playing classical and popular music in concerts without amplification and in a good hall you can hear one in the back rows just like a good violin. No other mandolin building style has had that kind of legacy or deliberate variation based on the work of others.
    That's not to say that you should go out and buy a top of the line carved instrument for Irish music, but you should consider it if you plan on playing in noise or on stage mostly because that is what a lot of others have concluded. Here is Marla Fibish on stage with her 1921 A-2:



    In the class room this instrument projected well and it worked in a small session nicely. Of course, no one in their right mind was going to drowned her out because they wanted to hear her

    Mike

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  14. #11

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Hi guys~ long time reading, first time posting.
    Anyways, great article Nigel! There is not much literature out there on "Celtic" mandolin, and it is great to see some.

    About 15 years ago, I was at my aunt's house in Stockholm where she had had an old mandolin hanging on the wall for several decades. Once every blue moon she would take it down and play me a tune. One day when I was a kid, she gave me the mandolin. Around the same time, the movie "Titanic" came out and I saw the band Gaelic Storm performing (that was my favorite part in that movie), and one of the guys had a mandolin. That was my introduction to "Irish music".
    I then ransacked "Napster" (back in the days when it was legal in the US) for "Irish" music. I discovered Planxty and again I was exposed to the mandolin in Irish music.
    To make a long story short, I was under the impression the entire time that the mandolin and/or CBOM had a much longer history in ITM than it actually does due to the fact that my aunt would play me a tune on the mandolin, Titanic had one, and I stumbled on Planxty. Thing is, my aunt's mandolin, the one in the movie Titanic, and the one Andy Irvine used to use on some of those old Planxty recordings are not what we would consider today as "Celtic" mandolins; however, their style of playing certainly fit the bill.


    In my opinion, the first and foremost is skill/ability. Although I agree with Nigel that there is a lot to be said about association, if an extremely skilled player has a $109.99 ("with gig bag, picks, and tutorial!") eBay "sun burst" mandolin, he can probably still crank out a tune better than I can on my Sobell.

    So, IMHO skill and style is what defines the "Celtic" mandolin first and foremost; however, I think there certainly is a "Celtic" sound to a "Celtic" mandolin that is quite different from most American mandolins. Also, gotta have that onion shape! But none of that is ever going to replace skill and style of playing.

    All in all, I love the so-called "Celtic" mandolin. I think Sobell/Forster style mandolins' sound has pretty much defined what we think a Celtic mandolin should sound like and look like, and honestly I think have the best sound for ITM, but all of that gets thrown out of the window if a player has no skill.

    Nigel, that Celtic mandolin you make is very bad ass. I want to order one in a few years time when I am done with school!

  15. #12

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Cool stuff. There definitely are two aspects here - the Celtic Mandolin as an instrument, and Celtic Mandolin as a style.

    Simon Mayer has long made a Gibson-style mandolin sound at home with Celtic-style music, and let's not forget Swarb's contributions using his pumpkin-top Gibson A.

    But the Sobell-style Celtic mandolin, to which Graham MacDonald has done a good service to by documenting his approach to building, definitely has a distinct and appealing voice.

  16. #13
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    A Stefan Sobell mandolin, 1983 vintage.


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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    And Dagger's 10 string Sobell


  19. #15
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    This idea of a "Celtic" mandolin is a pet peeve of mine. So Nigel, forgive me for jumping in, once again.


    Let's start (once again) with something I've posted before over in the session.org forum (and here, I think) about what little we know of the mandolin in Irish traditional music before Planxty and similar bands came on the scene. This is a quote from the Chieftainsí authorized biography, about the music environment fiddler Martin Fay grew up in (page 39):

    "As a young boy Martin remembers hearing his uncle Andy Kelly, who was a famous mandolin player in traditional circles. But the music didn't impress the young boy any more than the other kinds of music he was hearing at the time."
    Martin Fay was born in 1936 and raised in Dublin. If he had an uncle who had already established a reputation as a famous mandolin player when he was a young boy, then it had to be at least somewhat popular in Irish trad as far back as the 1930ís and maybe the 1920ís. Was his mandolin... whatever it was... not "Celtic" enough?

    With due respect to Nigel's blog post (and there's a lot of great info there!), this is why I think it's problematic to refer to the "Celtic Mandolin" as if it sprung fully formed from the forehead of Stefan Sobell or anyone else, and to suggest that the "authentic" sound was sealed in amber by bands like Planxty back in the day.

    Celtic is a marketing term, not something that many of us who play this music use to describe what we're doing. It's useful in that context when you're selling instruments or if you're in a band. I've used it myself when promoting a duo I play in (with gritted teeth, and only because it's the one term the clients understand).

    I've been playing mandolin in local Irish and Scottish sessions for about 5 years now, and I've never been given the stink eye for playing a mandolin based on the Gibson F5. In the music community I play in, the only thing that matters is whether you can play this music, or not.

    Trying to chase down what "authentic" means on the level of individual instruments in this music is a fool's errand anyway. Because if you fall far enough down that rabbit hole, you'll end up learning the pipes.


    P.S. Boatswain, welcome to the Cafe!

  20. #16

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    Trying to chase down what "authentic" means on the level of individual instruments in this music is a fool's errand anyway. Because if you fall far enough down that rabbit hole, you'll end up learning the pipes.


    P.S. Boatswain, welcome to the Cafe!
    Thanks Foldedpath! I also can attest to what you said about the pipes. About 5 years ago I really started to "discover" the online debates about mandolin not having a long history in ITM. I DID follow that rabbit hole and actually began to reconsider my commitment to mandolin and CBOM instruments as my favorite music to play is ITM. I actually called up CJ Dixon and got a set of pipes. After about a year of learning, I realized how much more I still loved to play mandolin family instruments. Put the pipes down in favor of my low-tier Washburn f-hole A style mandolin.
    These days I only concern myself with what I like to play, what I enjoy, etc. Today, that was cracking open the door to let some of the summer air in, enjoy a coffee, and play some reels/jigs on my cittern.

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  22. #17

    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post

    Celtic is a marketing term, not something that many of us who play this music use to describe what we're doing. It's useful in that context when you're selling instruments or if you're in a band. I've used it myself when promoting a duo I play in (with gritted teeth, and only because it's the one term the clients understand).

    We will just have to agree to agree. It's a marketing term. It's what people type into Google. Love it or hate it, we're stuck with it.


    I think most folk will agree it's "what you play, not what you play it on." That said, the other point I hope people take away from the article is "what you play it on" does effect whether you actually get heard or can hear yourself. As far as I can tell Bluegrass players suffer from this problem less. As things are many "Celtic" mandolins both cheap and expensive, just don't perform well enough.

    Addressing that little issue..... is my job.

    Nigel
    http://www.nkforsterguitars.com/instruments/mandolin/

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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Boatswain View Post
    ...got a set of pipes. After about a year of learning, I realized how much more I still loved to play mandolin family instruments. Put the pipes down in favor of my low-tier Washburn f-hole A style mandolin.
    Truly heartwarming story. Teaching us where the grass is greener.
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    For me a "Celtic" anything must be American to be authentically "Celtic", otherwise it just lacks the sense authenticity of modern marketing speak.
    Eoin



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  26. #20
    Cafe Linux Mommy danb's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Nice information Nigel, well-written piece.

    One interpretation I'd add- many players of Irish/Scottish Mandolin will use tenor banjo technique. Thin picks, even dynamics (not a lot of use of loud vs soft picking), using trills & rhythm as the primary variety and decoration. This works quite a bit better on a flat-top, which is generally more responsive at lower pick pressures. Some things that don't typically work very well on a tenor banjo include the following: Left hand rolls with multiple hammer-on and pull-offs, chording or droning a note, changing pick position to get a different attack note, slight muting with the right palm on the bridge, playing a unison (eg 7th fret on the D, open A string), and many other "tricks" in the bluegrass arsenal.

    If you *start* with the mandolin or use that as your main instrument, you're probably more likely to use chording, drones, dynamics, left-hand slides, and all sorts of techniques that show up in the bluegrass world. Like some others, I have found that you can get a lot of interesting sounds out of F-holed instruments which tend to have a bit more woof to them when you play with heavier picks or a heavier right hand! It is interesting to think "What wouldn't work on an Irish Tenor banjo"- often that's the technique that you'll hear on recordings of Irish mandolin players.

    Heavier picks used in bluegrass also introduce a few new tricks to the mandolin arsenal- not all that commonly-heard on most Irish/Scottish recordings. A loose grip is a vastly different sound from a tight one once the picks get heavy.

    The classic Gibson A4/F4 sound is scattered about in various recordings too- I think it works wonderfully as you get a bit less rapid decay on the notes from the oval-holed Gibsons.

    I quite like to mix the various tones- Generally I prefer an F5 for melody or lead work on fast stuff, an A-model for things with more resonance or sustain, and I'll go with the Sobell 10-string for tunes that largely want drones/sustain/even dynamics.
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  28. #21
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    " You just can’t get those rich harmonics and that ringing sustain from a Gibson mandolin. Any Gibson mandolin."

    This quote from Nigel's article is very significant, and goes a long way to explaining the development of 'Celtic' mandolin building in the last 4 decades.
    It's interesting to note what various players say about this in Nigel's article:

    Kevin MacLeod likes it to ring -
    "My playing style relies heavily on the articulation of the dotted crotchet and quaver building block of the music, and the longer note can be made to ring longer on a Sobell, for me."

    Luke Plumb doesn't really -
    "My style though lends itself more to an instrument designed around clarity and dead evenness where one note doesn’t linger over the next. That’s a BIG sacrifice in sustain and “lush” overtones but it suits my way of playing better."

    Simon Mayor likes 'huge sustain' -
    "I look for an instrument that responds well in the higher registers and has a huge sustain. "
    " just a simple teardrop shape that rings like a bell is my ideal."

    I would add that I myself also really like a big sustain and a bell-like sound, which is certainly pretty typical of Sobell instruments.
    Luke seems to me to be the exception in this, but he gives a very clearly thought-out explanation for his approach.

    It's maybe worth noting that in Scotland quite a few players use 10 string mandolins, such as Iain MacLeod (ex Shooglenifty, Nuala Kennedy Band), Damian Helliwell (Diamh, Metta) and myself who all play Sobells, and Ewan MacPherson (played mandolin with Shooglenifty last year) who plays a 10-string Paul Shippey - a really nice instrument by the way.
    I think this may have had something to do with the idea of a 'mini-cittern' which Nigel touches on in his article:

    "I do recall one conversation in the late 90s during my time working for him: Stefan told me that in the 70s, when people asked him to build mandolins, what they asked for was a miniature version of his Cittern and octave mandolins."
    David A. Gordon

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Great article.
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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    An interesting article. Like Pete though I do not subscribe to the view that a flat or induced-arch top is inherently inferior... I have owned several very fine hand-made (not "home" made) mandolins of this type by highly-regarded luthiers which have had extremely rich and complex tones. The sound is a different, not necessarily inferior, one which some of us prefer. The majority of popular acoustic guitars are flat tops. My main guitar is an arch-top which I prefer the tone of so, in the end, it's largely down to personal preferences.

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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    "Here is Marla Fibish on stage with her 1921 A-2"

    Just a FYI - Marla's Main Mandolin squeeze is an "A" (plain headstock) 1922 (via F.O.N.)

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    Default Re: What is a Celtic mandolin?

    Here is a link to a very interesting program on Irish TV a few years ago.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITt76_9oDOs

    The well-known Irish bouzouki and mandolin maker Joe Foley features a lot in this film.
    Note the comments he has to make about the bouzouki and mandolin at 2.04 mins regarding flat backed instruments and the 'woodiness of the sound'.
    I think this notion of the 'woodiness of the sound' is important in a good 'Celtic' sounding instrument, and has something to do with why old Gibsons are often favoured.
    David A. Gordon

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