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Thread: Bowlback 101

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    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Bowlback 101

    You know all those threads asking for advice on buying a mandolin? Well hereís mine. I know absolutely nothing about bowlbacks. Would like to spend $500-1,000. Maybe more if I really like it. Are there already threads on this you can point me to? Iíve owned a LOT of mandolins over the years but never a bowlback. Thinking I might scratch that itch....

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    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by sgarrity View Post
    You know all those threads asking for advice on buying a mandolin? Well here’s mine. I know absolutely nothing about bowlbacks. Would like to spend $500-1,000. Maybe more if I really like it. Are there already threads on this you can point me to? I’ve owned a LOT of mandolins over the years but never a bowlback. Thinking I might scratch that itch....
    Take your time, search carefully, try to play a lot of old and new bowlbacks. You can find a lot of good instruments in that price range.

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    mando-evangelist August Watters's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    It's not always easy to find a good bowlback, but here are some ideas:

    DEALERS: There are very few who sell good vintage bowlbacks, and even fewer who have the capacity to do quality restorations. Check Bernunzio's in Rochester. I've been watching this Ditson Victory over at Stutzman's for a long time. It's still there, and still stupid cheap for a solid orchestral-level instrument. Also have a look at Elderly; their "AS-IS" section has some finds, but you'll need someone who really knows bowlback restoration and repair. Lark Street Music in Teaneck, NJ has quality vintage bowlbacks at market prices (~ $1000, still cheap by comparison to other instruments). Jake Wildwood often has good restorations in Vermont.

    EBAY etc.: Very unreliable; even a practiced eye is likely to get unpleasant surprises. There are still some good deals, if you have the knowledge to recognize them. These days there are a lot of inexpensive new bowlbacks from far east manufacturers. I wouldn't recommend them, especially when there are still solid beginner instruments available from ITALY. The 70's-era Suzukis are usually a good bet, in the lower price ranges.

    RESTORATIONS: It's not easy in the USA/Canada to find an experienced repair person who understands and respects bowlbacks. There are some, sure! But some luthiers have a whole set of tricks for getting new life from old bowlbacks (with non-adjustable necks), and others are WAY too quick to say your vintage bowlback is toast. Make sure you have someone you trust, before you start investing in vintage bowlbacks that need repairs.

    VALUE: It's very easy to spend more than it's "worth" to do a restoration. But keep in mind that market values are very low, and historical/musical value is a different issue. Of course, there are many bowlbacks that were low-end to begin with, and probably not worth your time.

    The more recent, high-quality European and Japanese bowlbacks are rarely seen here in the west. But that's a different discussion.

    Happy Hunting! Does anyone else have suggestions of dealers who carry bowlbacks?
    Last edited by August Watters; Sep-25-2019 at 12:09pm.

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    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Thanks August! That's exactly the kind of info I was looking for.

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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by August Watters View Post
    The more recent, high-quality European and Japanese bowlbacks are rarely seen here in the west. But that's a different discussion.
    Could someone speak about the high quality European and Japanese bowlbacks and where to buy them? August, is the "Italy" link you provided a reputable source?

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Foss View Post
    Could someone speak about the high quality European and Japanese bowlbacks and where to buy them? August, is the "Italy" link you provided a reputable source?
    If you can find an Eastman bowlback in good condition in your price range, I would go for it. The ones I have played were excellent. Some US stores were importing them years ago but none that I know of now.

    The Italian link that August posted is Musikalia. I played some of their non-mandolin instruments years ago and was not too impressed. Possibly they have improved (August?) but I think you can do better for instruments at those prices. A friend of mine bought a lower end decent mandolin directly from the Calace shop in Naples years ago and it needed a little tweaking but it is still his main instrument.

    In terms of vintage American bowlbacks if you can find a modest Washburn, American Conservatory, Vega or Martin in your price range and in playable condition those would be good. Perhaps the best would be to buy from a dealer if possible so you have some recourse.
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    I've had no experience with Eastman bowlbacks. I would note that American instruments noticeably differ from the Italian instruments of the same period in their sonic qualities, and not infrequently in aspects of their construction. The Italians seem to me to be generally lighter, without sacrificing what you might consider strength. The ones I've had seem to have been built with an eye toward engineering a resistance toward the string tension, without overbuilding. There seems to be more overtones in the Italians, with the US-made instruments tending more toward reinforcing the tonic.

    All very subjective, of course.

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    mando-evangelist August Watters's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Foss View Post
    Could someone speak about the high quality European and Japanese bowlbacks and where to buy them? August, is the "Italy" link you provided a reputable source?

    That link went to Musikalia, which was recently taken over by Alda Leone, daughter of Musikalia's founder, Alfio, and it appears there's been a lot of change there. I haven't seen the higher end of their line, but I've played several of their recent entry-level bowlback mandolins and mandolas, and regard them as solid entry-level instruments at low prices. Obviously I have no financial interest in this or any other builder.

    Shopping for high-end bowlback mandolins is not much different than searching for other types of mandolins -- you probably have to deal directly with the builder, since there are very very few dealers who stock these instruments. What we need most, I think, is a reliable source of solid, entry-to-mid-level bowlback mandolins. Looks like Lark in the Morning has a Musikalia mandolin for sale at $580, so maybe someone will buy that and report back -- or go into the store in Berkeley and check it out?



    If you can find an Eastman bowlback in good condition in your price range, I would go for it. The ones I have played were excellent. Some US stores were importing them years ago but none that I know of now.
    I played two of the Eastman bowlback mandolins, and found them to be good quality. The question, though, is whether the world needs another orchestral-level, Italian-style mandolin, well over the $1k mark. I'd much rather be dealing with an Italian luthier in that price range. At some point, some American luthier is going to realize that some of those old Brazilian rosewood bowls can be made into new, good-quality mandolins, and go to Italy to learn how to do it. For now, the power of the Pac-Rim marketers would have you think that the only option is A or F, and the only scale length is the one used by Gibson, never mind all the others in use in other traditions around the world.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Thanks, August. I actually played some of their instruments quite a few years ago at a Lark in the Morning store was not very impressed at the quality for not a very cheap price. It is good to know that Musikalia has upgraded their quality.

    Quote Originally Posted by August Watters View Post
    I played two of the Eastman bowlback mandolins, and found them to be good quality. The question, though, is whether the world needs another orchestral-level, Italian-style mandolin, well over the $1k mark. I'd much rather be dealing with an Italian luthier in that price range. At some point, some American luthier is going to realize that some of those old Brazilian rosewood bowls can be made into new, good-quality mandolins, and go to Italy to learn how to do it. For now, the power of the Pac-Rim marketers would have you think that the only option is A or F, and the only scale length is the one used by Gibson, never mind all the others in use in other traditions around the world.
    I don't know whether Eastman still makes those bowlbacks but I would guess that they do and they just don't export them to the US. The same goes for your observation of other Pac-Rim makers/distributors. Bowlbacks are still a very small market and (correct me if I am wrong on this) even in Italy and other parts of Europe.
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by August Watters View Post
    That link went to Musikalia, which was recently taken over by Alda Leone, daughter of Musikalia's founder, Alfio, and it appears there's been a lot of change there. I haven't seen the higher end of their line, but I've played several of their recent entry-level bowlback mandolins and mandolas, and regard them as solid entry-level instruments at low prices. Obviously I have no financial interest in this or any other builder.
    Thank you for the info on Musikalia; I met Dr. Leone years ago at the NAMM show and he was a kind gentleman.

    I'd glad to hear that Musikalia is upping their quality.

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    mando-evangelist August Watters's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    Bowlbacks are still a very small market and (correct me if I am wrong on this) even in Italy and other parts of Europe.
    Yes, but that doesn't necessarily reflect demand for bowlbacks: not so long ago you could go into your average store in northern Italy (and I assume this is a typical experience across Europe), and find inexpensive bowlback mandolins, made in Sicily or elsewhere. And also simple, flat-back, canted-top mandolins from the Czech Republic or Romania. But none of those factories has been able to keep up with the prices offered by the big Pac-Rim manufacturers, and those manufacturers are marketing A and F-style mandolins primarily (if not exclusively). So the instruments used in regional and national traditions are being replaced by Gibson-style, arched-top instruments -- not because they're better, but only because of of marketing pressures. In fact, I'd argue that if the Gibson design was really better, all around, it would have replaced other designs during the last era of mandolin popularity, say 1880-1920. Of course, some European manufacturers tried their hand at archtop mandolins, but none seems to have made any significant dent in European preferences for mandolins of their own regional and national traditions.

    These days, when I walk into average music stores in Italy, I see only Pac-Rim, A and F style designs. And if you want to buy strings for a bowlback, the stores don't stock them, or have the expertise to steer you away from the heavier strings used on the arched-style instrument. I still see Sicilian bowlbacks sold nationally, in some bookstore chains. but nothing like before. Fortunately, there are new factories in the Pac-Rim (evidently Vietnam) that are making bowlbacks, and those are now readily available on the internet. From what I've seen the quality is not yet there, and in particular there's a problem with instruments being made from not-adequately-cured wood, in a very humid environment, that don't survive once shipped to dryer climates. But I take these attempts as a good sign, and we can hope they will make a quality product, to address the market demand that's been displaced by the big factories putting smaller ones out of business.

    Nothing against A and F designs, of course, I still have some of those and love them too. But unlike what was said the Gibson publicity, they don't replace bowlbacks, or even flat-back, canted-top designs. They're just a different instrument, for a different sound.
    Last edited by August Watters; Sep-30-2019 at 10:46am.

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    Default Re: Bowlback 101

    While I've heard reports that reverb.com has had more quality-control issues in recent times, I've had good experiences buying (and selling) on the site. Owned and run by Chicago Music Exchange, it features a lot more actual musical instrument dealers than ebay and the like. A lot of sellers provide reasonable refunds if needed. A quick search on reverb for "bowlback mandolin" revealed some interesting instruments well below $1,000, namely:

    https://reverb.com/item/27963254-mar...-mandolin-1913
    https://reverb.com/item/21944806-was...-free-shipping (this one looks really pretty and has its ancient case)
    https://reverb.com/item/28047975-lyo...yer-ships-free (I would haggle on this one, and possibly on other L&Hs)
    https://reverb.com/item/19877837-use...-back-mandolin (I've got a less fancy Weymann like this one that has a clear, bell-like tone that sounds much more like modern European instruments than other American bowlbacks I've played/owned)
    https://reverb.com/item/27601796-191...osewood-w-case

    Also, if you're interested in European mandolins, you might want to check out master luthier David Hynds's inventory, which is constantly being updated (I've never bought anything from him, but he's given me advice about instruments before): http://mandolinluthier.com/mandolins...qX&LMCL=hGh2rS

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