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Thread: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

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    Registered User Kevin Briggs's Avatar
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    Default Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Hi, Everyone:

    A few years ago, I was lucky enough to marry a woman I love very much. It just so happens, she is from just south of Tuscon, Arizona, which is only a short distance south of Phoenix, Arizona, which is only a few minutes from Surprise, Arizona... the home of The Mandolin Store.

    I've been shopping there for years, having bought A Weber Fern, Kentucky 950, Eastman 305, and, a few months ago, a fully-torrefied Collings MT2, not to mention a ton of strings, picks, and other accessories. It's always been a long-distance relationship, but with my newfound visits to Arizona I finally ended up there today where I met Dennis and Brian, the biggest, kindest enablers of Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome I've ever known.

    The store and the guys were great! They are just as cool in person as they are on the phone, probably even more so, because there you are, looking at their smiling faces. As for the mandolins, it was a joyous morning. I played everything from a Kentucky 500 to a Gibson MM. I wish I could list all of the mandolins, but there really were quite a bit, so I'll focus on some perceived standouts and overall observations.

    First, I freely admit I was a bit concerned about going into what is essentially temptation island after just purchasing a mandolin I really, really like. I was a bit worried something nicer, better-sounding, and likely more expensive would start singing me a siren song. However, I was pleasantly relieved that my new axe stood up quite well with everything there. The same crunch and sweet tone I've been enjoying at home and with friends were there in that room. Whew...

    Now, my mandolin aside, I will say there were a handful of mandolins there that were pretty special, two in particular. First, I played the MM, a Gibson Fern, and The Mandolin Store's custom Gibson, and TMS's custom was the killer. The Fern was very nice, and the MM was very fine - although the MM did not have the big sound I assumed it would - but TMS's custom was woofy, woody, and complex. It was very nice, and darn loud.

    Another notable instrument in the room was a used Ellis F5. That was a really, really nice instrument. It was very balanced and had a kind of stability when you played it and held it that was quite noticeable. The tone was in the ballpark of my MT2, but a little bit different, a little meatier and rounder. Something about it (maybe the price, haha) didn't have me completely drooling, but it was awesome, and any player, would be happy and I dare say lucky to have it.

    I played the Collings MT2V with a torrefied top that was in stock, and that was one nice mandolin too. Between that, an MF, and a MT, it was my favorite, with the MT a close second. The MT is very loud and earthier than my MT2 and the MT2V in stock. I'll say the MTís sound is not as crystalline or focused as the MT2 and MT2V, but that is not to say it was less in some way, just different. In regards to the two MT2s, I found the lacquer vs. varnish comparison quite interesting. I didn't notice a fundamental difference in the tone, which I was surprised by. But, I did notice a difference in the way the mandolins felt while being played. The MT2V felt slightly softer to my hand, and I mean the part of my left hand I was holding it with. It didn't feel overall as stiff as my MT2, but also didn't have quite the bark. It could also just be the difference between two instruments, as well as the fact that mine has been played like crazy for two months and the MT2V hasn't.

    Other than these standouts, I was pleased by the Collings MTO and how similar it sounded to the MT, and the Old Wave - although loaded with way too much golden inlay for my taste - sounded awesome. The Kentucly 950 in stock was damn good too, as were a few of the Eastmans. I really like that Eastman sometimes absolutely nails it and maintains a wonderful price point.

    Now, I'll end on a bit of a downer... There were a few new Webers in the store, and they were nothing like the Webers I was playing in 2005-2009, when Bruce and company were really dialing it in. My 2006 maple/gold Bitteroot and my 2008 custom Fern would have been two of the better mandolins in the room. The Webers in stock today at TMS were still good mandolins, but a far cry from what I so fondly remember about the two very good instruments I owned back in the day. They seem to have be redesigned to be a bit more "normal," and lacked the distinct and wonderful personality of the half-decade when Bruce and company were absolutely nailing it.

    Thanks so much for reading, and thanks to Dennis and Brian for being so awesome. I love your store!

    There are pics and a video of a jam with Dennis and Brian on my Instagram page, which is linked below.
    Last edited by JEStanek; Oct-11-2019 at 7:12am. Reason: Typos

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  3. #2
    Registered User Kevin Briggs's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Oh... I forgot to mention how much attention Brian gave to my mandolin while I was there. I basically got a full-setup at no cost, just because I stopped in.

    Thanks again, guys!

  4. #3

    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    TMS has the same problem all the dealers do, and that is its hard to keep everything they want to sell in stock, so there will be things
    you would want to try that are out of stock. First world problem.
    Silverangel A
    Arches F style kit
    1913 Gibson A-1

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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Thanks for the report, Kevin! I agree they are great guys, although I have only dealt with them over the phone. I appreciate their dedication to the instruments we all enjoy.

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    Registered User Kevin Briggs's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    I suppose TMS has an inventory concern like any other retailer, but itís a strange observation in the context of this thread. I didnít consider what they might or might not have prior to getting there. I just assumed theyíd have lots, and they did. I played an Ellis F5, Pavas, Gibsons, Collings, Webers, and Old Wave, Eastmans, a The Loar, and Kentuckys, and multiple versions of each.

    The real prize was getting to be there and finally meet Dennis and Brian. It was a bucket list item for sure.
    Last edited by Kevin Briggs; Oct-10-2019 at 11:32pm. Reason: Typo

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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Yes, awesome to work with, and they really take care of returning customers. I’ve got a new OM on the way and will be posting after I’ve spent some time with it...
    Chuck

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    Isolated enthusiast Caleb's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Briggs View Post
    I played an Ellis F5, Pavas, Gibsons, Collings, Webers, and Old Wave, Eastmans, a The Loar, and Kentuckys, and multiple versions of each.
    All that under one roof IS like going to Mandolin Heaven for a day. Sheesh! I remember the first time I went into Fiddler's Green in Austin thinking: "Oh my! I've only read about all these brands of mandolins... but here they all are in front of me... Where to begin?" The next time I went there I left with my Collings MT.
    ...

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    Registered User Nick Gellie's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Brilliant review Kevin. I enjoyed reading it. Your thoughts and opinions mirrored mine although I have never tried a high end Gibson Master Model. I did try a Sam Bush Gibson slightly lower end master model which was not bad but neither was it especially great in my mind.
    Nic Gellie

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    Registered User J.C. Bryant's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    They are, indeed, good people!

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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Never played one myself, but I have read multiple accounts of Gibson Master Models that started out as disappointments (given the initial price) but then opened up and became absolute monsters with serious, hardcore, prolonged playing. I think I've also read multiple accounts of those mandos sounding better with EJ75 strings vs the EJ74 gauge sets they come with.

    Put that Master Model in the right situation and I bet it shines.

    The guys at the Mandolin Store do seem like great guys to deal with.

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    Registered User Kevin Briggs's Avatar
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    Default Re: Almost Heaven.. Surprise, Arizona!

    Quote Originally Posted by archerscreek View Post
    Never played one myself, but I have read multiple accounts of Gibson Master Models that started out as disappointments (given the initial price) but then opened up and became absolute monsters with serious, hardcore, prolonged playing. I think I've also read multiple accounts of those mandos sounding better with EJ75 strings vs the EJ74 gauge sets they come with.

    Put that Master Model in the right situation and I bet it shines.

    The guys at the Mandolin Store do seem like great guys to deal with.
    No doubt, archerscreek. The essence of the tone was there and was very fine. It just didn't have the bark (yet, I suppose). What gives me hope is how I've witnessed mandolins get stiffer over time, and I've also witnessed the impact J75s can have on an instrument, although it's not always so dramatic. That MM certainly looked the part.

    Nick Gellie... I tried a Sam Bush model about 10 years ago or more at Gibson's Opryland outlet. It was a killer, and with the monel strings it definitely was on the Hoss spectrum. It led me to think Sam's choice of monels is a big part of his tone, which I guess is obvious. EIther way, I found that mandolin easy to pay, loud, and sonorous. I also got to play a Goldrush there, and while I know mandolins vary it was awesome, as was the Goldrush I played years ago at Grey Fox (the Poughkeepsie location).

    I can still say, after a week or so, I'm nice and settled in with my MT2 even after visiting TMS. The Ellis F5 has stayed with me as a remarkable instrument, but it's not that MAS feeling. I made a clean getaway. :-)

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