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Thread: Fan-fret mandocello build

  1. #1
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Fan-fret mandocello build

    I couldn't find much on MC about building a fan-fret (multi-scale) mandocello, so I decided to start my own thread. Maybe someone will find it useful in the future, and I hope it will satisfy some people's curiosity as well as my own. I couldn't find any fan-fret mandocellos on YouTube either.

    When I wanted to find out about mandocellos, the first thing I wanted to know was the scale length. Looking at MC posts on the subject, it quickly became clear that it's a problem. To get good bass notes you need a long scale (27 inches/686mm), which makes a big instrument which is hard to play. If you reduce it to a more manageable size (Gibson used 24.5 inches/622mm) you get disappointing thuddy bass notes. Someone suggested a fan-fret instrument may ease the problem, but little more was said on the subject. Ever since I saw someone playing an orpharion the desire to make a fan-fret instrument has been lurking at the back of my mind. Now's the time.

    I got a lot of valuable guidance on dimensions from the admirably comprehensive Mandocello build thread by John Hamlett ('Sunburst'). Interesting discussion but not much information on the thread Multi-Scale (fanned-fret) MandoCello and some information in the threads Mandocello Measurements and Ideal Mandocello Body Size? There are also useful photos of Andy Manson's 12-string fan-fret mandocello here but no info.

    Unlike Sunburst's F-style masterpiece, mine will be a flatback instrument. My first step on this path was buying this 1960-ish mandola by French maker Louis Patenotte which had been strung as an octave mandolin. Based on this, I made the octave mandolin you can also see in the photo:

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    My mandocello will follow the same pattern, using similar body dimensions to Sunburst's.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    I have been fascinated with the larger mando family instruments in the past, and made a few mandocellos based on an archtop guitar body. I think they look good and sound great but it takes a dedicated musician to really make them work. It is a lot of work for the left hand to push those heavy courses but it can be done.

    The fan fret thing is pretty simple and easy in most respects, but have faith and don't over think it. You put your outside strings for the scales they are to be, and cut your fingerboard fret slots. When you tune it up the first time you know the harmonic at the 12th fret must match the fretted note at the 12th fret. One of the benefits of a floating bridge is you can position it to a true note position to match your frets. You need to be very attentive to placing a bridge if it is glued to the soundboard.

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  5. #3

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Having built many fanned fret instruments and played at least fifty by multiple builders, I'll say that it is useful for more complicated instruments like citterns and 5/6+ string basses, but it is not necessary for a four course instrument. Spend your energy on getting a well responsive box with the scale and air cavity combination that work well together, not the fanned fretboard distraction. If you don't get those two combinations, you'll have wasted 200+ hours on a complicated fanned fret mandolin shaped wall art.
    Spruce dork

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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    "Spend your energy on getting a well responsive box with the scale and air cavity combination that work well together, not the fanned fretboard distraction. If you don't get those two combinations, you'll have wasted 200+ hours on a complicated fanned fret mandolin shaped wall art."

    Those two sentences have been clipped and added to my collection of wise aphorisms. First principles. Good stuff, James.
    "And the days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations... Well, I have really good days."

    -Ray Wylie Hubbard

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  9. #5
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Come on guys, lighten up . . . this is about an old man having fun with mandolins.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

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  11. #6

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    That is what the entire mandolin cafe has turned into these days- a bunch of grumpy old men talking about mandolins.

    A wise old man should understand better than most the limited amount of time left is better spent on productive projects and that those 200+ hours for a potentially unsuccessful experiment are never going to come back to him....


    Don't make the neutral / straight fret at 12; it will cause a much longer fan at the nut. Somewhere around the 7th fret is much more comfortable- your right hand is usually at an angle already, so you will notice it less at that end.
    Spruce dork

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  13. #7
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    I don't understand why GCM is so fixated on the idea that this going to take me 200+ hours to build. Half that will be plenty, especially as I won't be spending much time making it look fancy.

    In my view, a wise old man will spend his limited remaining time doing what makes him happy rather than what some self-professed grumpy old man on the other side of the world thinks he should be doing.

    I do appreciate the constructive advice about the 'neutral' fret though. Andy Manson positioned his at the 8th. This makes perfect sense to me as it's bang in the middle of the fingerboard. So I decided to go with that.

    At some point I could do with some constructive advice on a couple of other things which I will bring up in due course.

    I should be able to post my plans soon. Don't go away, folks . . .
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

  14. #8

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    "....Half that will be plenty....."
    Spruce dork

  15. #9
    Harley Marty
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    @tonydxn. I'm very interested in the whole fan-fret concept & I don't see it as being overly complex, but I'm only a player not a builder! Alastair Hay of Emerald Guitars in Donegal is building me a Fan-fret Tenor guitar. He started the build in September so I'll be hoping to get it in January. I asked for 23" (E) to 24" (G) with the neutral fret at his discretion (I was also thinking around the 7th).

    A way of turning the 200-plus hrs into 200-minus hrs maybe to get a fan-fret guitar & convert it to your 4 doubles. I noticed Aiersi in China make a reasonably priced fan-fret , look up made-in-china.com.

  16. #10
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Hi Harley - hope you will be pleased with your fan-fret tenor. I am the opposite of you - a maker who can barely play! Please don't say 'only a player'. I have great respect for players, and even more for makers who can play too.

    While accepting that converting guitars is a valid way of arriving at OMs and mandocellos, it's not something I want to do myself. They make a big sound, but don't sound like mandolins. They sound like guitars strung up as mandolins. (Hardly surprising, that.)

    Flatback mandolins take much less time to make than carved ones. I have made quite a few and know from experience how long they take.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

  17. #11
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Here are my plans (sorry about the quality). They are a starting point and I will probably change my mind about some things as I go along.

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    Woods:
    Back and sides English walnut (Juglans regia)
    Soundboard western red cedar
    Neck Honduran mahogany

    Dimensions:
    1st string scale length 630mm
    8th string scale length 684mm
    Body width 381mm
    Body length 470mm
    Body depth 70mm (provisional)
    Soundhole 65x96mm (provisional)

    Note on the body size:
    Somewhere in those threads I mentioned at the beginning there are some posts from Dave Cohen containing some very scientific stuff about first air resonance frequency and lowest plate modes. I did read it, but couldn't understand a word of it. Fortunately, Sunburst reported that he discussed his build with Dave Cohen and on that basis went for a larger but shallower body than Gibson used. Hoping that these dimensions will work for a flatback too, I am using roughly the same ones Sunburst used. I am planning to make my body a little deeper than his, but still less than Gibson's (which are 83mm).

    Question about soundhole size:
    Sunburst's mandocello and some others I've seen on the web have pretty big soundholes. How much of a factor is this? Anyone have any suggestions about what size I should make mine?
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

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  19. #12

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Tony, look up a past thread by Cafe users Walt and Joe Mendel. Joe made Walt a badass mandocello. The bracing was much beefier than yours, especially along the direction of the strings. Your plan is probably fine in the cross-grain direction, but you will want a lot more bracing running the length of the body. Joe used full-length bracing about 15mm tall with 2-3mm thick carbon fiber in the center, so it would have been extremely stiff. It sounds great, so while it may have been overkill, it didn't stifle the sound.
    Your scale length and spread looks good.

    When planning a fanned-fret build, think about which frets you will be using the most. Then try to get the flat fret somewhere around there, balancing of course the extremes at the nut and the bridge.

    In order to avoid having to do a weird (compound) headstock angle, I just use a normal headstock angle and add an overlay that's a little thicker than normal. Then let your nut sit on the flat which results from planing the headstock overlay to match the fretboard plane. Anything else is going to give you a headache.

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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by tonydxn View Post
    ...there are some posts from Dave Cohen containing some very scientific stuff about first air resonance frequency and lowest plate modes. I did read it, but couldn't understand a word of it. Fortunately, Sunburst reported that he discussed his build with Dave Cohen and on that basis went for a larger but shallower body than Gibson used.
    The gist of what Dave found and I applied to my mandocello is this:
    The top and back plates of the Gibson design do not couple as well as they could with the air resonance because they are too small to be easily carved for resonant frequencies that match up and couple well with the size of the air volume in the box. In other words, the resonant frequency of the air is generally too low for those of the plates.
    How can we help that situation? 1. We can make the plates bigger to lower their frequencies. 2. We can make the air mass smaller to raise it's frequency. How can we do both at the same time? Make the plates bigger and make the body thinner thus raising the air resonance while lowering the plate resonances.

    Quote Originally Posted by tonydxn View Post
    Question about soundhole size:
    Sunburst's mandocello and some others I've seen on the web have pretty big soundholes. How much of a factor is this? Anyone have any suggestions about what size I should make mine?
    The bigger sound hole serves to raise the frequency of the air volume, adding to the effect of the wider, thinner body. The effect of sound hole size on air resonant frequency is a mathematical progression of some sort (I don't feel a strong need to remember the progression) that means that there is not much difference in frequency associated with sound hole size. In other words, it takes a relatively large change in sound hole size to make a small change in resonant frequency. That means you can't do a whole lot of adjusting by using different sound hole sizes.

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  23. #14

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    As another grumpy old man, please tell me what is the goal of a fanned fretted instrument? Better intonation? More ergonomic fingering?

    Sure, they look cool, but....

  24. #15

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Mando View Post
    As another grumpy old man, please tell me what is the goal of a fanned fretted instrument? Better intonation? More ergonomic fingering?

    Sure, they look cool, but....
    For me, the advantages for a 4-course instrument are:
    1. Looks epic, harp vibes, yeah?
    2. Allows you to use a shorter scale length on the treble side, where most of the complex melody usually happens. So ergonomic benefits there.
    3. Allows you to use a longer scale length - and therefore lighter string gauge - on the bass strings, so another ergonomic benefit there.

    Whether all of that is worth it or even effective, is impossible to say based on just the concept of a multi-scale instrument. That's going to come down to the implementation and the particular instrument that gets built.

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  26. #16
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Marty - many thanks for referring me to that thread. For anyone reading this, you can find it here. I watched the video on YouTube - the m'cello sounded gorgeous. When it had finished another video came up with two people playing a duet on Gibson m'cellos. They sounded pathetic, like drinking water after beer. The strutting is certainly interesting. The issue of how mine would stand up to the strain had been bothering me. I have virtually no experience with carbon fibre - I reckon it's time for me to get started with it. I will rethink my strutting. Maybe I should rethink my neck angle too - his bridge is a whole lot higher than mine was going to be.

    Thanks too for answering Jeff's question so well. To add one more point, making a fan-fret instrument is something I've had in mind to do for about 20 years. It was an itch that had to be scratched.

    Sunburst - many thanks for taking the trouble to explain those two points. I really appreciate your going the extra mile.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by grandcanyonminstrel View Post
    Having built many fanned fret instruments and played at least fifty by multiple builders, I'll say that it is useful for more complicated instruments like citterns and 5/6+ string basses, but it is not necessary for a four course instrument..
    I agree. Four course instruments tune in fifths are not improved by fan frets. The fan frets come into their own with five course instruments that you want tuned in fifths. The range of the instrument is so great, and the fan frets get the frets right across the instrument.

    A fan fretted guitar makes more sense if you wanted to tune and fourths all the way. Normal guitar tuning squashes the range so fan frets are needed.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by tonydxn View Post
    ....While accepting that converting guitars is a valid way of arriving at OMs and mandocellos, it's not something I want to do myself. They make a big sound, but don't sound like mandolins. They sound like guitars strung up as mandolins. (Hardly surprising, that.)....
    Well that is a valid point of view. But I happen to like the sound of a K-5 style (Gibson nomenclature) mandocello just fine.. Some years ago I made 4 mandocellos out of arch top guitars and I still have one of them -- it plays nicely that I like the tone and growl of it a lot. It really does not sound like a guitar IMO. I also like round and oval hole mandocellos.
    Bernie
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    Due to current budgetary restrictions the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off -- sorry about the inconvenience.

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  31. #19
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Not so similar to yours, but here's mine:

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  33. #20

    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Puttin' on my bifocals, this type of post is the kind of post that I look forward to. The exploration of building something out of the ordinary, the nay-sayers who are sometimes grumpy too. Its great discussion. I don't ever feel like building something common and I place great value on my vast collection of wall art. Go to the nearest art dealer, select a piece of art, and check out the pricetag when you include framing. I like my own wall art a lot better. Some day I'll do a fan fret myself but right now I have other inspirations. Why do a fan fret? Because you can. In twenty years working at the same music store, we've yet to have one come in. Haven't seen a mando cello either. I'd be a little concerned with fan frets on a dual course stringed instrument but technically it should work fine. You are a brave man. Bless the nay-sayers because they bring up valid points. There is so much to learn and be inspired by in a discussion like this. I'm an electric instrument maker and I'm at the leaping off point to build acoustic instruments. I lack discipline when it comes to free bench space and with electric instruments, its easy to build them in groups of four or six. I can't wait to see progress on this mando cello. Thank you everyone for this discussion.

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  35. #21
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by Tavy View Post
    Not so similar to yours, but here's mine:
    They look interesting John - what strutting have they got inside? I love the tailpieces - did you design those?
    Last edited by tonydxn; Nov-10-2019 at 3:20pm.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

  36. #22
    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by tonydxn View Post
    They look interesting John - what strutting have they got inside? I love the tailpieces - did you design those?
    Yes I designed and made the tailpiece - it's just a bent piece of bass sheet with curly maple over. The pins aren't required to hold the strings in, as the underling brass has a keyhole shaped slot cut in it, and the ball end locks in place at the narrow end. They do nicely hide the holes though

    Bracing, like everything else about this one is experimental:

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  38. #23
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    tonydxn, let me suggest that you might want to discuss your project with Bernie Lehmann here in Rochester. He made me a fan-fret, five-course mandolin/dola that came out very well. Like you, he said he'd wanted for years to build a fan-fret instrument, and he's since borrowed the one he made for me to show at some luthiers' conventions.

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    Allen Hopkins
    Gibsn: '54 F5 3pt F2 A-N Custm K1 m'cello
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    H-O mandolinetto
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  40. #24
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    tonydxn, let me suggest that you might want to discuss your project with Bernie Lehmann here in Rochester. He made me a fan-fret, five-course mandolin/dola that came out very well. Like you, he said he'd wanted for years to build a fan-fret instrument, and he's since borrowed the one he made for me to show at some luthiers' conventions.
    I believe your five string i tried at Crook Farms years ago was the Lehmann to which you refer. I loved playing that thing. In another thread you can see the results of that slow burning five course MAS.
    Indulge responsibly!

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  42. #25
    Registered User tonydxn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fan-fret mandocello build

    Here's the fingerboard. I did it early in the build because I need it to do the head/neck angle.

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    If you want a detailed explanation of how to work out the fret positions here is a YouTube video which explains it all (there are probably others).

    Here's a brief summary:
    Work out the fret positions for the 1st string and the 8th string. Mark on the fretboard the nut and fret positions for the 8th string. Decide which fret is going to be the 'neutral' fret - the one which lies at right-angles to the centre line (mine is the 8th). From this fret, work out where the nut will need to be for the 1st string, then mark the 1st string frets. Join the 8th string marks to the 1st string marks and you have your fret positions.
    Mandolins: Bandolim by Antonio Pereira Cabral
    German flatback by unknown maker converted from a descant Waldzither

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