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Thread: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

  1. #1

    Default American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    Hi all,

    I used to read this forum years ago so it's good to see so many of the old names still around.

    I'd really appreciate hearing opinions on how different flat top/back mandolins you've tried compare to each other for playing above the 7th fret on the E and A strings, especially for tremolo. Particularly I'm wondering which you thought had the best sustain with the least pick noise, perhaps what is closest to Italian bowlbacks, even if with a longer scale.

    These makes are of most interest to me:

    Big Muddy, Flatiron, Poe, Redline, Gibson/Alrite, Sawchyn

    Thanks in advance

  2. #2
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    The best flat backs that I have encountered were made by Larson, Vega, and some of the rosewood Martins. I would consider them to be more responsive and more refined than Big Muddy, Flatiron, or Gibson Alrite. I have not played Poe, Redline, or Sawchyn. The handful of Larsons that I have played were top notch instruments.

    Tonally, I have always thought that the carved Lyon and Healy instruments delivered the most "Italian" sound of any non-bowl back mandolin.

    I have always thought of pick noise as being a component of technique rather than the instrument, unless a fingerboard extension is getting in the way. Sustain can vary considerably from instrument to instrument, even within the same model.

  3. #3
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    I guess the main question is what is your purpose in choosing a mandolin. Will you use it for solo performing or just play in ensembles. I know you mentioned specific brands. In terms of vintage I might consider a Vega cylinder back and I would put Dogal Calace RW strings on it for close to Italian bowlback sound. Otherwise I have not played most of the ones you mentioned but would guess that all are acceptable but you would have to try out some and also consider that strings and picks you use make a big difference.
    Jim

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    Thanks for the replies

    @rcc56
    Ah very interesting. I never played a Larson or Lyon and Healy, so I'll look into them some more. I had a Mahogany back Martin A a few years back, but I never even tried a rosewood back. A few years ago I played a mandolin that I believe was a Vega two point, and the tone was nice enough, but it seemed a bit subdued and didn't have much sustain.

    Maybe pick noise isn't quite the right word. What I'm referring to is the scratchy noise one would get when touching the string with the fret hand but not pressing down, while still plucking the string with the pick hand. That's what I'm mainly trying to overcome when I play tremolo above the 7th fret on American flat top/back mandolins.

    @Jim...

    I've been playing for almost 20 years but never had much chance to try out many quality mandolins that suit my style. It uses a lot of tremolo but also very light picking mixed with chords, heavily relying on good sustain to keep the tune alive during soft and sparse playing. I play around the 12th fret sometimes, mainly on the E string. Mostly I play solo for family and friends, and I also want to record. 13 inch scales feel a little tight to me and 13 7/8 a little too long, but in some tunes I definitely prefer the longer scale.

    Eventually I'm also going to try to get a couple of quality Italian bowlbacks, but that's for later. The only decently playable one I have now is an unusually quiet DeMeglio style one.

    I remember long ago having the impression that the Vega cylinder back had exceptional sustain, but I had some reservations about it that I can't quite recall. I guess I should reconsider it. I'm really curious about your mandolin arsenal but I'll hold off on that.

    I take your point well about the strings and picks. Currently I use Thomastik strings and haven't tried Calace Dogals. I'm curious, is it just the wound strings that are special, or do you actually notice a difference in the E strings too?

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    I was under the impression that you were not considering bowlbacks. If you are I would open them to the mix. I have a Vega style 3 bowlback that I have played a bit in classical rehearsals. It is strung with Dogal Calace RW 92b strings and I would compare its tone to the best of Italian bowlbacks. Those strings are carbon steel and have a bright sound probably the polar opposite to Thomastiks. The Germans prefer the mellower tone whereas the Italians like brighter in general.

    As for tremolo in the upper neck, a lot depends on setup. And I wouldn’t rule out some carved instruments either for that tone. I recently got a Campanella A-5 and it has a very sweet upper range even up the neck on the e strings.
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul V View Post
    Thanks for the replies



    Maybe pick noise isn't quite the right word. What I'm referring to is the scratchy noise one would get when touching the string with the fret hand but not pressing down, while still plucking the string with the pick hand. That's what I'm mainly trying to overcome when I play tremolo above the 7th fret on American flat top/back mandolins.
    If I understand you correctly, this sounds like a technique problem rather than a problem with the mandolin. If you pick a string while you touch it with your fretting hand, but you are not pulling it down to a fret, it will make an undesirable sound.

    Most Vega cylinder backs I have played were very good instruments. Keep in mind that they tend to have a deeper sound than most flat backs, which might or might not suit you.
    Martin mandolins are quite variable in tone and projection. You have to find a good one.
    Lyon & Healy carved mandolins are remarkably consistent. I haven't seen many that weren't good, unless they were in bad shape.

    Good luck on the hunt. Take plenty of time and play a lot of different instruments.

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    Two of my favorite players of the "Italo-American" repertoire: Gus Garelick (from the Hot Frittatas) and Tony Flores, both played Gibson A50s.
    Their tremolo is astoundingly expressive. Check out Gus's version of Speranze Perdute for example. Matteo Casserino also played an A50.

    Jim's question is right on. Those guys aren't / weren't playing "classical" pieces and at least Gus and Tony's recordings were pretty tightly carefully mic-ed which certainly influences my opinion.

    Lots of ways to go. I'm a believer of what RCC suggests. Technique. And I constantly have to work on mine. But Gus and Tony are my ideals as far as tremolo is concerned.

    The only long scale model that you mentioned that I've played enough to have an opinion was a Big Muddy that a student had around the shop and I used to play a lot at lunchtime. It was a very nice, easy to play mandolin. Nice tone across the spectrum. Tremolo was like olive oil. Fine mandolins without much name cachet appeal.

    The Vega made "Leland" flatbacks (spruce top / rosewood back) are the favorite US flatbacks I've played. Great resonance, super intonation, bright, but not tinny, treble and very good midrange and bass. I've pulled together a small posse of them and they are consistently excellent, particularly with the Calace Dolce strings that Jim recommended. The mahogany backed one I have, I like less.

    Carlo Aonzo swapped one with me for his Pandini at a workshop some years ago and then wouldn't give it back. He said (joking) that the trade was final. I might trust his opinion, too.

    Paul started the question asking about what long scale mandolins folks recommended. I've never played one of the long scaled L+H archtops. I know they have mostly been dissed here because the classical tradition / preference for shorter scaled mandos (F5s of course, and their origin, current use by BB, CT etc. notwithstanding....) but I hope for the chance to try it without prejudice.

    I agree with you, Paul. There's a lot of fun to be had trying out different pieces on different mandos with different scales. And also bowls v flatbacks v archtops.
    Don't let anyone tell you what's "right".

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    That is a beautiful post, Mick. It brought tears of joy to me and made me realize that all these years of my heart-felt sacrifice for this mandolin community have not gone for naught.
    Jim

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    As far as the long scale Lyon and Healy mandolins are concerned, they don't sound any different than the short scale ones.
    When they shortened the scale length, they also shortened the neck slightly so the bridge would remain in the same position.
    L & H probably put more thought into their carved mandolins than any other fretted instrument they made.

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    @rcc

    Ok maybe my example of pick noise wasn't very good. Pressing down on the fret isn't a problem for me. That example was just to try to illustrate the noise I'm talking about, separated from the tone. It's only ever really a problem during light picking, and I think that's mostly the issue. My style is to generally play more quietly, with less force than others. Many long scale flat top/back mandolins seem to me to accommodate that well enough, except for in my perception, soft tremolo above the 7th fret or so. What you said about technique seems generally wise, but I don't really hear those noise problems when I play Italian bowlbacks, so I would think there is more to it.

    Anyway I appreciate hearing your thoughts on it. And yeah a deep body sound probably wouldn't suit my style very well.

    @Jim

    Well I use flat backs as my main players, and bowlbacks just for certain occasions. I just have to hold off on the bowlback quest so I don't get overwhelmed. I experienced that in the ancient past.

    The reason for me using Thomastiks is because they're flat-wound. I just use the D and G strings, not the A. Strange, on the Dogal website the RW92 package says "round-wound", but the description reads: "winding type: flat". Is that an error? They're not flat-wound, are they?

    Points taken about setup. Aside from tone, do you still perceive Italian bowlbacks to generally be more "delicate" sounding than your Vega? That term might be vague but maybe you know what I mean.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    RW92 family strings are round wound. That is what RW stands for. I am not sure what winding type means but Dogal does make flat wound strings but these are not.

    I don’t know what delicate means unless you means built very light but I found my Vega to be quite lovely in tone when fitted with Dogal Calace RW92b strings. I am not a fan of flat wounds on the Italian bowlbacks but they work rather nicely on German bowlbacks and Lyon & Healy mandolins.
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    I’m playing my Waterloo flattop for Italian-style playing. I’m rather enjoying it. While it’s not Italian, I am (100%), so it needn’t be. Seriously,it has a lot of sustain, and I’m using a fairly thick pick (a Wegen Big City).
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    @Jim

    OK thanks for the clarification on the strings. Now that you mention it, I've only ever used flat-wound on my flat backs. I faintly remember trying them on a bowlback and taking them back off.

    By "delicate", I suppose I mean to have a finer point, as in a tighter frequency range concentrated toward the top. Maybe that's how I would use the term to describe a 13 inch scale mandolin compared to a 14 inch in general. Though they were all 13 inch scale, the Vega bowlback I played long ago sounded to me a little closer to a Martin A style, than an Italian bowlback. I thought it must have something to do with the bracing rather than scale. They weren't played side by side though, so maybe I distorted things in my mind.

    @brunello, @rcc

    The Larson sound clip I heard certainly sounded sweet like you described, for whatever that's worth. Do you happen to know the approximate original bridge heights of the flat top/back Larsons or Lyon and Healy? I'm thinking that would be helpful for me assess the condition of any I might run across. I'm assuming they're all 13 inch scale, but please let me know if that's not true.

    @mandobar

    OK that's interesting and surprising. Do you play much tremolo above the 7th fret? And do you ever play Italian bowlbacks?

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    Yes, and yes.

    I have to say, I am surprised at how versatile the Waterloo is. In fact, I am about to order a second one. This one will be going with me to Swannanoa this summer, and maybe to Naples later in the Fall to visit family.
    Last edited by Mandobar; Jan-12-2020 at 1:14pm.
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    I have measured a L & H style C bridge. It is approximately 5/8" high at the center of the bridge. This particular instrument has the longer 13 3/4" scale that is seen on some of these instruments. They also built many with a 13" scale.

    I would not assume the bridge height on these instruments to be rigidly standardized.

    I cannot give you a measurement of a Larson bridge at this time. And since Larson instruments were truly hand-made, often to order, I would expect to find considerable variation in bridge height, appointments, and possibly scale length.

    If you are considering a purchase of an instrument by either of these makers, it would be advisable to ask the seller to measure the scale for you.

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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    [QUOTE=Paul V;1752357
    @brunello

    The Larson sound clip I heard certainly sounded sweet like you described, for whatever that's worth. Do you happen to know the approximate original bridge heights of the flat top/back Larsons ........[/QUOTE]

    The Leland flatbacks that I own (and referred to above) are Vega-made, despite the varied mistaken attributions to the Larsons. I could measure the height for you (I guess I'd have to find an average ), but one hundred years later, I'm not sure how useful that information might be.

    It's likely fair to say that the bridge height on all of my mandolins has changed over the years. We live in two distinctly different humidity zones: Central Texas and SE Michigan. Anything made of wood that we move back and forth with us has a harder time adjusting than our dogs do....

    Mick
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    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    I used to play my Larsen flat back for Italian tunes. I thought it worked great. However it sounded very different from an Italian style bowlback. It has a short scale and low action, which is great for tricky passages. Rosewood back and sides give it a rich mellow tone. It is super lightweight but remarkably loud. I love Larsen mandolins.

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  24. #18

    Default Re: American flat top/back mandolin - for Italian style playing

    @rcc

    Ah thanks for the measurement, and I'll keep that disclaimer in mind. That's interesting that about the scale variation. I would think 13 3/4th or maybe 13.5 inches would be really comfortable, at least for me.

    @brunello

    Yeah if it's not inconvenient, I am curious about the Leland bridge height. I'm just trying the get an idea of the normal range. I get the feeling they're pretty rare though so maybe I'll never even run across one.

    @Bill
    OK i have to ask, did you notice a difference in tremolo above the 7th fret too? Like with the tone to noise ratio? Or was one brighter?

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