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Thread: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

  1. #1
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    Default Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Hello!

    My only experience with instruments is playing the clarinet in school. However, I do Revolutionary War reenacting, and came across the mandolin. I think they're beautiful and would love to learn how to play and maybe even be able to play it at events sometimes. I also considered the lute, since it appears it was still in use in the 18th century, however the number of strings and the price tag makes me think it's not a beginner friendly option.

    The thing is, I know next to nothing about them and don't know where to start as far as buying one. from my research of historical mandolins, it seems like a vintage bowlback would be best for having an instrument I can use at a reenactment. From other threads I've seen on here it seems like a case to case basis on what's good and what's not? Could I please get some advise?

    I've come across this one I really like. The seller is asking a little over $300 plus shipping. When I messaged her she said it's in excellent playable condition with no damage.
    "Rare 1900-1920 Washburn bowlback neopolitin 8 string mandolin the ebony fretboard is inlayed with abalone all strings are in tact has fabric liner inside with Washburn sticker very good antique condition"
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    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Well.....fair play to you.

    I won't get into the topic of the appropriateness of the mandolin for a late 18th C context. Such questions have come up in the past with Civil War re-enactors thinking of adding a mandolin to their kit.

    This mandolin from Antonio Vinaccia is from 1772. The basic bowl geometry etc. stayed the same over the next 130 years but a lot of other things changed, particularly the transition to steel strings and the necessary changes to strengthen the instrument and the tuning apparatus.

    There have been some heated debates here as to whether there even were any mandolins in this country at that time. Small little scraps of evidence suggest there might have a been a few around maybe in Philadelphia or Boston.

    But if you want to roll that way, we're here to help.

    And if you want to get a bowlback as your first mandolin, I'm here to help.

    I'm sure there will be many folks who will chime in after me about all the many, many reasons why you shouldn't. Don't listen to them..

    If you enjoy the beauty and history and sound of a vintage bowlback mandolin, then you should follow your eye and heart. And eventually, your ear.

    Now...to this mandolin. Washburn mandolins were made by the Lyon and Healy company in Chicago from the early 1890s to around 1920. They made thousands of them. No, tens of thousands of them. Nothing "rare" about them as your seller suggests.

    Lots and lots and lots of them turn up for sale on ebay. Most don't sell, either due to the limited market for them or because they have fallen into either disrepair or that neglect has rendered them unplayable, even while their cosmetic condition might still be very alluring. As is the case with the one you are showing.

    However, Washburn was L+H's flagship line and they typically boast excellent materials and very good craft. Given their numbers and modest prices, I think very mandolin player should own one. This is a mid-level Washburn, but those can still be very nice mandolins.

    If you haven't played stringed instruments before the concept of "playing action" is crucially crucial. This can also be described as the distance between the strings and the frets....for comparative purposes, typically measure at the 12th fret...counting from the headstock end of things.

    A little web search homework will clarify this for you quickly.

    3/32" is likely the maximum you want to see there as measure from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string. Others might quibble about such dimensions + or - their favorite fraction, but any more than that will make this a brute to learn on and play. Less than that will make it a delight.

    It is hard to tell from the photos you included just what that "action" dimension might be. Some better side view photos or some measurements of your own will help determine such.

    However, from your second photo the action looks a bit sketchioso.

    The price of $300 is certainly at the high end for this instrument, particularly if its playability is suspect. Even if it isn't.

    If you really want a bowlback mandolin (and I hope you do) then be ready to walk away from this if the action and playability isn't right, because there will be another right around the corner.

    That's all likely too much information, some of which you might not have wanted to hear.

    Again, if you want a bowlback mandolin. and Lord knows, you should, do a bit of homework and get a sense of how the neck angle and playing action are the most important things to consider with these and be careful and selective and you will find one that makes you very happy.

    There are many other mandolin options for a beginning player and those will no doubt be offered to you hear promptly. Resist.

    Good luck with the process. Post some side angle views of the Washburn if you have them or can get them.

    Tracking down a nice playable vintage bowlback can take a little time, but is totally worth it.

    Mick
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    This Kid Needs Practice Bill Clements's Avatar
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Terrific advice, Mick.
    You’re one of the reasons the Cafe is the place to come for answers and nice people who are willing to share them.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post

    However, from your second photo the action looks a bit sketchioso.

    The price of $300 is certainly at the high end for this instrument, particularly if its playability is suspect. Even if it isn't.


    Mick
    Yeah, the neck seems to be bent a bit and would need a lot of work to play as well as it was meant to play.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Mick, David, et al. have already rendered excellent advice. Here's a cut and paste from a post I made elsewhere that might be of some use:

    My greatest concerns in shopping vintage bowlback types (mainly Neapolitan [which ca.1900 Washburns are]) are (1) has the neck warped to the point that repair isn't practical and (2) has the cant (the crease in the soundboard just behind the bridge among most makers) collapsed. Both conditions can be brought on by stringing in inappropriate, modern, heavy-gauge strings. The former can manifest as high action, especially near the neck–body joint. Other common issues—mostly more easily fixed than the previous two—are worn frets, especially in lower positions (modern tanged frets are much easier to have replaced than antique bar frets); seam separations between a bowl's ribs (usually easily enough glued); problems associated with antique tuning machines; and problems at the neck–body or headstock joints (depending on how the headstock is joined).

    If I can't inspect an instrument in person, I usually ask the seller a number of specifically pointed questions. If the seller doesn't know how to or simply doesn't bother addressing them, I approach with skeptical caution.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    PS: If you wanted to go really Revolutionary-War style, you'd pursue cittern types like the so-called English guittar: e.g., https://www.monticello.org/site/rese...ctions/guitars and https://robmackillop.net/guitar/18th...trung-guittar/

    . . . but such things are much rarer and infinitely more specialized and expensive. I think the Neapolitan mandolin is a fine and practical facsimile, but do be aware of some of its history.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Mick,

    Thank you! I for sure want a bowlback. The modern flat type ones just aren't visually appealing to me. I found that mandolin in my post on the mercari app posted by someone selling vintage items. (Yes, that's probably not a great place to go hunting for an instrument...) I think I'll keep looking rather than asking for more photos if it's at the higher end of the price range.

    How do you tell if the action is wrong?

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Bow...oAAOSw3e9e5DMb - This one the seller claims has already been refurbished.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Our friend, David, does a pretty good job of explaining it in this thread. Have a look at the second post in the thread where he discusses the side view of the 1898 Vinaccia bowlback.

    The first of the two photos below, while from a carved top mandolin, not a bowlback shows how the action at the 12th fret is typically measured.

    The second photo is of a bowlback whose neck has rotated up a bit as David describes above. The neck isn't really bent itself, but it has rotated a bit at the joint between the neck and the bowl. Not an uncommon problem with many an old bowlback that hasn't been cared for. It is a difficult problem to correct.

    You can see from the second photo the distance between the strings and frets and imagine the extra energy it will take to press the strings down to the frets. This
    makes playing difficult and learning frustrating.

    "Playing action" is a household term for string instrument players. Any owner or seller of a mandolin should be fully aware of the instrument's action (unless they are a junk or antique dealer who know or care little about instruments).

    All too often we see unplayable instruments touted for their beauty when it should be more than obvious to the seller that the instrument is unplayable.

    I saw that Globe mandolin on ebay. I wouldn't recommend it. If it has been refurbished....they forgot to fix the scratchplate which appears to be peeling off.

    Note as well how the dye on the fretboard is worn off on some upper frets from a players fingers. On cheaper mass market mandolins rather than using ebony or rosewood for the fretboard, other cheaper woods were used and then dyed to appear as if ebony. I think you'd probably want to avoid these.

    Keep your eye out for the Washburn or American Conservatory lines from Lyon and Healy. Both were very well made and there are enough still out there that they are affordable.

    Vega mandolins (from Boston) are also very very good....(imho the best of the widely distributed American bowlbacks from the era). They'll be a bit pricier than the L+H instruments, but they are lighter and more responsive sound... a bit more Italian to my ear. But, like L+H, they made mandolins at a range of price points, and they are typically all of good quality. Here's one for reference.

    Hard to buy something sight unseen but a store might likely would be more responsive in providing additional photos for inspection.

    An old Regal bowlback, from when the company was in Indianapolis, would also be a good score. Very nice instruments.

    Have you checked the classifieds here at the MC? Bowlbacks regularly turn up. Our friend, Peter, has been selling off many instruments from his collection.

    I hope that helps and isn't too discouraging. The more you look, the more you learn and the better choice you will make. Don't rush into this! Keep looking and learning for a bit.

    Ask as many questions here as you need.

    David, Peter, Jim, Eugene, Martin, the Victors, Ladysolo, Rob...there's a lot of bowlheads here.

    Mick
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    All good points here. Mandolins were certainly in use in 18th North America, though not as popular as other instruments, see this post from an old thread on mandolins in colonial America.

    Barry

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    The second photo is of a bowlback whose neck has rotated up a bit as David describes above. The neck isn't really bent itself, but it has rotated a bit at the joint between the neck and the bowl. Not an uncommon problem with many an old bowlback that hasn't been cared for. It is a difficult problem to correct.

    You can see from the second photo the distance between the strings and frets and imagine the extra energy it will take to press the strings down to the frets. This
    makes playing difficult and learning frustrating.

    "Playing action" is a household term for string instrument players. Any owner or seller of a mandolin should be fully aware of the instrument's action (unless they are a junk or antique dealer who know or care little about instruments).

    All too often we see unplayable instruments touted for their beauty when it should be more than obvious to the seller that the instrument is unplayable.


    Mick
    Words of wisdom from Mick.

    Many of those old bowlbacks have had neck set problems, often caused by neglect and the use of heavy strings intended for other design mandolins.

    It's a shame because lots of good instruments have been relegated to wall hanger status.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Mick the sage!

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by Eugene View Post
    Mick the sage!
    My sage is in bloom!

    Mick
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    My sage is in bloom!

    Mick
    Bonus.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Bow...kAAOSwDjhe~9YI

    I've been looking around a lot, and this one looks like the neck/action are good? Or am I totally off base here and the strings are still too high?

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by ladyofthelake View Post
    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Bow...kAAOSwDjhe~9YI

    I've been looking around a lot, and this one looks like the neck/action are good? Or am I totally off base here and the strings are still too high?
    The string height and neck look better on that one.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    I agree with David, the string height does look better on this one.

    Still looks like a bit of deformation of the top just were the fretboard meets the soundhole.

    Pretty clean instrument over all. Beautiful rosewood.

    Nothing beats keeping an instrument in its case.

    Strings look ancient, so getting some nice extra light strings on it might prevent any further neck issues.

    The Dogal Calace dolce strings are always worth the investment in my view.

    Price is pretty attractive right now. Have you bid on it?

    Mick
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    That last eBay posted above was an unlabeled made/sold wholesale by Lyon & Healy as was the OP Washburn. It is always a risk and usually Goodwill sales discourage returns but this one says 30-day returns. Looks like it could be a decent one. I agree with Mick the Dogal Calace strings are the best to my ears for vintage bowlbacks.
    Last edited by Jim Garber; Jul-08-2020 at 2:50pm.
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Is it worth trying to win then do you think? Or should I keep looking? I don't think there's anyone around here than even does repairs for vintage instruments, but new strings should be easy to buy. I did try and bid on it but was quickly outbid. If I try and get it I'll wait until late in the last day.

    It's currently sitting at $133 with shipping.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by ladyofthelake View Post
    Is it worth trying to win then do you think? Or should I keep looking? I don't think there's anyone around here than even does repairs for vintage instruments, but new strings should be easy to buy. I did try and bid on it but was quickly outbid. If I try and get it I'll wait until late in the last day.

    It's currently sitting at $133 with shipping.
    Hard to know what to say.....

    Do you have a budget in mind? How impatient are you to get started on playing?

    Buying any instrument is tricky....buy new and they depreciate faster than an auto, but if good quality they tend to hold their value at worst.

    I've never not gotten my money back (or an increase) out of a good quality used instrument that I have bought.

    I do have a number of lower priced mandolins around, still, from when I was feeling my way through the bowlback market and finding something I really wanted. (Full disclosure: I'd been play mando for 20 years before I got my first bowlback.)

    This one is in very good cosmetic condition. The bowl and top are pristine almost. And as Jim says, it was most certainly made by Lyon and Healy: the materials and craftwork was typically very good on all their instruments, labeled or otherwise.

    I probably wouldn't go much higher than $150-175 without having a lot of confidence in the neck, or the willingness to dive in and take a risk. I've certainly done that. There are a lot of L+H mandolins in circulation. Not much reason to pay more than that except in an exceptional case.

    Some playing / action adjustment might be gained at the bridge. It looks like it could be lowered a bit. Folks here could easily walk you through that exercise. A little bit of sandpaper and an extra helping of care and you can do that yourself.

    I return to my first two questions....

    Mick
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    I guess I'm not in any hurry. This one is just very pretty, and the design has a very historical feel to it. Plus it has a case which seems unusual. And once my college reopens I'll be busy with homework on top of work and not really have time to shop around much.

    I'd say my max budget is $300? But I don't want to overpay for something not worth that much, and would prefer to stay more in the $200 and under range.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    $300 should get you what you want.....

    Not trying to talk you out of this L+H, mind you. Just raising a question worth following up on if you can.

    Like any number of us here who have felt our way into buying bowlbacks, often sight unseen, it can be tricky. But ultimately rewarding.

    I think we've all had a few lemons along the way, but also have found some very wonderful instruments as well.

    The one you're looking at could prove just fine. We all have our own limits, and I guess I've learned mine the hard way.

    Some chances I've taken with bowlbacks have proven great, others less so.


    As David said, this one looks pretty good and you are right, it has some charming features.

    Still pretty affordable..... If I were in the market and this was under $100 I'd certainly take the chance.

    That rosewood bowl looks lickable.


    There are some simple things to do to reinforce that area where the fretboard meets the mandolin top by the sound hole if you are even a bit handy and have a few simple tools around.

    I'm sure you'll make the right decision whichever you decide.

    Mick
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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    For what it's worth, obviously distorted soundboards are usually a deal breaker for me.

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Quote Originally Posted by Eugene View Post
    For what it's worth, obviously distorted soundboards are usually a deal breaker for me.
    Usually, yes.

    However I have a L & H type bowlback that has some soundboard distortion and yet the action is fine and the tone is great, so it's not always a dealbreaker, but that would be a case-by-case basis.

  34. #24

    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    Agreed, of course. That, in part, is why I added the caveats of "obviously" and "usually."

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    Default Re: Please help! Newbie looking for bowlback to learn on!

    This Washburn bowlback is currently in the classifieds.

    Price looks reasonable. Seems worth requesting some further photos from the seller.

    Mick
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