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Thread: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    I am in hopes a builder can explain something to me. My Phoenix Neo-classical Europa III is amazingly easy to play. The pick literally feels like it is gently caressing the strings. Both it and my Lyon & Healy Model A are strung with TI mittels. Yet the pick on the L&H has a totally different feel and is not as easy to play.The difference is surprising - so much so that I find myself wishing the L&H was as easy to play as the Phoenix! The L&H is an outstanding mandolin with an incrediblely warm sound. I love it - but don't understand this difference in playing feel. This is true playing open strings so the fret size is not a factor. I don't understand this at all. Differences between the two mandolins are: 1) the Phoenix has a radiused fretboard; the LH does not; 2) the Phoenix has a longer scale length. Both were set up by highly skilled luthiers.

    What could cause this totally different "feel"? Is it possible the L&H setup should be revisited? Any input you can offer would me most appreciated. Thank you in advance.

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    It could be:

    fret shape
    fret height
    action height
    scale length
    neck shape
    neck size
    fingerboard material
    string tension
    string spacing
    any combination of those

    ...or it could be:

    the responsiveness of the instruments, or how they respond to the pick. One might take more effort to produce the same loudness as the other.
    the "tone" of the instruments. What we hear can make a big difference in how we perceive feel (I learned this when electric keyboard instruments and polyphonic synthesizers started to come on the market in the late '70s and early '80s. Dial in a different sound and the keys feel different)

    It could be any number of "psychological" aspects.

    FWIW, unless the two mandolins have the same scale length, frets, fingerboard radius and string spacing they will feel different.

    I'm probably leaving out some things that I haven't thought of. These are just things that immediately come to mind.

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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    "the responsiveness of the instruments, or how they respond to the pick. One might take more effort to produce the same loudness as the other.
    the "tone" of the instruments. What we hear can make a big difference in how we perceive feel (I learned this when electric keyboard instruments and polyphonic synthesizers started to come on the market in the late '70s and early '80s. Dial in a different sound and the keys feel different)"

    John, thank you for the input, particularly the quote I pasted above. It is so interesting to hear the voice of experience describe all of these variables which make these instruments so unique. It helps me understand my own instruments and appreciate their differences. Thanks!!

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Registered User J.Sloan's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Could this difference in the ease of playing also be an ever so slight difference in neck angle and the height of the arching on the top plate?
    I've often wondered about this too. I remember having a mandolin years ago that was very easy to play and it seemed to just play it itself. Some mandolins, with the same scale, strings, etc. just seem "tighter" than others.

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    Registered User Eric Hanson's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    One of the easiest to play, and most responsive, mandolins I have ever played was a Giacomel, what is now considered his Jazz 5.
    The neck was perfect for my hands. My fingers fell into place in chord shapes. If you played it lightly it whispered to you with a sweet and subtle, but still strong voice. When you dug it, it responded as a Powerful person responding to a desperate need.
    At $12,500 I will likely never be able to afford one of these. But oh, how I long for the beauty and ease that these have in playing them.
    Everything seemed just right. I have no idea what it was. But i was so glad to experience it.
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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Well said Eric and totally what I'm talking about. Thank you.

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    The dark sunburst one will have more bass; the blonde will have more treble....

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    Registered User Aaron Bohnen's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Well, I'm not a luthier but I notice a beautiful dilemma behind the question - you have exquisite mandolins to compare!

    Rolfe designed Phoenix mandolins to be easy to play. I had one and it was remarkable in that way. More than that, the Neo-Classical is the intentionally easiest to play of all the Phoenix models, so responsive and light in weight with composite spruce and carbon-fibre braces designed for those exact strings. It takes little input to get beautiful tone and good volume from a Neo-Classical. Rolfe invested tremendous love and expertise into that model and it shows even just in picking one of them up out of the case. The ease of touch and playability of that model is a high bar to hold just about any other mandolin up to.

    Having said that, John's suggestions above obviously tell a more complete story of the differences between any two mandolins we might encounter with similar setups. I'm woefully ill-qualified to add to or comment on his list except to say I've bookmarked this thread so I can refer back to it!

    Perhaps I'm not adding much to this conversation but I just think it's likely to be hard for almost anything else to be as easy in the hands as a Neo-Classical. A Lyon and Healey is a lovely instrument but we can't blame even something as special as that for having a hard time trying to match the Phoenix for ease of playing.

    Enjoy!
    Last edited by Aaron Bohnen; Jul-11-2020 at 3:01am.
    Gavin Baird F4 & F5, Weber Octar, Gibson K-1, Guild D50, Martin D35, Yairi DY-84, etc...

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Thank you Aaron. Your post is most helpful. It really does make me think that the luthier's work of creating a particular sound and feel is art, not science! How much was Rolfe's creation itself a matter of his own sensitivity to sound, his own "feel" for the instrument, versus the science of sound production? And I wonder what went on in the L&H workshop, over 100 years ago, as the luthiers carved and tapped, felt and listened, to there creations? The art and science of creating all stringed instruments is such a credit to the better part of being human!!! I digress, don't I....

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    One thing John didn't mention in his very informative post--- neck relief. Even a slight relief in the same mandolin compared will be harder playing. Are both necks totally flat? I would also look at that.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Quote Originally Posted by pops1 View Post
    One thing John didn't mention in his very informative post--- neck relief. Even a slight relief in the same mandolin compared will be harder playing. Are both necks totally flat? I would also look at that.
    Ahh - thank you
    I hate to expose my construction ignorance, but what exactly is "neck relief"?

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    I do feel, or believe, that my perception, of how well an instrument plays, can be affected by the quality of it's sound. I have several vintage Epiphone acoustic archtops, on all of which I've done careful setups. Two of them, in particular, have excellent all round sound(tone, volume), and still have the original worn, but serviceable frets. Their sound is so good, I don't tend to notice the imperfections in the frets. A third one, which I've completely restored from a wreck, is lacking in tone and volume, and I find myself playing harder, to coax out more sound. The frets, and fingerboard are excellent, yet because I'm (unconsciously) playing it harder, I notice buzzing on it, which is mere background on the others.

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Dave - thank you. That is a very interesting observation. It will be interesting to see how the thoughts expressed on this thread affect my own perception of the two mandolins compared. I do agree with your thoughts.

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Here's another factor and a difference between the two mandolins. Rolfe designed and voiced his Neo-Classical models specifically for Thomastik strings. Every element of the design was directed to get the most from those strings. If you changed to say, J-74s the mandolin would not sound or play correctly. I have ayed a good handful of Neo-Classical Phoenixes and I loved the tone and responsiveness of all of them.

    The Lyon & Healy was not designed for those strings. I am not even sure the Thomastik mandolin strings were even made at the same time L&Hs were made. I would guess that players of those mandolins used whatever mandolin strings were available to them. It is a happy accident that players discovered in our time that those strings work quite well for playing on vintage L&Hs.

    However, I also believe that there is probably some small adjustments that an expert luthier can make to your L&H to optimize its tone and playabiity. If you are unhappy with it I would have it looked at by an expert. Sometimes all it takes is some small tweaks.

    I can't recall what era of L&H A you have—mine is later Washburn-labelled with a slightly chunkier neck. That could also be a factor though I don't have any problem with that neck and mine is very playable.
    Jim

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim Logan View Post
    Ahh - thank you
    I hate to expose my construction ignorance, but what exactly is "neck relief"?
    Neck relief is the curve of the neck around the center of the fingerboard between the nut and the body. Guitars with longer strings vibrate more in the center than at the ends and so this becomes necessary. Mandolins with a shorter scale and higher tension strings don't need relief, tho some have it. Whether that is intentional or not they have it. While it is not an action adjustment when you adjust the truss rod (changes the relief if you have one) it does effect action.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Well this thread was worthwhile! After reading the various responses I reflected on my practice habits and I believe the answer to my question is explained by two factors: perception and familiarity. Let me, somewhat abashedly, try to explain. I own four mandolins. I often practice on all four of them every day simply because I love hearing their various tonal characteristics. Sometimes I will go on a streak and play one only for several days. Just recently I was playing the Phoenix for a few days straight. There in lies the rub. Today I spent a few hours with the L&H. The longer I played the more comfortable I got. Then I picked up the Phoenix. It felt weird! Where was that wonderful L&H tone? Why did I feel clumsy on the Phoenix? It's familiarity and perception or "what your brain expects". The longer I spend with EITHER mandolin the more it "feels right" and the other mandolins don't. So I think the lesson here is: don't constantly shift between instruments! Each instrument requires you to "get into the groove" with it - and musical chairs with instruments does not allow that! I expect this may seem ridiculously obvious to all of you seasoned pros - but to me a little light bulb just lit up!!! The relationship between the brain and the minute nuances of these instruments is quite extraordinary! Thank you all for chipping in - it's been a learning moment!
    Last edited by Tim Logan; Jul-11-2020 at 7:27pm.

    “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” ― Albert Schweitzer

    1925 Lyon & Healy Model A, #1674
    2015 Phoenix Neoclassical Europa III #623
    2018 Carlo Mazzaccara Lucia
    2020 Burgin Shanghai Octave Mandolin - in progress!

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    Default Re: A question for luthiers - from a non-luthier

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    The dark sunburst one will have more bass; the blonde will have more treble....
    I've heard people attribute more treble to a gloss top, and more mellow tone to a satin top. Uh huh.

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