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Thread: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

  1. #1

    Default Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    I now have two vintage oval hole mandolins - 1920 Gibson A-4 and a 1929 Martin Style 20. Both are in excellent condition for 100 and 91 year old instruments. The Gibson has a well repaired and stable top crack hidden by the pick guard, and the Martin has some minor top scuffing where a previous owner had improperly positioned the bridge. Both mandolins have had original teeny frets replaced by Bob Chuckrow with modern larger frets. Both have straight necks and excellent set up.

    The Gibson is a much heavier instrument, with thicker plates and milder arching. The neck is substantial, with V shaping and a massive heel. The back and sides are birch, with the back featuring very distinct curly figure. Kind of special for birch. The top is finished in the dark mahogany sunburst, my favorite Gibson look. The Martin is light as a feather, with delicately carved plates. The arching is Stainer violin like, with graceful recurves. The neck is slim like a modern mandolin, with a round profile and small violin like heel. The back and sides are are curly maple, but is a well match four piece plate. It takes a careful look to discern the fact.

    Tonally, the two instruments are quite distinct from each other. Neither would suit a bluegrass band, because they lack the bluegrass chop. The Gibson has a rich, thick tone, with powerful bass and solid, clear trebles. It's hard to overdrive this beast; it just stronger the harder you beat it. I wouldn't call it tubby, the tone is thick, sweet and rich. The Martin, on the other hand, has a clear and bell like quality. Because it uses light gauge strings and has a shorter 13" scale, it can be overdrive. But it doesn't need to be, because the trebles are clear and strong under a moderate attack. Both mandolins are happiest playing old time, celtic, and classical, with the Gibson tending to old time and celtic, and the Martin celtic and classical.

    So I'm all set on classic, vintage mandolins.
    Last edited by George Henry; Dec-21-2020 at 11:59pm.

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  3. #2
    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Fair play to you, George.
    Thanks for sharing.
    I also have the good fortune to have Gibson and Martin oval hole mandolins from this era and enjoy them both for all that they offer.
    Play on in health and happiness.
    Mick
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    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Exclamation Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Martin started producing bowl back mandolins.. the larger flat back shows that heritage..
    I used to own a bowl back Martin with the top fitted out with a pickguard
    like they did on the later flat tops .. (& guitars)
    may have been producing both styles then..

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  5. #4

    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    The Style 20 is nothing like the Martin Bowl backs or flat backs with chanted tops. It's a fully carved top and back looking more like the Lyon and Healy carved mandolins with 2 points.

    I've ordered a set of Thomastic strings and a set of light gauge D'Addario Nickel Bronze strings to try out on the Martin. I just want to see how they sound. Right now I'm using D'Addario 80/20 light gauge.

  6. #5
    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Quote Originally Posted by George Henry View Post
    The Style 20 is nothing like the Martin Bowl backs or flat backs with chanted tops. It's a fully carved top and back looking more like the Lyon and Healy carved mandolins with 2 points.
    Yes. Sort of.

    Mick
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    From a distance, the Martin Style 20 and the Lyon & Healy Style B look quite similar. Up close, one can see that the plate carving and modeling are quite different.
    The few style 20 Martins I have encountered were all good instruments. Bill Bolick of the Blue Sky Boys played one throughout his career.

  8. #7
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Great post. You pretty much nailed what I hear and feel from my 1918 Vega in your detailed description of the Martin.

  9. #8

    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    I replaced the 80/20 strings on the Martin with Thomastic. Objectively, it is much easier for me to play, with their flatwound sickness. I also like the tonal difference. The mandolin seems more refined, smooth, and articulate. I notice a real improvement in the quality of chord tones. I was hoping for the 7x price difference, there should be. If they last me for a year, I'll be happy. Any brand of strings last me for a long time.

  10. #9
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Quote Originally Posted by George Henry View Post
    I replaced the 80/20 strings on the Martin with Thomastic. Objectively, it is much easier for me to play, with their flatwound sickness. I also like the tonal difference. The mandolin seems more refined, smooth, and articulate. I notice a real improvement in the quality of chord tones. I was hoping for the 7x price difference, there should be. If they last me for a year, I'll be happy.
    I can't imagine two strings that are more different that 80/20 vs.T-I. I do love the typo and it's irony: "flatwound sickness."
    Jim

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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    If we ever get to play out again, Flatwound Sickness could be a great band name (but I won’t steal it, that’s all you)!

    Since downsizing a couple of summers ago, I’m missing an oval hole. Only had a ‘93 or ‘94 Flatiron 1N and a 1974 Martin Style A, and my arch top f holes work best for 95% of what I play, but still miss that tone sometimes. Sold the Flatiron, and my daughter picked the Martin out of a bunch of others at the time to take to law school because she loved the feel of the 13 inch scale and its relatively low volume compared to the arch tops and the Flatiron (which was a LOUD one). Better suited to apartment life, I guess. The Martin was an impulse buy online that I never really bonded with, but it sounds sweet, for sure.

    When the world opens back up I can’t wait to take a trip to Nashville and play some F2 and F4 styles...
    Chuck

  12. #11

    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    I carefully typed "flatwound slickness" in my post, but Mr. Helpful Autocorrect jumped in to assist me. I know that for sure because it did it again while typing THIS post. I hate it when I have to correct autocorrect!

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    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    Thanks for this comparison. Have never been fortunate enough to try a Martin Style 20 oval. The only carved ones I've tried were F hole models and they didn't grab me at the time.

    If I ever have to go back down to one mandolin, it will probably be the A Jr.
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  14. #13

    Default Re: Some Thoughts on Vintage Gibson and Martin Oval Holes

    My personal favorite so far is the Martin. It is an absolute joy to play solo, like when I'm in the practicing on the couch. The Martin sounds so clear and bell like, and is so easy to play. The Gibson is the winner in a jam.

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