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Thread: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

  1. #1
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    Default Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Embarrassed to write the millionth post on the beloved cafe about a mandolin search, my apologies! If this is the wrong place and the Shame bell is rung I will accept my disgrace.

    I currently have a Kentucky with f-holes that is perfectly playable but am seeking a more traditional classical sound. Something that would also sound great for choro or jazz would be excellent.

    Like most mandolin folks who love this music Catherina Lichtenberg and Avi Avital are among my favorite players.

    My desired budget is $3000 or less. I've ruled out vintage bowlbacks because my local luthier heavily implied that he is far too busy these days to do the tedious repairs that most of them need.

    I've been looking for months now but don't have practical experience with anything other than the standard carved top mandolins with f holes. Don't feel comfortable choosing a new axe for these purposes with my limited background.

    Any guidance is greatly appreciated.

    Live in central NC and would be up to travel within reason to put my hands on a potential winner.

  2. #2
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Your two favorite classical players play very different instruments as you, I am sure, are aware.

    Many of my fellow classical players play classical on oval hole carved instruments such as the very common A model vintage Gibsons. One advantage is that they are reasonable in price and there are quite a few for sale. Most are pretty solid instruments even after 100 years.

    I am surprised that you have never played any oval hole mandolins.

    This one at Elderly caught my eye today: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/196492#196492
    I have played many teens and twenties Gibsons over the years and while I love the Loar era Gibsons usually the prices are up there. IMHO 1921 is an excellent year for Gibson ovals. They have definitely worked out the kinks with well over a decade of production. You can do well with earlier ones as well.

    Another mandolin to consider is the Lyon & Healy carved oval holes. The style C is the simplest and usually priced decently. You should be able to get one for under your top price. Generally the later L&H's are preferred by many classical players for their shorter scale length. I have a mid-1920s Washburn Professional A and that is generally my choice for the times I attempt to play classical.

    As for modern instruments you also might consider flattop oval holed instruments. There are quite a handful of makers out there and they are pretty reasonable and well within your price range.

    Of course, the popular imports like Kentucky and Eastman make carved top oval holes but I have never played those. I think you price range is reasonable to find what you are looking for. Possibly Pomeroy or Weber might be worth checking out.

    Good luck in your search.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Mandolins with "canted" tops [tops with a crease adjacent to the bridge] tend to have a sound that might be considered to be "traditionally suitable" for the classical repertoire. Good choices would be a Martin style B with rosewood back and sides, or a Larson made instrument such as a Maurer. I would shy away from the Vega cylinderback mandolins for classical. While they are very fine instruments, they might tend too much towards a low end response, rather than the clear singing trebles that are typically considered desirable for classical music. A cant top Vega with a flat rosewood back might be worth consideration, if you can find one in good shape.

    In the carved top world, Lyon and Healy models B and C are within your price range, and many classical players like them.
    I would tend to place Gibsons lower on the list for classical music. The right F-4 might work pretty well, but they are out of your budget. With certain exceptions, the oval hole A models might be a little "heavy" sounding compared to Martin, Larson, or L & H.

    To me, the better sustaining qualities of oval hole mandolins seem to work better for classical music than the faster decay of most carved F hole models.

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    Registered User Ed McGarrigle's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    I’m not at all knowledgeable about classical instruments. But, while doing my own shopping for an instrument to play Irish Trad on a couple years ago, Nate Roberts video of Classical Improvisation on a Calhoun on the Northfield website was influential in my decision to buy a Calhoun.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Another mandolin favored by classical players is the Phoenix Neoclassical. The two person shop ceased production in 2015. They are incredible mandolins. You will find high praise for them on numerous Cafe threads. When production stopped used prices started to rise quickly. However you should be able to find one in for $3000. If there is anyway you can get an opportunity to play one, I think you will be immensely impressed.

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

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Thanks for your helpful reply Jim. The only oval holes I've played were tourist models or ancient unplayable models.

    I've considered almost all of the above minus those imports but you did reveal new choices for me to look into further. I feel like you are leading me down the path of owning a multitude of mandolins, sir. That snakehead is tempting.

    There's a Lyon & Healy in the classifieds but he says the top has sunk on one side of the bridge: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/195982

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Lots of people play old Gibson A's for classical - I mean, they were literally invented for mandolin orchestras and ensembles, right?

    I'm not saying they're the best but an older oval Gibson or a newer oval hole Eastman might be fine for now. If you're up in Greene County, you can make a long day trip to the NYC area and check out lots of mandolins. There's Retrofret in Brooklyn, and Lark Street in Teaneck (NJ) both of which have multiple old Gibsons in their inventory right now. It would be a simple matter to go to the Eastman mandolins dealer locator page and figure out who's got what before you go- I found about 5 or 6 dealers in the greater NYC area.

    Even- gasp- Guitar Center or the other big box stores very occasionally have a vintage mandolin, you just have to hunt around for it.

    Good luck!

    PS - a trip to Lark Street is always a good idea because the owner is incredibly knowledgeable about instruments, and there's fantastic restaurants all up and down the block on the main drag of Teaneck. The vegetarian Chinese place one door down from Lark Street is excellent and if you like falafel, Sababa's down the street is among the best I've ever had outside the Middle East.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by jamman View Post
    There's a Lyon & Healy in the classifieds but he says the top has sunk on one side of the bridge: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/195982
    i don’t know how far Winston-Salem is from you but that seller has a few mandolins that may be of interest. I have a feeling that the L&H might be the best for you but the Eastman special DG2 might be of interest as well.
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by rnjl View Post
    Lots of people play old Gibson A's for classical - I mean, they were literally invented for mandolin orchestras and ensembles, right?

    I'm not saying they're the best but an older oval Gibson or a newer oval hole Eastman might be fine for now. If you're up in Greene County, you can make a long day trip to the NYC area and check out lots of mandolins. There's Retrofret in Brooklyn, and Lark Street in Teaneck (NJ) both of which have multiple old Gibsons in their inventory right now. It would be a simple matter to go to the Eastman mandolins dealer locator page and figure out who's got what before you go- I found about 5 or 6 dealers in the greater NYC area.

    Even- gasp- Guitar Center or the other big box stores very occasionally have a vintage mandolin, you just have to hunt around for it.

    Good luck!

    PS - a trip to Lark Street is always a good idea because the owner is incredibly knowledgeable about instruments, and there's fantastic restaurants all up and down the block on the main drag of Teaneck. The vegetarian Chinese place one door down from Lark Street is excellent and if you like falafel, Sababa's down the street is among the best I've ever had outside the Middle East.
    I don’t know if you misread the OP’s first post. He says he lives in central NC not central NY. It would be a long trip for him.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    i don’t know how far Winston-Salem is from you but that seller has a few mandolins that may be of interest. I have a feeling that the L&H might be the best for you but the Eastman special DG2 might be of interest as well.
    He is only 90 minutes away and my mom lives nearby so I could make a stop. Reached out to the gentleman and hope to visit soon.

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    Registered User rnjl's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    DUHHHH

    I misread NC for NY, and in fact there IS a Durham, NY.

    Oh, how the fingers fly before the brain catches up.

    apologies all.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Lyon & Healy will be in my hands tomorrow. Luthier urged caution when I noted the slight top sinkage so it will have my attention, but I'm hoping to to fall in love.

    My Hudson Valley friend is kind and I wish you were an hour away instead of 10! Our drives to Montreal to see family could have us go by there though.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by rnjl View Post
    DUHHHH

    I misread NC for NY, and in fact there IS a Durham, NY.

    Oh, how the fingers fly before the brain catches up.

    apologies all.
    Well, geographically I am also in the Hudson Valley though, I am guessing, further south from you. Lots of friends north of me though.
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by jamman View Post
    Lyon & Healy will be in my hands tomorrow. Luthier urged caution when I noted the slight top sinkage so it will have my attention, but I'm hoping to to fall in love.
    Sounds like the seller is a straight shooter and tells you what is. In addition, IIRC, he is including extra Thomastik strings which, to me, are the key to these lovely L&H instruments. Hopefully the sinkage will be minimal and if your luthier can check all braces it might not mean anything for the health of this instrument.
    Jim

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Two new friends from the Hudson Valley!

    I have a good feeling about the seller too and set an appointment with the luthier on Thursday anticipating a purchase.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    PM Marty Jacobson and see if he has anything available.
    Tom

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Good luck on the L & H style B. They are very fine instruments, and remarkably consistent in quality.
    And if you ever do any performing, they will eat up a microphone.
    The one you're looking at is one of the earliest ones made. I'll bet a dollar that the serial number is under 100.

    If the sinkage is minor and the top is not soft in that spot, I wouldn't worry about it.
    I hope it works out for you.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Late to this game, but I don't have much to add. To be mindful of top sinkage and do consult with a luthier about stability or repair. Don't be pressured into purchasing something that doesn't quite click with you. There will always be another something along soon enough.

    I love my Lyon & Healy A, but it's a later (1922), short-scale incarnation. And don't be too afraid of Neapolitan types (or other bowlbacks) if you can find one already competently restored and ready to play that you happen to like. Playable American makes of the early 1900s like Vega, Washburn (also by Lyon & Healy), Martin, etc. can be available rather affordably . . . but can require patience and savvy to find.

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    Registered User Louise NM's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    So jamman, what did you do about the L&H? Did you fall in love?

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by Louise NM View Post
    So jamman, what did you do about the L&H? Did you fall in love?
    Yes, madly and completely. Very pleased to say I'm the owner of #32 and the luthier who urged caution has given this mandolin a clean bill of health. This instrument feels, plays, and sounds amazing. Awfully nice to look at to boot.

    Mark, the seller, was super kind and answered all of my questions. He even put an inspection mirror inside to confirm some shoddy repair work wasn't done previously.

    Huge thanks to Jim and rcc56 for nudging me to search for L&H's. Those endorsements gave me the confidence to pursue and purchase this fine piece of work.

    When I was doing research last night to date this mandolin (1917?) I came across cafe threads with several of the same folks in this thread. One little tidbit of info, the pickguard has barely discernible etching that reads "PATAPLD" then underneath "FOR". I haven't removed the pickguard to view the back. The tailpiece has some heavily deteriorated foam which I'm curious if it contains asbestos.

    Luthier only recommend doing some setup work with the top, neck and overall structure being in great shape. The nut needs to be re-shimmed, the newish frets need to be dressed near the neck joint, and the bridge slots need some stepping(?) as they weren't originally designed for flatwound strings. He also recommended changing the Thomastik 154W strings to a lighter gauge to somewhat ease the load. Going to get this setup done within the next couple months when can do the work.

    Totally tickled over here.

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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    I believe that the 154W strings are light gauge. I actually use the medium gauge on my short scale L&H.
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    I believe that the 154W strings are light gauge.
    Yes you're right. I told him I thought they were the heavier ones mistakenly.

  33. #23
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    what a great read! I'd offer to bring my Cohen to Duram on our next visit to Chapel Hill! So many mandolins to like in playing classical music!

    I'm drawn to the work of Ekaterina Skliar who does her mandolin work on a Gibson A9! I'm also mindful that the F5 was invented to be used in classical music. (As was the L&H). So, in my mind, it's not the f-holes alone?

    Love the T-I strings though. I use the "Heavy" set on my oval-hole Gibson and my Cohen. Even those are lighter that -74's.

    Enjoy making Classical music in North Carolina! Hopefully, you've already learnt the old-time melodies!

    f-d
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Congratulations.

    Thomastiks are popular these days. But if you don't want to spend big bucks on strings, you can good results with more standard strings. It's a good idea to stick to a fairly light gauge. I would avoid anything as heavy as the D'Addario J74 medium set.

    I had an L & H style B for many years. I strung it with standard 11-14-24-38, which yielded good tone and caused no consequences to the mandolin.

  35. #25
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    Default Re: Lost in my search of a mandolin for classical music

    Have you looked into modern bowlbacks? .. Oh I see, you have chosen (and chosen well). In that case it might be helpful for others, not all bowlbacks are a century old.
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