Shaking Hands with Lloyd
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
January 25, 2009 - 9:00 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Yes, they are real.
I thought this as I held a Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F5 mandolin in my own hands for the first time and soaked up the vibe.
It's almost like a handshake with the master designer of the Gibson Master Model himself, since the sticker inside the treble F-hole bears in ink his bold signature and the date March 24, 1924. That indicates that he inspected and approved this instrument by holding it in his own hands and eying the workmanship, and probably by tuning it up and playing some tunes on it, since he was an accomplished musician as well.
The surviving strings are rusted and coated with crud. A brown dust from the decay of something over the decades now coats a few mother of pearl buttons on the tuners. Specks of white paint are on the top, as is more dust.
But the neck is one the best feeling, most balanced and comfortable mandolin necks I've ever held. Pearl fern inlay snakes from the top of the pear wood peghead veneer downward under and around the ebony truss rod cover. The varnish finish, even dust covered, looks classy.
I'm dying to play it and hear the voice.
But broker Dave Wendler and I both agree it cannot be so because the bridge is broken and there is a seam separation crack in the two-piece back. All seems easily cleaned up and repaired for whoever is lucky enough to own it next.
Even silent, though, this instrument is majestic.
Part of that is my expectation, based on memories of listening to the lovely chime or full bite of Loar F5s on numerous recordings and reading about them in testaments by owners and admirers.
When my bluegrass education began during college in the 1970s, I soon heard about the Loar, just like I'd heard about Stradivarius violins all through childhood. You'd hear jokes about Strads on television all the time, a running poke at people who thought the copies were the real thing and worth a few hundred thousand dollars or more.
I remember in the early 1980s when one friend told me another friend in a far-away state had managed to purchase a Loar fern for almost $13,000. We thought that was a fine thing that he had pulled off such an acquisition despite the astronomically-high price.
Of course, most of you know the rest.
Stradivarius violins today sell for several million dollars apiece.
Now it's the Loar F5s that sell in six figures, one reportedly cracking the $250,000 mark in recent years.
Most have sold in the $175,000 to $225,000 range in recent years, experts tell me. Although those with issues are a bit cheaper.
Loar expert Darryl Wolfe, keeper of The F5 Journal, says 228 Loar-era F5s have been documented of the 326 believed to have been made.
So there's still hope of finding one. But the small supply coupled with the huge demand, because of often spectacular tone and the increasing Americana collector value, drove the price steadily upward until the recent economic recession.
This one, we'll call it the Semisch Loar, is priced at a modest $165,000 because it needs work and because the economy is ailing.
It might as well be $165 million to me.
But I'm thrilled to hold one.
Loar F5s are old hat to many contributors and readers here on the Mandolin Cafe. A handful of people own a handful of Loars. Perhaps a few dozen people own one now and have owned others in the past. Several dozen people have managed to acquire at least one.
More often, though, those familiar have only played the Loars owned by bluegrass stars or hobby players, usually people who bought them way back when.
Yet for many, many of our readers here on the Cafe, the seemingly mythical and mystical Loar F5 exists only in photographs and recordings. Which is still fun, but...
I did once play a Loar-era Gibson F2 or F4 at a bluegrass festival many years ago. It was not overly impressive and needed work. That experience made me think I'd soon luck into trying an F5. Never happened.
I saw them on stage at a distance. But I never had one in my hands.
Until, Wendler posted on the Cafe in December that one had turned up in eastern Kansas. So a few weeks later, I joined him in the basement of the UMB Bank, a skyscraper in downtown Kansas City, Mo. We made our way through a circular, stainless steel vault opening, which is protected by a seven-foot stainless steel door weighing many tons, with bunches of precision lock gears visible through thick glass on the inside of the door.
Lloyd Loar, acoustic engineer and inventive perfectionist, would have loved that door.
Once inside the sprawling vault, which is actually one huge enclosure with a series of small rooms built in at the back, we went to where a solid floor-to-ceiling oak door with two large brass locks protected a "locker" room normally used by businesses to store valuable and sensitive records.
But inside this one was only a black, rectangular case with a somewhat worn leather handle.
Back in the 1930s, or earlier, Victor and Lena Semisch of rural Butler County, Kan., east of Wichita, acquired this Gibson F5 that he played and a Gibson archtop guitar that she played. Victor was a country school teacher who later operated a small general store and gas station.
Daughter Phyllis Shanline, 80, of Manhattan, Kan., remembers her father teaching her how to sing harmonies as he she rode with him to make gas deliveries to farmers. But she only has vague memories of the mandolin and him playing "Redwing" on it.
Her sister, Jody Kennedy, 73, of Olathe, Kan., in the Kansas City suburbs, remembers seeing the mandolin surface when she was young. Kennedy asked him about it and he took it out and played it a bit, but that's all she remembers.
Friends tell them her parents played with other musicians at community gatherings at the school or in homes. The girls didn't pay close attention.
"I thought, why on earth can't they play something up-to-date," Shanline said.
Their parents apparently didn't play much at all after World War II, Kennedy said. Victor Semisch died in 1961 at age 59. Lena Semisch held onto the instruments.
Both the mandolin and the guitar survived a fire at the family business and later an explosion next to a closet where they were stored. Kennedy acquired the mandolin in 2001 after her mother died, and another relative has the guitar.
For a time she laid the Loar on a fireplace ledge as a decoration.
"It looked so pretty sitting there," Kennedy said.
A contractor painting a wall failed to cover it, giving the top the faint white specks.
She was miffed about the paint, because to them it was a treasured heirloom that brought back memories of a loving father. Shanline asked about fixing up and learning to play on it, so Kennedy gave it to her.
A family member took it to Wendler, who builds guitars and electric mandolins and repairs instruments in Lawrence, Kan.
"I thought it would be a taterbug," he said. "Then she walked in the door with the square case and I thought, it can't be."
But it was.
Wendler told the family what it was worth. They were shocked.
"I sat down right away," Shanline said. "I think I've had high blood pressure ever since."
They decided to sell it and use the money for family, something they think their father would have wanted. Wendler, now serving as broker, placed it in the only bank he could find that had a vault storage space big enough to store the case in.
On my visit, he carried the case out of the vault, set it down on a desk and told me to help myself.
I clicked the latches open, lifted the lid and there it was: the top a sunburst dark brown with a large pickguard and extended fingerboard—a Loar, the mandolin player's Holy Grail.
My fingernail scraped over the rusty strings and the whole instrument vibrated with an out-of-tune but deep resonance.
Ignorance sometimes makes life easier.
Now that I've held one, I'll go to my grave wishing I owned a fine Loar. But despite that never-to-be-requited ache, thank God they exist. They're the pattern for descendant mandolins that I do play, and a musical voice inspiring us ever forward.