At Last, a Loar To Play

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
September 17, 2009 - 8:30 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

I expected smoke and thunder when I played my first Gibson F5 mandolin signed by Lloyd A. Loar.

But alas, as a friend warned me, it's only a mandolin.

Still, there are special qualities in this fairly mint, virzi-bearing F5 that Loar signed on March 31, 1924. From the flowerpot inlay on the headstock to the expertly carved neck and the rock-solid glue joints in the body, this mandolin reeks of quality workmanship.

The sound, feel and playability were different for me, too. I've held a Loar in disrepair, but this was my first opportunity to actually play one, high adventure for a bluegrass/jazz-grass fan.

It's a thrill because I've read or talked about these holy-grail mandolins since the 1970s. I've listened to them make music on recordings and marveled at the rich, clean tones. In recent years I've written about the Loar lore.

This column is for all of you who have never played the maple, spruce, ebony, and pear wood that craftsmen carved and glued together back in the early 1920s. They made instruments that design legend Loar personally inspected and designated good enough to bear his signature on the Master Model label glued inside the sound chamber.

I went for years with only faint hope that I'd ever play one.

When a friend in another state acquired one, my hopes rose. But he always brought his road mando to our rare jams—never the irreplaceable fern.

At festivals I'd see bluegrass stars fresh off the stage walk by with their Loars in cases.

On the Cafe, I'd read the comments by noted musicians and F5 scholars about their Loars versus the many others they had played.

And, of course, in recent years I gazed at noble-looking Loars advertised for sale on various Web sites. If only grandpa had played an F5 instead of the A1 that was passed down to me. But such is the economic status of both my roots and my future that my longing would never be fulfilled.

Like a rock in your shoe that feels bigger the more you walk on it, the thought that I was missing a key component of a mandolin player's journey intensified. Part of me nonetheless had faith that my time would come.

Suddenly the stars aligned; my time did come, when a friend was asked to baby-sit a Loar. We sat down in his living room. He opened the case and took out the Loar, and then handed it to me with the casualness of a host passing a cup of coffee.

The wood, fresh from the case, felt cool to my hands. There was silence. A mandolin has no life, no sound, unless a human being strikes the strings.

That's a trait the world's greatest mandolins share with those that are made most humbly: it's the human spirit, soul and mind that exert the most influence over the music. The mandolin does not create, it merely responds to the creator.

Of course, there's some feedback in that process of creation. The mandolin can influence what the musician feels and how he or she expresses imagination. The tonal response of the mandolin can trigger the musician's spirit.

But in the beginning, I had to set the tone.

I chopped a G chord and then played a noodle riff. The notes were strong and full, but not astonishing. There was sweetness about the sound. Playability was good.

So I cut loose and pounded away on bluegrass tunes and slowed up for airs and waltzes. I passed it over to friends present, and we played the Loar along with other mandos in the room, including F models from Clark and Nugget and an old snakehead Gibson A.

With playing, the Loar began to open up. It grew louder and fuller in tone with every passing half hour. Plus, the more I played it, the more I got the feel for how to pull tone from it with the right hand.

Was it better than the others?

To my ear, you can't say better or worse, just different. All sounded good.

But I have to say, when it came to tone and power from treble strings up the neck, especially way up the neck, this was easily the finest mandolin I've played. (I'll qualify that by saying my experience with fine mandolins is quite limited compared to many experts who hang out here at the Cafe.)

Still, the evenness of the volume obtained from notes played in first position and those fretted closer to the bridge was the most notable musical trait to me. As for aesthetics, I was surprised at how thick the finish seemed on this mandolin. It was a high-quality finish, with a fine dark-burst stain on the top, but thicker than the finishes I'm used to seeing on modern mandolins.

I mentioned the flawless workmanship, but it's worth repeating. The Gibson shop did nothing but the best work on this Master Model. Loar must have had the team on their toes.

For that reason alone I hope many of you who haven't played a Loar F5 at least get to hold one someday and maybe plink out a few notes. When you consider that in the early 1920s you could buy a Loar for a few hundred dollars—which may have been a lot of money then, but is nothing like paying $150,000 for one today—the workmanship standard at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo was remarkable.

The artisans who built these mandolins worried about raising children and paying monthly bills just like we do today. No one applauded when another batch of F5s was sent to Loar's bench for his approval. It was just another day's work. They walked out of the factory with their lunch pails into cold Michigan winters and hoped for an eventual pay raise.

Today, what they built inspires countless copies and variations. Among them is the fine Master Model made by the current incarnation of the Gibson company, at a Nashville shop.

Playing one of the originals is special, and I'm very grateful that I've been lucky enough to do so. I look forward to the next time.

But for mandolin players who are Loarless, it's ok. You're missing an interesting moment, but you're not missing the main show. Playing a Loar did not alter my world.

It's the music in general that's the show, and it's the spirit of the people playing the music that lies at the heart of what really matters.

The musical voices of other mandolin models are strong, and a world without their departures from the Loar sound would be far poorer. There are also many Loar replicas that are not that far from the real thing, if not identical.

To hold an F5 that the master held, played and approved is undoubtedly a bluegrass blessing. But walk through any bluegrass festival campground at night, and you'll hear music that bears the tone and spirit inspired by Loar and his creations. His signature need not be present for the music to be.

Additional information:
List of all known dated Loars, courtesy of the Mandolin Archive.

Related Bill Graham Loar articles:
Visiting Lloyd's Old Haunt
Monroe's Gouged Mandolin Headplate To Be Sold
Shaking Hands with Lloyd
An Old Mandolin In a Rectangular Case

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Reader Comments

Capt. E
September 17, 2009 08:54 AM
The closest I have come is a short visit with an friend's F5 that is in the first batch released after Loar left Gibson. I did play it enough to agree with you about the even tone. Someday I'll have a chance for a more extended visit.
September 17, 2009 08:57 AM
It's funny, I got to play Reischmann's Loar many years ago, and I didn't know what I was playing. I thought it was good, but I liked my mando better. I bet now I've played a bunch more instruments I'd have a better context to appreciate it. I saw Stephane Grappelli when I was 12 and I was bored by the second half of the concert. NOW I wish I'd kicked that 12 year old in the shins and told him to wake up!

Denny Gies
September 17, 2009 09:23 AM
Very nice article by Bill Graham. Appreciate the insights. I got to hold Joe Val's Loar once but he asked me not to play it. I also got to hold one of Herschel Sizemore's Loars. Just holding them was a hoot though. Maybe someday I'll get the chance to hit a string with a pick on one of these icons.
September 17, 2009 09:52 AM
good article - thanks. that mandolin is probably the same age as my father. i think it's time for a "loar mandolin" movie along the lines of "the red violin." events over the past 80-something years, viewed in the context of an quality made american instrument, would make a good story - even for those not especially interested in the mandolin.
September 17, 2009 10:29 AM
I had a fellow (cafe member, who will remain nameless) hand me his Loar and I played a few notes only to realize that it was missing a string, "Oh it is?" he said. . . I mean I'd think if you owned a Loar you'd know stuff like that about your mandolin! Then again, when you got a bunch, hey, a few must get overlooked, eh?

In summary, a great sounding 7-string mandolin however. It had a Virzi and quite a projection. I liked it alot!

September 17, 2009 10:39 AM
When I bought my Gilchrist the fellow that I purchased it from also brought his Loar as he knew I would enjoy having the opportunity to play one. Opening the case and seeing one of the finest mandolins ever built was really a cool feeling. If I had an hour or so to play it I probably would have been more impressed with it warming up but being that I only had 15 min or so it didn't really impress my all that much but was a nice gesture on the owners part. I liked the Gil better and am very happy to have one!
September 17, 2009 12:17 PM
I remember my first impression was not quite hearing it all at first. For me the real hit from it was finally letting myself lose myself in the music for a while.. play it enough to wake it up etc, then really being stunned at how good I thought I was sounding. Some placebo there for sure, and I agree with Bill that you can get 90% of that feeling with a modern maker, but it's still quite transporting to be able to play one long enough to get the feel of it and really let yourself cut loose on it
September 17, 2009 12:37 PM
I did get a chance to play a Loar mandola. It was refinished (before a "Loar" was so legendary) but sounded great. Very clean powerful tone. I have been in the same hotel roomw/ Tony Williamson playing his Loar. It sounded great. Was it Tony?, the Loar? I did not separate the two. Hearing Tony play Charley Parker tunes solo was a real treat.
September 17, 2009 04:22 PM
I finally got a chance to play a Loar this past July 4th. I too must say, I was a little overwhelmed by it on many levels. Tony Williamson was playing here in town and I went outside to see if I could have a word with him during the set break just to ask if what he was playing that night was indeed a Loar. And what do you know it was. The next thing I know he's going back inside to get it and he hands it to me, and not just to look at, but to pick a tune. I have no idea what the serial number was, or even the date. I remember he told me, and showed me the signature, but all I could think about was, WOW a Loar and in my hands. I was just blown away by the whole thing, I never thought I would ever see one that close or even have a chance to pick one up or much less play a tune on one. My first thoughts, don't drop it!, man this thing plays like butter, and the tone is to die for even in my hands. And in his hands it sounded like a million dollars, or about a quarter million smile. I must say a big thank you to Tony for making my night and giving me a great memory!
September 17, 2009 04:44 PM
assuming a coincidence of time and space, skill and signature, i wonder if mandolin aficionados in the future will quake in presence of ... and wax as lyrically over ... a genuine mike dulak mid-missouri?
September 17, 2009 05:54 PM
I always look forward to articles by Bill Graham. This one illustrates some of the cost/collect-ability/quality issues that have been endemic to the violin world for centuries...the 'folk' music world is just now catching up with the impact on affordability that exorbitant prices commanded by the sellers of fine, vintage instruments have brought on. Interestingly though, the cost of a Loar, pre-war D-45 or Mastertone is chump change compared to the Strads, Amati's, and Gagliano's of the world.

The article also brings to mind a funny interaction with Tommy Jarrell, old time fiddler, who got to play a Strad usually stored behind glass at the Smithsonian. He looked at it...sawed off a few tunes, handed it back seemingly unimpressed and commented that he preferred his better. His own was, of course, an old beater with a flat bridge, caked-up, rosin and not worth the case lining of the Strad...but it suited him plenty. (I take that back...Tommy's fiddle is probably worth quite a bit now because it was...Tommy's) -Jim
Rob Powell
September 18, 2009 07:01 AM
Playing a Loar may not have altered your world but I suspect owning one would. ;-)
Dan Margolis
September 18, 2009 11:03 AM
Nice article. The label was signed on my dad's 11th birthday.
Ed Rosney
September 18, 2009 11:40 PM
Thank you Bill for an informative and insightful article.
September 19, 2009 11:41 AM
I've played about half a dozen, including the Griffith A-5, the only known Loar A-model. They are indeed special. Are they the best mandolin ever made? If you like Loars, they are. I like 'em. John Reischman's is probably the best I've ever gotten to try out. But, and here's the catch...John and others do indeed sound like themselves on any good mandolin. Also, even Loars vary in their tone, volume and response. Nice read!

Roscoe Morgan, Jr.
September 19, 2009 12:18 PM
Quote from Denny Gies: I got to hold Joe Val's Loar once but he asked me not to play it.

That's brutal......
September 19, 2009 05:28 PM
I also played John Reischman's Loar about 1996/97 at a workshop in Vancouver, Washington. Halfway through the workshop John said "Let's take a 20 minute break. Oh, does anybody want to look at this?" at which point he passed around his Loar for all of us to pick a tune on (like Bill's friend said "it's just a mandolin"). I only had about 5 minutes to pick on it but it was an amazing instrument. Call me cheap but I'll stick with my John Sullivan mando.
September 20, 2009 03:08 PM
$150,000? They have come down $100,000? That's good to know for new buyers.
Bill Bradshaw
September 20, 2009 11:26 PM
Mike Marshall was nice enough to offer to let me play his Loar after a show here in Sheridan. After hearing what I'd just heard him do with it I was afraid I might ruin it or somehow put bad juju into it, or embarass the instrument by making it respond to my feeble skills, so I passed on the chance. In hindsight I should have taken him up on it as I'd just started seriously looking for a new mandolin and his Loar would have been a great benchmark to have in mind as I searched. Oh well, I won't let the next opportunity slip away.

September 21, 2009 12:26 AM
anytime someone offers you a Loar to play, play it! their monetary value has made owners much more cautious than before...
September 21, 2009 08:59 AM
I was at a mandolin tasting last year and spent a fair amount of time watching people test drive mandolins. It was interesting to watch people pick up the Loar that was there and play a couple bars on it then put it down and move on. No one really sat down and jammed on it like they did on everything else. It was treated almost like a curiosity, and no one really handled it any different than anything else on the table except those that had never had a chance to hold or play one. You could easily spot "first timers", my self included, because they all had a look like they had just won the lottery on their face. In the end, it was the Taggarts, Dudes and Kimbles that seemed to be the center of attention.
September 21, 2009 09:14 AM
Quote from Glassweb: anytime someone offers you a Loar to play, play it! their monetary value has made owners much more cautious than before... End Quote

So true...and as always, it's 'Let me see you pick on your'n first...'
September 21, 2009 09:51 AM
As a friend of mine said - if you ever get the chance to drive a V-16, you should do it.
Darryl Wolfe
September 21, 2009 01:09 PM
Even as a Loar owner it is always a thrill to play one that you have not played. I played several "new" ones the other day. Another July 9 and a March 24 Fern Loar (also a true 26 Fern)

Nice article
Mike Bromley
September 21, 2009 01:32 PM
I played Fred Eisnor's Loar 30 years ago. Wasn't a seminal experience. per se, but it sure was a nice mando, no doubt about it.
September 21, 2009 02:23 PM
[Quote from Darryl Wolfe] Even as a Loar owner it is always a thrill to play one that you have not played. I played several "new" ones the other day. Another July 9 and a March 24 Fern Loar (also a true 26 Fern)

true enough Darryl! by the way, what are your impressions from these three, "new model test drives"?
September 21, 2009 02:38 PM
I was fortunate to get to play Dave Grishman's. I went to see the Quintet at a music store and nobody showed up except about 5 of us. I told him I was working on learning the craft of mandolin playing and could I look at his. He immediately handed it to me and told me to play it. Two things happened. I got to play a Loar and all rumors of Grisman being a person of quality beyond measure were confirmed.
Gail Hester
September 21, 2009 04:36 PM
Yet another great article by Bill Graham.

A few years ago I had my first chance to hold and really examine a Loar F5 and my husband played his first all courtesy of Dan Beimborn. That was a day we won't forget.
September 21, 2009 09:37 PM
If you played Fred Isenor's Loar 30 years ago in Canada you may have not been told it was totally refinished in the 30's to a lacquer finish. Not quite the same as an all original Loar.
Darryl Wolfe
September 22, 2009 09:48 AM
true enough Darryl! by the way, what are your impressions from these three, "new model test drives"? End Quote

The Fxxx refinn back July 9 was exceptional to my ear. The xx551 Fern Loar was "typical". The Fern was outstanding
September 22, 2009 03:41 PM
Quote from Gail Hester: Yet another great article by Bill Graham.

A few years ago I had my first chance to hold and really examine a Loar F5 and my husband played his first all courtesy of Dan Beimborn. That was a day we won't forget. End Quote

It was more courtesy of Jack Schultz! I remember that day too!
Douglas Udell
September 22, 2009 09:50 PM
I've never played a Loar and probably won't (unless I get very lucky), but this article answered many of my questions. I appreciated the photos too, as I got to see the neck from the back which answered another question I had (about shape). Really good article. I think it did what it set out to do! Can't think of a better compliment than to say I got to try a Loar with words alone. Thanks Douglas
September 22, 2009 10:24 PM
Quote from Darryl Wolfe: true enough Darryl! by the way, what are your impressions from these three, "new model test drives"? End Quote

The Fxxx refinn back July 9 was exceptional to my ear. The xx551 Fern Loar was "typical". The Fern was outstanding End Quote

Thanks Darryl! That must have been a fun session...
September 23, 2009 04:33 PM
i have never played a loar though i've been up close, a few feet away. Tony Williamson, Alan Bibey..great sounding mandolins. but i think one of the best mando's i recall was Charlie D's Master Model which i heard him play at the Gibson showroom once.