By Mandolin Cafe
June 26, 2011 - 7:45 pm
It's the winter of 1994 and I'm spending a Saturday attaching a 14.4K modem to my personal computer with the goal of paying my first visit to something called a web site. My lumbering Mosaic browser finally connects with the internet. I run a search for mandolin. A considerable delay ensues before displaying Alta Vista's search results and a link to The Mandolin Page, the first mandolin site on the web and the creation of Dan Beimborn.
A few years after launching the site, Dan moved on from his Milwaukee roots to Silicon Valley and entered the dot.com job market. We lost touch. Fast forward to 2002. The Cafe has been kicked off its third host for using too many server resources. No ISP will have us if a forum is involved and the income and expertise to run a dedicated server isn't in the cards. Time to throw in the towel, but in pops an email from Dan who I hadn't heard from in years offering his help. Soon we're up and running with no more than a few hours of down time in nearly ten years.
In addition to providing a remarkably fast and stable server environment and a lot of valuable web programming to the Mandolin Cafe, Dan's Mandolin Archive has become the single most academic landing spot for vintage mandolin geeks. His audience might include eye candy gawkers, builders looking to trace inlays and evaluate designs, amateur and professional researchers testing theories while checking serial and factory order numbers, or buyers and sellers checking past histories on some of the finest mandolins ever built. Few web sites in the stringed instrument world equal what he has cataloged, if any.
His talent has touched the Mandolin Cafe in a positive fashion in more ways than I can count. You won't think of that when you visit, but I think of it every day, and it's a story I'm happy to tell to anyone that will listen. In addition to being a great soul, Dan is also a world class mandolin player who favors Irish music and the influences of old-time American traditional music.
Our mutual fondness with chicken jokes, our online bitch sessions about — what guys that run web sites like to complain about — swapping links to eBay and places where mandolins are for sale, devising devious tricks that keep spammers off the site and daily instant messaging are a part of the time we spend together online. Meet the guy that makes the technical side of the Cafe really run and the first person I turn to when I need advice. I'm proud to call him my friend.
— Scott Tichenor
Mandolin Cafe: You've been a part of the Mandolin Cafe staff for a long time and are fairly well known on the forum but most people know very little about your background. You have a day job with responsibilities that provide direct benefits our site's visitors. Tell us about your day job.
Dan Beimborn: I work as a Unix engineer for an investment company in London's financial district. For anyone wondering what the heck that means, Unix is an operating system like Windows, but older and primarily used for web servers, email servers, and that sort of thing. My job is fixing problems, analyzing performance, and helping programmers speed up computer programs that trade electronically on the stock exchanges. In the algorithmic trading world, a delay of 1/100th of a second can make a big difference to the bottom line, so we're constantly striving to do things efficiently. I sit at a desk with lots of monitors for 8-10 hours a day, and stare at text in little boxes while meaningfully furrowing my brow.
The Cafe web site and programming provides a nice contrast to some of the office world since I can always keep the design exactly how I like it. I can make our stuff run quickly without going through bureaucracy or compromises you sometimes get in a big office environment. I apply all of the same approaches I use at work, which is basically constant testing, measuring, tweaking, patching, and even rebuilding it from time to time. I've really enjoyed working on a lot of the behind-the-scenes that really makes the experience at the Cafe more fun. We have a bunch of unique and clever techniques to keep the site clear from spam, just to name one of them!
The Cafe server has some pretty impressive stats. On a 24-hour average we're sending out nearly 300KB per second, and during peak times we're in the 10MB second range. We've managed better up-time (server available without interruption) than Google Mail. Our web server is built on RedHat Linux with considerable tuning and tweaking. We also host the Mandolin Archive and a few small low-traffic sites for friends. We're a mix of heavily customized commercial software and our own programs and tweaks. We're ranked as "Very Fast" by alexa.com, with better performance than 81% of the internet. Not bad considering that the two of us are beating out an awful lot of eCommerce operations with global teams and six-figure+ budgets!
Mandolin Cafe: Tell us about your fascination with and collecting of early Gibson 3-point mandolins, not the sort of thing we expect from remarkable Irish musicians.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
Dan Beimborn: Boy, this has been a very strong passion of mine for many years now. Most of our fellow mandolin fans will have seen these F-style mandolins with the extra body point below the scroll, but I was sure bitten by something when I was first exposed to them. They're similar to the later design, but seem to me even more captivating.
Long before I had a decent mandolin, I read George Gruhn and Walter Carter's Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments book. There's a beautifully inlaid 3-point F4 pictured in that book, which really lit the fuse for me. I've spent many long hours on the internet with my mouse hovering dangerously over the "bid" or "buy" links. I especially love the ones with the orange finish and torch inlay. Many nail-biting lost eBay auctions and "just missing that one" at dealers happened with me over about 6 years. I finally found my first 3-pointer at Gruhn Guitar, just after wrapping up a recording session in Nashville. That one was a 1904 F2 #3263, which I sold when I acquired my 3-point F4.
About these mandolins: Gibson started off with Orville's 3-point F4 design, which is quite a thing to behold. The scrolls are spherical, like a tennis ball with a cut-out to make the familiar curl. We've documented a couple of these at the Mandolin Archive. Orville was quite a designer. To my eye, it's very hard to pick a style or school or art/design that it even resembles. There is a deliberate asymmetry and organic aspect to them, the lines and curves really just have no other obvious design precedent. Orville sold his patents to the factory that would take his name, and by about 1903 they'd produced a few of their own, apparently starting with serial number 2500 or 2501.
The earliest factory 3-points have a "bulbous" look, like someone over-inflated them! The scrolls and top carving evolved pretty rapidly, in only about 5 years they were much flatter with a ridge carved on them to suggest the spherical appearance. I've got one 3-pointer from this period, it's a 1904/1905 F2 #3640. This one was beautifully restored by Jack Cowardin, who replaced the broken neck and cleaned up the finish to great degree. This was a "rescue" mandolin, I wanted to do what I could (by financing the work) to bring a beautiful old piece of history back to playing condition. One thing to note about this... it's likely the 1,140th instrument made at Gibson. Most of instruments they made were the cheaper A models, some were guitars, some were harp guitars, some were mandolas and mandocellos... so they can't have had much more than a few hundred F models built by this time. When they're this age or older, each one can have its own unique features, experiments, level of quality. It was a learning period for the young factory. Some of the old ones almost look like badly-executed copies of the real thing, they can be quite crude!
Recently restored by by Jack Cowardin. Previously housed in pieces for many years at Mass. Street Music in Lawrence, Kansas.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
The Gibson factory evolved the design subtly after this one. Serials from about 3800-5500 are closer to uniform. They don't quite have that "prototype" feel any more. The inlaid pickguards from these are quite elaborate, they have a Victorian look to them. Some of these ones are quite remarkable. David Grisman has long played a gorgeous F4 from this period.
By the time 1909 rolled around, these 3-point mandolins were starting to really look a lot more like the teens 2-point versions. In fact, it's not too widely known, but this was a great period of innovation at Gibson. The neck angle of the early 3-points wasn't great. The tailpieces were really annoying to work with, the tone was a bit "tinny" on them, and the general quality of workmanship is much more variable and haphazard. By 1909 Gibson had improved the tailpiece base to have individual hooks (better for string changing), necks and body joints were strengthened with dovetailed blocks similar to violins, the first raised pickguards were introduced, and the bridges were also improved and raised up to improve both intonation and tone. The innovation and playability of these late 3-pointers certainly helped them sell so many during the boom years of the mandolin craze.
So, I've had a 1909 F4, Serial #9100 for a few years now. This is the one I wrote an article about for Fretboard Journal. To me it's the ultimate achievement in the 3-point F4s, beautiful orange finish, flamey maple on the back, and my all-time favorite musical instrument inlay on the peghead. This particular one looks to have been made as a custom piece as it has a silver monogrammed tailpiece, and unusually fine woods. Both the back and the top are made from single pieces, and the quality of the carving and binding is exceptional. It also has wonderful tone like the best of the early 1910-1912 F4s. It's a beautiful mandolin. I was very lucky to spot the classified ad pop up on the Cafe while I was actually working on the programming code for the classified ads themselves! I purchased this one from builder Troy Harris. There are some very nice mandolins coming out of his shop. Troy did a near-invisible repair to the very tip of the peg-head overlay where it had been bumped and shattered a bit of the veneer into a tiny jigsaw puzzle.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
For me, the design of the F models from around serial 8100-10000 are the very best of both worlds. You'll get 3-point F2s and F4s that have excellent tone and playability, along with all the anachronistic bling of the pineapple tailpieces, a pickguard with two clamps, Orville's face staring at you from the sound-hole, and all the 3-pointy goodness. I've always preferred the look of the 3-pointers, so to have that along with the great playability and tone is just wonderful.
Finally, as I type this, F2 #9211 1909/1910 has just arrived through the postal system. I reckon this one will end up getting a lot of daily play. I tend to baby #9100 as it's in such fantastic condition. I really don't want to risk a ding or a scratch from taking that one out to sessions, but I plan to get an awful lot of mileage out of #9211!
I probably won't hold on to #3640 for too much longer, I feel too much like a hoarder if they aren't being played.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
Mandolin Cafe: Your Mandolin Archive played a role in Joe Spann's new book on Gibson serial and FON numbers. We understand you've already changed some of the dates of the instruments listed there so that they match up with his book.
Dan Beimborn: Joe's book is very impressive. There's great research and hard work behind it. I particularly appreciate the scholarship of it. He's very meticulously researched and documented many things, which he shares in a way that sparks many ideas for taking the research further.
You are correct that I recently added some programming to the Archive so I could display Joe's shipping dates for each instrument. We've had recent discussions regarding some new evidence too, and have already made a small adjustment to the chart.
I'm really hoping to find more examples of old sales contracts, receipts, and dated ephemera from Gibson that will help us narrow down shipping dates even more, especially for the 1902-1910 range. There are only a handful of instruments that have these things with them, and they are often discarded when the instruments change hands.
I've generally shied away from making too many conclusions from the evidence I've collected at the Mandolin Archive, but as the coverage and data improves I think we'll learn more new things about these instruments and how/when they were made.
Mandolin Cafe: He had some nice things to say about the Archive in his audio interview with Fretboard Journal. Did you have any kind of contact with him prior to learning about the book?
Dan Beimborn: Yes, I was very pleased to hear that the information I had online was helpful to his book project. We didn't speak before the news of his book reached the Cafe, but we have traded several emails and a few phone conversations since then!
Mandolin Cafe: The Archive is coming up on 8 years since launch. Where do submissions come from and what are your future plans for the site?
Dan Beimborn: I started the Archive with Darryl Wolfe's F5 Journal. It was his "Loar Picture of the Day" forum thread that got me interested in collecting these images and descriptions in the first place. His notes and memory are just fantastic — we'd know a lot less about vintage F5 mandolins without him. Darryl has always kept fantastic notes, and has collaborated with a number of people over the years. Tom Isenhour also has an enormous collection of F5 serial numbers and photos. He and Darryl keep their records in sync. Tom also has a fantastic collection of paperwork and memorabilia. He's a walking encyclopedia of Bluegrass history.
The list of institutional contributors is a real who's who in the mandolin world: Stan Werbin of Elderly Instruments, Frank Ford of Gryphon Strings, Stan Jay of Mandolin Brothers, Charles Johnson of Mandolin World Headquarters, Lowell Levinger of Player's Vintage Instruments, Sandy Munro, Lynn Dudenbostel, Steve Gilchrist, Mike Kemnitzer, George Gruhn & Walter Carter, Roger Siminoff, our departed friend Charlie Derrington, Dexter Johnson, Laurence Wexer, John Bernunzio, Andre Larson at the National Music Museum, Intermountain Guitar & Banjo, Mass St. Music, Skinner Inc., Tony Williamson, the list goes on and on. I can't thank them enough for helping out my efforts at the site.
Many individuals contact us by email. Sometimes listings on eBay or the Cafe catch our eye. Unfortunately, I sometimes (now included!) have a huge backlog of entries to add. I apologize heartily to our submitters if I'm slow, I always try to keep up! I've always appreciated the chance to hear the stories of the instruments. So many grandfathers and grandmothers, immigrants, instruments lost in poker games in the trenches of World War I, and so on. We've uncovered several Loars, a huge number of new details and patterns, and learned an awful lot in the process.
For the future? I'd like to keep on adding instruments, improve the searching and visuals a bit, and make the data a little easier to find. I'm hoping we find at least 4 dozen more Loars in the next couple years too. I mean to do a big push on adding details to the 1902-1911 period as well and hope to get a chance soon to go on photo trips to visit some folks with nice collections.
Mandolin Cafe: You're active in the London Irish session scene. Tell us about spots you frequent and the make-up of some of your favorite sessions. And of course, we always like hearing if mandolins are making their way into these settings.
Dan Beimborn: There are quite a few mandolin players in town and the bluegrass scene is lively. There are a surprising number of vintage F5s in town. Loars, ferns, etc. Enough to keep my vintage fetish lively and current! I've met some really interesting people here through shared mandolin interests, and it seems the supply is always being topped up with new ones. Almost every music shop has at least a few mandolins on the wall. We're really quite spoiled over here.
The Irish session I go to changes venues every so often, but lately it's a Tuesday night at the Ship in Wandsworth town, right next to the Thames. The Ship is a great big pub with a fantastic landlord (who joins in and sings from time to time), and it's a very well-run jam. The talent level in London is astronomical — we're often playing with folks who live in the city and tour globally. Anyone who has done this game for a couple years knows that a session can be variable. Sometimes you get that magical push over the hump into pure joy where the tunes just come out like magic. That kind of chemistry is hard to come by, and this group of folks here in town can get there with astonishing regularity.
London is well stocked with Uilleann pipers extraordinaire, great Irish tenor banjo players, and also fantastic fiddlers and singers. Many also play the mandolin. We've had a few sessions where all 8 people present had some kind of mandolin with them as well. It's a great way to frighten the banjo players!
Mandolin Cafe: You've also made a hobby out of collecting various Gibson catalogs, early paper work and factory documents and other like materials in your research. What's missing from your collection that you'd like to obtain?
Dan Beimborn: Right now I'd love to get my hands on more scans or actual copies of original dated receipts, sales contracts, letterhead, things that help date pieces of ephemera or individual instruments. Joe Spann ad I have been looking at the serial number charts, and we're both doing what we can to find more evidence to improve and fine-tune them. I have most of the catalogs, but any examples that contain stamped dates etc., are wonderful to see. It seems that late in a catalog run, the factory would sometimes stamp in corrections to the price list, etc., with a dated stamp. These are quite helpful to us in our research!
Another one I'm always looking for is the Sounding Board or Sounding Board Salesman magazine. These were trade journals for the sales agents Gibson used. Often they contain lavish detail on new models, maintenance tips, etc.
From the Mandolin Archive collection. See larger original version.
Mandolin Cafe: Darryl Wolfe once commented that you like to take pictures with a level of detail not visible to the naked eye.
Dan Beimborn: I had a lot of fun experimenting with my Macro lens when I first got it. It's good at catching details as small as the compound eyes on a moth (another hobby I have is photographing insects!). I've taken some extreme close-ups of tuner plate stampings, Handel tuner buttons, etc. Some other fun has been photographing labels and manipulating the photos in software to increase contrast to help make out faded serial numbers and so forth. Occasionally, when I get a chance, it's photos of disassembled instruments or instruments undergoing repair. The best part about doing this on a web site is you can decide not to do much editing. I usually post all the photos I have as big as I can.
Not too surprisingly, I get a lot of viewers who are building or repairing instruments. I can usually find a pretty good photo showing some detail in original condition to aid in restoration or building modern copies.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
Photo credit: Dan Beimborn.
Mandolin Cafe: You've taken many photos that appear in the Archive. What is your choice of camera equipment for a typical photo shoot?
Dan Beimborn: I haven't checked the stats in a while — it's a bit of a surprisingly large number nowadays. I have around ten thousand instrument photos on my own hard drives. According to the Archive database, 1,011 of the 10,394 images displayed are photos I've taken myself. That's from 4,451 instruments listed across all the different collections.
My photography techniques have evolved as I learned a bit more of what I was doing. Nowadays it's Canon 7D with a couple different lenses, usually my mandolin photos are using a Sigma 50m Macro lens. I use a Manfrotto tripod with a joystick-grip style tripod head. Most of the photos are also using the remote/cable release, and nowadays mostly manual settings and RAW mode. I prefer to shoot outside on a slightly cloudy or overcast day, it's the world's best source of diffuse light. My outdoor shots use a circular polarizing filter to cut down on the distracting highlights.
Mandolin Cafe: We understand you might have a new recording in mind. In closing, what's on your musical plate these days?
Dan Beimborn: These days I've been playing a fair bit of mandola, working that sound into what I do at sessions has been a lot of fun. It's nice middle voice in the backing line, usually complimentary to a guitar or bouzouki. I'm still primarily reaching for the mandolin when I play for enjoyment, and most of the stuff I'm working on that is new is in the American Old-Timey or Bluegrass instrumental realms. The main goal is to generate a really nice foot-tapper. I've been working on a couple sets with a really fine traditional singer in London, and also have some sets planned with a couple of pretty well-known mandolin players in Nashville.
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