It all started in March while visiting Wintergrass, the Wilmington Delaware Bluegrass Festival. A fella had a mandolin of pure line. Shapely neck and smooth body. Her voice! Golden, well articulated, clear, and rich. Sharp when required. Clearly an effort from one of the best finishing schools!
Off we went to see where she was born, meet her parents. The York Pennsylvania studio of Bluett Brothers Violins. Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE) proudly shows me around his latest, a clean F-body mandolin with intricate headstock, the violin in progress, a few guitars from earlier years there for a visit.
Chris has been making instruments his entire adult life. It takes more than skill and an understanding supportive wife. It takes dedication and respect for the craft. Born into every instrument. A tradition he proudly supports through an active apprentice program. Chris Bluett, carrying the torch.
While visiting York Pennsylvania luthier Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE), a gent comes into the luthiery with a violin in a paper bag. For sale. Chris makes and sells violins but does not buy unless made by him. The B-Team steps forward. I offer a slim stack of dollars for the shabby fiddle, and walk away a hopeful man.
Tight unblemished top grain, casual adherence to scroll symmetry above the box, and matching pegs caught my eye. As I clamp down on refurbishment, it got better and better. Decades of grime gently removed, Behlen hide glue restoring separated back and top, this gem exposed promising pedigree. Labeled without origin, the top was definitely a better tonewood.
Over a century ago with excellent materials, a craftsperson put this violin together with attention where it matters. Ready again for strings, I consult the foremost authority. With D’Addario Orchestral Strings CSR on speed dial, we come to the same conclusion. Premium strings for this promising centenarian.
D’Addario Kaplan strings are selected. They feel good in the hand, as I string the violin. Almost silky, with superior peg end windings. Stretching “break-in” was minimal. The tone? Phenomenal! After Steve Fields gets used to the slightly different scale length of my set-up, his smile is never far as he runs through his favorites. If I ever get this violin back from him, I may remove the D’Addario Kaplan Vivo set and try the D’Addario Kaplan Amo set. Can’t wait!
There is always a story behind the story. Smells of clean sweat and grass at twilight on the ball field. Echoes of Widow Baxter next door reciting her daily Rosary. Seeing the bent man uptown most days as he stops to gaze wistfully at an old mansion just off Main Street.
Every guitar tells a story. One glance at an old guitar speaks volumes. Years later, a few strums can recall times past. Adolescence. High school. Slow afternoons at the feed depot. Waiting for an infant’s birth, dropping your guitar by the fence to run inside at the newborn’s first cry.
Even before high school, I knew my cousin’s Gibson was special. It sounded better than guitars on the records he played. Jeff claimed he bought his guitar from Keith Richards; Aunt Joan said it was her father’s guitar.
The clocks’ century hand has now completed a quick four decade sweep. I find myself before a WALL of Gibsons! At the finest music store this side of Planet Earth, Acoustic Vibes Music. Some of these sound exactly like Jeff’s guitar. But that was years and years ago …. How did Gibson make a new guitar sound like an old guitar? Investigation time!
Repeated visits to AVM, I enter Room Gibson and sample each of twenty-two on display. A plush Cadillac with the sleeper screaming motor, the soft cowboy crooner, a punchy piece that looks 80 years old … and sounds it! The Vintage series Gibsons receive a proprietary Thermo Cured top – well worth 25% more. No doubt, Gibson has made an amazing return to top-flight build quality from near bankruptcy in the 1980s.
After playing all these guitars, to which do I return? An unlikely mating for a man convinced a smaller-bodied short scale acoustic would be his one and only guitar love. The Super Jumbo body of the SJ-200 is a perfect fit, with curves in all the right places. The SJ-200 Vintage has the tone I can grow old with.
The SJ-200, like all my favorite artists played from the ’40s to now. Now with a premium Vintage top. The Adirondack red spruce top is Thermally Aged giving the look and sound of a seasoned SJ-200. The SJ-200 Vintage is my pick!
Tight body, no doubt. In the silent Gibson Room, I can feel the guitar coming to tune via harmonics between adjacent strings. As tones oscillate closer toward unison, Gibson build quality becomes unmistakable. Solid guitar, solid tone. With sound so clear, so crisp and exact, you’ll think you’re in a studio atop two million in equipment, recording your next Platinum Record. The one that should have been.
Ray Whitley went to Gibson in 1937. He asked Gibson to create their biggest acoustic guitar. It was given the name Super Jumbo or J-200.
Wartrace, Tennessee Stephen Gallagher’s 2002 GMC Duramax ignored the horse trailer behind it. 368,000 miles, and just getting started. Another customer delivery for Mr Gallagher. Grandson of J.W. Gallagher and heir to a guitar-making dynasty, Stephen splits his time between family, horses, pushing livestock with Waylon, and building some of this country’s finest guitars.
J.W. Gallagher, with only a 7th grade education, was the smartest man in the country. When the Army gave him an intelligence test in the 1930s his result was so high the Army gave it to him again. J.W. scored perfect the second time. He went on to spend his military hitch learning everything he could about everything. Engines, construction, woodworking, machinery, everything.
Slingerland, the percussion company, asked J.W. to set up a guitar production line in 1963. J.W. had a history of reproducing any bit of woodwork necessary; he promptly cut a dreadnought in half to figure it out. J.W. soon applied a second element, that of physics – sound and vibration. He went on to build his own line of acoustic guitars.
J.W. Gallagher never intended to own a large guitar-making concern. Family lore has it that 1,000 units was his goal; he had so many other interests, he once plainly told a customer a special order guitar was not done because there was a river full of fish nearby just waiting to get caught.
But continue and prosper it did! The famous Doc Watson received a Gallagher early on; in 1974, Doc made a request for a different shaped neck. The result is a guitar named after him, and a Gallagher best seller.
What brought on my new fascination with Gallagher guitars? After spying an image of James King on the D’Addario twitter feed, I ask the bluegrass circle of his attractive guitar. Turns out, Gallagher guitars have been nearby all my life, as close as my turntable and stack of Doc Watson records! I had to find one of these guitars …
We visit the finest music store west of our Atlantic seaboard, the inimitable Acoustic Vibes Music. Jeff Looker has two Gallagher guitars in stock, including a Doc Watson model. Over several visits I become acquainted. First impressions? Very solid. Durable. Not a dainty boutique guitar; rather, built for tone, year after year. Decades of on-the-road touring? This is the guitar you want. Reminded me of an old Gibson I played years ago …
A guitar of persuasive warmth, the Gallagher is a picker’s delight. A clear, mellow bass, uncluttered of unpure tone, accompanying a punchy upper end. As J.W. Gallagher’s website puts it, you get a deep bottom end perfect for playing those hard G runs. Which I love ❤ to do! From Tyler Grant, flat picker extraordinaire, the Gallagher is a perfect country guitar … not pop country, but an old country blues.
I begin with a typical bluegrass rhythm, an alternating bass in front of a strum. With clear full tone, the room disappears, I’m on stage, the Gallagher is doing all the talking.
“Gallagher is a builder in the great tradition of independent luthiers, that were way ahead of their time. Before Taylor and Collings and Santa Cruz hit the map, Gallagher was building guitars that rivaled the mainstays of Gibson and Martin. Notables such as Doc Watson were early adopters of the Gallagher “mojo” that still provides an appealing choice for guitarists around the world.” – Jeff Looker
With little keeping me from a custom Gallagher order, I email 3rd generation Stephen Gallagher to enquire, “Can you make a 000 short scale Doc Watson model?” I’m surprised to get a call back so quickly, not about the order, but with additional information for this article. Thanks, Stephen!
A few tidbits: On the headstock is a stylized “G” for Gallagher? That Olde English G came from the Shelby Times Gazette newspaper … pre-internet. The Gallagher headstock design is called a French Curve. J.W. was looking for something original. This simple design spied on an obituary spawned another weekly installment of American Toolbox!
Dunlop Primetone Sculpted Plectra
THE SEARING HEAT OF molten lead. Wintertime ditch digging with frigid blasts from Arctic Artie. All SOP. Decades of plumberly fun have shaped my hands. The finger tips, they are hardened sheets of callus.
Lately, my biggest worry has been picks slipping out of my fingers when playing for popes and presidents. These frequent occasions were marred by callused fingers which can’t seem to get decent pick grip. Grumpy Biker customized a few .88mm Dunlop Tortex picks, but while working out the kinks, I discovered a new product – the Dunlop Primetone pick with raised grip surface.
Primetones are large, textured, and sculpted. Yes, they sometimes rotate in my fingers like other picks, but with three picking surfaces, I’m good. Dunlop’s Tortex is still a great choice. But this larger pick with a grip surface? Until a sticky pick comes out, I’m adding Ultex to my pocket full of Dunlop.
All good things come to an end. The 18 month loan of Hugh’s mandolin reached an inevitable conclusion. Lavish attention restored his battered and worn mandolin to a memory of factory gleam. Even more hours, summer picking under the old oak tree in Hockessin, returned some dirt and dullness to its finish. Time for spa treatment.
Strings into the rubbish bin. Gentle wipe-down with a hot damp slightly soapy cloth, first the body, then the neck. Extra attention to the fret board. Looking a little dry, methinks. Time for Behlen!
When Mohawk sponsored a banner ad in July 2016, they sent me a box of product to try out (actually, I sent a list of stuff I wanted). Included? Their fancy Behlen Fingerboard Oil. Not just a step up from mineral or boiled linseed oil. Far beyond, it turns out. A crisp hard finish. A Zamboni treatment for my fretboard, without the ice.
First I used it on the ’70s Conrad banjo. Then the Framus cello. And now, full circle, we have arrived at Hugh’s mandolin. The product has proven itself. A professional-quality sealer applied on instruments I own, use, and sell.
An Indonesian-made 1990s Hohner guitar and a 1970s Japanese-made Madeira (by Guild) guitar both received this magic elixir. Fan-TAS-tic results. One’s finger’s literally glide along the fingerboard. Moments ago, my newly returned and beloved 1996 Guild D4 fingerboard was refinished. Tomorrow, with D’Addario Bluegrass Mediums carefully wound, we’ll be flat-picking a lively homecoming!
Luthiers discuss the best treatment to an instruments’ fingerboard with cantankerous zeal. Only among cat food debates will you find more acrimonious opinions. There are generally two old-school options: mineral oil and boiled linseed oil (“BLO”). Almond oil is another, which I classify similar to BLO.
Turning to National Finishes Expert Phillip Pritchard, I ask, “What makes Behlen’s product so good?” Our Fingerboard Oil contains a resin binder that hardens in the wood to give a more permanent finish than a non-curing mineral oil or boiled linseed oil alone. Our product applies and looks like an oil finish but has a crisper feel and doesn’t require the maintenance of a non-drying oil. “What is its base? How does it smell to you?” It contains mineral spirits and has an oily hydrocarbon smell.
Fast curing, crisp finish. Odor? Not really. –editor
Among the dozens of fine mandolins waiting patiently in Jeff Looker’s acoustic instrument emporium hang a couple of the most beautiful specimens one can imagine. With perfect, almost luminescent ivory-like finish across the top and sumptuous walnut-stained flame maple back and sides, two Collings mandolins captivate the eye – and ear. One an f-hole model, the other an oval hole. Amazing Jeff would have one of each!
Usually I introduce my punchy bluegrass style to the f-hole variant. But with its rare one-piece back, the oval hole model beckons. Designed for celtic, old-time, classical, and jazz styles, I none-the-less rip into bluegrass and fiddle runs. The oval hole top brings out a new complexity, a surprising openness of depth, sustain, and overtone. More expressive? Probably, but I’m no expert. Regardless, I am a convert, and can imagine playing this Collings in the bluegrass circle, where plenty of fiddle and folk tunes cross over into the celtic realm.
Instruments get better with age. So can manufacturers. Hugh Mason’s 2003 MT2 sounds and plays a certain way. The latest offerings from Collings? At times I’ve got to admit, even better!