Every year after Thanksgiving a shoebox is retrieved from the top shelf of a closet. Stuffed with holiday music, I wrap presents and make soup as north winds bring Arctic chill. Singers Gen-X’ers know not. Bing Crosby? Perry Como? You’ll get blank stares. Judy Garland singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Such a poignant statement she makes. How quickly two generations forget the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis which brought Judy’s performance to the world.
After I plow through the standards one CD ends up in permanent rotation. For the remainder of the season, maybe into the New Year, Shawn Colvin’s 1998 release Holiday Songs and Lullabies is played over and over.
Vocals, instrumentation, arranging, I hate to use the word perfect. If we could ignore the teachings of a great tile setter Only God is Perfect, now would be the time. I discover something new with every listening.
Recorded in sweltering Austin Texas, waiting for Shawn’s baby to be born, her life and passion come through with every word and phrase. Doug Petty’s production is a labor of genius and love.
Shawn’s recording began as a youth. Receiving the book Lullabies & Night Songs from her parents when she was about eight. Singing Christmas carols in four-part harmony during car rides. All-year around. 🙂 This is an album of Shawn’s memories.
And mine also. New faces and smells and sounds. A foggy winter, rural mountain foothills, wolves howling at midnight. Steamy kitchens, multi-colored tissue across the table. Stacks of presents. Hobbies, crafts, hours fitting century-old instruments back together.
My apologies to Ms. Colvin for presuming to sum her life and passion in two hours on a Sunday morning. I make a second cup of coffee, listen to her CD again, and continue editing. After two decades her recording is still new. Still fresh. Maybe I’ve been working on this article not for two hours, but for two decades? The room is now quiet, my coffee cold. Where did the time go? Into memories born upon Shawn’s recordings?
The release’s artwork is original 1965 Maurice Sendak. I’d share inner fold J-card images from the CD but do not want another lawsuit for copyright infringement.
The 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis has been deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress.
Photo by Michael Wilson
Coverdale Farm Preserve of Delaware Nature Society in historic Greenville finally had their festival. It must be October again! The perfect excuse to view crowds milling about crafts and activities – from a distance. A good hundred yards away, by the food trucks, is a covered sound stage. Five bluegrass and Old-Time bands are scheduled. Chair, book, snacks, ACTION!
Every group was great but I did notice a new face. Harrisburg native Henry Koretzky brought his 1989 Crafters of Tennessee mandolin. It sounded like a vintage Gibson mandolin – someone had even inlayed “The Gibson” into the headstock. A parts mandolin, its wood reportedly sourced from Gibson itself. The real story will never be known, having died with famous Dobro player and shop owner Tut Taylor.
For the traditional sounds of Appalachian old-time, bluegrass, and early country music, I now know where to find an expert. As well as perfect contra dance music. The Contra Rebels, with Barb Schmid on fiddle, Todd Clewell on banjo/fiddle/guitar, and Henry Koretzky on guitar/mandolin.
Special thanks to Tater Patch for performing one of my favorite tunes, Lazy John.
Another fantastic version of Lazy John is Roger Netherton’s 2016 rendition.
Behind many ten minute successes lie hours of preparation. According to my dentist during a little buffing after a $200 smear of white Bondo. Lately, at the secretive Luthier Laboratories, pushing boundaries past conventional instrument repair, we’ve found those preparation-to-execution numbers to be a bit skewed.
In this case, hours and hours were spent converting this “Sold For Parts” French violin into a viable instrument. As we near the final cavelletti, hands and clamps in piaffe and pirouette, this early 19th century Mirecourt nears a milestone. Sound post and tone tap, the first in 120+ years we surmise (the repairs of 1886 were never completed).
At every step, to poke, prod, shave, raise, lower, scrape, and in general convince the parts to obey, our Lie-Nielsen ⅜” chisel is there to assist. An extension of my fingers but with enhanced fingernails. A2 Tool Steel, hardened to Rockwell 60-62, cryogenically treated and double tempered.
Our mortised end block holds us up no longer. After this Mirecourt skipped the entire last century, we’ll soon be having a conversation. Talk about dropping out! Welcome back!
Smiles Horses thudding along the old Pony Express from Socorro. Northward I roll to happy honking horns and wide Kansas smiles. Inching my velocity up to the speed limit, a Man Of Purpose, intent on beating dusk. To the joy of traffic backed up behind me. But there was so much to see! Miles and miles of prairie, cattle, wheat, everything!
Monarch Highway Motoring southward, I recall grasslands preserved for butterflies and the generous Kansas rest stop welcome, “Camping Permitted”. This would be a rare planned stop amid our freewheeling northward meander in search of “what was”. Road & wind are our only influences. Stretching out for sleep fits in there as well.
The horizon has yanked itself up above the sun but the birds don’t know it yet. With plenty of light, we roll to a far spot, change into night duds (jeans, fleece top, bandana), and off to a soft spot under the trees. Only a couple of rough blankets and a cushion, but it is heaven! Dozing off to darkening skies, birds chirping … fading … fading … And wake up at first light, a solid unbroken eight hours of sleep! Far better than any motel room, and 100% cheaper! Where’s the tip jar? We owe nature a fat one for lulling us with her perfect Kansas breezes!
The sun rises faster Barely an hour into our morning I notice the Missouri sun seems awfully high in the sky. Time zones aside, surrounded by farmland, I can see why a farmer gets up so early. It is work from sun-up until sun-down; gotta leverage every minute.
The sun also reminds me of another issue: hunger and thirst. Sweet Springs is the first exit after I think of caffeine, so we take it. Eschewing service station coffee, we delve southward and find Downtown. Wow! Jackpot! Sweet Springs, platted in 1838. We park by the Old City Hall c.1891 and smell food. Right up the block, a business for all occasions. The de facto City Hall, maybe? 🙂
Sausage, milk, flour, butter Sausage gravy on biscuits made from scratch every day is a favorite, Parrish tells me. A perfect start. Last Chance Saloon is regular stop from here on out!
Individual Time Grudgingly we re-enter the Interstate. Missouri rolls by. Windows down, crops and soil smell familiar. Long walks amid barns and fields as a kid. Driving Down The Highway. Without radio, plenty of time to think. New ideas. Hmmmmm Individual time: I decide when I want it to be 5am, Noon, 9pm, whatever. My clock is my own and computers figure out how to mesh my life with the world. New songs. New plans for new trips. Missouri farmland smells like childhood. Innocence. Imagination.
While purchasing another Asian-made Craftsman 5-pc. mini-pliers set – can’t have too many of these! – I spied this Hook And Pick Set. Craftsman, guaranteed for life, padded handles, just the right length. Length for what? I did not know yet.
Sometimes nudging a violin sound post wants a thin strong piece of steel with a tip of peculiar shape. These picks had those attributes and more. They arrived with my sturdy mini needle-nose pliers, package contents noted, then drawered unopened. I was pleased to see the Made In USA logo. It meant the steel tips would probably not bend out of shape upon first use.
Finally, the right job. All my gear is packed for a luthier skills exhibition in Omaha and Olivia’s violin is making an emergency pit stop. Wow, Hercules must have cranked her chinrest onto the violin body. The turn bolts turn not, bending my make-shift turn-key. A right angle hook from the Craftsman set is perfect.
Its tip handles the job without complaint, bending, or chipping. Of note, the pick tip would not insert far enough through the turn bolt hole to scrape the violin ribs if one worked without care. All situations are different. Gouge fine wood in haste, repair at leisure. These are rugged tools for delicate jobs. Further inquiry reveals a range of Craftsman hook and pick sets for all occasions.
The 4-pc hook and pick set with cushioned grip handles comes with four instruments, a straight pick, a hook pick, a 90 degree pick and a complex pick. – Sears Craftsman 41634
One of the handiest items on my workbench is the Juzek peg shaper. Nearly every violin in line exhibits peg issues. An ill-fitted “emergency” peg, in place for decades, inexorably ruining the peg box due to ignorance, empty pockets, or economy. Absent pegs. No pegs. Archaic peg hole taper.
With a peg shaper we’re able to fit a new set of pegs “from scratch” any time we choose. Last week it almost didn’t happen, though. What started as a routine shaving experience became a scraping. Hardwood dust was produced with no significant reduction in peg diameter.
Upon advice from every point of the windrose, we’ve recently delved into the dark arts of metal sharpening. Just as my forbearers scraped early bronze blades across stone, we remove the peg sharpener’s blade and scrape it across our new Gator Sharpening Stone.
Held at the manufacturer’s proscribed angle, eased by a 99.5% water mixture with natural lubricants added, a circular action was initiated. Just like on an old Daniel Boone movie. Three times we reinstall and test. It works! Also of import, we’ve learned the limitations of our small one-grit stone.
Clyde’s Hardware Store, closing its doors forever, managed to save their last stone for me. My first sharpening stone. We’ll be adding to our collection in future articles, but for now, we achieve an adequate edge with the Gator.
Special thanks to Philadelphia luthier David Michie. His customers, Academy Of Music, Curtis, and Kimmel Center musicians, bring him an endless array of stringed instruments for refurbishment and repair. Cast-off violin pegs from these instruments soften our learning curve and now grace student violins across the Western Hemisphere.
The ideal violin neck is subjective. It changes as you grow, develop, and mature. Perfect today is old hat tomorrow. The neck itself moves, as does the fingerboard. Not as quickly as our tastes but more like a painting of a slow tortoise.
The fingerboard is shaped with a radius across it’s width. The other direction, parallel with the strings, looks flat. But it is actually curved. String height is so low on a violin that without longitudinal concavity – the fingerboard’s scoop – vibrating strings would buzz against the fingerboard.
When a favored fiddler’s favorite fingerboard appeared beyond flat, clearly convex along its length, it was time to learn the art of the scoop. After chipping up a few natty practice fingerboards, I tried a good one. It was easier. Quality wood shaves more cleanly. “Scraping” of the fingerboard was performed. Seemingly random, together the strokes produced a concave surface to the fingerboard. Nearly flat along the high E edge. Visually pronounced along the low G. Gradations in between. Finally, comparison of the newly scooped violin fingerboard with my Products Engineering Corporation straight edge. Convex no more. Just the right amount of concavity.
After the scraping comes the sanding. Dusty thirsty work with multiple grits of scratch cloth. 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1,000. The glossy finish I want? The easy way is to dump sealer over it, a thick polymer coating. But tradition prefers bare wood. We scraped and sanded the old sealer off the fingerboard during the scooping. The reshaped wood now prefers special attention. The musician wants skin-smooth wood under their fingertips. A natural shine is wanted.
Micro Mesh makes it easy. With products developed for fine art restoration, our slat of century-old ebony is no challenge. Working up through the colored grits, the wood begins gleaming at about 6,000 grit. But do we stop? No! All the way to 12,000 grit, buffing like the best Park Avenue manicurist. The wood shines!
We started using Micro Mesh Buffing Sticks a few years back, touching up a bit of mandolin here and there. Then discovered an ebony violin nut can be made to shine. After a few more fingerboard refurbishments, we’re sold on Micro Mesh. Fingerboard sealers we’ll save for fretted instruments. All of our fine stringed instrument fingerboards are going out the door bare wood shining. Sparkling like Eve’s smile ≈≈≈
Our gift of services was excitedly bid higher and higher at the annual ATB Charity Ball. Privately we speculate what the winner(s) would choose for us. 3rd shift dog kennel cleaning at the animal rescue? Working a busy birthday at Lawrence Latimer Lewis’s Llama Laughhouz?
More exciting, it turns out. Record and host an audio book! Far harder than it sounds. Because everything we do at ATB, we do for posterity. One thing which made it easy, made us look like pros? Our old music stand.
The same music stand which drove Doc to sputtering apoplexy within the bluegrass circle is again pressed into venerable service. Requisitioned, delivered, dusted, it is looking new. Recording gear set up. Microphones checked. Red light in 90 seconds. Producer to the Blue Room.
Everything went wrong. Even the words on the pages kept jumping all about, but that was probably from laughing. The constant, perfect performer? My music stand. The same kind we used in school. Only this one was never tossed without ceremony into the back of a yellow school bus. Still looking chipper but older than my favorite loafers.
The employee-owned Manhasset could make this stand a little less perfect. Instead they make a multigenerational product, valued, cherished, remembered. The statistics of romance and yes, marriage, between high school stand-mates are overwhelming. 99.9% of the time, love blossomed behind a Manhasset. ∆
LITTLE DEER ISLE, MAINE Generational downsizing had Jeff moving fiddles. In the right place, I acquired a Johann Baptist Schweitzer Copy of 1813 in rare good condition. Down the Eastern Seaboard the Baptist (bap•TEEST) was shipped. To Pennsylvania for mild refurbishment, strings, set-up, then further south to William in Georgia. Its stop-over proved to be more than a quick pat on the back. The pegbox was wonky.
While this instrument may have been made for 1:20 taper pegs, someone had later used modern 1:30 taper pegs. The new standard has provided superior tuning performance and pegbox health since its inception about 1900. This narrower peg, however, will not fit simply by “shoving it in as hard as you can”.
In a fog, flummoxed by ratios and angles, we turn to two of the best luthiers and mathematicians in the world for answers. The question, “What’s the difference?”
From Ontario: Basic trigonometry gives tan(angle)=rise/run. The angle is then inverse tan(rise/run), which gives an angle of 87.14 degrees. The compliment is 2.86 degrees. Thus, your 1:20 reamer is 2.86 degrees. – Charles Tauber
Not to be outdone, we’re gifted the link to a “Taper & Angle Calculation” program from a reader in Tatamagouche, the village in Nova Scotia. A 1:30 taper is scarcely larger, 3.33%
Closer examination reveals it is no big deal. With existing peg hole damage, it’s not even six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other. We’re saved the expense, for now, of an imported Old World specialty reamer. Bill is still waiting in Georgia; lead time leaps forward. My domestic Juzek 1:30 tapered reamer with three straight cutting flutes works perfectly. The Juzek peg shaver (USA production with some imported parts) produces both blisters and perfect pegs. A little pool cue chalk on the peg surfaces, along with D’Addario Kaplan Amo strings, completes the job.
Steve Fields played the finished restoration at Woodside Creamery Farm yesterday. He pronounces the effort, “Perfect!” Another All-Smiles-Day!
Through a summer haze of bug bites, various skin infections and rashes, even intermittent sun poisoning despite the best efforts of La Roche-Posay, we’ve again dropped into the lap of another week. Without a story. But we are close. Like this week, stringing newly acquired ½ and ¼ size fiddles. The bench is littered with wrappings from D’Addario, their Helicore strings. Nearly every fiddle refurbishment gets Helicores.
While competitors put “student quality” strings on their fiddles, Helicores have proven, again and again, to product better tones, making my efforts so much more satisfying. The thrilling grin of a teacher giving feedback on a fiddle unplayed for decades, the student who buys or borrows the instrument, even myself, largely untrained.
Constant improvement, meticulous attention to quality, a true value despite their cost. It’s D’Addario for me. Mandolin, guitar, violin, even Pete’s bouzouki wears D’Addario.
Helicore violin strings are crafted with a multi-stranded steel core, resulting in optimal playability while producing a clear, warm tone. The smaller string diameter provides quick bow response. Premium quality materials combined with skilled workmanship produces strings known for excellent pitch stability and longevity. D’Addario
Old fiddlers … young fiddlers … everything in between. Add a gazillion guitars and banjos, a heap o’ mandolins, a few upright basses and dobros. Let’em loose within a shaded grove up the hill from the Main Stage. That’s the Old Fiddlers’ Picnic. Now in its 89th year, it was old even when my folks were courting teenagers from a nearby mill town.
Aside from the stage, no one is in charge. No one is there to drink or fight. There are no genre turf wars. Just a peaceful gathering of people without anything to prove. Playing for fun, sharing their gifts, enjoying the company of old friends.
Because Sunday’s Picnic was Saturday’s rain date, several acts cancelled. Naturally I was roped into performing. With only Hugh’s mandolin and nothing planned, it was the perfect opportunity to fail spectacularly. Hugh’s Collings MT2 is *showing its age* (stage whisper). The frets are getting low, and while she sings a tune better than most, it takes a lot of effort to put her in the mood.
Fortunately I ran into Glenn McNemar of Kennet Square. Glenn both maintains the local mandolarium while making mandolins full-time, and brought a fresh build with him. Not six weeks old, proud of fret, soft in demeanor but unconsciously vivacious, his mandolin was the star of my time slot.
Five hours of playing, bug bitten, dehydrated, sore, hungry, I again enjoy one of the finest small music festivals in America. Just like the one next weekend in a county park near you.
Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music, and a related genre of country music. Influenced by the music of Appalachia, bluegrass has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish and English traditional music, and was also later influenced by the music of African-Americans through incorporation of jazz elements. – wiki
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!
Over the weekend a buying decision coalesced. The banjo refurbishment had come to a halt. Made by an obscure Japanese company in the 1970s, it appeared someone had used an automotive threaded pin instead of a lag screw to attach the neck. A threaded pin screwed into the hardwood heel of a banjo neck will not work. Yup, you guessed it. Pulls right out.
To complicate matters, while a new hanger bolt is easily obtained, the banjo connecting rod was metric. Without a solid fix the neck wobbles at whim. Its wavering notes bring to mind a Theremin. The solution is to find a piece of hardware virtually unused in the United States. A “wood screw by metric machine thread hanger bolt”. To whom do I turn?
If it is metric, you turn to the experts. Second-generation masters of all that is metric, Bel-Metric. Owner and founder Ralph Lomando incorporated Bel-Metric in 1976 after four years of apprenticeship in the metric field. He named the company after his mother Bella and set to work selling automotive hardware to dealerships and automotive repair shops from a re-commissioned mail truck. The rest, as they say, is history.
Delivery was prompt and amazingly well packaged & labeled. The banjo has regained full musical health! Next project? My Lamborghini head gasket replacement. I’ll have Bel-Metric on speed dial, in case I strip out another threaded stud.
In garages across the land, adolescent dreams of rock and roll continue. Bluegrass jams, gospel groups, punky papas play. One thing tying them together is the staple of amplification in America, Peavey. Most everyone who plays has had a Peavey at one point. I started on one. Our group used their power mixer for the big speakers. Even now, barely able to call myself a performing musician, I turn to Peavey when the call comes.
PAUL KEARSLEY, farmer and musician, sounded the alarm! His power mixer blew up a few months back when a cocktail tumbled into the heat vent. Paul is limping through four solo gigs a week, and here comes his Summer Three with The Woodman.
There are few buying opportunities in his Eastern Shore community, but right up the street I found Paul this near-vintage gem for under a day’s pay. Mid-1990s production, a few models up from the basic version I used in high school. Still consistently durable, still a winner.
Another sunset starts another gig. Reggae & ska powering over the calming waters of Chincoteague Bay, bringing our souls back to Mother Earth. Thanks, Peavey!
An errant New Year’s resolution beckons. Caught up with hobbies as a gentleman plumber, waiting for varnish to cure with the luthier practice, my attention turns to dead strings of forgotten manufacture on Hugh’s mandolin.
Nine long months since refurbishment, these strings have since lost their zing. Yes, the mando still plays wonderfully, resonance issues unnoticed or politely ignored. The pairs of wound G & D strings especially call for help. Since borrowing this Collings, along with further research into violin and viola strings, my shop now installs D’Addario strings exclusively.
Pete’s bouzouki has them. My Guild D4 and Hugh’s Santa Cruz wear the Bluegrass EJ19, light tops and medium bottoms. D’Addario’s Orchestral String Social Media Specialist was instrumental 🙂 at a critical juncture, after we received a mini-viola which required Extra-Small scale length strings.
This mandolin is now back to factory specification, wearing new EJ74 strings as originally installed by Collings. Highs are brighter and resonate longer, more sweetly. Lows power their vibration through the flame maple back, into my ample belly. Wow, hard to figure why I waited so long to replace my strings!
D’Addario goes way back to the Old Country in the Italian province of Pescara. There you’ll find a baptismal form filled out by Donato D’Addario in 1680, his occupation stated simply “cordaro” – the Italian word for “string maker.” ∆ In the early 20th century, the family began making strings in America. The rest is their modern history. The entire D’Addario Brand History cannot be condensed; I invite you to their website to read the entire story!
OVER ONE YEAR HAS PASSED since our seminal article on Acoustic Vibes Music of Tempe AZ. What has Jeff Looker been up to? “I need to order more mandolins”, says he, standing in front of the largest selection of high-end mandolins in North American. Right next to the new Gibson display. His agenda, to the layman, seems to be Buy Buy! BUY!
Direct from manufacturers, Jeff Looker continues to purchase the finest acoustic instruments made in America. Supporting smaller shops by giving their product exposure. A steady turnover of production from the larger players. First name basis with all the owners. Familiarity with his competition, which they are not. Not competitors, but friends, mentors, peers, proteges, fellow enthusiasts in the tradition and innovation of American guitarmaking.
Where else could one find three custom Collings MT2 mandolins? SIX Martin 000 guitars may be uncommon to stock. Except FIVE of these are from the Martin Custom Shop, special-ordered by Jeff himself. Everything is ordered by Jeff. He’s running the train. It keeps pulling into the station with more and more inventory from American manufacturers.
A goal without a plan is a dream. Jeff’s goal is to have the finest acoustic instrument shop in America. What started as an order for six Santa Cruz guitars almost a decade ago has become the best-stocked high-end acoustic guitar shop in the Western Hemisphere. Add in mandolins ∆ and banjos, and you’ve got the premier Destination Music Shop of The Americas.
Chance brings me back to Acoustic Vibes Music in Arizona, home of the finest collection of high-end acoustic instruments for sale in the Western Hemisphere. Today I choose for examination a Collings MF. “Simplified appointments” is how Collings described the absence of fancy binding, purfling, and perhaps finish. I call it clean and functional.
In hand and eye, this MF exhibits perfect craftsmanship. The hidden quality is quick to exhibit itself. Within just a few notes, clear pure tone reinforces the Collings workshop pedigree. The MF plays perfectly, with all attentions possible paid to feel as well as sound.
With a fully carved Adirondack spruce top and maple back and sides, the MF is built with the same quality construction as our fully-appointed models. These instruments produce the rich, woody tone that one would expect from a professional quality mandolin at an affordable price. – Collings
Thanks again to AVM employee Kathryn Butler for these beautiful images! You have a future as a fine arts photographer! Lets not forget Jeff Looker’s interesting observation. Jeff and I were standing in the mandolin room for photos (an upcoming feature). Tidying up the display, he remarked, “I’ll have to order a few more mandolins”. There were about eight each Weber and Collings – $60,000+ worth. How’s that for dedication to the American acoustic instrument tradespeople?
A history of Martin Guitars could occupy a book. It already has, actually. Several. A great Wikipedia article as well. Colonial Lehigh Valley, religion, 19th century European trade unions, and freedom all combine into a tasty story. Truly exceptional guitars was the result.
Our bluegrass circle in Hockessin can sometimes boast 90% Martins. Fantastic flat picking guitars; everyone wants one. Plenty of bass, always a clear tone. One of the most consistently good instruments on the market. Anything you play sounds better on a Martin. The mind is a stage, and all the world an audience – Cicero
Whenever within 200 miles of Acoustic Vibes Music, I make a point to revisit the best crop coming out of a mostly agrarian area in Pennsylvania, three walls of Martin Guitars. My wallet has thus far stayed in the pocket, but I’m only three or four thousand dollars from a guitar of my dreams.
Here is one of my favorites: OM28. Sitka Top, Solid East Indian Rosewood Back & Sides. 25.4″ Scale, 14-Fret. Grover Vintage Nickel Button Tuners. Thanks, Kathryn, for great pictures!
An hour later, the sky is nearly as black as when we start. Directly overhead, dominating the heavens is one huge bright planet. Later I learn it was probably Jupiter. Thus protected by the God of Travel, we set our destination to Amarillo, with a pit stop in Socorro NM.
US 60 is the right road to see the Southwest. Through multiple National Forest – Tonto, Apache, Sitgreaves, Gila, Cibola, through Reservations, we travel some of the last undeveloped land in America.
Resting in a cavernous, bare coffee and sandwich shop, I notice no radio, CDs, or TV. The exhaust fan hummed along with muted voices. Excellent coffee. A piano and guitar in the corner. Balancing my mug on a couch arm, I retrieve the guitar and tried a few chords. Wow, these folks are easy to please! A few start dancing to the New Orleans funky butt strut I strum. Hey, this is nice!
After a bit Foxcatcher is rescued from the truck, allowed to thaw, then given a try. And who’d a thunk it! A fiddle, penny whistle, and accordion join my mandolin within the hour. I was in the thick of it, all right! This is living in Socorro. The road, however, beckons. Celtic music follows me out the door, back to a 25˚ New Mexico winter.
East of Socorro, enormous views continue. Near zero traffic. A great place to reflect while enjoying beautiful country. On one pull-over along a 15 mile straight-away, its absolute silence was profound. Be sure to carry whatever you may need for 24 hours in case of break-down!
We fold our map and succumb to I-40E as the sun nestles her head among pillows of distant hill. We didn’t make it quite to Amarillo, despite an early start. Slowed by slush in Arizona, music in New Mexico. Next time we’ll do the trip in two days, and overnight in Socorro. Right on the Old Town Square!
EVERY FEBRUARY, PETE CLOSES his tailor shop and heads to Greece. Every year he says, “I’ve got to get you my bouzouki, Jim. It needs your attention.” The strings buzz at its 8th fret and up from worn frets. But he never actually gives me his instrument. Until this year.
He opens the case and again explains what he wants, repeating those three magic words every luthier wants to hear, “Whatever you think is best.” Doesn’t he know my favorite Oscar Wilde quote? Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
“Pete, what about this big crack on top?” Pete had never noticed a clean 6″ crack through its white spruce top. It gets worse. A second top rack. The 12″ separation among its sfendamos side ribs plus a 6″ opening further toward the back. A casualty of a major συμπόσιον; someone must have gotten pretty well knocked on their head with Pete’s bouzouki!
Big jobs are nothing but a collection of small jobs. But after all that gluing and sanding, it’s clear Pete’s bouzouki will want its top refinished. Lacking a spray booth and years of experience, I turn to a name luthiers have trusted for decades. Behlen. I ordered their spray lacquer, prepared the top, and before you know it, I have Pete’s bouzouki on its way to looking like it came out of the Borgada Spa!
A few holes in my knowledge base are quickly plugged. Phillip Pritchard, Mohawk Finishing Products Technical Service Representative, has just returned my call. With his gentle North Carolina accent, he seems respectful even of the nitrocellulose lacquer of which we speak. Phillip’s insights into scuffing, sanding, buffing, polishing, the “Cut & Rub”, are so comprehensive, we link to his reply email.
American Toolbox has restored several instrument, notably Hugh’s Collings mandolin & Santa Cruz guitar, several Guild guitars, a few others. Pete’s bouzouki has been more complicated. Not as hard as Steve Field’s Joh. Bapt. Schweitzer 1813 violin, but major enough. Thanks, Behlen! You made me look like a pro!
Special thanks to Jayne Henderson for her advice and guidance.
Playing the SCGC True Acoustic Bass is the most fun I’ve had in ages. This instrument has been made specifically for me. Like a bespoke suit. Did Carolyn visit in my sleep to get measurements, or was I dreaming? Literally, a perfect fit.
Absolutely superb craftsmanship. Supreme balance. Most right-hand guitars work best on my left knee. But this 46″ beauty sits naturally on my right. Even with a massive scale length, it does not feel like its headstock is sticking out in the next room. Large guitar, yes. But not a box on your lap. Rather, a carefully crafted piece of acoustic art. Intimate. Sexy. Persuasive. She puuuuurrrs seductively one minute. Then makes a compelling case to follow her example. Follow her lead. It is a bass player’s world, after all.
Santa Cruz Guitar Company makes one bass. One model only. There is no variation when creating your very best. As Richard puts it, “Years of field testing have refined the specifications to a 32 inch scale on a dense vintage Mahogany body with a master quality Sitka Spruce top meeting strict and specific tonal criteria”.
The bass projecting into my room, through my core, has me hooked. Can’t put her down until my fingers quit. Yep, it helps our relationship that she’s a real looker. But her character, the way she talks and acts, you can’t fake that.
Awesome photography by Ron Jones!
We recently handled a gorgeous custom Santa Cruz OM/PW guitar with an Alpine Moon Spruce top, Indian Rosewood back and sides, hide glue, Adirondack braces, and herringbone trim. 1 3/4″ nut width and short scale, perfect for my stubby fingers.
This guitar is easily the most well-made I’ve ever held and heard. Incredible volume, unmatched sustain, infinitely expressive. Not a hint of an out-of-place overtone.
Every millimeter of its surface is as finely crafted as humanly possible. A tiny bevel along the fingerboard edge. Fret ends triple-beveled. The inside smells like an exotic craftsman’s shop where only finest materials are used. The guitar glows.
Acquiring a Santa Cruz is like finding a perfect mate. Both are beautiful, have great personality, return unbiased love, give total commitment, and get better with age. For twice the price of a really nice diamond engagement ring, you can have both. Finding the guitar may prove easier. Santa Cruz, the investment of a lifetime.
Shout Out to Carolyn Sills, SCGC Head of Marketing, for help researching this particular special order guitar shipped to Acoustic Vibes Music. Her boss Richard Hoover, for sending us a little binding we used in refurbishing Hugh Mason’s 1991 Santa Cruz Dreadnought. As always, Jeff Looker for stocking such amazing acoustic instruments in his shop. Finally, Kathryn Butler, providing excellent photography of this fine Santa Cruz OM/PW.
After all the work I put into Hugh’s MT2, I thought his problems were over. An Instrument Rescue, an intervention of sorts, had brought new hope into the floundering life of his beloved but demoralized mandolin.
Then a call comes in. “Jim, I have another project for you”. Lights and sirens, we drive over miles of dusty road, deep into county forest, to Hugh’s Shangri-La under the pines. His “new” 2001 SCGC D-Model has arrived, and is in rotation. His 1991 could now get a rest, and a little refurbishment. What was wrong?
Its top is getting a little wonky. There is a crack that stops under the bridge. Dry fingerboard, grooved frets, missing headstock binding, dirt, oils, burns, high action . . . Hugh has led yet another instrument astray. The 1991 has come to me for redemption; I shall guide it to the light.
Strings off, tuners off, deep cleaning. Level, crown, & polish the frets (Hugh’s fourth set in a dozen years, and this time, they were stainless). Pick out some glue on a top crack, reglue, sand, buff, and seal. Oil its fingerboard, install some naturally aged binding, and the tuners went back on.
With a possibly weakened top, we went with a lighter string. D’Addario EJ19 Bluegrass with the light tops and medium bottoms were perfect! The high action was no longer; we did not have to shave the bridge saddle; two strings with one pick, is the saying?
Over two decades old, D619 has amazing depth of tone, clarity, and volume. With fixed frets and settled action, Hugh again has a second Santa Cruz dreadnought on which to practice his interminable bluegrass flat picking. The ’91 definitely has a different sound than his 2001. Deeper, richer, louder. Age has its privileges; the ’91 is always senior spokesman within the bluegrass circle.
IMAGINE MY SURPRISE. After purchasing and using REMO percussion products for decades, I’d become used to usual manufacturing practices. The drumhead is USA. Shell from Indonesia. Its hardware, Taiwan.
But upon flipping this fine instrument over, inside was a red/white/blue logo and proud words, “Made in U.S.A.”. Within the music store, I had already decided to buy, but came back the following day after a little midnight price-shopping and a sunrise phone call to REMO.
Customer service was fast and alert. Straight, informative answers immediately given. Yes, that entire product is made by us. Yes, we agree it is a fantastic product. No, you do not want to leave it in the rain”.
REMO Skyndeep® drum head gives us warm, crisp, vibrant tones. A great look which imitates goatskin of traditional African djembes. The shell, virtually indestructible, permanently imprinted with its design. Great job, REMO!
AMERICAN TOOLBOX HAS lately turned their energies to acoustic instrument refurbishment as a way to bridge operating deficits incurred running this USA products online resource. Last year we wrote about a scruffy Peavey T-25. A few months later it was a cracked Guild D-4. Most lately, a facial for a Collings MT2.
Our Collings mandolin is back. This time it is surgery. Its problem? Potholes in the frets. Its Schedule Of Events: remove all hardware; straighten neck; sand frets level; recrown frets; polish frets; polish entire instrument with Novus; reinstall all hardware, including a new cast tailpiece for improved sustain and depth of tone; new strings. Play and enjoy.
In the end, for final polishing of the frets, we went with foam core polishing sticks from Micro-Surface Finishing Products of Wilton Iowa. The same company that makes nail buffers found in almost every nail salon and cosmetic counter? Yep, the very one.
MICRO-MESH was originally developed for the restoration of fine art. It was found to be very effective for removing layers of contamination, old varnish and paint without damaging the delicate original substrate or masterpiece beneath it. – PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT HISTORY
The company history is fascinating! Their client list, amazing. The product quality, unsurpassed. American Toolbox gives Micro-Mesh their highest rating, SIX Thumbs Up!
Stay tuned! An upcoming post will detail the finished project!
Within guitar shops across America, you will find small plastic cases by the register. Stacked, arranged, jumbled. Maybe one large case instead with over a hundred choices. Pick selections may seem dizzying. Tortoise shell, multi-colored, plastic, carbon fiber, bone . . . where to start?
American Toolbox recommends Dunlop. After decades of picking, our staff still carry and use Dunlop daily. Usually two or three for a buck, you can afford to carry half a dozen to the Bluegrass Circle. Share, experiment, learn, enjoy.
Moving over to mandolin, I’ve settled on a thicker .88 pick. Swapping mid-song into a lighter .60 sometimes. My mandolin mentor smiled yesterday when he heard my new choice. A harder pick is quieter is on the strings? This choice developed because I carry a pick variety and experiment with different thicknesses.
Look for the Dunlop name. Select a dozen in different colors / gauges. At a few cents a piece, there will not be any teeth gnashing as they disappear, as picks seem to do.
Sure, a $50 carbon fiber pick produces a softer, more expressive sound. It took decades to appreciate the nuance in tone. An expensive pick for a novice. Would you teach your kid to drive in the Porsche?
Carry a pocket of Dunlop to every session
SATURDAY AFTERNOONS IN SUMMER we meet within the Arc Of Delaware at The Creamery. High octane triple-digit milk fat ice cream, fresh from their cows. A huge oak tree, where generations of bluegrass musicians have come to flat-pick their favorite guitars. When lucky, there might be a bass, Dobro, fiddle, & mandolin. If Doc is there, leave your music stand in your vehicle; a sight of one in a “Bluegrass Circle” can drive him to sputtering apoplexy.
Hugh had been dissatisfied with mandolin pickers in attendance. Unaccountably, he preferred my scratching noises on an occasionally borrowed mandolin. For the last couple of years, he has suggested I buy a mandolin and make it my preferred instrument.
Whether through generosity or impatience, this summer on a Sunday afternoon he invited me over to pick a few tunes. His home? A 1920s farmhouse deep in woods, filled with cats, surrounded by semi-tame woodland creatures who ate from Hugh’s bounty. His mandolin? A Collings MT2. His offer? Hugh would loan me his mandolin for six months; give me a chance to know a high end – $3800 – instrument.
It looked like his MT-2 had sat in a corner for years. Layers of dirt, dust, cat hair carefully impacted between its double strings. Nitrocellulose finish, originally gloss, now a hazy matte. I was surprised the District Attorney had not yet preferred criminal charges. It was, at minimum, reckless endangerment of an acoustic instrument. Hugh got lucky. This would have gone Federal, with EPA in hazmat suits. Ugg! The deluxe hardshell case by TKL may have been manger and nursery for kittens.
Decontamination began almost immediately. Strings, bridge, truss rod cover, and tailpiece were all removed. Warm soapy water prepared, a soft cloth, dipped then thoroughly wrung, was gently applied to all surfaces. The fingerboard was grimiest; my cleaning solution was replaced twice. Next, deep cleaning of its nitrocellulose finish. Acetone? TOO STRONG! Naphtha (lighter fluid)? Humm . . . to a point. But hazing and fine scratches remained.
An email to Collings customer service was promptly answered! “We use Novus 2 to remove years of dulling and build-up on our nitro finishes.” A quick hobby store purchase, and in no time, that milky haze buffed right out! Wow, the red maple sides and back shine like new! Next time the strings are off, I’ll do its select Adirondack spruce top and ebony peghead overlay. Can’t wait!
Vacation comes both to the worthy and contemptible. While ability to produce this week’s article exists, deeply rooted summer lethargy blooms upon my imagination. But all is not lost. An opportunity for a roundup of recent posts presents itself. A perfect time to spotlight American-made acoustic instruments!
A FEW WORDS ABOUT my favorite luthiers (more later this year!)
Reviews of instruments from Jeff Looker’s Acoustic Vibes Music:
Just thought I’d mention these . . .
Definitely wanted is another trip to Acoustic Vibes Music to stock up on stories & photographs. For now, we savor memories from their fantastic collection of American made acoustic instruments. And our last folder of Kathryn Butler photographs. We saved the best for last.
The Collings OM3 may have been the finest guitar I played on recent visits. Maybe it was the best value, as a barely used 2014 model. Regardless, this guitar certainly delivered the goods.
Never have I thought of a guitar as being cocky, but this Collings certainly was a rooster among Jeff’s offerings. Loud and punchy, I wouldn’t have the nerve to play a ballad upon it. A perfect neck which had a particularly solid feel turned me from novice to confident flatpicker. More accurately, the guitar is the extrovert, very sure of it’s ability to deliver confidence with every note.
Yes, I do play better on a short scale, and this OM3 SS suited my imagination perfectly. But this is no “little guitar”. Comparing the OM3 to two higher-priced acoustics, the Collings was louder and with better tone than the others. Collings. It’s not a name, it’s a sound.
We return to our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music. Today, a look at a dandy bit of craftsmanship from Deering. This is The Banjo I would choose if buying one for all uses, be it stage, studio, and where a banjo gets most of it’s use, outdoor bluegrass circles during the summer. Priced under two thousand dollars (2015 list $2188), the Senator does not break the wallet considering the quantity of quality oozing from every aspect.
What do I like about this Deering?
No resonator to take off (or resonator flange digging into your leg if you do remove the resonator). A banjo is usually overpoweringly loud; you’d do fine against a couple guitars, fiddle, upright bass, and mandolin without the resonator. Volume is never compensation for quality of tone, dexterity, or originality. Buy a good banjo and practice. Be confident in your playing and the authentic sound of the Deering.
Tone. This banjo sounds fantastic even to some “players” with their $4,000-$6,000 banjos. It all starts with great material, and Deering hit it right with the spun brass tone ring and violin grade 3-ply maple rim (see Deering’s Anatomy of a Banjo link if we’re talking gibberish).
Feel. The neck feels right. Slim and sexy. Real ebony fingerboard. Nickel silver frets. Deering Planetary Tuners. This banjo is screaming QUALITY QUALITY QUALITY!
Looks. Deep warm brown stained maple neck with the slim Vega shape. Nickel plated hardware. Satin Finish. Something about the metal, stained maple, and ebony fingerboard. Works great together! Heck, it triggered a strong BUYING impulse in me, before I even played a note!
Feel. Yes, we already wrote about feel. But until you sit down with the Senator, run your hands along the neck, and have a listen, these are only words. Words such as, “Wow, this feels really nice. Sounds like a banjo should, and look, Deering took the time to do a really nice finish job on the instrument”. This is one of three instruments I want when I’m ready to spend eight thousand. The other two? The Weber Bitterroot and a Bourgeois Country Boy, naturally.
◊◊◊ please, don’t forget to stretch and warm up before marathon picking engagements!
Angels’ share: The amount of alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation.
My thoughts came back to this phrase over and over. Angel’s share. An Angel’s share of music coming from my chosen mandolin. An Angel’s share which would go unnoticed but for the resonant room lined with dozens and dozens of high-end mandolins, guitars, banjos.
Continuing our series on the American-made instrument inventory of Acoustic Vibes Music, this week we turn our ears to WEBER FINE INSTRUMENTS of Bend, Oregon. Fortunate was I to want a truss rod adjustment on my Guild D-4 a few months back. Bernie welcomed me into the cool interior of Jeff Looker’s shop. Eventually I discover the mandolin room.
Most stores would call one or maybe two mandolins in the $800 range a high-end inventory. Jeff has a few like this; that is just the start. I had a unique opportunity to play mandolins of increasing quality (and cost) undisturbed. A dozen visits over a year sharpened my appreciation of the better instruments.
Eventually I came back to one mandolin only, a mid-priced offering (list price $3600) that fit like your favorite jeans. A spritely tone, almost etherial sometimes. Giving me happiness to play, the mandolin had energy left over to play with the instruments around me. In time, dozens of instruments were gently resonating along with the mandolin’s song. When I stop, they continue for a time. It is, I think, what heaven sounds like.
When I’m ready for an heirloom-quality instrument, increasingly it looks like I will choose the Weber F-Style Bitterroot mandolin. For looks, sound, playability, resale value, workmanship, materials, you name it. An average musician, which I am, will play better, sound better, and feel better. Well worth the investment. What cost a smile for life?
Jeff Looker had turned his retirement plan into a destination instrument shop. Hundreds of high-end acoustic guitars. Santa Cruz! Collings! Half a dozen Martin Custom Shop 000’s. A chance visit with this rare grouping kept me repeatedly occupied.
Humbly I ask Dana Bourgeois to forgive my inattention to his guitars. Not until the seventh or eighth visit did I try a Bourgeois. A simple mahogany OM short scale with Sitka spruce top. The package of options Bourgeois calls their Country Boy*. I was holding a Bourgeois Country Boy OM Short Scale.
Wow! Where have you been my whole life, darlin’?
Giddy with anticipation, the OM begins playing as soon as my hand rests upon the fingerboard. My reaction, with no hyperbole nor financial compensation: This is the finest mahogany guitar I have ever played!
“That isn’t me. What kind of trick is this?” Looking down, I’m astonished to see the guitar nearly playing itself, my fingers immediately at home on this newly met field of frets. I lean back, enjoy the music, and listen to a perfect guitar.
Country Boy sports a complete sound. Absolute balance across the spectrum. Not cocky, but confident. The tone mature, captivating. Clearly not a production-line product but a construction lovingly born of faith and imagination.
More description? OK, try this: Punchy midsection. Perfect intonation. Powerful resonance. No mud, conspicuously lacking in the usual trouble area, midrange chords up the neck. The guitar is full & open. Again, it makes me play far better than usual. My fingers move across fretboard as thought listening to someone else.
Even light groups of notes up the neck on the lower strings resonate perfectly with nary a misplaced overtone. Country Boy has soul, a perfect transcendental musical experience.
After two visits with Country Boy, I am a believer. Jeff also stocks the Adirondack top Country Boy OM, but the Sitka is the one which talks to me with gracious warmth, forever my friend.
* When Ricky Skaggs suggested the name “Country Boy” for our mahogany dreadnought, we all fell on the floor. We still wonder where he got such a great idea for a name! Admittedly, depending on which Body Style is used with this traditional combination of spruce and mahogany, you can get pretty far removed from anything remotely “country” in look and sound. Over the years we have considered changing the name but we can’t, it was a gift! – bourgeoisguitars.net
AFTER HEARING ABOUT BEDELL guitars for a few years, occasionally hearing the guitar itself, always played proudly by it’s lucky owner, I finally got myself into one of the rare handful of dealers scattered across several continents. A little stonework brought me within a mile of “Arizona’s Premier Acoustic Music Shop”. Of course we speak of Acoustic Vibes Music.
Favoring a smaller guitar, perhaps a 000 with attractive wood, my eye and hand choose the Bedell Coffee House Parlor- Natural top. PLENTY of volume from this artistic meld of wood and metal. PERFECT fretboard under my fingers. Better balance than I would have guessed, perhaps the result of a 12-fret neck? The sound was deep and full. As melodies flowed from the lower strings, clear frequency response and rich sustain greeted me with every note. Higher tones punched through with life and vigor. With a Bedell like this, I’d be ready for quiet couch time, outdoor picking with the bluegrass circle, or the stage!
Adirondack Spruce with East Indian Rosewood. Ebony fretboard. Koa binding. Everything I want in an artisan-built guitar. Recently added to my short list.
DRIVING HOME FROM A WINTER visit in Tempe Arizona takes me tantalizingly close to a famed luthier’s workshop. A few phone calls later, favors cashed, promises promised, I’m invited. The Holy Grail of both amateur and professional luthiers across the globe, an unscripted view of life in the shop of one of America’s greatest guitar builders.
When I drop in, Wayne is staining the neck of his latest acoustic, a little later, the body. This particular customer had plenty of time to find beautiful walnut sides and back Wayne would eventually build into a guitar. Typical wait time is ten years.
The visit was memorable. Organized clutter. Not a tape measure to be seen (I was assured they were occasionally consulted). A 23/1000″ saw blade just for cutting fingerboard fret slots. Many tools and jigs have one purpose only. Except the pocket knife. Wayne is a hand’s-on builder, and that blade is used for just about anything. Poking, prying, cutting, slicing, whittling, trimming.
You never know who will stop into the shop. This afternoon brought EmiSunshine, fresh off the Grand Ole Opry stage. She had us aflutter with her skills, the pictured ukulele built by Jayne Henderson. Jayne could not have a better teacher.
Wayne has had an interesting career. Retired after thirty-two years with USPS. Plus the year of accumulated sick time. An easy postal route that left him with plenty of time to build guitars, which he has been building his whole life. After the first one was sold at about 16 years of age, he’s had a continuous backlog. Don’t even ask how long. Methuselah himself is pressing his luck.
He covered all the bases, sticking with USPS and a performance career even though he could easily have gone over to full time guitar building years ago. And he covers all the bases in every guitar he builds, known for their volume, tone, and resonance. A strong, balanced sound is nothing you can fake.
What is Wayne holding up? He admires a sandstone sample I brought back from Anasazi Stone, comparing it’s layers to the pictured walnut end piece on the guitar he just built. Ahh, nature repeating itself.
A young child sat beneath the work bench. She heard her dad humming, heard the scrape of a rasp across wood freshly released from clamps. Smells of maple and walnut and rosewood and glue. Shavings danced in the air, shimmering through beams of sun, dropping into her hideout like snow into a tree fort. When people hear Wayne’s daughter is now a successful luthier, they might picture it all started like this . . .
. . . it is not what happened. The real story? More “21st century” involving exorbitant college debt, an environmental law degree, a way out of debt learning a skill her father could teach her. In time, learning something about herself. She liked working with wood, creating the instrument. Hearing it sing at completion, having people find her efforts had value. Enough value to pay college bills. Enough for everything . . .
Watching Jayne work, it’s quickly apparent there is no “shadow” across her. She’s working side by side with her dad, famous luthier Wayne Henderson. If Jayne gets stuck, or has a question, sure is nice to have dad there to consult! And maybe someone to point out the hard way will make a better instrument?
Jayne specializes in exactly what I want, a smaller guitar (with a short scale, please). She uses premium materials. Her teacher, the finest in America. The shop, perfectly situated for consult with peers or to borrow a tool. The wait time, two years, manageable – everybody gets in line. Just like her dad, she makes every single component of the instrument herself, except the strings and tuners (are they next?).
“It sounds like a Henderson” – Doc Watson, December 14 2011
Yep, I could visit Acoustic Vibe and walk out with a Custom Shop Martin 000 or a beautiful Collings OM3 Short Scale. Would the sound or the price or the guitar be any different? I’d have a high-end guitar like a lot of other people. Or I could order an EJ Henderson and have something special. Love and patience and jokes and banter and memories; years of combined knowledge and skills, all rolled up in an inanimate object that . . . lives. Hey, if I can’t take delivery, after waiting two years, there is no pressure to buy. There’s a line. The next person will be offered the instrument. Am I trying to talk myself into placing an order?
EmiSunshine plays Jayne’s personal ukulele . . .
Note from AmericanToolbox: We began reading Jayne’s blog, The Luthier’s Apprentice, after her ATB entry was written and edited down to what you see here. We recommend her blog, which reads more like a history/diary. Start with the oldest. Read a few entries every night.
ANY TEENAGER WHO PLAYED an instrument probably hung out for hours in the local music stores. Staring at a limited selection, they’d imagine how cool it would be to own such a store. The business side is usually far from childhood fantasy. Music stores are risky endeavors but there are occasional success stories.
A perfect example? Jeff Looker, architect. Pondering transitional career options to pad out retirement, he bought a half dozen guitars direct from Santa Cruz Guitar Company, becoming their sole Phoenix distributor. Into his orbit came other brands, notably C. F. Martin & Company. Business acumen developed running an upscale architectural firm definitely had a place operating a top-tier acoustic instrument shop. Acoustic Vibes Music arguably has the finest and largest selection of high-grade acoustic instruments in the country.
Looking for a Martin 000 14-fret acoustic guitar? Local shops don’t carry this model. On my last visit Jeff had two stock copies and four from the famed Martin Custom Shop. Four custom Martin 000 guitars with
list prices pushing $7,000! Jeff picks the options he would like to see, and nine months later, voilá! One-of-a-kind guitars are delivered to his store!
On my last visit there were 450 guitars in stock, 80% in this upper range or higher. When you want a great-looking, great-sounding guitar, and don’t want to wait ten years for Wayne Henderson to build you one, book a flight to this Destination Guitar Shop. Forget the budget. Buy a guitar you’ll have forever.
YOU ALWAYS HEAR ABOUT the “Deal Of The Century”. The one that got away. The other guy got it. You should have been here yesterday! One cold Sunday, we showed up late to a yard sale. Everything had been picked through. But in answer to our questions, SURPRISE! The owner pulls a dusty plastic guitar case from behind a bush. Inside was what looked like the guitars we played in the ’80s. Except that the foam lining had degraded into sticky sludge. A colossal mess!
Neither of us knew what it was worth. I offered the most we could walk away from, if the electronics were fried. What if the decomposed foam lining could not be removed from the grain of the wood?
Hours of gentle cleaning with acetone, mild soap and water, steel wool, abrasive cloth, toothpicks, and Q-tips returned the gleam to this vintage treasure. New strings vibrated forth a tone one associates with guitars costing five times the price.
An ash body again captivating one’s eye. A maple neck ready for the musician’s caress, its high-crowned 18% nickel-silver frets practically new! Humbucker pickups, with their very high output, again ready to cancel out noise and deliver forth the song of the operator. Indeed, a rescued gem. Now passed on to a young buck, about to start a Mid-West tour . . . . American Toolbox again helps to fulfill The Dream . . .
TWO DECADES AGO, a man in his mid-30s went into a music store with a friend. They each bought a new Guild D4 dreadnought guitar. The dreadnought, so named by guitar manufacturer C. F. Martin & Co. in 1916, is a full-bodied guitar with a standard length neck. Perhaps the most commonly purchased model, these days.
Guild made their guitars in Westerly, Rhode Island at that time. The ’96 Guilds had magic in them. Something about the wood and craftsmanship produced instruments of unusual resonance and tone. Crisp and full of body with excellent projection. A clarity which rivals many $2,000 guitars of today.
The young man and his friend each practiced songs with which they grew up. The friend persevered while the young man set his guitar in a closet after a year. And it sat. And sat. Eventually the young man found himself in a large house with his pets but no furniture, no children, no wife. A middle 50’s man in divorce. Scraping for money, an ad was placed, the guitar listed for his buying price, and I showed up on his doorstep.
Even coated with grime, strings with little life, a neck out of adjustment, I heard promise in the guitar. There was something. Considering the cost of repairs and the risk I might be wrong, half his asking price was offered, and the guitar found a new home.
Several deep cleanings later with warm water, mild soap, and a damp, well-wrung cloth, with new strings and a straightened truss rod (to correct the neck), true tone burst forth. As it once did in 1996, in a music store in Northern Delaware, for an optimistic young man, this American Gem will inspire a new generation of musicians. And with care and luck, another beyond my years.
Mid-1990 Guild Guitars. Excellent value. Excellent tone.
OUR WORK DONE, THE 6′ X 12′ U-Haul trailer safely delivered, unloaded, and returned, the American Road Trip continues northward, a streak of joyous abandon. No timetable, almost. Pick a road, any road. The plan? End up in Montana to visit a dying friend. A thousand miles of choices. I decided on less traveled US-89 for scenic beauty and history. Sometimes called the National Park Highway, U.S. 89 links seven national parks across the Mountain West.
I roll into Gardiner MT in a few days to Pete’s small ’30s bungalow tucked against Yellowstone. Found my friend almost blind and eating discount TV dinners but still defiant. No radio or TV, house not cleaned since his stroke 4 years ago. Naturally, I stayed in the extra room. What’s a little dirt among bachelors?
We consume mass quantities, like old times. A ’40s Victrola and a stack of wax from the ’20s thru ’50s made our reunion a party. No wimmin, and he was couch-bound, so I danced with the dog between cranking the Victrola or strumming the guitar. The 1930’s home was rocking to 1930’s music from a period Victrola. The memory will forever bring a tear to my eye.
Leave two days later over the Bear Tooth Highway at 7am; snow and clouds encountered but the view was tremendous. Tremendous! Bear Tooth Highway closes for the year on October 15th at the latest. Bet they close early this year.
THE OFFER WAS TOO GOOD to be true. A Made In The USA acoustic guitar, dreadnought-sized, was for sale. In exchange for a reasonably slim stack of crisp Yankee dollars one could own a genuine Guild D4, a treasure from the heartland of American Folklore. Yet something seemed amiss . . .
Ahh, it becomes apparent. It is the six-inch crack in the solid mahogany side of the guitar. An impact crack, fortunately, rather than that caused by heat or humidity. The wood can be buttoned up. We have the patience . . . the technology. The knowledge? Not yet. But a visit to Jake the Snake cleared all that up.
A little super glue to tack the edges together, then thin wood glued across the crack from the interior. How thin? 1/32″ of an inch, it turns out. Beatty Lumber Company will not get my business on this one.
Up the street, though, is an old-time hobby shop. I know, because I’ve passed it several times a week for the past 30 years. And it turns out . . . 1/32″ basswood is a stock item. They also had the right glue, Titebond.
Armed with a sheet of veneer hardwood from Northern Michigan’s forests, and domestic glue I’ve trusted in the past, I set about successfully repairing my USA-made Guild in just a couple of hours. The Circle Is Unbroken . . .
Pennsylvania Ballet • Serenade • Choreographer: George Balanchine
IF YOU WERE permitted one cultural performance your entire life, what would you choose? The Doors in Madison Square Garden? Pavarotti singing below the Eiffel Tower? A recital of wooden flute in an Aurignacian cave?
After attending the first ballet performance of my life, I can attest there is one answer only to this question: a ballet performance of Serenade.
“Now, hold on a minute”, you are probably thinking. Just who is this George fella? George Balanchine was the finest choreographer that ever lived, says just about everyone who studies this for a living. “And what, exactly, is this Serenade?”
Backing up a little, we remember Tchaikovsky wrote, in 1880, Serenade for Strings in C. Inspired by his time in Italy, this piece supremely exhibits a relaxed buoyancy and melodic richness. Perfect, one thinks, for ballet. This piece, however, was not written for Mr. Balanchine. Sadly, by eleven years, the two men missed the other’s worldly existence.
A few decades later, as a young man, Mr. Balanchine heard Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, and wrote, to accompany this music, a perfect dance he also called Serenade. To answer your question, finally, Serenade, first performed in 1934, is a ballet by George Balanchine to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48.
Tchaikovsky’s score is fulfilling and romantic; the ballet performance is this but so much more. Beauty and grace one rarely encounters in a world of survival comes alive through the imagination and vision of one man. The dance designed by Mr. Balanchine will transport one in a manner the Manly Man, hiding tears, may not acknowledge. Women, however, will openly be thankful for the beauty of all Mankind.
Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Serenade, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. | Photo: Alexander Iziliaev
NOTHING adopts a personality of owner as nicely as decent leather wear. Your first thought is a pair of shoes or a belt, perhaps. But today we’re talking about a guitar strap from Bitterroot Guitars!
Yep, who would have thought! Usually one purchases a padded nylon fake-embroidered strap to go with their new guitar. What else does the music store stock, anyway? It’s all economics, and Jake the Snake doesn’t want to tie up his crisp Yankee dollars on a display rack.
After playing my new acoustic for a few months, it became clear a guitar strap was necessary to keep up with my bluegrass buddies. I wanted leather. I wanted USA production. A little post-internet investigation turned up a great online seller, Bitterroot Guitars.
The strap was promptly delivered, smelling tannery-fresh! Perfect execution! At the time of purchase, the year 2013, the cost was about $17 delivered. Bargain to boot!