Friday, July 27, 2018

Introducing The Red Fox from Mando Mo Strings

Introducing The Red Fox from Mando Mo Strings

$445.00 instrument $495.00 w/hard shell case $520.00 w/shipping
I take PayPal.  Simply send the amount to sweetmusic@protonmail.com make sure your SHIPPING address is included (not your billing address) so I send it to the right place.  I ship via FedEx Ground.  You can also pick one up at my studio in Granby, MA.  Use the Contact form on the sidebar to let me know what you'd like to do.

This latest F5-style mandolin is gorgeous to look at, and has a beautiful well-rounded tone with a lot of projection.  A group of Celtic mandolin players loved the way it sounds recently, suggesting it would make a wonderful addition to any traditional Celtic or Classical ensemble.

Each Red Fox comes with:
  • Neck Material: Mahogany
  • Fingerboard: Rosewood
  • Hardware Color: Silver
  • Nut:Bone 1 1/8" (Standard Neck)
  • Bridge: Adjustable Ebony
  • Scale Length:13 7/8"
  • Body Style: F Style
  • Body Dimensions:25 1/2" x 10" x 1 15/16"
  • Body Top:Solid Sitka Spruce 1A (Air Dried 3-5 Years)
  • Body Back/Sides:Solid Mahogany 1A (Air Dried 3-5 Years)
  • Truss Rod:Single Acting
  • Binding: Back and Fingerboard no Binding
  • Binding: Top No Binding
  • Sound Hole: F Holes
  • Logo:Abalone Headstock Mando Mo Bulldog
  • Inlay:Mother Of Pearl Snow Flake Dots
  • Rosette:
  • Side Dot Color: White
  • Body Finish: Natural Satin or Gloss Nitro

Here's a short video I did a couple days ago about the mandolin.  I'll do another one that is more specific as this one talks about the Celtic group class which meets on Thursdays at 7pm.


Here are some pics I took of the mandolin.  






Thursday, July 26, 2018

My Lagan Love by Joseph Campbell

"My Lagan Love" is a song to a traditional Irish air collected in 1903 in northern Donegal.

Leanan sidhe
1) Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blows a lily fair
The twilight gleam is in her eye
The night is on her hair
And like a love-sick lennan-shee
She has my heart in thrall
Nor life I owe nor liberty
For love is lord of all.

2) Her father sails a running-barge
'Twixt Leamh-beag and The Druim;
And on the lonely river-marge
She clears his hearth for him.
When she was only fairy-high
Her gentle mother died;
But dew-Love keeps her memory
Green on the Lagan side.

3) And often when the beetle's horn
Hath lulled the eve to sleep
I steal unto her shieling lorn
And thru the dooring peep.
There on the cricket's singing stone,
She spares the bogwood fire,
And hums in sad sweet undertone
The songs of heart's desire

4) Her welcome, like her love for me,
Is from her heart within:
Her warm kiss is felicity
That knows no taint of sin.
And, when I stir my foot to go,
'Tis leaving Love and light
To feel the wind of longing blow
From out the dark of night.

5) Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blows a lily fair
The twilight gleam is in her eye
The night is on her hair
And like a love-sick lennan-shee
She has my heart in thrall
Nor life I owe nor liberty
For love is lord of all.

In Scottish Gaelic a "leannan-sidhe" is a Faery Lover. This type of Faery Lover
often takes a person's love and then leaves. He or she goes back where they came
from (Faery Land?) leaving the human pining for their lost love. The poor
mortals in the tales of leannan sidhe often died of sorrow."

You may be quite certain that it is the river that flows through Belfast. The
song was first published in "Songs of Uladh"  [Herbert Hughes and Joseph
Campbell] published in Belfast by William Mullan and Sons, and in Dublin by MH
Gill, 1904. Hughes' preface says: "I made this collection while on holiday in
North Dun-na-n Gall in August of last year." My Lagan Love is on page 32. The
note says, "I got this from Proinseas mac Suibhne who played it for meon the
fidil. He had it from his father Seaghan mac Suibhne, who learned it from a
sapper working on the Ordnance Survey in Tearmann about fifty years ago. It was
sung to a ballad called the "Belfast Maid," now forgotten in Cill-mac-nEnain."
[This pretension in spelling etc is typical of the Gaelic Revival flavour of
this book - it is also embellished with "celtic knots" and fanciful derivations
of half uncial script.]

Lambeg is a village between Lisburn and Belfast and the Drum is the site of a
bridge across the river and the canal that was made beside it, which eventually
diverged from the river and entered Lough Neagh. There
for the sake of scansion! " - JM

To quote from Mary O'Hara's notes on this song, from her book "A Song For
Ireland", - "The leanin sidhe (fairy mistress) mentioned in the song is a
malicious figure who frequently crops up in Gaelic love stories. One could call
her the femme fatale of Gaelic folklore. She sought the love of men; if they
refused, she became their slave, but if they consented, they became her slaves
and could only escape by finding another to take their place. She fed off them
so her lovers gradually wasted away - a common enough theme in Gaelic medieval
poetry, which often saw love as a kind of sickness. Most Gaelic poets in the
past had their leanin sidhe to give them inspiration. This malignant fairy was
for them a sort of Gaelic muse. On the other hand, the crickets mentioned in the
song are a sign of good luck and their sound on the hearth a good omen. It was
the custom of newly-married couples about to set up home to bring crickets from
the hearths of their parents' house and place them


"My Lagan Love" ~ Celtic Woman

The English lyrics have been credited to Joseph Campbell (1879–1944, also known as Seosamh MacCathmhaoil and Joseph McCahill, among others). Campbell was a Belfast man whose grandparents came from the Irish-speaking area of Flurrybridge, South Armagh. He started collecting songs in County Antrim. In 1904 he began a collaboration with composer Herbert Hughes. Together, they collected traditional airs from the remote parts of County Donegal.

The Belfast Maid
While on holidays in Donegal, Hughes had learned the air from Proinseas mac Suibhne, who had learned it from his father Seaghan mac Suibhne, who in turn had learned it fifty years previously from a man working with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.  Campbell said that mac Suibhne knew the tune under the title of "The Belfast Maid", but did not know the words.  A song by this title was published in various early 19th century broadsides, with the first lines "In Belfast town of high renown / There lives a comely maid".  This ballad now has Roud number 2930.

The Lagan referred to in the title most likely is the River Lagan in Belfast. Campbell's words mention Lambeg, which is just outside the city. The Lagan is the river that runs through Belfast. However, some argue that the Lagan in the song refers to a stream that empties into Lough Swilly in County Donegal, not far from where Herbert Hughes collected the song.

The song was arranged in a classical style by Hamilton Harty; this was used by Mary O'Hara and Charlotte Church.

"My Lagan Love" - Kate Bush

The melody is a common air often applied to ballads and songs throughout the region.  An example is "The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood" Made popular by Pete Singer - God Bless the Grass:


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Difference between air-dried and kiln-dried mandolins

Air-drying tonewood system


Here's a video I made recently about the differences between air-dried and kiln-dried wood on mandolins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt94wihUJb4 and a podcast I did where I go more into depth about the subject matter: https://soundcloud.com/sweetmusicpodcast/air-dried-vs-kiln-dried-tonewood-which-is-better-and-why

Air-drying tonewood in China

New from Sweet Music Studio: Student Violin

My student violin is a Palatino set up for my students with new strings, new bridge, and adjusted soundpost for optimum sound.  The best-selling Campus violin is hand-carved and features a meticulously graduated spruce top to maintain consistency in tone. This is a student favorite because of its fine tuner tailpiece and lightweight case.

The violin comes with:
  • Spruce Top
  • Maple Back, Sides & Neck
  • Fine Tuner Tailpiece
  • Ebonized Frog Bow
  • Featherweight Case
  • Adjusted soundpost
  • Carved nut
We have other models without the abalone inlay for $50 off SRP. Please Ask.
  • $149 with a featherweight case and bow
  • $99 without the case and bow

In this video, Adam talks about his Palatino violin:











New from Mando Mo Strings - The Seal - Koa/Abalone Ukulele

New from Mando Mo Strings - The Seal - Koa/Abalone Ukulele.  Shown here is The Seal deluxe, hand carved gorgeous uke with a lovely gloss finish.

This is a beautiful instrument.  It has a sweet sweet tone!

$245.00 instrument $295.00 w/hard shell case $320.00 w/shipping
I take PayPal.  Simply send the amount to sweetmusic@protonmail.com make sure your SHIPPING address is included (not your billing address) so I send it to the right place.  I ship via FedEx Ground.  You can also pick one up at my studio in Granby, MA.  Use the Contact form on the sidebar to let me know what you'd like to do.

The Seal comes with:
  • Nut Width: 38MM
  • Saddle Width: 85MM
  • Upper Bout: 172MM
  • Body Bout: 223MM
  • String Scale: 432MM
  • Body Length: 305MM
  • Frets: 18
  • Top,Back&Side: All Solid Acacia Body
  • Neck: Solid Mahogany
  • String: Aquila Strings
  • Machine Head: Open Gold Plated
  • Nut&Saddle: Ox Bone
  • Fingerboard&Bridge: Solid Indian Rosewood
  • White Copper Frets/White Pearl Idots
  • Binding: Top Abalone
  • Rosette Abalone

This Uke is perfect for kids! 
Adam's son Richard playing The Seal






Mando Mo strings is a company that was started in Holyoke Massachusetts by Al Belunis. Al is an electrician and Vietnam veteran who has been taking mandolin lessons for over a year. He designed the instruments himself, chose the materials used, specifying 3 to 5 years air dried tonewood.
Mando Mo can produce just about any neck width desired. Please ask.

The Terrier by Mando Mo Strings

The Terrier - F5 style, no binding

$395 instrument $445 w/hard shell case $465 w/shipping
I take PayPal.  Simply send the amount to sweetmusic@protonmail.com make sure your SHIPPING address is included (not your billing address) so I send it to the right place.  I ship via FedEx Ground.  You can also pick one up at my studio in Granby, MA.  Use the Contact form on the sidebar to let me know what you'd like to do.

Adam thinks this is an amazing price for a good bluegrass F5 style mandolin:



The Terrier is a lovely instrument to play!  It has a gorgeous sound and the slightly wider neck makes it easier to play than the Tortoise.  With a standard sized body, this model is available in F and A styles.  We like the carved sides without binding.  Very satisfying!










Monday, July 23, 2018

Mandolin for Beginners Group Class

The Mandolin for Beginners Group Class will be starting up again. 

The first class is Monday, August 6th, 2018 at 7pm.  The class is 2 hours.

This is a perfect class for adults who wish to learn how to play the mandolin in a group setting with other adults.  We will learn how to hold the instrument and pick, how to play scales and chords, how to read music, how to sing and play at the same time (it can be done!), and how to improvise.

I have mandolins for rent if you do not have one of your own.

The cost of the group is $15 per class.

There are openings for 5 adults.


Friday, July 20, 2018

The Monroe Brothers - 1932 to 1938

Birch, Charlie, and Bill Monroe 
The Monroe Brothers began as a trio of Birch, Charlie, and Bill Monroe on fiddle, guitar and mandolin respectively, performing square dance songs as well as traditional and gospel numbers.

In 1932, Bill and Charlie began touring professionally with the WLS touring company as dancers, appearing with the Hoosier Hot Shots and Red Foley among others, and in 1934 secured the sponsorship of the Texas Crystals Company, a manufacturer of laxatives. The association provided the Monroes with a steady stream of radio work for over a year until competing laxative maker Crazy Water Crystals took over sponsorship of the duo while they continued working on many of the same stations.

The radio appearances made the Monroe Brothers a popular live act, which prompted the interest of RCA to recording the two. In mid-February the Monroe Brothers made their first recordings for RCA's Bluebird imprint, and went on to wax 60 sides in the following two years.

Their music at this point was firmly within the brother duo tradition and exhibited only hints of the style Bill Monroe would later pioneer as the "Blue Grass Music". They were set apart from other harmony duos by Bill's piercing harmonies and mandolin leads, as well as the energy and often fast tempos of their performances.

The very use of the mandolin as a lead instrument would revolutionize its application in country music, as would Bill's unique fiddle-influenced style. It would be silly to label them the "rock & roll of the '30s," but certainly there was an excitement and an edge to their music that put them on the frontier of hillbilly innovation in their day.

Charlie Monroe & The Kentucky Pardners
In early 1938, Bill and Charlie parted ways due to personality conflicts and business disagreements, and each formed his own band shortly thereafter. Charlie formed a group called the Kentucky Pardners.

By 1941 (after a short stint with a band called the Kentuckians and an abortive attempt at recreating the Monroe Brothers sound with partner Cleo Davis) Bill Monroe was recording again for RCA with a band he named the Blue Grass Boys.

In this new group, Monroe built upon his earlier innovations and developed the distinctive and enduring style that came to be known as bluegrass after Lester Flatt (guitar) and Earl Scruggs (5 string banjo) joined.

Why Did You Wander - 1946 Bill Monroe's
Blue Grass Boys with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Let's Talk About Ukes


Today I want to talk a little about the Ukulele.  I'm a mandolin and fiddle player who dabbles in acoustic guitar and banjo, so learning this little instrument wasn't terribly difficult for me.  It also helps that I have Suzuki ear training (I can hear when I've played a wrong note).  But I knew next to nothing about the history of the instrument, where it came from and how it got to be so popular.  Here's what I've learned:

The little instrument has gone from being an exotic new trend to the embodiment of kitsch since it arrived on Hawaii 125 years ago, but is currently enjoying a revival.

The instrument, with its four plastic strings and a short neck, originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off the boat and started strumming and singing with his branguinha (a small guitar-like instrument, sometimes called the machete). The crowd of Hawaiians were so impressed by his fingerboard prestidigitations that they called the instrument “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” Fernandez and the instrument became a local sensation, and the reigning monarch Kalakaua even learned how to play it. By 1900, the sound of the ukulele was ubiquitous across the Islands, where it was pronounced by Hawaiians as “oo-ku-lay-lay.”

The ukulele got its first taste of mainland popularity in the 1900s when the Panama Pacific International Exposition lured over 17 million visitors with hula dance and song at the Hawaii Pavilion. What mainland Americans lacked in understanding of their exotic territory’s music, they made up for in enthusiasm. In 1913, a reporter for the Hartford Courant described how "the wonderfully sweet voices and weird melodies of these ukalele (sic) players strike a plaintive heart-note never to be forgotten once heard.”

Cutesy Hawaiian kitsch became big business. By the 1920s, Sears Roebuck and other department store catalogs offered ukes for a couple of dollars—and sometimes even for free with the purchase of lessons. Tin Pan Alley songsmiths cranked out dozens of “Hawaiian” novelty hits like “On the Beach at Waikiki,” followed by parodies of those same hits (“Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.”) Soon came an avalanche of inexpensive, mainland-made plastic ukuleles, ukulele method books like “Hum and Strum,” and “Beach Boy Method Hawaiian Style,” pandering to the appeal of faraway Hawaii as an exotic paradise. For four decades, the sounds of Hawaii drifted over the air to hundreds of radio stations.

The Great Depression provided another gateway for the ukulele. As sales of pianos, accordions, and other pricey instruments soared, saving and scrimping Americans helped boost the ukulele to peak popularity in the 1930s. Indeed, bluegrass music took off during that period as well, and the ukulele is still strongly associated with the string-band phenomenon.

Television offered a golden opportunity for the instrument. In 1950, the popular television host Arthur Godfrey, sporting a Hawaiian shirt, actually gave lessons to millions of viewers right in their living rooms. Plastic ukuleles proliferated— $5.95 each—and 1,700,000 ukulele players were born. Even Americans who'd never picked up an instrument couldn’t help developing a soft spot for the uke when it was played by Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and Elvis Presley. (Blue Hawaii was Presley’s biggest box-office hit, and the soundtrack was number one on the Billboard charts for 5 months.) For a while it seemed like the ukulele had it all: a high-class reputation on the silver screen and folksy appeal as the people’s instrument.

Then came the ukepocalypse. For kids doing the Twist and rocking around the clock, the ukulele looked and sounded like a toy, compared to the thunderous electrified guitar sounds they heard from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. “If a kid has a uke in his hand, he’s not going to get in much trouble,” Arthur Godfrey had said, apparently unaware that he'd put his finger on the uke’s fatal weakness.

Even as early as 1951, the National Association of Music Merchants attributed swelling guitar sales to “the desire of persons who learned to play the ukulele in its recent popularity upswing to master the more advanced instrument.” And on February 9, 1964, 74 million viewers of a popular variety show watched a typical ukulele act—a music hall artist clad in gold lame and singing and strumming her heart out—followed by four teens from Liverpool. As if the Fab Four playing “She Loves You” on Ed Sullivan weren’t crushing enough for the little uke, Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips on late-night television in 1967, consigning the ukulele to a two- decades-long image of creepy emasculation, absurdity, and plain irrelevance.

Then, decades later, a new generation of musicians jaded by electric guitars and mostly unaware of either the uke’s squareness or its Tiny-Tim-related disrepute began to tinker with the instrument. Beginning in the 1980s, some rock ‘n’ rollers began to introduce the ukulele—in some instances, to sound a note of folksy authenticity; in others, to explore more intimate, spontaneous and personal aspects of music making. Paul McCartney strummed one on his 2002 tour as a tribute to fellow Beatle George Harrison, a serious ukulele player and a devotee of the British music hall ukulele tradition. Harrison later gave his blessing to the ukulele revival by penning an introduction to Jumpin’ Jim (Beloff)’s 60s Uke-In Songbook: “Everybody should have and play a uke. It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh! It’s so sweet and also very old.”

The pop artists most identified with the ukulele, however are Steven Swartz of Songs From a Random House, Zach Condon of Beirut, and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. In some cases, these artists have attempted to replace the ubiquitous guitar with a sweeter and gentler sound, in others, a less familiar sound that would surprise audiences. “When you have a guitar, people are going to make judgments about what they’re going to hear, but with ukulele, the field’s open, and it’s a much more musically versatile instrument that people are aware of,” Swartz has said.

Those looking to validate their choice of instrument via celebrity association can point to a bevy of uke-playing luminaries—Cybill Shepherd, William Macy, and Pierce Brosnan—along with politicians (Tony Blair) and business executives (mega-zillionaire Warren Buffett). The ukulele has made a number of unique cameo appearances, appearing in the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ juggling acts and the Rockettes' annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. In ads for products like Yoplait and Canadian Tires, it's featured as the primary instrument of whimsy, along with glockenspiel, tinkly piano and tuneful whistling.

Another unexpected driving force for the ukulele was the Hawaiian music revival of the 1980s and 1990s. Hawaiian youth had previously fallen for rock just as hard as mainlanders. Local interest in the uke and traditional Island music had waned in the 1960s, and the dwindling numbers of students enrolling in Hawaii’s ukulele studios were mainly interested in learning Beatles songs. But then Hawaiian artists rediscovered the ukulele on their own terms, exploring the instrument in a new way, blurring the boundaries between Hawaiian folk and mainstream pop that had helped to marginalize the instrument.

Kaau Crater Boys
There were Kelly Boy Delima of Kapena, Troy Fernandez of the Kaau Crater Boys, and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwo'ole, who inspired audiences with both pyrotechnics and politically conscious songs that protested the second-class status of Native Hawaiians. His ukulele medley “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” was featured on the television show ER as well as on movie soundtracks and ads, boosting his Facing Future album to platinum sales (a first for a Hawaiian artist). Even more unexpected was the YouTube-driven stardom of 20-year-old Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro, who posted a video of himself playing elaborate, introspective variations on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a ukulele. One of the first YouTube videos to go viral, it helped dispense with the stereotypically kitschy images that Hollywood had imposed upon both Hawaiian music and the ukulele.

The ukulele, one could say, has returned from pop-culture purgatory. The eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain—composed of self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalists of the ukulele world”—draws sellout crowds with an eclectic repertoire ranging from the Sex Pistols and Nirvana to Bach and Beethoven. The modern Canadian movement, with deeper pedagogical roots than either Britain’s or America's, thrives thanks to school-based programs that advocate using the ukulele to teach music. The Langley Ukulele Ensemble, made up of high-school artists in British Columbia, has nurtured such luminaries as award-winning artist/ukulele advocate James Hill. And few nations have more rabid fans than Japan, where Shimabukuro spends half of the year touring and where members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain get stopped on the street to sign autographs.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Despite its higher profile, the ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly. "The ukulele has always fascinated me because it doesn’t intimidate other people," says Shimabukuro. Indeed, the scores of beginners at Ukefest New Jersey reaffirmed this statement. Hardly as long a kid’s arm, the miniature instrument is so inviting, and its sound so wispy and sweet, that it was hard to keep from strumming while teachers were talking at the workshops. Not everyone can tackle the guitar, with its bulky size and six metal strings; comparatively, the ukulele’s four plastic strings appear more manageable and less painful for the left-hand fingers on the neck.

Because of its accessibility, the uke has managed to attract the huge grassroots following it struggled to draw before the Internet hooked up players and enabled Uke Meetups, jam sessions, and YouTube uke tutorials. Marcy Marxer, two-time Grammy-award winning folk artist who performs on ukulele and other string instruments with her partner Cathy Fink, says that what makes the uke so popular now "is the friendliness of the community. There’s no hierarchy of advanced players, just wide-open acceptance. Since so many people are new to the instrument, they remember what it was like to be a beginner.”

Stuart “Stukulele” Fuchs
In other words, people don’t expect you to uke with your teeth or up in the air, like virtuoso Stuart “Stukulele” Fuchs does in his solo acts. George Hinchliffe of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain attributes his supergroup’s (and possibly, the instrument’s) success to the worn-out appeal of high-tech shows, and performers who stare at a laptop. "We yearned for a gig in which people simply play the music," he said, "and [the ukulele] is open to all. The audience goes home and thinks, ‘I could do that.’”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Resonance Requires Air-Dried Tonewood

The Terrier by Mando Mo
air-dried 3-5 years
There are several schools of thought as to what makes a good tonewood. But in the end, a maker can’t be 100 percent sure they have built a nice-sounding mandolin until it is finished and played. However, there are factors along the way, starting with the selection of the species, that are the key to making a quality instrument. Tight grain is not essential, but pieces with wide growth rings are best to avoid. The wood has to be quartersawn, thereby preventing any expansion and contraction like there would be with flat-sawn wood, which tends to warp. Then there is the tap test.

“You look for woods that have a good tap tone to them, that resonate when you tap them,” says Bob Cefalu, owner of RC Tonewoods & Sons in Kenmore, N.Y. “Most of the rosewoods fall into that category. I don’t know if there is really such a thing as a bad tonewood, because probably 90 percent of the sound comes from the top or the soundboard. A good, stiff soundboard in Sitka [spruce], Engelman [spruce], or any of the European spruces; they all make good soundboards.”

Mandolin tops are selected from billets, which are cut into book-matched boards about 3/8" thick in the rough. In final form, they are sanded down to widths as small as 1/10" (.12"). Some believe a flexibility test will help determine if a set will make a good top as a tonewood.

“You’re looking for sound transmission, so you’re looking for lightweight wood, which is crispy,” says Marc Culbertson, who runs the musical instrument operation at Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. “If it is lightweight, you will have more amplitude of sound, more energy to carry through. Heavy wood dampens the tone. The crispy thing is about the quality of the tone. If you have a piece of wood that is fuzzy like leather in your hand, then that’s the quality of tone you are going to get. It’s going to sound airy and fuzzy. If you want your tone to be crispy, have some detail to it, then you’re looking for that in the wood.”

“There are certain woods that have proven over the centuries that they make good tonewoods,” says Shiraz Balolia, an avid guitar maker and founder and president of Grizzly Industrial of Bellingham, Wash. “Spruce is one, cedar is another; they’re both very good examples. One of the things that I look for is if I get a stack of Sitka spruce for example, I’ll pick each board up — they’re usually cut to 1/4" size and are bookmatched —and I’ll give it a tap tone. I can feel what will have a really good sound once it is built.”

Tonewoods

As critical as the top is to the mandolin's sound, the choice for the back and sides doesn’t have to be as highly selective.

The Tortoise by Mando Mo
air-dried maple back and sides
3-5 years
“Backs and sides are a different thing,” says Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods of Latin America in Carlsbad, Calif. “Traditionally, it was Brazilian rosewood. Then it became difficult to get, even before being listed on CITES. Martin [C.F. Martin Guitar Co.] made its last production run with Brazilian rosewood in 1969. Then everybody switched over to East Indian rosewood. Supply is still plentiful and it is pretty much the standard for everybody out there from Larrivee [Jean Larrivee Guitars] to Martin to Taylor [Guitars].”

Some makers are using mixed species of hardwoods for the backs and sides, essentially for aesthetics.

“I like quilted maple because of the figure, but it is not the best tonewood; it’s a good tonewood, but it’s not the best,” Balolia says. “So I try and complement that with something like koa or something else. I built a two-tone guitar with koa sides and a curly maple bottom, and then the Sitka spruce top. It turned out really nice, the tone was spectacular. For me, it was an experiment, and you don’t know until it is done. And that’s when it is too late if it has a bad sound.”

The drying process for tonewoods is also an important element of how a top will eventually sound. The average air-drying time for the best tonewoods is around three years, with some drying times as much as five years.

“We deal with a company in the Alps which has been doing tonewoods for eight generations,” says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa., who uses European red spruce for acoustic guitar tops and European maple for classical instruments. “A quality of the tone of those [classical] woods comes from sunning the maple. They actually have racks all over their property where they take the rived matched billets of maple and they’re getting sunned. They air-dry them for about three years.

“Everybody is in the game of selling tonewoods; it’s big business,” Talcove says. “For me, if I can pick the wood, I’ll buy top wood and I have it here. To my knowledge, here in Southern California, I’m the only place you can actually walk in and buy tonewoods. Most of the people who are manufacturers like Taylor, Martin and people of that caliber, they go direct to the source.”

The price of a book-matched mandolin top varies greatly. Although most are Sitka spruce or some other spruce, they start at about $40 a set and run much higher. Sides and backs are priced on an individual basis. The type of species and amount of figure will greatly influence the cost.

Here are some Tonewood companies that carry 3-5 year air-dried materials:

Kiln-dried or Air-dried Tonewood. What's the difference?

If you’ve seriously shopped for a premium instrument, you have most likely heard the term tonewood applied to the materials coveted by mandolin builders (and even some musicians). It generally applies to the woods used to build musical instruments, usually those with strings such as violins, cellos, mandolins and guitars. The inherent effect of different wood species upon the tonality of an instrument is a never-ending discussion, but little is heard about how wood is prepared.

The idea of old wood has currency among builders, but unless properly seasoned, a board’s age is a worthless statistic. Labels like “air dried” and “century old” are suspect because these designations by themselves mean nothing. As we start to examine the actual science behind how wood gains and loses moisture, the fallacy of these sorts of terms becomes clear. The correct seasoning of wood that’s used for mandolins is important, but exactly why is a bit opaque as viewed through the lens of marketing.

Why We Dry

Builders of all things wooden must be concerned with moisture content for many reasons. Most of the considerations are structural, including the ability of glues or final finishes to bond properly. Wood shrinks in size as it dries, so it is important for pieces to be stabilized before fitting them together in a final form. Unlike a table or door, extremely small changes in dimensions can cause playability problems for a guitar. For all these reasons, it is important to bring instrument wood into a state that will be at rest in “normal” operating situations and environments.

Appropriate Moisture Content

To begin with, wood in its natural state is fairly saturated with moisture in what is referred to as sap. It’s the easy flow of this moisture through the tree that nourishes its extremities, much like our own body’s circulation system. After a tree is felled, it no longer draws moisture through a root system, but can still absorb water from its surroundings. Even after trees are cut into boards, the wood is at the mercy of its environment. Moisture in boards is found in the tube-like rays and vessels that supply food to the wood cells, as well as inside the cells themselves. Transfer of waterborne food to the cells is accomplished via small gateways called pits, which act as valves. The notable thing here is that this system can work in either direction—gaining or losing moisture in an effort to reach what is called equilibrium. This fact is important because it means that a board stored for decades in a humid environment will not lose enough moisture to be deemed usable for most furniture or musical instrument purposes.

On a freshly cut tree the moisture content can be anywhere from 30%-45%, this is called green wood and some chair makers use this wood for their projects, but for mandolin makers, the moisture content is too high to build anything from it, the lumber has to be dried before it is of any use.  The ideal moisture content for furniture making is around 8-9%, some say 7 and some say 6, so let’s just say anywhere from 7-9% is ideal.

How We Dry

Most commercially available lumber is dried to between 8 to 12 percent moisture content, measured by weight in what is called the “dry basis.” The most common method of achieving this is by using a drying oven, or kiln. It’s not just a matter of putting wood into a hot room and waiting because there are a myriad of variables to be aware of. Green (new) wood can vary greatly in moisture content, ranging anywhere from 30 percent to as much as 200 percent as a ratio.

Bound and Free Water 

In the living tree, the wood cells, which are like skinny soda straws, are about 3 to 5 mm long; the diameter is 1/100 of their length. The center of the cell is hollow. Water that is in the hollow space is called free water. It could be removed by blowing it out of the cell. (Actually, we call the liquid "water," but the water contains many other chemicals--just ask anyone who likes maple syrup on their pancakes what the water in wood tastes like!) The cell wall itself (which is actually 1.5 times heavier than water, so wood actually doesn't float--the air in the hollow spaces makes wood float) also can absorb water. The wall can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water. This absorbed water is called bound water, as it is held in the cell wall by hydrogen bonding.

Moisture is divided into two different categories: free water, which is found in the rays and vessels, and bound water, which is held in the cells themselves. Also, the material nearest the outside dries more quickly than the center of the board. The resulting vacuum instigates a capillary action that draws the internal moisture towards the surface. This aspect takes more time and requires more heat. But forcing any of these issues with too much heat too soon can destroy the wood with cracks, or leave the center wet—a structural time-bomb. Some experts insist that fracturing the cells or cooking the resin left behind by overenthusiastic drying can also change the resonance of the wood. Whether or not this is true, the structural reasons are enough to warrant tailoring the drying cycle to each individual load.

When drying wood, the free water leaves first. It requires less energy to evaporate than the bound water. At about 30% moisture content, all the free water is gone and just bound water remains.

Air-drying Tonewood

Air drying is a lengthy process usually each board takes 1 inch (25mm) per one year to dry, the lumber is stacked off the ground 15-24 inch(400-600mm) on stickers which are placed across the boards and inline to each below, and above in between the boards to avoid sagging to gain even weight distribution.  The stickers serve to allow air flow between each board.

A canopy or preferably plywood with cinder blocks or other heavy items should be placed on top.  The canopy or plywood is there to protect the timber from weather elements, plywood is preferred over the canopy because it allows air flow and protection from the sun.  If you use a canopy you should remove it when it’s not raining.  Once the boards have reached equilibrium with its environment which is usually about 15% outside, it needs to be brought into the shop to acclimate, and continue to dry until they reach the 7-9% moisture content.  Depending on your own environment this can take from two weeks up to a month or more.

Air drying needs to be in an open space not surrounded by trees or other plant life, the ground shouldn't be damp either.  If any of these features are present, then the lumber will continually absorb the moisture content from its surroundings and not dry properly and mold may start to form, mold is notorious in pine, spruce and other woods.  These stacked timbers will continually absorb large amounts of moisture from the surrounding trees and damp ground.

Once the timber has reached equilibrium with its surroundings, which may well be above 15% and then brought into the shop, mandolin makers will have to wait longer than usual for the material to dry thoroughly or acclimate before it’s ready for use.  It pays to have a high quality moisture meter, a Wagner is a good choice, available at Stewart MacDonald and other good luthier supply shops.

NOTE: Air dried lumber is a hand tool woodworkers best friend, it’s easy to work and is more stable than kiln dried lumber because it’s not forced dried through high temperatures, but rather a natural slower process.  As the timber air dries the cells collapse, slowly causing them to compress and stay put, so when air dried lumber absorbs moisture, it doesn’t swell as much hence it becomes more stable.  Luthiers find kiln dried wood more physically demanding to work with hand tools.

Drying at warm temperatures or hotter has a definite effect on wood properties. Therefore, air drying for a year and then continued drying in a home or office to achieve the correct final moisture content is essential. Air-drying alone will reach only 12% in most of North America; 7% is the typical final moisture content required for interior uses. We also know that rain on the lumber enhances certain other properties. For example, white oak lumber is normally quite acidic in character. But if you air dry it for 2 years, there is a vanilla odor that becomes very obvious and enhances the flavor of wine and whiskey in barrels made of such material! In short, air drying cannot be replaced for musical instruments--even low temperature systems do not do as good a job.

Kiln Dried 

Kiln dried is a forced but controlled process where humidity and temperature is controlled using steam and fans for drying.  The drying process normally takes between 6-8 weeks.  Because of its fast drying due to high temperatures, the cells collapse quickly rather than slowly as it would with air drying, making it unstable.  Because of this when moisture is absorbed, the cells expand rapidly filling up with water quickly than it would with air dried lumber.  However, the positives with Kiln drying due to high temperatures, any laid eggs and bugs are killed off. There is treatment for mold and insects at an extra cost.

If hot dry air is used, then the surface dries too rapidly and develops case hardening, ‘checks’, so kiln drying requires careful control of both air and temperature.  The idea is to prevent stagnant layer of excessively humid air from lingering around the timber, as in the case of air drying, the air is frequently renewed which prevents this from happening.

I've been to mandolin factories in China where they use the kiln-dried process, loading pallets of billets into rooms with a furnace, closing the doors and letting it cook for a few days.  Not good.

Beyond the Dry

Henan Junyu Export & Import Trading Co., Ltd.
Since wood is porous, even if a builder buys wood that is carefully and correctly dried, it must still be kept in a controlled environment or the moisture content will drift. This applies to the mandolin in your home, too. Maintaining a relative humidity of around 35 to 40% will keep your mandolin close to the environment that it was (hopefully) built in. It is important to note that some of the drying parameters of commercial lumberyards do not include considerations of cell damage that may affect resonance despite being structurally acceptable for furniture applications. In those cases, structurally sound has nothing to do with the sound it makes!

In the end, it comes down to having a mandolin that functions properly and won’t shift too much during use. Beyond that, it has to do with resonance. I'll cover that in the next blog post.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not an expert.  I'm just a mandolinist and mandolin teacher, but I have been to the mandolin factories in China, Vietnam and South Korea as well as Weber in Montana and other shops in North America.  I've had many long conversations with luthiers about the tonewood they use and why.  I've been to tonewood suppliers and lumber mills in Kunming, China as well as Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Canada.  Most of the mandolin factories in China buy their tonewood from lumber mills in Kunming.  Much of that wood comes from Burma (Myanmar).  The wood is green when it arrives at the factory and must be dried before using.  I can list on the fingers of one hand the number of musical instrument factories that air-dry their billets for more than 3 years (only 1 that I know of).  All of the others use some sort of kiln-dried method.



Friday, July 13, 2018

Origins of the Violin Part 3 - Andrea Amati (1505-1577)

Andrea Amati was born in 1505 Cremona, Italy.  It was in the workshop of Andrea Amati (ca. 1505-1577) in Cremona, Italy, in the middle of the 16th century that the form of the instruments of the violin family as we know them today first crystallized.  Several of his instruments survive to the present day, and some of them can still be played. Many of the surviving instruments were among a consignment of 38 instruments delivered to Charles IX of France in 1564.

According to a biography by Roger Hargrave, Amati was one of the top candidates scholars have advanced for the "inventor of the violin." The two other candidates he named were Fussen born in a region now part of present-day Germany. The other candidate he named was Gasparo' da Salo from Brescia.

The violin-like instruments that existed when Amati began his career only had three strings. Amati is credited with creating the first four stringed violin-like instrument. Laurence Witten also lists Amati and Gasparo' da Salo, as well as Pellegrino de' Micheli, also from Brescia; as well and Ventura di Francesco de' Machetti Linarol, of Venice. Amati's first violins were smaller than modern violins, with high arches, wide purfling, and elegantly curved scrolls and bodies.

Andrea Amati's two sons, Antonio Amati and Girolamo Amati were also highly skilled violin makers, as was his grandson Nicolò Amati, who had over a dozen highly regarded apprentices, including Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.

Few of Andrea Amati’s instruments survive today. Of those that do, many were commissioned by wealthy patrons and royalty, such as the celebrated group of instruments made for Charles IX of France. These instruments date from 1564 to 1574, and we must assume that Amati had been working for some time prior to that date to have won a commission from the French court. His earliest known instrument is thought to date from 1546, but sadly all trace of it has been lost. The instruments made for Charles IX were decorated with the royal coat of arms, and the cutdown viola illustrated here was also decorated to reflect its ownership, in this case by a noble Italian family of the rank of Marquis.


Gigue from Partita No. 2 in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
played by Sean Avram Carpenter.  Violin: Andrea Amati (ca. 1505--1578), Cremona, ca. 1559

Origins of the Violin Part 2

Welcome to the Sweet Music Studio!  Today, I'm continuing to explore the history of the violin.  As I've shown in previous posts, violin owes its existence to ancient instruments such as the rabab, rebec, vielle and viola/lira, used in northern Africa and eventually Europe. These instruments were played in an upright position and bowed. 
The viola early stringed instrument evolved over time in Europe into two separate families of instrument: those that were held in the arms and square in shape ("viola di braccio") and those that were positioned between the legs and shaped with sloped shoulders ("viola da gamba"). They both enjoyed great success and wide use, but over time the instruments held in the arms became more popular and led to the development of the violin in and around 1550.
Marco Cara- lyra da braccio
The classic master period of Italian violin making stretched from the 16th to the 18th century. Famous luthiers included the Guarneri, Amati, da Salo, Ruggieri and Micheli families along with Antonio Stradivari and Jacob Stainer, among others. Though players have preserved many of these treasured violins through the years, they are in limited supply and worth astronomical amounts today.
Northern Italy had two regions that excelled in luthier skill in the earlier part of this 200 year "golden era" range: Brescia and Cremona. Milan and Venice also were important locations for stringed instrument building. Brescia was the first to emerge, and its famous stringed instrument school and workshop bred a generation of innovative and highly skilled artisans.
The credit for the first violin is usually given to a Cremonese luthier named Andrea Amati who had made his name originally as a lute builder. He created at least two three string violins in the 1540s. He was then commissioned to build one of the first four-string violins by the wealthy Medici family in the 1550s. Though the instrument was intended initially for professional street musicians, it became a favorite of aristocratic amateurs who had money to spend in the instrument shops.
The two earliest examples of violins that survive today were both crafted by Amati in the mid 16th century.
The “Greffuhle” violin is one of only 11 decorated
Stradivarius instruments still around. (Smithsonian)
Antonio Stradivari, another famed luthier, learned his trade as an apprentice in the workshop of Nicolo Amati, a grandson of Andrea Amati who was active through much of the 18th century. But he added his own discoveries in varnish and body design to the skill he gained in Amati's shop.
The violin became a central part of the orchestra in the 1600s, popularized by composers such as Monteverdi.
Through the centuries, the violin evolved considerably and went through one major transformation. Originally the neck was shorter and the instrument had gut strings. Some versions had only three strings. The most sweeping change happened in the 1800s, when a change in the accepted pitch of the violin resulted in luthier modifications to almost all existing violins. A centimeter was added to the neck and fingerboard to allow for the change and the bass bar was increased in weight to allow for more string tension. Strings are usually made of steel now.
One famous historic violin is stored today under close guard at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Built by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and almost never played, it is preserved as an example of how his instruments looked and sounded in a like-new condition. This unique and uniquely valuable violin, called the Messiah-Salabue Stradivarius, left Stradivari's workshop upon the master's death in 1737 and passed through several hands before arriving as a donation at the museum in the 20th century. According to reports, the gift came with a proviso that the violin never be played.
A great deal of research and experimentation has gone into trying to recreate the qualities of golden period violins using modern materials and methods, but the original instruments are still highly prized.
Stradivari violin, "The Antonius," played by Eric Grossman
The violin continues to evolve today with innovative designs in electric violins that can be played with amplification and effects.

Famous Players


The violin is not only used in classical music, it is also a popular sound for jazz, bluegrass, rock, folk and country music.
Famous classical violin players include Pablo de Sarasate, Yahudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Giuseppe Tartini, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, Arcangelo Corelli, Itzhak Perlman, Joseph Joachim, Antonio Vivaldi and even Wolfgang Mozart. Niccolo Paganini is thought by many to be the ultimate classical violin player and composer, as he wrote and flawlessly performed some of the most challenging repertoire available for the violin.
There are many notable jazz violinists, including Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Jean Luc-Ponty, Ray Nance, Svend Asmussen, Federico Britos and Regina Carter.
Well known country and folk violinists include Charlie Daniels, Dale Potter, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Roy Acuff, Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Tommy Vaden and Alison Krauss.

About The Sweet Music Studio

The Sweet Music Studio provides private and group music lessons on mandolin-family instruments and violin family instruments.   Swee...