Feb. 18th: My Mandolin’s Birthday


     With great enthusiasm, I celebrate the Eighteenth of February; that is the date inscribed on the label of many of my very favorite mandolins.  Today marks the birth of these mandolins, exactly 92 years ago today.  Below the date, there is the famous autograph of Lloyd Loar, the legendary acoustic engineer of the Gibson company that designed the style 5 series of instruments.  “Lloyd Loar”, in some circles, is a name that bears the same relationship to the world of mandolin as “Stradivarius” does to violin.


“...Have you ever noticed that the Loars with the light coloring have a bright sound and those with the deep brown, almost black hues have darkness embedded in their song?…"

     I am not alone in celebrating this date.  Over the past few decades, mandolins of this birth date have entered into our musical consciousness with exquisite renderings by such brilliant mandolinists as Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Andy Statman, John Reischman, Tom Rozum, Aubrey Haynie, Gene Johnson, Steve Smith, Danny Jones and Frank Wakefield. I often perform on stage and in studio with one of these favorite mandolins. David Grisman’s first Lloyd Loar was of this date, and can be heard on many of his Early Dawg recordings.  And in the first generation of F-5 players in the 1920s, it was the mandolin chosen by Walter K. Bayer, Percy V. Lichtenfels, Rybka and even Lloyd Loar himself.

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     Allow me to back up a little.  There was a time when many of us dreamed of getting a mandolin as close as possible in sound, date and serial number to the famous F-5 played by Bill Monroe:  July 9, 1923, #73987.  This was the Holy Grail of mandolins.  What an extraordinary batch of mandolins were signed with that date! As far as getting on stage and directing a banjo-driven Bluegrass band, there are very few mandolins with more presence, focus and penetration as these July 9s.  I love this sound and I relish the memories of hearing and seeing Bill Monroe in his prime setting the stage on fire, mastering song, sidemen, audience and that magical mandolin all from center stage.

Looking at this now, in the context of how far we have come musically, there is a wider world of sound coming from the mandolin and where there once were fireworks, there is now also subtlety, nuance and delicacy.  Enter the dark mandolins.  And here is another thought for this date:  Have you ever noticed that the Loars with the light coloring have a bright sound and those with the deep brown, almost black hues have darkness embedded in their song?  The February 18s are dark. This is what you get with the best of this batch in color and sound:  dark, moody, rich, deep, chocolaty. The expressiveness of these mandolins is a wonder to behold.  They have a palette of deepest hue that oozes multidimensionality, and thus fit perfectly with the music of Thile and Marshall. The masters of our current world are leading us to a wider range of sound and composition. These are the contemporary virtuosi that choose the February 18ths.

Next question:  How is it that the dark finish gives a dark sound.  Is it the finish?  In my work over the last half century, I am so fortunate to have had the honor of examining many, many original Loar instruments.  And I have not taken that honor lightly, or worn the mantle carelessly... 

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Pictured below: Tony plays a Feb. 18th, 1924 Gibson F-5 at Merlefest 2010 on stage with Rad Andy and Jenna Paulette

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     ...One thing I have clearly noticed is the evolution of the placement of the tone bars over the 2 and 1/2 years that Loar held court in Kalamazoo.  Also, possibly an even great honor, I have had the pleasure of meeting many of the first generation of mandolinists that decided to extend deep into their purses to purchase (or not purchase) these instruments.  One recurring theme among them was that, after 400 years of hearing delicate chimes come out of the oval sound hole of a mandolin, the bright, loud, focused fundamental-rich f-hole sound of the early Loars was quite an adjustment.  Some insisted it did not fit their music.  In response to this, the tone bars began to be shifted and the tap tuning adjusted to create a different sound.

Pictured right: The Rybka Imperial Mandolin Orchestra, Portland, OR circa 1925.  Seated, left, with the round glasses holding the K-4 Mandocello is Joseph F. Rybka; seated, center,  Charles Kruger, holding the Rybka Gibson F-5 signed Feb. 18, 1924 

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Also, with what I think must have been similar intent, Loar made available the design innovations of his former employers, the Virzi Brothers.  Of the 46 F-5s known to bear the February 18, 1924 date, over half were issued with a factory installed “Virzi Tone Producer”.  The “Virzi” is a secondary vibrating surface suspended inside the tone chamber of the instrument.  In plain words, it is a very thin piece of spruce that is attached by a tripod of wooden feet.  
Properly installed as to design, the Virzi should have two feet positioned in the center of the underside of the top, attached exactly beneath the outer feet of the base of the bridge.  The single foot is back toward the end pin, positioned in the back center of the underside of the top of the mandolin.  As any experienced luthier can tell you, you cannot put a Virzi in a mandolin if the tone bars are spaced for the original 1922 design.  The tone bars are too close together and there is no room for the Virzi between them.  It is my observation that Gibson did a few Virzi retrofits into F-5s that were originally built for non-Virzi by simply sticking it in backwards, putting the  two feet of the tripod toward the tailpiece.  However, this defeats the acoustical theory of the design of the Virzi.  To do a retrofit with the Virzi oriented correctly, one would have to remove the back and reinstall the tone bars (which would be a laborious and invasive process).

bilde Over the years, the February 18 Loars that did not receive a Virzi are more highly regarded.  I think part of the reason is that the spacing of the tone bars and the tap tuning had already achieved the darkness of tone, and yet the further added nuance of the Virzi may have appeared, at least to the one sitting behind the mandolin, to have removed a little too much of the focus and power. One other observation for me is that some of my favorite mandolins from this batch are Virzi-Removed, including the ones played by Mike Marshall, Frank Wakefield, Early Dawg, Rybka and my own favorite, Cleveland.  This might be because the tone bars are further apart than a mandolin designed to be issued without Virzi, thus allowing the bridge area to move more freely, in a similar way that the design of the forward X on a Martin guitar creates a sound so alive.  Indeed, the Virzi-Removed F-5 has yet another tone color, a slightly different sound.

Enough tech talk!  It is my suggestion that now, we get out our mandolins, whatever model, style or year they may be and play a tune in honor of the wonderful innovations of Lloyd Loar and his amazing team of builders there in Kalamazoo; and/or get out our favorite recordings of those who put those mandolins to such good use, and let us all celebrate the 18th of February!  

               -Tony Williamson, Feb. 18 2016  


 © Rad Andy 2015