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November Update
 November 2014
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Upcoming Luthierie Camps...

       July 26 - 31, 2015

Tap Tuning:

Tools & Fixtures
Please visit our website or email Kali for more information about these programs. 

Dear Luthiers, 



I began writing this month's newsletter on our way back from the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, North Carolina (September 30 - October 5) where we launched our new Straight Up Strings for Banjo and had a chance to interact with many of our dear friends in the music industry.

This event was very well attended and Raleigh is a wonderful, clean, and friendly city to host such an event. The Convention Center is a wonderful space and is in close proximity to the event hotels. The IBMA Awards Show was held in the Memorial Theatre at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and was hosted by Jerry Douglas and Lee Ann Womack. If you have not already learned who the winners were for each category, you can read all about them here.
With so many friends there who were nominated, it is really difficult to single out any one performer or band as standing out foremost in my mind, but I would like to comment on the band that won Instrumental Band of the Year: Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. Aside from being outstanding musicians (which is why they truly deserved this year's award), Frank has been playing an F5 he made while attending one of our Luthierie Camps, and played this instrument when his band performed the closing act of this year's Awards Show. It was quite a thrill for Kali, Amy, and I to be in the audience to share in this exciting moment. While we're on the subject of Dirty Kitchen, Mike Mumford (Dirty Kitchen's banjo player, and the winner of IBMA's 2013 Banjo Player of the Year Award) triggered a very insightful conversation with me when we were together at the Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Oregon back in September, and I'd like to to share it with you this month.

So, congratulations to all recipients of this year's IBMA awards and a special round of applause to Frank and the Dirty Kitchen band. And thanks to all of you who came over to see us and talk about our new Straight Up Strings for Banjo. We had a fantastic response, met with a lot of folks, talked strings until we were almost hoarse, and had a great time!

While on the subject of Straight Up Strings for Banjo, I made a blunder last month and posted an illustration of a mandolin bridge when I clearly meant to post one of a banjo bridge. We actually caught it before any of you did, but too late to catch it before it reached your email. 

Here's the correct illustration of banjo bridge and as I hope it clearly shows, the focus for our Straight Up Strings development program was to provide you with banjo strings that compensate for the difference in energy transmission of those strings that rest over the bridge's feet as compared to those strings that sit over the bridge's arches. This is the identical theory that we have applied to the development of our Straight Up Strings for Mandolin that has been received with great response.

As you learned last month, Straight Up Strings for Banjo are now available from us and come in light, medium, and heavy. As a reminder, the string gauges in our sets are the result of us calculating the correct down pressures at the bridge for each string rather than just considering gauges alone, so the descriptions of light, medium, and heavy may be slightly different from what you have been accustomed to. Because of the slight difference in naming conventions, and to give you a better opportunity to test the strings that are right for you, Amy has developed a special Tri-Pak that she calls a "Mixed Bag." The Mixed Bag includes one set each of light, medium, and heavy banjo strings so that you can experiment, and it is offered at an attractively-reduced "try-me" price.

We are excited to announce that in addition to you purchasing directly from us, we have selected Elderly Instruments as our exclusive on-line reseller of Straight Up Strings.

For those folks who prefer that we ship through regular First Class Mail, Kali has prepared a check box when you order strings that will provide you with a $5.00 credit. The credit is applied after we receive your order (because our system automatically wants to calculate Priority Mail postage), and please be aware that this is only for string orders, not for combined orders or orders for other parts.

I would really like to personally hear from you once you try Straight Up Strings. It is important that we get your feedback and learn your honest comments. Please drop me an email once you have tried them.

While on the subject of strings, about a month ago, I posted a brief but interesting video about the modes of string vibrations to our YouTube page. The video was prepared in response to an interesting dialogue in a thread about string modes, and it shows the various orbits of a string when attacked at different places along its length as well as at different angles of attack. Since it was in response to that post, it begins by saying "... for my friends on BanjoHangout..." but even if you are a mandolin player or luthier, you still qualify as a friend :) and I'm sure you will find it interesting.

And finally, in more string news, you may have heard we announced three Straight Up String for Mandolin endorsers: Phil Barker (Town Mountain), Caleb Klauder (Foghorn Stringband, Caleb Klauder Country Band) and Adam Roszkiewicz (Front Country, Modern Mandolin Quartet). It's been rewarding to dialogue with these gentlemen, each of whom has his own expectations for strings -- and in each case, we've been the perfect match.

And though it appears the cold and rainy season may finally be upon us here in California, it's not too soon to start making summer plans. If you've been thinking about building a mandolin with us, our next Luthierie Camp is July 26-31, and we have some benches open. I know it seems early to be talking about July, but our Camps usually fill-up four or five months ahead of Camp. So, if you'd like to reserve a bench and begin the discussion with us, please email Kali.

Thanks for building with us...


P.S. It's mid-November, which means Cyber Monday is nearly upon us. For inquiring minds, we will be having a Cyber Monday sale again. Stay tuned.

P.P.S. We'll be at CBA's Great 48 in January to jam with friends, new and old! Be sure to connect and say hello. We will have our strings with us, if you're holding out until then!
Do you need to be "bilingual?"

Mike Mumford posed a very interesting question and
I mentioned earlier that I'd like to share it with you, and hopefully get some of your input. He and I have chatted quite a bit about luthierie and banjo construction (and I've had the pleasure of having Mike visit our shop). When we were together in Sisters, Oregon, we were talking generally about the great luthiers - and particularly about such greats as Amati (1596-1884), Stradavari (1644-1737), and Guarneri (1698-1774), and Mike posed the question, "Do you think those guys were musicians, and if so, how well do you think they played. And if they didn't play, how did they get input from accomplished performers so that they would know what to do or change or include in their building process?"

We sat there kind of staring at each other for a moment, not saying anything, and just contemplating the questions. We then both wondered whether their developments and advances in the acoustical attributes of their instruments came from their own senses and observations, or whether it came from the input of other accomplished musicians.

If their developments were the result of their own musicianship, how well did they play? Digging as far as I could, I have found nothing that suggests that any of these three luthierie giants were also giants as performers.

If their developments were the result of input from other musicians, just how did each interpret the others' needs and what was that dialogue like? And what was their reference point? What was "good?" What did "good" sound like? How did they know when hey got there? What was their frame of reference? Clearly, an artist couldn't say to Antonio Stradivari "Hey Tony, I'd like you to build me a violin that sounds like a Strad!"

Were Stradivari, or Guarneri as great a luthier as they were a musician? If not, which attribute was the greater, luthier or musician?

The discussion started as quasi-fun gibberish, but after 15 minutes of this kind of dialogue Mike and I just sat and looked at each other with blank stares. It's a very interesting topic - leave it to Mike to propose such a thing. And, as if that wasn't enough, Mike said "And how about today? Does that mean that every great banjo, mandolin, or guitar was made by a great performing artist, or at the very least someone who is a very highly accomplished musician? Or, if not," he went on, "what is that dialogue like between the accomplished musician and the luthier?"

It opens up a very interesting discussion, and I've been thinking about it ever since Mike posed the question. I've been building acoustic instruments for just over 50 years. I consider myself to be a reasonably accomplished banjoist and mandolinist, but I'm clearly not at the level of our IBMA award winning friends Frank Solivan and Mike Mumford. I'm rather confident that I know what sounds good, but there is no question in my mind that what sounds good to these old ears may not be what sounds good to another player.

While little is known of Orville Gibson's musicianship, we can easily see that had some astounding but very unusual ideas. But we also know that Orville had a rather serious mental illness and one can only wonder if his development of an elaborate mandolin with scrolls, points, and asymmetrical peghead was the result of his failings or his creativity, or both.

When Mike and I met at IBMA in October, we picked up right we left off, kicking back and forth this perplex of builder and performer, and just how their chemistries mix, and to what proportion the mixture needs to be. Can, in fact, the mixture be such that the luthier does not or cannot play the instrument he or she builds? Can he or she attribute voice to it if they do not know how to create the voice? Can he or she develop tone if they do not have control of the attack? Clearly, the performer does not have to be a luthier. One-sided, isn't it?

I had the chance to catch up with Tom Nechville (Nechville Banjos) in the Marriott lobby during IBMA, and somehow our discussion led to this very same topic. While we didn't have enough time to dig deeply into the subject, Tom likewise felt that better understanding the balance and communication between luthier and musician was an interesting topic. As he pointed out, it was kind of that old "chicken or egg" discussion.

As I believe most of you know, Lloyd Loar was not a luthier, but instead a highly accomplished musician who worked at Gibson and provided a roadmap for the Master Model instruments. I have owned and currently own a few prototype instruments of Loar's, and it is clear that he was not a craftsman (I don't mean to belittle him, he was a genius, but woodwork and luthierie just wasn't his forte). And yet, Loar-signed F5 mandolins are among the most valuable string musical instruments available today. Loar's interaction with the factory was very much akin to that of Les Paul except that Les lived in New Jersey and not in Kalamazoo as did Loar, and unlike Lloyd who was frequently at the plant, Les was there only occasionally over the years. And yet Gibson's incredible success with the Les Paul guitar line spans more than 50 years.

So, I would really enjoy having your input. How do you see the relationship of luthier to musician or musician to luthier embodied in the same person? Please email me - If I get enough substantial responses to share with you, I'd like to post them next month.
  Product Highlights

· Fret Setting Tool Part #830:
Our Siminoff fret setting tool. This fretting tool will not dent frets. Aluminum drift with 12° radiused face to match our radiused fretboards. (Use square side for setting frets in flat fretboards).
$16.45 plus P&H. Order Part #830.

· Concave Sanding Block, Part #1200:
Concave sanding block for preparing radiused fretboards with either 10" (254mm) or 12" (305mm) radiuses. Our sanding blocks are made of hardwood and are precision machined to their correct curvatures. Each block has two different curvatures; 10" on one side and 12" on the other. Includes four pieces of adhesive-back 3M Gold sandpaper (two pieces of 80-grit and two pieces of 120-grit). (Also see our diamond-surface cutting sheets.) $26.35 plus P&H. Order Part #1200.

· Binding Routing Tool, for newer Dremel® tools, Part #851:
Here's a tool developed by Roger Siminoff in 1965: Binding routing tool, second version, for series 100, 200, 300, and 4000 Dremel® tools, as well as Bufffalo® Tools hand tool, Craftsman® (9)61139 and (9)61121, and Grizzly® H3117. Our thread-on design replaces the thumb stop on above routers. Precision machined from solid aluminum. Center post is offset which enables you to cut a .090" binding channel on one side of the center post and a .060" binding channel on the other side when used with our #852 high-speed steel cutting bit. $39.55 plus P&H. Order Part #851.

 Luthier's Corner

A good friend, fellow luthier, and former Luthierie Camp attendee asked me to provide some information about Gibson's Argentine Grey finish for a mandolin he was building, and it seemed like a great topic for this month's Luthier's Corner.
Argentine Grey was a color introduced by Gibson in the late 1920s and featured on Style 6 and Style PT (a banjo with a scale length half way between plectrum and tenor) banjo models, as well as some guitar models for a brief period.

The Argentine Grey is a rather fugitive finish and has the wonderful attribute of appearing a bit different based on lighting, and how it is held. Here is a photo of the same original Gibson Style 6 tenor banjo neck intentionally taken in a few different lighting situations to show the variations that occur in different illumination. The color is basically an orange-ish yellow that ventures off into edge shades of grey (i.e., diluted black stain).

The curly figure is also highlighted with grey. To achieve this look, I'd recommend going over the whole neck first with a light wash of diluted black die and then using steel wool to cut back the surface grey stain, leaving the grey to only affect the curly grain of the wood. (For my coloring, I use Fiebings Leather Dies.)

It takes a bit of practice, but Argentine Grey is a beautiful finish, and can make a very interestingly-colored mandolin.