Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Terry Bales electric mandolin

Sometimes the pursuit of electric mandolins makes me feel a bit like a cryptozoologist—you know, those folks who spend their lives tramping around the globe in pursuit of undocumented animal species. There are times when I'm not sure whether a particular instrument is an okapi—something that exists, but is just hard to find—or a Bigfoot—something that in all likelihood resides only in the realm of legend and hoax.

But I'm happy to report that the case of Eldorado Springs, Missouri luthier Terry Bales has now been resolved: Most definitely an okapi. And worth tracking down. In all my years of hunting electric mandolins, I have seen a secondhand Bales for sale only once—which suggests that the owners of these instruments know they've got a good thing and aren't about to let it go.

Terry's had some periods of inactivity over the past few years—which only adds to the mystique—but currently is tooled up and building his excellent semi-hollow electrics. The one he sent is a 4-string mandolin; he also builds mandola-scale instruments and will add a 5th string if requested.

In terms of styling and appearance, there's a strong Fender influence on Terry's work, but this mandolin—with its single cutaway, F-hole, and 1 7/8" body depth—seems to draw as much from the Thinline Telecaster guitar as from the Mandocaster. The chambered body is carved from a mahogany block; the top is bookmatched spalted maple in its natural color, with just a light stain applied to enhance the grain. The bolt-on neck is natural curly maple. There's a 3-ply tortoiseshell plastic pickguard, and a rosewood fretboard with "small guitar" frets—about the same size as banjo fretwire, i.e., bigger than standard mandolin frets but smaller than standard guitar frets. The pickup is a GFS Fatboy dual rail humbucker. Nickel hardware includes a through-body bridge, tone & volume controls, individual Grover tuners, and a nifty roller-style string tree. The instrument comes in a Superior padded gig bag.

At 1 3/16", the nut is just a hair on the wide side, which allows Terry to open up the string spacing a little. It's a noticeable difference from the spacing I'm accustomed to, but once my left hand adjusted, I found that it allows for clean picking and some magnificent string-bending opportunities. And if you want to try some fingerstyle mandolin playing, this might be the instrument for you.

Many e-mandos with twin-rail pickups have a coil-splitting switch of some kind, enabling the player to pull different tones from the pickup by changing the wiring. This one doesn't—that's the bad news. The good news is that the pickup sounds magnificent anyhow, and the mandolin is remarkably feedback-resistant for a hollow instrument. At moderate volume levels you get a "clean" tone suitable for country or Delta blues, but if you crank the pickup into overdrive, you can play electric blues or rock'n'roll without really needing an effects pedal.

The okapi, by the way, is now bred in captivity in Africa and is a fairly common animal to see in larger zoos. Although it was clearly depicted in ancient Egyptian art, it took Westerners about 2,400 years to find and document one. But you needn't wait that long to add a Terry Bales electric mandolin to your menagerie. He reports that his Web site will be back online this summer. Meanwhile, you can find his contact information here, along with more photos.


Sunday, March 01, 2009

J. L. Smith 5-string mandolin review 2

"What is that thing?"

"That's beautiful."

"Wow, check it out."

Just a few of the comments I heard about this J. L. Smith mandolin during the recent Wintergrass festival in Tacoma, Washington. Bringing a table full of electric mandolins to a bluegrass festival is a bit like trying to sell rosaries at a Baptist youth camp, but I did it anyway. And this Smith stopped people in their tracks all weekend long.

It's easy to see why. The Tele-shaped solid mahogany body is finished in an attractive aqua blue, with a handsome tortoiseshell plastic pickguard. Fit and finish are immaculate — no tool marks, blemishes, or boo-boos anywhere. Right down to little details like the bone caps on the tone and volume knobs and the elegant script on the headstock logo decal, this is a mandolin designed to please the eye.

The gentleman responsible for this fine instrument is John L. Smith of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. You can joke about a guy having such an ordinary name, but his mandolins are no joke, and they're nothing ordinary. And they don't just look nice, they play nice. Out of the box, the Smith had perfect low action and the intonation was dialed in, right on the nose. The one-piece maple neck is comfortable, the frets are nicely dressed, the string spacing is optimal. Everything is right where it should be.

I was glad to see that John is using the EMG Select humbucking pickup. I well remember how good that pickup sounded in my old Gerry Collyard 8-string, and it sounds even better here. I believe John upgraded to a 500K capacitor on this instrument, and it has resulted in plenty of oomph to the signal, even on the E string. And thanks to a fully copper-shielded pickup cavity, this instrument produces no "buzz," no "hum," no extraneous noise of any kind. Just pure tone.

In fact, I tested this Smith against several other 5-strings, and it led the pack in lack of ambient noise as well as in sustain and feedback tolerance (i.e., the maximum volume to which you can crank it before it feeds back). If you need to play very loud and look very good, this is the e-mando you want.

I can't really find fault with any aspect of this mandolin, other than to note that it might appeal to a few more players if John offered a comfort-contoured body as well as a straight slab cut. Judging from his work, John is a perfectionist and I'm sure we'll see further refinements in his design as time passes — but let's not take anything away from what he's doing now. It's stunning. If these particular appointments don't float your boat, John offers several custom options as well.

With the bigger-name makers now charging more than $1,000 for an equivalent instrument, a Smith is an excellent value at $699 for a 4-string and $799 for a 5-string. It comes with an optional Access rectangular hardshell case for an additional $99.

You might be wondering whether any of those bluegrassers stopped gawking at this mandolin long enough to buy it. Sad to say — no, they didn't. (Their loss.) After test-driving it for a month, I'm reluctantly sending it back to John, as I agreed to, but don't fret — if you want to buy it, or one like it, you can reach John through his Web site.


——Martin Stillion

Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: J. L. Smith electric mandolin

John Smith should put a warning on his electric mandolins. When I first plugged my new J.L. Smith Custom into my preamp—which was plugged into my Ultrasound 100-watt amp, with the settings at the normal level that I use for my other electric instruments—I just about blew the speaker out. It's that hot. And I mean that in a good way. It doesn't need a preamp. It has power to burn.

The other thing that first strikes you about the J.L. Smith is its simple beauty. It is truly a work of art. Mine is a very retro-looking aqua Tele style with a cream pickguard. It screams Ventures or Buddy Holly. He also makes them in light blue, cream, and arctic white. Judging from the pictures on his website, they're all beautfully made. This man is a craftsman and artist and really pours his heart and soul into these instruments.

If I seem to be gushing here, I apologize. But I'm that impressed. I could talk about the details, like the rosewood fretboard, the EMG humbucker pickup, or the Jerman bridge, but you can read all that stuff on his website. I also found Mr. Smith to be very easy to deal with. He was fast returning messages, and even called a couple of times to make sure we were on the same page detail-wise.

Of course, the main test of an instrument is how it sounds. And here the Smith shines again. Besides the aforementioned power, the Smith has a tone reminiscent of an electric guitar, rather than a mandolin. It has sustain up the wazoo. I'm not a huge effects guy, but have played the Smith with some reverb and it definitely rocked. I have some other well-known electric mandolins, and the Smith pretty much blows them away.

So is there any trouble in paradise? Well, after two months of gigging with the Smith, the only problem I could find was that the bridge saddle adjustment screws occasionally loosen and require tightening with a small wrench. This was predicted by John in his note to me that came with the mandolin, along with a small wrench. He said a drop of Loctite would remedy this after I got them where I wanted them. I haven't done this yet, and keep the wrench handy. A small price to pay indeed.

And speaking of prices, John sells his 4-string for $699 and a 5-string for $799. An optional hard case goes for $99. So if a new electric mandolin is in your future, do yourself a favor and contact J.L. Smith. You will not be disappointed.

——Steve "Chief" Johnson, Duluth, Minn.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eva Holbrook: The Very Last Dream

Eva Holbrook
The Very Last Dream
In Toon

It's a tough world for teen pop singers, those most vulnerable inhabitants of the "long plastic hallway," as Hunter S. Thompson reputedly characterized the music business. Especially for the girls. To garner sufficient attention for themselves, they have to fight with their record labels over their weight, or stagger around in a black bikini with a hangover at the VMA awards, or bring their own hairstylists to the rehab clinic. Without engaging in such outré behavior, how can a young chanteuse hope to distinguish herself?

Here's a thought: She can learn to play an instrument, and get by on talent.

Consider young Eva Holbrook. No, you won't find her name in the gossip columns or the police blotter. You will find it attached to her new solo disc, The Very Last Dream — one of the most refreshing albums of the year. It's the rare 18-year-old who has her own idiosyncratic vocal and playing style and an album's worth of strong original material and conspicuous talent and a seafoam-green Schwab electric mandolin. But that's Eva.

Actually, Eva was 17 when she wrote this stuff, but it shows in only one respect: the lyrics are teen poetry. Even so, it's teen poetry that's far too thoughtful for the bubblegum crowd. If she sticks with it, she'll come into her own as a mature songwriter in a few more years. Eva's breathy, winsome singing voice is so pleasant that it easily makes up for the occasional clunky turn of phrase, and you know she'll be able to carry off more nuanced material in the future.

Half the tracks are instrumentals, giving Eva the chance to display her considerable chops, both as a composer and a player. I hereby nominate her for the title Teen Queen of Crosspicking — that marvelous technique where the pick floats rapidly from string to string, churning out a cascade of arpeggiated notes while the left hand hardly moves. On either the Schwab or her acoustic Weber, fast, clean crosspicking is one of Eva's trademarks. Check out the title track to hear her crosspick the Schwab, or dig "Tuscany" to catch her putting the Weber through its paces. We also get to hear the Schwab chug away on "Glass Circus" and absolutely shred on "Born of Jets."

Some people might think that touring with one's sisters and dad in a pop band that plays church basements and coffeehouses would be a prescription for dreadful music. But instead this record is loaded with originality and accomplished musicianship. Eva practices her mandolins three to four hours a day and it shows. Now that Nickel Creek is all grown up and disbanding, it's time for someone else to pick up the grasspop banner. Might as well be this kid. Do her a favor and yourself an even greater favor, and pick up The Very Last Dream from CD Baby.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rich DelGrosso: Get Your Nose Outta My Bizness

Rich DelGrosso
Get Your Nose Outta My Bizness

Once in a while, you've gotta make an exception. So here I am, reviewing Rich DelGrosso's CD, even though it's not electric.

At least, not electric in a strictly literal sense. There's enough energy and vitality in this recording to power a small city. So why bother plugging in the mandolin? Rich plays through a pickup when he needs to, but in the studio you don't need to. Electric guitar and bass show up on a couple of tracks, but by and large this is an acoustic CD.

A W.C. Handy award winner, Rich is well known as a top-flight blues guitarist and educator. But he's also spent years soaking up mandolin know-how from the earlier generation of blues mando masters. Rich was able to study with Howard Armstrong and Yank Rachell before they died — and via recordings, he's absorbed ideas from other greats, such as Johnny Young, Carl Martin, and Charlie McCoy. He even has a blues mandolin method book forthcoming from Hal Leonard later in 2006.

Rich's primary instrument on this disc is a teens Gibson A-model with the classic, warm oval-hole tone you'd want for a recording like this one. (It also happens to have remarkable volume and projection — I've heard him play it live.) On two of the tracks, however, he's playing one of the new wood-body resophonic mandolins introduced by National in 2005 — which, by the way, easily eclipse vintage Nationals for tone and playability.

If any doubt remains as to whether the mandolin is a viable blues instrument, Rich lays it to rest with Get Your Nose Outta My Bizness. On most of the cuts where he plays mandolin, Rich doesn't even bother with a guitar track. A superb rhythm player, he carries the groove on the mandolin, often backed just by bass and drums. Born in the Midwest, Rich seems most comfortable with Chicago-style blues, but let's be careful not to generalize: this recording encompasses all the various "neighborhood" grooves (Southside, Eastside, etc.) that originate in ChiTown.

When it's time to solo, Rich does so with authority and panache. His mandolin leads are full of strong melodic ideas, meticulous phrasing, tricky crosspicking, and just the right amount of tremolo for color. If you don't think it's possible to bend notes on a mandolin, Rich will be happy to prove you wrong — and make it sound easy. He's the first blues mandolinist I've heard who's completely mastered this difficult art. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his fine guitar playing or the tasteful work of the supporting cast, notably Pinetop Perkins on piano.

That said, let's not forget that it's mostly a vocal CD, and Rich's vocals are gravy. He has an expressive, gravelly baritone, terrific timing, and abundant humor. Whereas the songs are mostly covers, Rich has gone a bit off the beaten track to collect them — so it's not likely that you've heard most of them before. Lyrics are standard blues fare: hard luck and unfaithful women, but the warmth and wit of Rich's voice succeed in selling the material.

By any standard, this is a fine work from an artist who deserves a wider audience — and if you happen to be interested in what's possible on a mandolin, you've gotta have this. Buy it directly from Rich. In a previous review I suggested that Billy Flynn's recent CD set a 21st-century milestone for blues mandolin. And it does, but Rich has already eclipsed it.

Emando content: None, but don't let that stop ya.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Billy Flynn: Chicago Blues Mandolin

Billy Flynn
Chicago Blues Mandolin
Easy Baby

The spirit of Yank Rachell and Johnny Young lives on Green Bay, Wisconsin bluesman Billy Flynn. The erstwhile sideman and sometime bandleader is most frequently found playing guitar on the Chicago blues circuit, but as he proves on his new release, Chicago Blues Mandolin, he's absorbed the mandolin vocabulary of Rachell and Young, and has begun to make it his own.

Billy wrote all 10 numbers on this disc (one of which appears in two different versions), sings, and evidently plays all the instruments (mandolin, guitar, resophonic slide guitar, bass, drums, and harp), except for help from Aaron Moore on piano on two cuts. All the tracks were laid in two days, which is no mean feat. Billy's e-mando, as pictured on the cover, is a Rogue—a brand name used by Musician's Friend for Asian factory-made A-style mandolins with magnetic pickups. He tunes it a half step flat, to F#C#G#D#—or a whole step above Rachell's preferred EBF#C# tuning.

Just so you know my biases, I'm not too fond of Asian factory mandolins in general. One in 50 might have some desirable tonal characteristics, but when I hear one I usually come away disappointed. Billy's Rogue sounds a bit stiff at times, and I keep wanting to hear what he could do with a better instrument. However, I might be tempted to trade one of my fancy expensive e-mandos for a Rogue if it meant I could play it like Billy. And after all, Rachell and Young both played inexpensive mandolins for most of their careers.

The first cut, the instrumental "Mandolin Special," exemplifies what I'm talking about. It's a tasty concoction of signature licks from Billy's two muses, and he plays it flawlessly, but the Rogue's a bit pinched and nasal, a tad mechanical, and not excessively expressive. Furthermore, its pickup doesn't respond evenly, so there's a slight volume drop whenever Billy ventures down on the lower strings. Billy's guitar playing is fluid and relaxed throughout the disc (witness his fine guitar solo on "Jackson Street"), and I'd like to hear him bring some more expressive tools, such as bending and vibrato, over from guitar to mandolin (yes, that is possible, at least on some mandolins).

The mandolin break on "Why Did You Go?" sounds a lot more spontaneous, and throughout the disc there's plenty of expert rhythm and backup mandolin to support Billy when he's soloing on harp or guitar, or laying down another tough-luck lyric in his world-weary baritone. The concluding instrumental, "Billy's Mandolin Boogie," is a barnburner, with lots of lower-string drones supporting the melody. Not quite as tricky as a Jethro Burns chord solo, but lots of fun nonetheless. Tonally, however, the material simply deserves a better instrument.

I have several Yank Rachell recordings, and I must confess that some of them have a few too many rough edges for me. So I appreciate Billy's professionalism on this disc: everything's tight, in tune, well rehearsed, and tastefully arranged. I am aware of a few other blues mandolinists keeping the faith for Yank and Johnny, but so far only Billy and Rich DelGrosso have delivered full-length records focused on the mandolin (at least as far as I know). This CD sets an early 21st-century milestone for the genre, and belongs in the collection of any fan (heck, it might earn the genre some new fans). You can buy it directly from Billy. I hope it's just the beginning of big things for him, and for electric blues mandolin.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Michael Lampert: Blue Gardenia

Michael Lampert
Blue Gardenia
Sojourner Records

L.A. electric mandolinist Michael Lampert is back with more of the tasteful, graceful jazz that made his previous solo disc, Jacaranda, such a pleasure to listen to. While his style hasn't changed much, this release does find Lampert pointed in some new directions.

For one thing, he's subtracted the electric guitar of Tom Bethke from his band, replacing it with Vern Waldron's delicate piano work. (There's also a new drummer, Jeff Fish.) Listeners will no longer face the challenge of trying to tell the mandolin and guitar apart. Bethke does appear twice on nylon-string guitar, a timbre that doesn't compete with the lush electric sound of Lampert's Schwab mandolin.

Furthermore, whereas Jacaranda was a collection of originals, Blue Gardenia focuses more on others' compositions, although Lampert's taste remains eclectic. "East of the Sun" is probably the closest thing to a jazz standard on the disc, and there's a delightful version of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" where bassist Timothy Emmons takes quite a ride. Lampert's clean, perfectly balanced plectrum attack and precisely swung eighth notes put quite a shine on the tunes he's culled from the dustier corners of the jazz songbook.

Lampert does contribute two originals: "La-Dee-Da" is a slow, simmering blues that'll make you long for pit barbecue, while the bright, ambling "Animation" demonstrates his ability to start a solo unobtrusively and gradually turn up the heat. As with the previous disc, Blue Gardenia gravitates toward understated, medium-tempo arrangements, yet earns the serious listener's respect: there's not a pretentious, sentimental, or cloying moment to be found.

While Lampert isn't quite all alone in his field (New York mandolinist Andrew Hendryx covers similar sonic territory), he is a trailblazer both among jazz artists and mandolin players. And that's a rare, commendable achievement. If you enjoy jazz and appreciate mandolin playing, then Blue Gardenia belongs in your bouquet. Pick it up at Mid-Continent Music or Elderly Instruments.

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