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.