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