Copyright 2004 Dan Beimborn
I was standing in the international arrivals waiting area, trying
very hard to be patient, but I was still checking the clock more than once
a minute. I tried all the usual distractions: leaf through discarded newspapers,
stare at the arrivals screen, buy a cup of coffee... I even tried counting the
people there, but I lost count somewhere after 200. I was waiting for
someone I'd never met before to
come out of the double doors with a 1924 Lloyd Loar signed Gibson
Fern F5 on his back. This Loar belonged to another person I'd never
met, who was loaning it to me for a recording project.
So many people had come out now, and the plane had been on the ground for
so long, that I was starting to get nervous. Were they accosted in
customs? Did they get on the plane? Did they make for Brazil with the
mandolin to start a new life? Was it all a dream?
After another 12 hours (or 20 minutes) passed, I finally
spotted Bruce and Becky. Bruce was easily identified as the only
person with a Calton mandolin case on his back, and the Mandolin
Cafe sticker that was stuck on the case proudly
proclaimed that here was a mandolin player! We all introduced ourselves,
shook hands, and ambled over to the side of
the arrivals hall. Bruce handed me the case right there in the
throngs of people, and my stewardship began.
I opened the case immediately, and I caught a
glimpse of the beautiful dark brown finish. I popped it out of the case
in a hallway in the airport, and I had a very quick frightened look at it.
In less than 10 seconds, I had latched it firmly back into the case. The
first time you touch one of these you are extremely nervous, as
if suddenly it may explode, or someone will bump you, or somehow your
hands might contaminate it.
Several months earlier, I had opened my email inbox to see a note from
Scott Tichenor with "Loar" in the subject line. Scott was writing
to let me know that what appeared to be an undocumented Loar had
surfaced in Washington state. The holy grail find, the Loar in the
garage! I had a flurry of emails with Darryl Wolfe, and some digital
pictures in the inbox, and suddenly it was completely undeniably
true. I felt like Howard Carter opening King Tut's tomb when I saw
the picture of Lloyd Loar's signature. The instrument looked like
a nearly new mandolin with only minimal signs
that it had ever been played. The original owner (Jack's grandfather, Charles
Carter) had passed away some 60 years before, having put less than 10
years' worth of careful playing time in on the instrument.
The owners are understandably quite overwhelmed by the find. It's
a bit like winning a lottery you never knew you had entered. The
intrinsic value of the instrument is different for everyone, in
their case it's a physical link to their own past, almost a piece
of their Grandfather's self. He was a professional player on the
radio in Pennsylvania back in the day, and took loving care of this
instrument. There is some fret wear, and a couple tiny dings,
but hardly any other signs
of playing on the instrument itself, it's a time capsule.
I was flying over to visit my family in the USA, so I offered to bring over a Calton
case for Jack. This will help to help protect the F5 better than the original
case- the original rectangular Loar cases are beautiful, but can expose the peghead
of the instrument to snapping if the case falls. I shipped the Calton over to Jack,
and he was very appreciative of the help. It's fun to be involved in something like this,
as if I've just instantly changed from a fascinated hobbyist to a museum curator.
Back to the airport, we've just gotten on to the train. I've got Lloyd
on my shoulder, and suddenly the world seems like an obstacle course.
There's a distinct terror you experience carrying something of that
value, you can sense the personal connection the owners have with it,
it's significance to the music world, and the pure cash value. I've
carried mandolins around London before, but this feels much different.
Bruce and Becky were staying in a hotel about halfway between the airport
and my place in London, so we parted at Paddington station. Suddenly I was
terrified to be carrying a mandolin worth as much as my house down
into the London Underground, alone.
I had the strap over my shoulder, but still my right arm was
cradling the case. I was trying not to look conspicuous, as if the whole
world could see right through the case and knew what was inside it. I tried
to be blasé on the tube with it, but I ended up holding it on my
lap, both arms wrapped tightly around the case.
In the months before this instrument arrived in London, I traded
several emails with Jack, helping him to insure it, advising him
on things as mundane as how to take it in and out of the case in
the safest way (don't press down hard near the F-holes) to more
complicated issues such as humidity control. At some point Jack
let me know that his family was interested in loaning this Loar out
to a musician who could make good use of it, ideally to show up in a
recording. Part of me suspected that this would also give them much needed
time to recover their wits and let the reality of ownership settle in.
I suggested several friends of mine who are professional players, all
of whom oddly passed on this chance of a lifetime.
I was barely through the door of the apartment and I stopped on the
threshhold and opened the case. Out came Lloyd. I panicked, put him back in the case, and
took my coat off. I actually latched the case for this maneuver, then
opened it again 15 seconds later. Instead of strumming it, I simply
stared, taking in all the details I've become
acquainted with over the last several months from running a website filled
with pinup images of old mandolins. Seeing one "in the flesh" is
fantastic, it is beautiful to hold, and has a wonderful smooth texture.
Because of the huge aura and mystique around these things, it's
a large mental leap to picture that you could be the person
to play one, so I
surprised myself when I finally suggested that perhaps I could
make use of this instrument. I had been planning a recording,
and I had a Bill Monroe tune on my list.. Jack surprised me
even more by saying yes.
As I lifted it out of it case for the first time at home, I found that
it is surprisingly light. The weight of the tuners and cast tailpiece
on my own F5 make quite a difference in the overall heft. Adding
to the feeling of lightness is ease at which it vibrates, it seems
almost like the wood isn't completely solid in spots. The top and back
are alive with vibration like few other instruments I've ever held.
The binding mitres fascinated me, especially how perfectly the
black/white/black lines match up. The Fern on the peghead grabbed my
attention next, it has an interesting variation compared to others I've
seen pictures of. I started to look at deails on the tuner plates too- there
are highly detailed stampings of leaves that I've never noticed in a
photo before this moment. Finally, I think about getting a pick out.
The mandolin was actually in tune, which surprised me. There was a lovely
"thoonk" sound wherever I touched it with my unfamiliar pick.
Immediately, I noticed that the bridge
was set very low, at the extreme lowest point the adjusting wheels allowed.
I could barely get a note out of it, and even with my lightest touch it would
buzz. Instinct took over and I noticed after I'd slackened the
strings and started moving the saddle what I was doing, and I panicked again
briefly. Even though it's something I had done many times before, it
still gave me a chill. The saddle had warped a tiny bit over time,
with a twist in it that makes either the treble or bass lean forward.
Quite a bit of tweaking and I got the
action raised. I maneuvered it so that as tension increased, the saddle
crept forward, but not as far forward as it was before.
I gave it another strum. A much more powerful note came back, and the buzz was
gone. I felt my neck tingle as I realized suddenly that I was the first
person to be able to play this instrument with a usable setup in 60 years. I
was only the second person to the original owner to play it for more than a
few minutes at a time. 80 years before, Lloyd Loar was holding it. I played
for 3 hours without looking up, completely oblivious to the rest of the world.
After Jack offered to loan me this Loar, the practical issues of getting it
from Washington state to London seemed difficult to overcome. But then,
some very strange concidences began to appear.
I noticed a classified ad at the Mandolin Cafe
from Bruce Harvie, offering to bring a mandolin over to the UK for
anyone keen to take advantage of the UK/US exchange rate. He lives very
close to Jack. I looked at the calendar and I noticed that the day
Bruce and Becky were due to arrive in London was March 31st, 2004-
exactly 80 years after Jack's mandolin was signed and dated by
Bruce and Becky came to visit me at my place the next night.
I'd already snuck a two hour lunch from the
office that day to get more time in on Lloyd, who I've now started calling
"Floyd". I'm offered them beer and snacks, then started making small talk,
but it was all a dance to try
to ignore the Loar for a few minutes to be polite. Eventually the
conversation literally just stopped in the middle of a sentence, and
Bruce cracked open the case.
Quite a bit of playing was done that night. We tested it
it as if it was a new car, being careful not to take it up past 50 mph for
the first 2,000 miles.
The first instinct was still there, treating it with excessive
care as if it's not really a mandolin, but a delicate artifact.
My friend Craig from Germany made a spot decision to fly over for
the weekend to meet Floyd. He arrived, and the scene repeated-
creeping terror on first inspection followed by deeper and
deeper immersion. One difference was that Craig picked up the Loar and
made a very big production of sniffing it at the F-holes. Many
people (myself included) do this, it's a subconscious way to store the
finish, wood, and mustiness in your brain. Craig played a few tunes..
He and I share have a similar approach to playing, so I felt as though
I was hearing a reflection of myself in his playing.
Reflecting on the tone.. the things that make this mandolin special will
take a while to describe. When I first played it, I thought the G was a
bit quiet, but in the coming weeks as it re-awakened, I was to discover that
it has near-perfect balance in tone. Each string is as loud as each neighbor
when picked with the same velocity. The E string sounds like a grand piano,
a lovely "tung" sound, and almost the same note quality you'd hear on a
Steinway. The D and A strings are best played together, they boom and resonate
with a lovely clarity. The G has a growl. Slapping a chord or double stop on
it combines the sound of the notes with a "clunk" that sounds a little like
someone knocking a heavy wooden door with their knuckles.
This mandolin has a Virzi "tone producer", which is an old patented gizmo that
looks like a 3-footed oval disk hanging from the top. The marketing speak from
the day says it enhances overtones and smooths the savage notes. Their effect
is quite hotly argued about to this day, the majority seem to think they are
"tone reducers". This is the first Loar I've played, but it does not appear
to me that the Virzi is having a large negative effect. It mellows the tone,
perhaps trading some volume and clarity for overtones. Perhaps the muting effect
it has on the tone could be described as removing the spikes, or areas where the
instrument is louder in certain frequencies.
Craig and I decided that the bridge needed to be moved slightly, so all the
strings came off again. I carefully took the bridge apart to make sure the
posts were in nice and tight. I take a moment to photograph some details of it,
one that grabs my attention is the serial number of the mandolin is written
in pencil on the underside of the bridge. A bit of the twist and lean I
described earlier was caused by a bridge post that was
a bit loose. I tightened it and re-fitted the saddle, raising the action
hair in the process. It took several tests with new strings to get the
intonation right, and finally I re-strung it. This process took about an
hour and a half.
I'd never heard this instrument with new strings, and I was stunned
at the difference it makes. As I'd learn in the coming weeks, this Loar
demonstrates significant changes in tone when you follow the common
change the strings often, don't hold it tightly on your stomach, don't lean
your palm on the bridge, try to pick cleanly, etc. Each one of these things
has an immediate, huge effect on the tone.
I find that when I play other mandolins I can now get better tone out of
them. The subtlety of this was lost on me before, but the Loar has trained
me by responding so strongly to the right touch.
The new strings were just spectacular. Coupled with another slight tweak to
the action and bridge position, Floyd experienced a noticable increase
in volume. The harmonics and tone of the individual notes improved
again too. Craig and I played it the whole weekend, staying up
late strumming and experimenting with music in many genres. Think of
two kids locked away for a weekend in a toy store, and you'll begin to
imagine the thrill we had.
During the work week, I made a habit of walking home, having a quick
sandwich, and then playing Floyd for a longer "lunch" than I really
should have been taking.
Over the next weeks, I discovered that I really like having a
pickguard installed. I rest my knuckles on it and the top vibrates
much more freely. When I first played it, I'd hit that fretboard extension
the pick, but the Loar seems to respond best to having the strings hit with
just the tip of the pick. So my technique adjusted, and the clicking
noise of the pick hitting fretboard extension stopped. The pickguard is
a very big part of the tone. It stops me resting my right hand on the top,
and it makes it easier to pick in a sweet spot over the fretboard extension.
It sounds *much* more harsh when picked below this point, another subtlety
that was lost on me with other mandolins.
In general I find that the Loar trains you quite quickly to do things
in a certain way. The rewards are immediate. Experimenting with pick
position and strumming style is a much quicker process on a Loar. I find
that I've learned quite a bit about producing tone from having this for
a short while, stuff that I'm using on my other instruments now.
I took it out to Irish sessions on two occasions. I warned a
couple of friends who might realize what it was to not suddenly
scream out "oh my god a Loar" or anything like that. They each had
a go on it, but obviously they were worried and keen to hand it back
as soon as possible. For the same reasons I stated earlier, your first natural
instinct is to be afraid. I find that with proper coaxing, you can
eventually talk someone into having a longer try on it, but getting
past that nervous first impression takes a couple days really. An
older gentleman at the pub very subtly whispered "Son, you should be
careful with that mandolin, it's quite possibly worth hundreds of
Several weeks later, I took it out again to that same session. This time,
the response was much more mellow. It had become an accepted piece of magic
in the session. "Dan, make that Loar sing for us" is a comment I heard
that night, one that has burned a permanent smile in my memory now. I
find that it affects your confidence significantly when you play a very
fine instrument.. you don't allow yourself the luxury of blaming the
mandolin for problems. The difference between hearing about a "gold standard"
and experiencing one directly has a significant effect on your
confidence as a player. It's very easy to know the differences in what
a Loar vs another F5 can do, so you have a much smaller area of uncertainty
when you play.
The prices on these are sure going through the roof these days. I
can certainly see why they are so much in demand, but now that
I've had it in my care for a while I see it as a mandolin
first, not a symbol. They really like to be played, and often. The
difference in tone over the first couple weeks, then into the second
month is huge. It's sustaining longer, the notes have
"more meat in them", and it's getting even louder. It now takes only
about 10 minutes of playing to "wake it up" to it's full tone potential,
a process that is a little to do with the instrument itself warming up,
and a little bit of remembering exactly how to pick it.
The initial rush of excitement on Floyd has been replaced with diligent
practice now. The extra twinge of pleasure I get from the tone has not faded, it
still stretches my practice sessions much longer than they used to be.
I play late at night with soft pickstrokes, in the middle of the day
with fierce ones, and even have taken it out on the long train ride
home if the carriage isn't particularly full. I'm constantly tweaking
little settings on it like the little screws that hold the tuner buttons
in place (they like to come loose), the bolt that holds the pickguard on
(it rattles occasionally, tightening it is delicate as the nut has some
fragile silver plating on it that I don't want to scratch). The bridge
is still a bit warped and shall soon be replaced with one of
Darryl Wolfe's copies.
I spent the last weekend recording with my friend Craig Harbauer, both
of us taking a lot of time to just enjoy that Loar. I've noticed a big
change in the tone Craig gets from his own mandolin now that he's had
time on Floyd. We both have a better understanding of subtleties of tone
and setup now that we have played on such a spectacular instrument.
This time is bittersweet for me, as I'm taking it over to the States
in a week, but it's not coming home with me. The real joy will be a
chance to meet Jack and thank him in person. He and his wife Sharon
have cut through all the hype much faster than I did and seen the real
intrinsic value in this object, the making of music. For me, that has
been both the most difficult and the most rewarding lesson of borrowing
The Gibson F5 Mandolin refered to in this story is #76547. It was
signed and dated by Lloyd Loar on March 31,1924. The author, Dan Beimborn,
is working on a recording featuring several tracks with this mandolin
as the centerpiece. Many pictures of the mandolin can be seen at the
Mandolin Archive (http://www.mandolinarchive.com) under the heading
"The Schultz Loar"
The author of this article, Dan Beimborn,
has one CD in current release called Shatter
the Calm. The second CD is incomplete at the time of this writing, but
will include several tracks recorded on the instrument described here.