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A Loar Diary
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 ihad 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.

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.
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.

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 Lloyd Loar.

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 another 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 sense advice- 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 with 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 pounds".

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 76547.
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.