I turned to Tod and over my beer said, “I think I want a mandolin”.

He looked at me for a minute, not sure of what he’d just heard.

“I don’t want to spend a ton of dough on it, though. I’m basically just curious.”

“A what?”

“A mandolin,” I repeated. “You know, little, acoustic, hillbillies, like that.”

He got a quizzical expression on his face. “Ooh-kay,” he said skeptically. He sipped his beer, lit a cigarette.

It was a warm afternoon on the back patio at Linda’s. Tod, of course, knew a few people who were there already, hard at work proving their hipster credentials. He’d wandered around greeting people while I waited for him to settle down.

I don’t recall if we’d planned to get to together or just met on the street. It seems to me that this was about eight years ago.

At any rate, I helped myself to one of his cigarettes. “I don’t know why I want one,” I clarified. “I just do.”

“I’ve only actually held one once. I was helping this guy Terry, kind of an older ex-hippy guy, rewire an alternative school in my hometown, and for some reason he’d brought a mandolin with him. I think he showed me a couple of chords but I couldn’t figure it out – it was too different from guitar, so I couldn’t get it to make any good noise, just spronky spangs.”

Tod listened, deadpan.

“And the sound of it was everywhere when I grew up – there was a Saturday morning bluegrass show that led into a celtic music show, The Owl and Thistle, on the radio, and there’s this bluegrass festival real nearby, the Bean Blossom Bluegrass festival, that my parents took me to when I was a kid.”

I paused. Tod nodded.

“Of course, I freakin’ hated all of it.”

Tod started, spewing beer on the table.

“It just sounded like horrible atonal screeching to me, and seemed artificial, too: ex-hippies appropriating right-wing music and sugarcoating it. God! And I really hated the celtic show, all ethereal virtuosity and not a scrap of honest barroom brawling. The nearest they’d get would be some damn Pete Seeger tune every now and then, a damn weekend anthropology seminar, as far as I was concerned, all fresh-scrubbed, bow tied, and sober.”

Tod slowly said, “So let me get this straight. You want a mandolin because you held one once, but you can’t play it and when you do it makes horrible sounds. Also, when people who do know how to play it make music with it, you hate that, too. Did I cover everything?”

I nodded, slowly, not really understanding it myself.

I tilted my head, a memory creeping up on me. “You know, I do remember, the first time I went home after moving here, Joey Z’s little brother let me play his mandolin in a jam with Joey and Herb, and it sounded pretty good… so maybe I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It was October, and there was a full moon, and we went to a party where there was beer and cider and pumpkins and haybales. That was pretty cool.”

Tod looked at me in amusement. “OK, well, we’re done with this pitcher, and there’s a pawn shop across the street. How much do you want to spend?’

“Not much,” I repeated. “Maybe a hundred and fifty bucks, tops. One-twenty-five, more like. Does that sound right?”

Between one and two hundred bucks will get you a crappy electric guitar in any pawnshop in the country. I love crappy electric guitars.

Especially the ones made by vanished manufacturers in the 60’s with peculiar, even questionable features, such as banks of switches, tasteless finishes, bizarre pickup and bridge designs (all proudly stamped PAT. PEND.) – oh, the florid imagination of electric guitar manufacturers between 1960 and 1975 knew no bounds.

Now, these guitars will NOT work right. Those weird features are forgotten because they are useless and impossible to maintain. You must disassemble them and reassemble them before you can even determine what to replace. They won’t stay in tune, often. Replacing the tuning pegs is usually a good idea, but not always – sometimes the old pegs are more finely machined than modern ones.

(Note that is just like my computers.)

Rewiring the pickups and jack is usually needed; sometimes the pickups need to be replaced, but it’s best to avid this, as they are the instrument’s voice, the center of the sound it makes – or fails to make.

What I mean to say is crappy instruments selected by the universe and made available via the Universal Pawn Shop are of infinite aesthetic value to me. Thus, any mandolin would be at least worthy of a look.

I knew nothing about evaluating acoustic instruments at all, let alone the peculiar and encrusted body of mando-lore, save the basic rules. The body should not be caving in or notably soft. The neck should be straight and true. Clean clearance from bridge to nut is important and so is low, smooth action. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to hear fret buzz or how to tune the instrument.

We crossed the street, three beers wise, and entered the pawn shop. There, gleaming behind the counter was a very clean-looking mandolin. It was the style known as an A, after the Gibson company’s style designation from early in the 20th century. They are also sometimes described as the pumpkin-seed mandolin, because the body’s front profile looks like a pumpkin seed. This, and all Gibson-derived mandos, are roughly flat, and about the thickness of a thin-line hollow-body acoustic guitar. They are shallow archtops, descended from both guitar-making and violin-making.

But I knew none of this at the time. I picked up the instrument, sighted the neck, tapped the body, and was satisfied that it was not a dog. I couldn’t tell if it was in tune or not. I asked the counterman if he new a thing about mandolins. No one did.

I asked if there was a case, and yes, there was a chipboard case. The instrument and case appeared nearly brand new. I bit the bullet. How much did they want?

One hundred and twenty-five dollars, they said.

Tod and I looked at each other in amazement. I dug out my wallet and paid for the thing.

We returned to Linda’s and continued to drink, puzzling over the object. People drifted over to share in our collective ignorance of the instrument. Eventually a fellow who was taking a luthier’s course was able to explain that the instrument was made of laminate wood, essentially plywood, which is both pooh-poohed in acoustic instrument circles and a perfectly acceptable construction technique for a first or learner’s instrument.

The mandolin proper was a very early 90’s model OM-10 from Oscar Schmidt. The pawn shop method had come through for me. It was nothing fancy, but it got the job done.

I played with it a few times, but effectively just put it away until a few years later, when Odin called me up to play Irish music with him and some other folks. I still hadn’t learned the instrument, but did so quickly thereafter.

I no longer have the mandolin in question, but rather a definitely too-large collection of other mandolins, including two-solid-body electrics, two hollow-body acoustic electrics, a midrange F-style acoustic and one which turned out to be a solid-body electric tenor ukelele.

12 thoughts on “My first mandolin

  1. Hey! I have a mandolin too!

    ‘Course, mine looks like this:

    and, unlike yours, there is an explicit suggestion not to get your fingers in the middle…

  2. Gawd, I love you artists! Just being able to pick up any old stringed instrument and being able to play it!

    This is also why I hate you all so very much, from deep in the same part of my soul.

  3. But Scott…

    I couldn’t do that. I bought the thing without knowing hw to play it, couldn’t figure it out, and put it aside.

    Then, later, I spent some years working on it and now I’m passable.

  4. [just cause I don’t post to my log don’t mean I don’t think and read around…]

    Minor correction and a question. That there show (unless you’re recounting a mildly intoxicated spoonerism) is “Thistle and Shamrock” with Fiona Ritchie. Maybe I’m being my oh-too-literal self.

    My upstairs neighbor, who apparently would infuriate Scott no end (he can pick up instruments (a guitar from ebay, keyboards, etc) and EARNS MONEY for it (you hear his work in the current Toys R Us ads, and apparently soon in some GM commercials)) has recently expressed a deep and abiding interest in the Mandocello, but the ones he’s seen would cost 20 times what that first Mandolin cost you. And still he’s saving to make it happen.

    Updates, of course, if he makes it.

  5. Mandolin can be amazingly good or bad. Guy I know (sort of), Mike Marshall, is amazingly good. The Paganini of the mandolin. The amazingly bad, alas, is far more common. No names mentioned here…

    Of course, the nice part is, it has frets, so as long as the beast is in tune, the notes are guaranteed to be in tune. But not, of course, that you get the right notes…

    Tuning is exactly the same as another beast that can be amazingly good or bad. May be on to something there.

  6. Oh that’s hilarious.

    The Owl and Thistle, of course, is a great irish bar hear in Settle which I’ve had the pleasure of playing at.


    Alos, while antique mandocellos are outrageous (20k and up for a Gibson from the 20’s), new ones can be had for around a grand, IIRC.

  7. HAW! God I love puns – and this one in multiple media no less!

    I’ll add to the historiography of this post by naming the Folk Music show that aired on Bloomington Public Radio before the Thistle & Shamrock. As I remember it was called “Our Front Porch,” and was produced by a public radio station in West Virginia. Anyway I had a cassette for a long time — now sadly lost — of an appearance on that show of Norman Blake, and his Rising Fawn String Ensemble. It was great stuff, and a number of the songs from that performace featured the Mandocello. In his North Georgia drawl he told the audience “this is what happens, neighbors, when you leave your mandolin on the vine too long.”

  8. I’ll pass along the mandocello info, thanks.

    I will confirm that the show before was Our Front Porch. My father (who, like Mike’s, took me to the Bean Blossom festival (Bill Monroe’s) a couple times) recorded a number of episodes, many of which I have lying around.

    Also of note in my collection are a number of reel-to-reel recordings of “The Midnight Special” from WFMT, which really did used to come on at midnight.

    Oh, for time to catalog all my audio belongings. Anyone want to give me a grant?

  9. I’m glad you posted the name Bill Monroe — readers should know that the Bean Blossom Festival was more than just your ordinary bunch of hippiefolkies and was in fact founded by the Cantankerous Inventor of Bluegrass Himself.

    So your dad used to record “Our Front Porch,” eh? If you should stumble across that Norman Blake broadcast — it must have been from Winter or Spring of ’85 — I could surely come up with some kind of grant (or barter) in exchange for a copy.

  10. Uh, Mike. Do you remember that guy who roomed with Craig Blackketter for a while out on Fairfax Rd? I’m in North Carolina now and am getting ready to build a mandolin with the help of a Banjo/Dulcimer luthier friend of mine. Since living here I have cometo LOVE mado’ music. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in person a band out of Wisconson,”Harmonious Wail”. Wail they do in a style called Gypsy Swing. Way different than bluegrass or celtic. Other groups or individuals popular around here are,Del McCoury and his band(definately hillbilly), Sam Bush(newgrass or progressive bluegrass),Tony Rice (a cohort of Jerry Garcia). These are some of the ones I’ve heard due to the local public radio station ,WNCW. Cool station. They play anything from jazz to bluegrass to progressive .Quite eclectic. If you want to check them out, you can do so at http://www.wncw.org .They are on-air on-line 24/7. Drop me an email when you can. Eric

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