New Builder: Matt Ruhland

Matt Ruhland's latest batch of F5 mandolins.

Matt Ruhland's latest batch of F5 mandolins.

I recently ran across a new builder in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, by the name of Matt Ruhland. Matt started building mandolins around two years ago. He used to call Memphis home, but moved to Portland a while back. He has spent time as a carpenter doing construction work and more recently has been working as a bartender. The idea of a career that he could do at home on his own terms really appealed to him, so he began to brainstorm some possibilities.

At first, he considered making custom furniture, but his room mate suggested that maybe mandolins were the way to go. They were small, didn't use a lot materials, and sold for a decent amount. Matt also plays banjo in a a local bluegrass band, so he was familiar with the instrument. And just like that, he went for it. He's up to mandolin number 11 and is just starting on his next batch of five or six more.

I've seen many examples of mandolins from new builders and Matt's rate very high. His fit and finishes are way better than average, though they definitely still have a handmade look. But it's his sound that really stands out. His mandolins have a depth and presence that shines far more than they honestly should at this stage in his career. I've heard far more expensive mandolins that sound tight and closed-up when new, but Matt's are open, loud, and resonant. They sound like they are already played in. And to my ears, they sound better than several small factory instruments I could name, but I won't. His mandolins sound like they were built by someone who's built 30 or 40 mandolins, instead of just 11.

The maple that Ruhland used here has both bird's eye and flame; an unusual combination!

The maple that Ruhland used here has both bird's eye and flame; an unusual combination!

It's hard to say where someone like Matt will go from here, but as a new mandolin builder, he's off to a great start. And honestly, at $3000 each, this is probably as low a price as you will ever see them. Matt Ruhland doesn't have a website yet, so getting in touch with him isn't easy, but if you are interested in speaking with him, email me and I'll pass along his contact information. Matt is definitely someone to watch.

I'm Back!

After a very busy May, which involved a business trip, an extended photo shoot, and my daughter getting married, I'm now back at the helm, or laptop, of The Mandolin Player. There are new features, profiles, and reviews in the works, so stay tuned and keep your eye out for them. Happy picking!

A pretty looking and sounding 1917 Gibson F4 from Retrofret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn, New York.

A pretty looking and sounding 1917 Gibson F4 from Retrofret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn, New York.

Steve Sorensen's latest mandolin: The FX!

Steve Sorensen sent me a few photos of his newest mandolin design, called the FX. It's a rather fetching design that references the classic F5 look, but interprets those features in a new way. One of the qualities that I enjoy with Steve's mandolins is how everything you see design-wise in his mandolins feels all of one piece. In this case, the spear-point-like shape of the peghead is shared by the scroll point and the tailpiece, and the pickguard looks like half of the peghead. So all the major design elements are tied to one another and the result feels balanced and harmonious. And I really like the generous wood bindings. He mentioned that it has a built-in arm-rest, but that is not evident in these photos. Anyway, I can't wait to see and hear more of the Sorensen FX. Looks like another winner!

Retrofret Visit in Brooklyn

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure to visit Retrofret Vintage Guitars in Brooklyn, New York. They have to be one of the best shops in the country, filled with absolute treasures. Acoustic and electric guitars are their main interest, with Martin, Gibson, and Fender being the standouts there, but they had a variety of interesting and beautiful banjos, lutes, violins, and luckily for us, mandolins. One of the best of these was a 1951 Bigsby 10-string electric mandolin. These were made famous because of Bob Wills' mandolin player, Tiny Moore. That's what he played. Bigsby never made many of these, so this one comes at a premium. Retrofret values it at $42,000. It is obviously a well-played instrument, but it is nearly one of a kind. And very nice it is. Check out their website, if you have a hankering for one the best electric mandolins in the world.

The Mandolin Canon #2: Tone Poets

I suppose if there was one recording that qualifies as a crash course in contemporary mandolin players, a veritable Who's Who of the Mandolin World, it would have to be the David Grisman conceptual project, Tone Poets. Recently, I caught Joe Craven in performance and one of the things he said really caught my attention. Craven said, "It's not the car, it's the driver." In other words, it's not the instrument, it's the player. And this is the central idea behind Tone Poets.

Grisman, of course, famously recorded the three Tone Poems albums that featured him and other guest guitarists playing various vintage instruments. Every track featured Grisman and company on different mandolins and guitars. In these recordings, Grisman was trying to show the differences that can be heard between different brands, models, and styles of mandolins and guitars. And sometimes the differences were great and sometimes they were subtle.

But to balance out this idea, he then turned it on its ear and made Tone Poets, where he had scores of players from all sorts of musical backgrounds play the exact same mandolin and guitar. And the result was interesting to say the least. Despite not playing their own very famous, in some cases, and distinctively sounding instruments, Sam Bush still sounded like Sam Bush. John Reischmann still sounded like he always does. And Ronnie McCoury still sounded like himself. So despite Grisman's effort to school us on how vintage instruments can sound unique and different from each other, he now showed us that the players have the final say in how they sound.

And in doing that Grisman brought together and recorded an incredibly wide range of mandolin players: Tim O'Brien, Radim Zenkl, Tony Williamson, Mike Marshall, Carlo Aonzo, Jody Stecher, Don Steirnberg, Chris Thile, and literally dozens more. And that's not to mention the guitarists, like Bryan Sutton, John Carlini, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury and many more. I look at this double CD collection as a stepping off platform to discover which musical direction for the mandolin you want to explore, whether it's bluegrass, jazz, classical, or whatever. Tone Poets is filled with truly great performances and has been close to hand ever since I bought it when it came out in 2005. And that's why I'm putting it in The Mandolin Canon of Essential Recordings.

An Altoids Smalls Pick Case DIY

Here’s a simple crafts project that you might find worthwhile. Recently, I noticed that the tin that Altoids Smalls peppermints come in seemed to be the perfect size for storing picks. It fits the bigger Pro-Plec picks and easily slides into my jeans’ front pocket. Adding the fact that it is metal and therefore rugged, and it seemed like a sure thing.

But when I took an empty tin, put a few picks in it, and put it in my front pants pocket, it proceeded to rattle like a castanet in my pants, when I walked. So that wasn’t going to work for me. I looked around the house and found a scrap piece of wool blanket fabric that my wife had used in one of her projects. It was fuzzy and thick and soft. My problem was solved, at least with the Altoids tin.

I cut a couple of pieces of the wool fabric to go inside the bottom and top of the tin. The one on top needs to be cut a bit smaller so the top can close all the way. Then I used double-sided tape to secure the wool fabric to the top and bottom, and that was it. If you don’t have any thick blanket fabric around, you could try some pieces of polar fleece from a worn out jacket or maybe from an extra thick bath towel or even some pieces of thin foam. Whatever you put in the tin needs to be compressible, so keep that in mind.

So if you use expensive Blue Chip picks, or any kind really, and want to keep them safe and secure and not rattling around with your change in your pocket, getting all scratched up, this is an easy way to do it. Just need to work your way through the peppermints first. At least you’ll have fresh breath while you’re working on this project. Cheers.

Gibson Vows to End All Banjo Jokes

Banjo pro Maxwell Volluum is thrilled with his new instrument.

Banjo pro Maxwell Volluum is thrilled with his new instrument.

Gibson Instruments in Nashville, Tennessee, has announced the latest in banjo technology, the Jerry Garcia signature model banjo with state of the art auto-tuning. Gibson spokesperson and head of banjo development Randy Fellows said, "Of course, everybody knows the difficulty of keeping a banjo in tune, but when we tried to implement our successful E-tuning technology from our guitars onto banjos, well, there were some challenges."

Unofficial reports say that the E-tune mechanisms were so overworked trying to keep the banjos in tune, that they overheated and sometimes burst into flames. Despite the cheers of some onlookers, banjo players were understandably upset and concerned about this development. Randy Fellows refused to comment on this.

But Fellows did explain the new development. He said, "In an effort to solve the tuning issue, we took an unconventional approach. We created an all electronic banjo that by itself is completely silent. Initial testers really liked this feature. And then we filled the pot with a sophisticated computer system that takes all the notes and automatically corrects the intonation. You never have to tune your banjo again, not that banjo players did that anyway. We know that auto-tuning is very popular with today's singers, so we just applied that technology to banjos! It's a whole new instrument! Though it still looks exactly like a banjo should look, of course."

The only drawback for now is the weight of the Jerry Garcia signature model. It comes in at just a bit more than 75 lbs. But Fellows insists that the weight is a small price to play to get a banjo like this. And we completely agree. Fellows also stated that Gibson is currently working on a similar version for mandolins. April Fools, of course.

The Mandolin Canon #1: John Reischman & John Miller, "Bumpy Road"

Periodically, I'd like to talk about important "must have" recordings for the mandolin enthusiast here at The Mandolin Player, which we will call the Mandolin Canon. As this involves mostly my opinion as to these choices, I'm sure there are plenty of recordings that have been made over the years that I might overlook and if any of you know of a great recording that you can't imagine living without, then send me a note or comment below. Who knows, it might end up in the Canon as well.

For the first one, I can't really think of a better player to begin this series with than John Reischman and the recording he made with guitarist John Miller, Bumpy Road. This was released back in 2002 on Reischman's own label, Corvus Records. The two Johns have made three records together, the earliest was The Singing Moon in 1998 and the latest was Road Trip in 2013. Though all three are worth getting, Bumpy Road is my personal favorite.

Bumpy Road is the one that finds it way into my CD player most often. It hits the sweet spot for me, showing Reischman at his best and most inventive playing with Miller laying down a solid back-up accompaniment on his Martin guitar. The emphasis from Reischman is on the melody and in doing that he focuses on the tone, for which he is justifiably known. The recording quality is clean and rich and shows off each instrument at their best. The music leans toward Latin Jazz and Celtic tunes, along with some original tunes from these two Johns. Also, there is one song on the CD, a Celtic song called "The Path Downhill," sung by Koralee Tonack, but it also contains one of Reischman's best solos in his career. It is so beautiful and bittersweet. This is what I think of when I think of John Reischman.

If you want to learn more about John Reischman as a mandolin player, this is a great place to start. Of course, he has done more bluegrass inspired recordings and we will eventually get to those, but Bumpy Road is as good as it gets and that is why it deserves to be a part of The Mandolin Canon.

John Reischman & John Miller, Bumpy Road, Corvus Records, CR009 (2002)

Wintergrass 2015

Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury at Wintergrass 2015. Photo by Hermon Joyner.

Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury at Wintergrass 2015. Photo by Hermon Joyner.

Last weekend I had the chance to drive up to Bellevue, Washington, and take in the Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival. Over the two days I was there, I heard 14 different acts perform. They ranged from traditional bluegrass like The Del McCoury Band and Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands to bleeding edge takes on bluegrass like Della Mae and Billy Strings & Don Julin. Americana music performers like Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz were there. And other musical genres showed up like Matuto's "Brazilian Bluegrass" and the jazz-influenced, improvisational, acoustic music of Darol Anger's new group, Mr. Sun.

Everybody was performing at their highest level and I enjoyed myself immensely, but if I had to name my three favorites of the weekend, it would have to be:

1) I Draw Slow, an Americana band from Ireland, of all things, which featured lovely singing and facile playing. It was fascinating to hear music from this country reflected from a completely different perspective. I particularly loved how the lead singer's voice (Louise Holden) blended with the guitarist, Dave Holden, who was her brother. They were perfect together, really fine.

2) Della Mae, who have grown in confidence and ability in the three years since I saw them last and Celia Woodsmith, the lead singer, has one of the best voices performing today, in my opinion. And Celia is matched by the talents of the other members, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, Courtney Hartman on guitar, and Kimber Ludiker on fiddle. And it was especially nice to see Kimber emerge as the main persona of the group introducing the songs and talking to the audience with a great deal of charm, wit, and ease. And they were joined by a new bass player, Zoe Guigueno, and she proved to be a great fit with the group.

3) Billy Strings & Don Julin, who are now hitting their stride and performing at a ridiculously high level of energy that I have never seen live in any other show. If they are ever near where you live, go see them. They are crazy good and will make you want to stand up and scream. Seriously. Just go!

For mandolin players, there were a lot to see as well. The most memorable performers for me came from Ronnie McCoury, of course, Don Julin, mentioned above, Jay Lapp from The Steel Wheels, and Joe Walsh from Mr. Sun. All very different, all very accomplished.

In the next week, I'll post more pictures from Wintergrass 2015. Cheers!

Grammy Awards 2015

Well, another year, another Grammy Award presentation. This year there were some awards of interest to readers of this site, including:

Best Contemporary Instrumental Album
Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer - Bass & Mandolin

Best Bluegrass Album
The Earls Of Leicester - The Earls Of Leicester

Best American Roots Performance
Rosanne Cash - "A Feather's Not A Bird"

Best American Roots Song
Rosanne Cash - "A Feather's Not A Bird"

Best Americana Album
Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread

Best Folk Album
Old Crow Medicine Show - Remedy

Best Historical Album
Colin Escott & Cheryl Pawelski, compilation producers; Michael Graves, mastering engineer
Hank Williams - The Garden Spot Programs, 1950

Best Regional Roots Music Album
Jo-El Sonnier - The Legacy

Best Blues Album
Johnny Winter - Step Back

Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Chick Corea Trio - Trilogy

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band - Life In The Bubble

Best Latin Jazz Album
Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra - The Offense Of The Drum

And last, but not least, The Louvin Brothers, Ira (1924 -1965) and Charlie (1927 -2011), were given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Congratulations to all the winners!

A Guitar Geek's Guide to the Mandolin

Gibson has published an article of sorts. Actually, it's less of an article than it is a list of mandolin facts written to appeal to rock guitarists. So despite a few groaners ("See? Mandolins rock!" Get it?), it does have some interesting facts. Bill Monroe put a rattlesnake rattle in his mandolin to frighten away mice? Really? I didn't know he had that big a problem with mice! It was written by Michael Leonard and can be found here. It's worth a read.

Welcome to The Mandolin Player!

Hi everyone! Welcome to this new site. This is the first of February and we are now up and running!

Like most of you reading this, once upon a time, I fell in love with the mandolin. For me, it was catching David Grisman in concert at a small folk music festival in Spokane, Washington, about 20 years ago. I went to it because Mark O'Connor was the warm-up act and I was learning to play the fiddle at the time, but after hearing Grisman play (and man, did he play), everything changed for me. I bought an inexpensive mandolin and that was it. I listened to everything I could lay my hands on, and read and studied every non-fiction book and instructional book I could find.

Eventually, I ended up writing profiles and reviews for Mandolin Magazine and I did that for seven years until it ceased publication last summer. But my interest in writing about this instrument didn't change or die. And that's why I created The Mandolin Player.

I want The Mandolin Player to be as good as it can be. We will feature long-form profiles of professional players and builders, as well as feature articles covering many other aspects of this special instrument. We'll review the latest recordings, books, and even live concerts, when possible. If it has to do with the mandolin, we'll try to cover it here.

In addition to the wide-ranging mando-centric content, which will remain the primary focus for the site, we'll also dedicate some space to one of the more interesting musical movements of the past few years, and that is Americana or roots music. And this is music that is informed by or is derived from blues, jazz, classical, folk, country, bluegrass, or classic rock. Sometimes all of these genres end up being combined into one glorious mix. The Americana Corner page on this site will have feature articles, profiles, and reviews about this powerful and influential music.

But remember, we are just starting out, and I know we have a long way to go. So be sure to check back now and then, because we have a lot of work to do and we're going to try to get it done as fast as we can.

Hermon Joyner