Vintage Dealer's Roundtable

Here's your opportunity to get answers from America's most knowledgable dealers in vintage mandolins and guitars. Will Loars go to $200K? What's the history of my Gizmoid F-style? What does a Dyer harp mandolin really sound like? Why do some mandos have reverse tuners and why should I care? And, of course, what's the most undervalued vintage mando out there today so I can buy a few and make a killing in ten years? The answers to these and many other questions are listed below.

Max McCullough - Moderator
George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars
Stan Jay - Mandolin Brothers
Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments
Richard Johnston - Gryphon Stringed Instruments
Matt Umanov - Matt Umanov Guitars
Fred Oster - Vintage Instruments
Larry Wexer - Larry Wexer, Ltd.
Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central
Charles Johnson - Mandolin World Headquarters
Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments

QUESTION: You have access to lots of great instruments. Do you have a favorite instrument that you enjoy playing and at what instrument are you most proficient?

Answer from Stan Jay - Mandolin Brothers:
I'm really just a folky acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, having learned by listening to vinyl recordings of Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Dave Van Ronk, David Laibman, while I was an undergrad at Penn State in the early to mid-1960s. It's not that I don't own a mandolin, I have a beautiful Flatiron F-5 Master, but whenever I take it out to play at home my wife says "That mandolin looks so much better back in its case."

To put it generously I am not a gifted mandolin player; but the good news is that I am not a gifted banjo player either. All this saves a lot of time since I would rather play acoustic guitar anyway.

As for the mandolins that come through our shop for sale that I've found thrilling to play, needless to say we've had more than our share of Loars, ferns and '30s and most of those have, at a minimum, been wonderful. In more modern times the works of John Monteleone, Bill Collings, Rolfe Gerhardt (Phoenix), Gibson's mandolins, even those in the moderate price range, have impressed me.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I am most proficient playing five-string banjo and mandolin rather than guitar although I actually started out on the guitar. I would be hard pressed to name any one particular favorite banjo. The one I tend to play the most is an original five-string early 1920’s Bacon & Day Silver Bell style #1. It is not nearly as fancy as some of the higher grade Silver Bells, but this instrument has a great tone and fine playability such that it appeals to me. I also have a Vega style #9 original five-string with an 11 ½” head diameter which suits me extremely well. I have half a dozen Van Eps original five-string banjos which were designed for use with gut strings. They give a very different sound which I enjoy for some material. I have a mid-1920’s Vega Tu-ba-phone rim with an 11 13/16” head diameter for which I had a custom six-string neck made. It is essentially the same as a five-string banjo with an added low bass string. It has great sustain. I find that the six-string model is versatile in many different tunings and offers a remarkably different harmonic response than a standard five-string.

I am not a bluegrass mandolinist. My own style is much more old timey. I find that while I thoroughly enjoy playing Loar F-5’s, I am also quite content on oval hole Gibson A and F models. If I had to pick my one favorite mandolin that I have ever had it was a 1922 F-5 with the early style wider neck and the dark center lamination down the back of the neck. This instrument not only felt perfect to me, but was as fine a sounding mandolin as I have ever played.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Open back banjo is my favorite instrument to play, partly because it is that at which I am most proficient, and partly because it is most convenient - lighter weight and easiest to grab in the living room. Okay, mandolin is potentially more convenient and lighter, but I have to work at that more. My two main banjos are a pre-fire Fairbanks No. 2 Whyte Laydie, and an early 1900's Stewart Acme Professional.

QUESTION: EXF, EXC, EC, VG, minus, plus, double plus etc. etc. What is your method / jargon for rating the condition of instruments? Would you favor a standardized rating system for condition of instruments? Should originality be rated separately from condition? i.e. great restorations...

Answer from Stan Jay - Mandolin Brothers:
To the best of my knowledge George initiated using EXF for Extra or Extremely Fine. Until then the standard ratings were Mint, Exc, VG, Good, Fair, Poor, and when you added a "plus" it signified that the piece was at least mid-way to the next highest category, with the one exception that many dealers use NM for Near Mint instead of using Excellent Plus. We have, for the past umpteen years published our "Guide to Condition Ratings" on the back of every _Vintage News_ publication. They are:

MINT = perfect, almost literally never played, no sign of use or wear whatsoever. (We also made up the term "as new," to indicate a recently made instrument that was briefly owned but whose warranty was not registered with the manufacturer, in perfect new condition. In saying this we tell our customers that we do not recommend that they try to register the instrument as if it were new. This comes under the category of being a whole other subject which might be suitable for discussion at another time).

NEAR MINT = close to mint but may have one or two slight indications that it was, in fact, played.

EXCELLENT = showing the lightest normal cosmetic wear, may have some finish checking

VERY GOOD = showing light normal wear, possibly a professionally executed, nearly invisible repair, possibly a replaced or missing part or parts.

GOOD = having medium to heavy wear, perhaps a non-professional repair or a repair needed, or a significant modification, or a semi-professional refinish.

FAIR = greatly modified, or structurally damaged, or heavily worn, possibly with non-professional refinish, and/or requiring extensive restoration

POOR = not worth repairing

"PLUS" - any of these grades may have a "plus" (+) to signify that the piece is at least mid-way closer to the next highest category.

A standardized rating system would be a good thought but, as I said in our prior Q&A session, fretted instrument dealers are a most independent lot; we don't feel that cooperation among dealers (at any level) is possible. Long before one could try to standardize condition ratings one would first have to form an organization of dealers who had a shared desire to subscribe to such standards, or to agree to a discussion of standards, or even to form an organization. From personal experience (refer to the story of "AVID" - the ill-fated Association of Vintage Instrument Dealers - that George Gruhn, Jay Pilzer, Richard Brune' and I tried to form) I can tell you that such a thing will never happen in our lifetimes.

In the meantime, every buyer must rely on the condition ratings that his or her dealer chooses to use, yet every buyer has the responsibility of asking questions to try to pinpoint condition, originality and playability even more closely than the dealer initially provides. Lastly, originality is as much a part of a description of an instrument as is cosmetic condition and structural condition (to include repair history and repairs needed). The other two things that we generally include are playability and type of case. If, in a description, a dealer can cover all five factors of condition, the reader will be well informed.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
A great question, and one which I have often thought would be great to discuss with this panel. First of all, here is our official stated descriptions of condition abbreviations:

MC Mint Condition - when we say mint, we mean mint. No wear, like new out of the box.

EC Excellent Condition - Very clean, might have some minor wear. but very close to new condition.

VGC Very Good Condition - Basically clean, might have some deeper scratches, pick wear or missing finish. Nothing real serious, no cracks, unless otherwise stated.

GC Good Condition - Solid playing condition, may have one or more repaired cracks or other cosmetic flaws.

FC Fair Condition and PC = Poor Condition - Indicate that the instrument may have some problems, usually described.

We also use plusses and minuses to differentiate between these rather broad categories.

That being said, we almost never say "MC", because the most discerning of customers will always find SOMETHING that takes it our of that category. We will say E-MC for what we think of as the best possible condition.

Also, we try to stay away from anything less than VGC, because it implies CRACKS, which can scare many people. Rather, we will use a higher category to indicate the general cosmetic condition, and then we will mention (in varying detail) the cracks or other nasty scars, if necessary. I just don't think you can put things in general categories (although we must) without qualifying it somehow. If we say GC but we actually have an E-MC instrument except for the fact that it has a 1/2" hairline (repaired) crack, does GC describe it correctly? So, we use a combination of shorthand descriptions for general appearance and more specific descriptions of anything that we perceive of as being an issue to convey any possible concerns. But, since we can't describe every blemish, we also think that it is best for the concerned customer to talk to us while we have the instrument in hand. Elderly Instruments has several people who do this all day long for people.

I think it would be great to have a standardized rating system, although I'm not sure that everyone would interpret it the same way, which leaves the customer in the same quandary that he or she is in now.

As far as I'm concerned, originality already is separate from condition. Condition is just that, and originality is a separate matter. We don't always mention everything, but we generally mention replacement parts, finish, etc. And, of course, sometimes we can't be sure, due to the high level of restoration work that is often done these days. And yes, if an instrument has non-original but correct period replacement parts then we will consider it original.

Answer from Richard Johnston - Gryphon Stringed Instruments:
In the days of expensive print ads, the abbreviations made sense, but we rarely use them today. With the necessity of web listings and photos, I much prefer to simply describe wear and damage and show lots of photographs of sufficient quality and detail that the customer knows what has happened to the instrument. And there's no agreement as to what those "initials of condition" mean, anyway, so the ratings are only a expression of the sellers opinion. One person's VG ++ is another person's EX COND., and so on.

My biggest gripe with our "industry," if we can call it that, is the focus on surface condition and originality while often ignoring playability and function. Some dealers go to great length describing scratches and cracks, or the lack thereof, but fail to mention that the frets are so worn the mandolin is unplayable. Refretting a used F-5, for instance, is very expensive. Oftentimes we see customers who have received an instrument in the mail, only to be faced with either paying for a fret job or paying a lot of shipping charges to get a refund.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I rate guitars on our inventory list in the following order: Mint, Near Mint, EXF, EXC, EC, VG+, VG, G. It is a rare event that we get a vintage instrument in mint condition since even one scratch would put it down to near mint. We typically do not take in instruments that cannot be described in at least G condition. While I think it would be wonderful if a truly uniform grading system could be established, the fact remains that different dealers use different standards. What some people call near mint is what I would call excellent. In order for there to be any uniform grading standard there would have to be some sort of organization to establish such standards and enforce them. There is no such entity nor do I anticipate that there will be one in the near future. In order for there to be a vintage instrument dealers association there first needs to be a group of vintage dealers who wish to associate with each other in a cooperative venture. The very few attempts in the past to set up any sort of vintage dealer association have never gotten off the ground. Vintage instrument dealers not only are highly competitive with each other, but they are a very diverse group ranging from well educated, highly sophisticated individuals to rough and tumble renegade wheeler dealers. While the concept of uniform grading standards may seem sensible, the specifics of establishing such standards and enforcing them on such a diverse group of dealers are virtually unworkable.

With respect to rating condition separately from originality and mentioning restoration work, I fully agree that cosmetic condition, structural condition, and originality are separate issues which need to be addressed when offering an instrument for sale. I have written extensively on this topic in my September newsletter which you can access by clicking on the Newsletter button on the home page of my website

QUESTION: I've been fascinated by the looks and sound of the Lyon and Healy carved-top mandolins and wonder why they were not more popular by comparison with the Gibsons? Related question -- when did these change from 13 7/8" to 13" scale length?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
The Lyon & Healy carved mandolins consisting of styles A, B, and C are extremely fine quality instruments. They have an excellent sound for classical music. The sound of the ones with the 13 7/8" scale is quite similar to that of the oval hole Gibson mandolins. The vast majority of the style A with the scroll peghead and two point body shape have the 13"scale although I have seen a few very early examples with a longer scale. I don't recall seeing any style B with two point body and a more standard peghead shape with the short scale and the vast majority of the pear shape style C models have the long scale.

Since these instruments are extremely scarce, they can by definition not achieve the popularity today of the Gibsons if only because there are not enough of them to go around. In addition it should be noted that since these instruments appeal primarily to classical players rather than bluegrass or old timey players, they appeal to a much smaller market segment than Gibsons which appeal to a very broad spectrum of musicians.

Gibson had a very successful marketing campaign in which they promoted a full mandolin family of instruments consisting of mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and mandobass. These instruments were sold through music teachers rather than music stores in Gibson's early days. Gibson published instruction books for students and even offered financing programs for their instruments. In addition, they printed instructional books for teachers offering advice on setting up mandolin orchestras. While Lyon & Healy offered mandolins, mandolas, and mandocellos, they did not offer the instructional materials, financing, or teacher support that Gibson did. Gibson marketed their instruments far more aggressively than virtually any other fretted instrument manufacturer.

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
The Lyon and Healy model A (A for artist, i.e. top of their line) mandolins as well as the models B and C were indeed popular with mandolin orchestra musicians, early on. This was until Gibson commenced their campaign to conquer the market. The Lyon and Healy mandolins worked well for classical music, jigs and reels, etc. These don't work too well for bluegrass related music. I am unsure when Lyon and Healy changed the scale length of their mandolins. I have seen both kinds. The shorter scale length would make the instrument more playable, with all things being equal. The longer scale length would result in better volume.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
I don't know when the scale change occurred.

The Lyon & Healy's are not more popular than Gibsons today because the Gibsons are louder and the various models are more suitable for popular ensemble styles such as bluegrass, celtic and old time. Also there are many more Gibsons, partly because they were originally sold with the help of Gibson's always formidable marketing machine. Of course, the L&H's work well for most styles too, except bluegrass, and are especially desirable for classical playing.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
The Lyon and Healy A Professionals are delightful instruments, with as fine a varnish finish as has ever been applied to mandolin. The sound is more delicate than the Gibson, with emphasis on overtone instead of fundamental, which appeals to those accustomed to hearing the European sound of the mandolin. In level of construction, choice of woods, artistic appointments they are at least equal to any instrument ever made. Isn't it odd how you can still buy one of these beauties from the 1920s for $4k when the corresponding Gibson top of the line sells for as much as a small farm in North Carolina. (for photos of a L&H A in stock, go to

By 1920, the mando craze was slowing down and Lyon & Healy adopted the 13 inch scale in an effort to try to attract violin players to mandolin music. Violins, of course, have the 13 inch scale. Orville Gibson's formula for the 13 7/8 inch scale was the violin scale plus the collective size of the frets. Gibson's response to the decline in mando interest was to engage Lloyd Loar to build a better mandolin, which nearly bankrupted the company!

QUESTION: Grisman seems to find odd ball Gibsons everyonce in a while. Like the two point with extra sound holes onthe rim he has been playing recently. Are there a lot of odd balls out there? What are some you have come across and how did they look/sound?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Dave Grisman got the oddball two point mandolin you are referring to from me. I have never seen another one like it. David goes to considerable effort to stay in touch with numerous dealers and collectors as well as scouring eBay daily. Since he is willing to pay good prices he can score a fair number of instruments. Dealers such as myself also are actively on the search on a daily basis. After dealing vintage instruments for 40 years I am confident that I have probably had as many oddballs as almost anyone in the business. While unusual non-catalog models are always of interest, they are not necessarily of greater value than standard issue models. While the two point mandolin is much more rare than an original Loar F-5, it doesn't have the same sound or playability and it certainly won't command the same price. There are no statistics available for how many oddball or one of a kind instruments were made, but they certainly are scarce. Since by definition oddball instruments don't conform to standard specifications and differ greatly from one to another there is no way to discuss how they play or sound as a general category.

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Gibson did make some strange instruments. Some were experimental and some were special ordered, not only mandolins, but guitars and banjos as well. David had this instrument with him on his recent visit to our store.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
There are certainly a lot of oddball Gibsons of all sorts, although I'd say there are more from the 1930's on than early ones. One of the coolest Elderly has had was a natural finish 1906 3-point mandocello. Unfortunately it had a new peghead added by Gibson in the '40's and the scale length was presumably shortened to ~21-3/8". But I've not seen nor heard of any other 3-point cellos.

Answer from Charles Johnson - Mandolin World Headquarters:
The most unusual instrument to come through recently was a 1938 F5 with a block inlays, torch peghead inlay, factory blonde top and a Charlie Christian pickup with white Bakelite control knobs on either side of the top. The model was designated on the label as SPF5.

QUESTION: Does anyone have any thoughts on how many undiscovered Loars there might be left sitting in someone's closet or attic?

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Since only about 200 of these were made, there couldn't be many left unaccounted for.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Exact production totals for the original Loar models are not available, but it is reasonable to assume that there were fewer than 300 made. Over the years some have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. While previously unknown Loars are certainly not turning up at the same rate at which they did in the 1970's and earlier, they still do indeed surface. In the past two years I have found two that were previously unknown. While I have no way to determine how many more are waiting to be discovered, I think it would be reasonable to assume that at least 20% or more which still survive have yet to be discovered by anyone who appreciates them or understands their true significance.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
They still show up periodically, but it's hard to know how many more there will be. Perhaps Darryl Wolfe could chime in and let us know how many new ones he hears about each year, and if that number is diminishing. I am assuming that everyone lets Darryl know when a new number shows up, since his F-5 Journal is the prime repository of this information (we have send him several in the last few years).

QUESTION: I saw a used Gibson (f) mandolin hanging very high on the wall at the Guitar Center in Milwaukie, OR. It was out of the way, so not in plain sight. This store is primarily electric-driven instruments, but it did have a small acoustic room where I saw the mando. I think there were only 4 mandos there. It was marked for $two thousand something. I was on my lunch hour and on the way to meeting so didn't have time to ask questions about it. What are some important things to look for (beside liking the sound)?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
You have simply not provided enough information to have any idea at all which model Gibson you saw or how old it might be. Before I or anyone else evaluate it we need to know not only the fact that it was a Gibson F model but we need to know which model, what year, what condition, and how original it is. I suggest you take a look at the September newsletter posted on my website which covers the topic of appraisals. You can also check the Gibson mandolin section in my book Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars by George Gruhn and Walter Carter. It lists not only serial number information but model specifications for all Gibson mandolin models 'manufactured from 1902 through 1999.

I decided to just go ahead and call Guitar Center and ask them for a description of the instrument. I was told that it was a late 1960's Gibson model A-12. Since this model was only made from 1970 through 1979, needless to say it can't really be a late 60's instrument. The description provided clearly did match that of the A-12 which has a so called lump scroll (not fully cut out as on the F models) and two points on the body. They were asking $2,499 for the instrument. Even if they were to come down to $2,000 that would be more money than I have ever asked for one of these.

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Besides liking the sound, check for original made by Gibson (or copy). Check if neck is straight and playable, also if it notes correctly all the way up the neck. If it is a used instrument,inquire if any repairs have been made,or needed. The tonal response is very important.

Also look in the sound hole, or f-hole openings for model and serial number. Does the instrument have a case? These are some questions and you can take a knowledgeable friend w/you. A price of "two thousand and something", you should expect a decent instrument.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Look for a knowledgeable dealer! Although it is possible that a store that is primarily electric-driven will provide you with both a good instrument and a fair deal, it is less likely than if you deal with any of the good dealers who have some established expertise in acoustic instruments.

But also, do the things you didn't do at the store. Ask questions, be sure the mando is structurally sound, and if you're not sure of this yourself and you buy it, be sure you can return it within a reasonable period of time if you show it to a reputable mando tech and problems are found.

QUESTION: Thought I'd throw this out to the list. A few years ago, I spoke with a Washburn dealer who told me that Washburn contracted out the making of their mandolins to whomever would build to their specs, I guess for the best price. He said the contractor would have to build one mando to demonstrate their ability to do the job to Washburn's satisfaction. What I'm wondering is, who are some of the builders Washburn has used. The reason I'm wondering is I've got an M6SW from 1983 that I think is totally exceptional, and was wondering if it's possible it was built by someone like, maybe, Sumi, the guy who built the "Dawg" mandos for Kentucky. A friend of mine had a Gibson F5G, and later had a Flatiron (Artist?) which he sold for $4000. My Washburn M6SW, I think, sounds noticably better than these two (and it's a beautiful mando).

I've also been to Elderly a couple times and found nothing there that sounds as good. I'm talking Gibsons, Flatirons, and an Apitius. Could it be this is just a "run of the mill" "factory" instrument? Or is there a possibility it was built by someone like Sumi? Just totally impressed and wondering.

Answer from Max McCullough:
The Washburn name in the 1980s was owned by a wholesaler out of Chicago named Fretted Industries, Inc. They had no production facility of their own but proved to be pretty good at finding subcontractors in Japan who could make instruments for them, and they paid attention to quality control.

QUESTION: I have a 1921 Gibson F4 in very good condition. Everything on it is original. I bought it in 1968 and since then it has only required replacement of one set of tuners, which was done with a matching, vintage set. I would like the instrument to remain in as good a condition as it can for as long as possible. What do you recommend as a maintenance program for these old instruments and, perhaps more importantly, what do you recommend not be done to them?

Answer from Stan Jay - Mandolin Brothers:
We believe, and tell anyone who will listen, that none of us actually "owns" a fine musical instrument. At best, we can be its custodian (from the Latin, _custos,_ "a guard, keeper") during the time we are able to appreciate it (i.e., play it, worship it from afar, whatever). This is quite a privilege, when you think about it. Our duty, like the physician's, is "first do no harm." That means _do not alter the instrument_ in any way, or allow it to be altered by others, or allow it to be harmed. Whew. Glad we got that out of the way. (At this point, my customers look at me wide-eyed and ask "when I get it home can I, um, touch it?) Yes, touching is permitted. I even tell buyers to think carefully before asking to have a strap pin installed in a new guitar. I don't deny them the service, just to think about it for a while before they have it done. Once you make that hole you can't un-make the hole. Most of them are at least able to leave the premises with their neck heels undrilled. We're for that.

A 1921 Gibson F-4 mandolin is an exceedingly desirable piece, one that gets more valuable every year. In fact, the market values of Gibson F-2 and F-4 mandolins have, over the past 3 years, been among the fastest escalating of vintage American fretted pieces. You are to be commended for replacing the tuners with a matching, vintage set, a set hopefully appropriate to a 1921 F-4 (not having inlaid tuners, having amber button tuners). I hope you kept the original tuners in a baggie in the pocket of the case. That way you have the original mandolin, albeit with original tuners in the case. Do not let a repair person "keep the original parts." You need to keep those parts; they're valuable.

As for a maintenance program I don't recommend being overly cautious and taking it to a fretted instrument technician twice a year whether it needs it or not.

Just keep an eye on it, watch for changes in playing action, buzzing, incipient cracks, signs of dryness, infestation. Change the strings as needed (nothin' nicer than a fresh set of strings) and, when you change strings, you could polish it with Gibson or Martin (or some other high quality, harmless) guitar polish, or not polish it, as you wish.

Getting back to the custodial aspects of the relationship, we get to own a fine instrument until our interests, or priorities, change, or until the arthritis kicks in and we can no longer feel good playing it. Then the responsibility of keeping it entirely original and changing the strings passes to a new owner (and you, or your heirs, get the money). This is something that those who would have their names inlaid in script pearl in the fingerboard tend to forget. Your F-4 still has two hundred, or more, years of useful life left in it and in that time it might have 6 or 11 or 15 future owners. Your sole job is to make sure it gets to the next owner in as original, unharmed condition as you received it (unless restoration actually is required, in which case find the most experienced, qualified, conservative repairperson you can and have it done).

Answer from Richard Johnston - Gryphon Stringed Instruments:
You don't need to do much at all. Change the strings, oil the tuners, wipe it down with a soft cloth, and keep it out of high temperatures and low humidity, or extremely humid conditions. Changes are if you've had it since 1968 and it's still in good shape you already know what to avoid. I don't recommend waxes or instrument polishes, at least in general.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Keep it in a properly humidified environment, and away from people or pets who may be abusive to it.

Watch for possible common problems, such as the top brace pulling loose, or the sides loosening from the back. If you have any concerns about it then show it soon to a qualified repairman (much as you would see a doctor if you had a tight pain in your chest).

Put it away if you have an argument with your spouse.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I am a strong proponent of keeping vintage instruments in their original state. While it is true that many instruments can be modified to better suit modern players, such work is expensive and frequently lowers the value. At best with excellent work the value may be the same as before. In addition, it should be noted that once an instrument has been irreversibly modified it is no longer nearly as interesting to collectors. As more and more original examples are modified, the remaining original instruments go up in value since they are becoming increasingly more rare. I would also point out that a craftsman who is good enough to regraduate, rebrace, refinish, dissemble and reassemble an instrument should be good enough to make one from scratch. I suggest that the originals be kept as they were and craftsmen who are confident of their skills should make new ones from scratch rather than modify old ones. I am strongly in favor of good repair work when necessary, but I feel that instruments should be restored to their original condition.

QUESTION: I'd be interested in knowing how the panel feels about the continued rise in prices of vintage gear, whereby these high end shops tend to cater more towards a smaller segment of the fan base (i.e. collectors rather than musicians) ignoring the much larger segment. It seems to me that the dealers seem to be helping raise those prices because it makes them more money - not necesarily for any specific reason other than rarity. I understand that this is the truest form of capitalism, but aren't these instruments meant to be played, and not stuck in a vault or in a climate controled case? (and lets leave the Strads and other vintage violins out of this discussion, they have had a few hundred years to show why they are great and worth their vast sums).

Answer from Stan Jay - Mandolin Brothers:
This question is even older than the 32 years we've been in business. Even when we started this company in 1971 people were asking the same question. Back then Loars and Ferns were like maybe $1,000. And $1,000, then, felt nearly as out-of-reach for the casual musician/college student as their current market value does now. So the first consideration is: does it really matter what drives the market? Isn't the whole point "if you want something badly _just buy it_ and as time goes by you will see the price you paid (due to just inflation, if nothing else) become utterly meaningless - if not a joke then a much deserved pat on the back for being astute.

Is it not true that houses - almost literally all real estate - have increased in value over the same period? My first home, in 1975, cost me $45,000. It's amazing to even think that. I would guess that, here on Staten Island, that same house (I no longer own it) would today sell for something like $350,000. So - did real estate brokers cause the value of that house to increase nearly 8 times? I don't think so. It was due mostly to supply, demand and inflation. The same with automobiles. Back in 1972 for one semester only I was a full-time, salaried college professor of music, here on Staten Island. (The other 5 1/2 years I was an adjunct assistant professor which was a good gig, but nothing like full-time, salaried.) Just from that one semester I made enough money to buy a new Chevy Impala, and the price, before sales tax, was $4000. I would assume that the equivalent model today might be $24,000. So new cars apparently went up 6 times, houses 8 times. I remember buying a new D-28 Martin in 1973. It cost me $325. Nowadays that guitar, as an excellent condition used instrument, with hard case, might sell for, well, the Vintage Guitar 2003 Price Guide says $1500 to $1800. Let's call it $1600, which is, coincidentally, right around the same "street price" as a new one. So the 1973 Martin increased nearly 5 times. It didn't keep up with the stock market, or houses, or car prices but it did go up. Did dealers cause it go to up 5 times? Heck no. Supply and demand did. Does the fact that millions of people can now sell their possessions on eBay make those possessions more valuable? It doesn't make them more valuable, but because the owners can reach a much larger audience than they could on their own front lawn on a Saturday, and because the excitement of an auction can elevate a price, (or not), they may be able to get full market value or more for those items.

It is a fallacy that high end shops tend to cater to collectors and not musicians. We're a high end shop and 99.9% of our customers are musicians. I don't know if I've ever met a "true" collector - somebody who owns but does not play.

Dealers cannot raise a price. In every market that exists, dealers (or individuals) can ask more than accepted market value for an exceptional piece, but the market at all times tends to seek its own level. Things most often sell for what they should sell for. Let us, together, repeat the definition of market value: "the highest price a buyer is willing to pay, the lowest price a seller, not under duress, is willing to accept." Nowhere in that definition is the phrase "except when rapacious miscreants manipulate the market to cause buyers to temporarily lose their minds and overspend."

The inquirer uses the term "tonally inferior." With rare exception that concept doesn't exist. Tone is subjective. I have heard brilliant classical guitar players play a $400 classical guitar and make it sound (to me) a lot like recordings of John Williams' most expensive concert instrument; it's all in the technique. Same with condition: one person's "ratty and old, broken down old warhorse" may be another person's "wholly original instrument showing greater than normal wear." I'd rather have that than "refinished and restored to look brand new," thank you.

We are happy that, over the long run, the market value of American vintage fretted instruments has risen, just as it has for other kinds of fine musical instruments, art, antiques, homes, Swiss watches, and so forth. The joy that comes from owning something fine is, somehow, amplified by knowing that the instruments' owners, can often, in time or immediately, sell it for more than they paid for it. At the same time, companies such as C F Martin, Gibson and Fender have made the ownership of new, high quality fretted instruments much more attainable than ever before, to even a young person on a budget. It is the best of times for players and it is the dealers, the retailers, in large part, who have helped cause this to be.

Answer from Richard Johnston - Gryphon Stringed Instruments:
What many vintage instrument fans seem to ignore is that demand drives prices up, and very little else can have any effect if the demand isn't there. So if a dealer overprices a particular instrument, it will go unsold if there are other, similar instruments being sold for less. And today, thanks to internet searches, it only takes a few minutes to find out what similar instruments are selling for, not only in the US but around the world. At Gryphon, which is in the middle of Silicon Valley, some customers come in, check out an instrument, then return to their car to do a search via a cell-phone hookup to their laptop. One customer came back in with a list of half a dozen similar instruments to the one we were selling, only minutes after he left. This is an extreme example, but there's no excuse for paying too much anymore.

In my experience, ebay has had a much more dramatic impact on prices than have the vintage dealers. This is because ebay puts the same instrument in front of dozens, or even hundreds, of buyers worldwide and enables them to compete with one another in timed, do-or-die auctions. Many people thinking of selling instruments to us follow ebay for several weeks before bringing their instrument in, and if we can't pay close to what they've seen similar items sell for, they'll go to the trouble of selling it themselves. This means that we're often working on much slimmer margins than in the past, and other vintage dealers I've talked to say the same is true for them.

For the most part, blaming dealers for high prices is like "shooting the messenger." If you want to see price increases slow down, the demand must decrease. We all saw what happened in the early 1990s when prices for archtop guitars got overheated as the late Scott Chinery and others were all competing for the same guitars. Soon, most buyers realized that there were a lot more archtops made in the '30s, '40s, and early '50s than they realized. Demand dropped, and prices followed. There are people who bought sunburst, non-cutaway American archtops over ten years ago who still can't recover their original investment, which pretty much kills the idea that vintage instruments always go up in value, or that dealers can set pricing levels not supported by demand.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
There are several reasons for the rising prices of vintage instruments, and dealers are probably the least of the reasons. Here are two important ones:

a) Current owners who know instruments will frequently demand higher than current market prices, because THEY perceive the value as higher than the market. Dealers will often agree that they may be right, and go along with them. If they sell, which often happens, it establishes a new value for the model.

b) Prices of new instruments, which have increased significantly over the years, can affect the value of used instruments. In many cases the older instrument is still the clear superior to the new one, so if the price of a new instrument increases then there can be a trickle back affect and the old ones can go up accordingly.

My point is that the dealer is often just the messenger. Some dealers (well, probably all, sometimes) will encourage this price inflation, in order to insure that they get the cool stuff to sell. If we have nothing to sell then that's not good for business, and if we have things that are not selling (because they are priced too high) then sometimes the market catches up with the prices, and sometimes they merely serve the purpose of bringing attention (and other instruments) to the dealer.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
Every instrument is unique, despite its similarity to others in model number, serial number or appointments. It is true that I deal with collectors as well as players, but you know what? The collectors I know want their instruments to sound good too! Sound and playability are the essential ingredients that make me want to buy a piece, and if it knocks me out and I can afford it, I buy it. I don't care if there's a guy in Amarillo that has one for half the price. Maybe his didn't get as good wood selection when it was built, or maybe mine has just been played hard and even tho the description might be VG instead of EXF, the VG sounds great. So I buy it. I'm happy. If another guy wants to buy it from me, he has to pay more than I did. I'll give you a great example. Howard Frye's 1923 A-jr (This is just an example, this mandolin is NOT FOR SALE because it is being played by Howard's widow and brings her great pleasure). What's a well used A-Jr worth these days, less than $1200? But Howard's is nowhere near original, having had a huge amount of work, including cosmetic reconditioning. As a dealer being fair to my customers, I should price it as a refin, say half of the cost of a decent, original A-Jr. Right? Wrong! This mandolin may well be one of the finest sounding, best playing instruments on the planet and if I had the opportunity to sell it for $10,000 or more I would think my customer got a fantastic deal, especially if he intended to keep and play it.

Perhaps my take on this might not show much market analysis, but I price my stuff based on what I have paid for it, not on what some guy on ebay wants for it. First, I only buy stuff I personally like and would be happy playing myself if no one else wants it. Second, when I sell, I need to get a little more for it than I paid, or else I keep it.

I know a lot of guys who got burned in the archtop craze of the early 90s, the Strat craze of the late 80s, etc. In almost every case, these were speculators motivated by expectation of profits. They were sadly disappointed and often blamed their dealers. At the same time this was going on, I was selling 20s F-5s for market value and people were saying Loars are $20k, they'll never go higher than that. Well, my customers who have recently cashed in their Loars today are glad they shopped at Mandolin Central instead of at the Dallas guitar show.

QUESTION: Several years ago I was in one high end shop (the owner is part of this panel) and played a beaten up, ratty old "collectable" instrument which was selling for $15K. Because it had a name across the peghead, it warrants it's astronomical price, yet the condition of the instrument doesn't. It sounded great and if I had had the disposable income I would've bought it, but at the same time I have to ask - how do you people justify that? Selling a broken down old warhorse for ridiculously large amounts of money? In some cases instruments which may be in great physical shape but are tonally inferior sell for even more! (Of course, mint in mint). When will the condition and tonal qualities of the instruments be taken into account (in a realistic fashion) and be reflected in the price?

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
That's an individual matter, but I think you have answered this yourself by saying "if I had had the disposable income I would've bought it". The buyer is the person who ultimately decides the worth of an instrument, and if there is a buyer for it who has the disposable income then an instrument is apparently worth the price.

QUESTION: How, if at all, has the economy effected the sale of these instruments?

PS. I want to make clear that I'm not one of those people pouting and whining because I can't afford to have these instruments. I do have one vintage, highly desireable instrument which I love *and play*, but I still do feel a certain sense of aggrevation in this almost elitist attitudes and brutal overgrading when it comes to the sale of vintage instruments. Personally, I'm happy that someone like David Grisman is speaking out against it and has begun blocking out the name on the peghead of his instrument.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
I like to think that we at Elderly Instruments do not overgrade, and I would bet that everybody else on this panel would at least feel the same way about themselves. I suggest you reference the various responses to the question of condition grading that was asked at the outset of this panel.

The economy can have an affect on high end sales, and from the dot-com nosedive to sometime after the 9/11 attacks there was a lull in high end sales (for us). It feels to me that we may be past that now.

QUESTION: Due to the demise of the Flatiron brand, is their any collectibility associated with their Montana made instruments and do you foresee their value increasing over time within the next decade or so?

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
I'm not big on predicting the future (although I don't really mind doing it, as long as you realize that I'm only right about half the time), but I don't see the Flatiron Montana models currently being worth any more than an inflation-adjusted value. I suspect that they will not be very collectible in the near future. Maybe much later down the road...

QUESTION: Pray tell, what accounts for the ever increasing value of vintage Fender Electric Mandolins and at the same time what seems like a general lack of interest in them? Same goes for the Gibson Florentine Electrics?

The Fender seems imminently hipper, slimmer, cooler, but you rarely ever see them being played professionally. In fact, the only guy I've seen whip one of these out on a regular basis is Sammy Bush. I've never seen anyone play a Gibson Florentine Electric professionally.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Actually, I wouldn't agree with your perception of "ever increasing value" on these. My sense is that both these models haven't changed much in value for the last several years.

QUESTION: O.K., I can't hold back any longer. Harry has information on the Virzi. Let us have it Harry...

[Ed - refer to the The Virzi Vortex by Tony Williamson]

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Back in the 1940s and playing a 1910 Gibson F-4 mandolin, I got to meet an ex-vaudeville performer by the name of Al Bluhm. We started performing together as a team. Al told me about his brother Fred nicknamed "Fritz" who had purchased a moderately priced fiddle and after having Mr. Virzi install his "tone producer" found the instrument sounded so fabulous that he sold it for several times the price he had originally paid for it.

Of course, I had never heard of Lloyd Loar or for that matter of the Virzi brothers, but I was sufficiently impressed by what Al had told me that I asked his opinion of how such an item might improve the sound of my personal mandolin. His opinion being based on his brother's experience was favorable and he agreed to attempt to contact one of the Virzi brothers, who he remembered ran a violin and repair shop in New York City. After communicating our needs, Mr Virzi indicated he might (?) find one of the tone producers in the shop, at a later date, but that the installation would require removal of the back bindings as well as of the back. I can't recall Mr. Virzi's quote for this operation to my F-4, but at the time it was considerable and I never followed through with the project. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to aquire about a dozen or so old Gibson F-5s (one at a time). Not too many folks werrrre looking for these instruments, back then and I could not afford an accumulation of these wonderful instruments. I do recall selling some of from $450. to $600. each. As bluegrass music became popular, prices gradually rose. I recall a classified ad in Bluegrass unlimited, back early c.1960s, by Tut Taylor. Tut was offering an old Gibson Lloyd Loar that had"never been played by John Duffy, never been repaired by Tom Morgan and never been owned by Harry West". Price quoted in the ad was a thousand dollars, a price that was unheard of until then. However, it did not take very long for prices to escalate far beyond that amount.

Now back to the Virzi tone producer. One near mint, a 1923 Fern model F-5 which I had owned over the years was typical of the '23 models with virzi tone producer. Although it was by no means the loudest mandolin I had owned, it had a beautiful mellow, well balanced tone and recorded very well. I sold this mandolin in the 1980s to Tom Isenhour (Salisbury NC) who is still very happy with this instrument. The Virzi tone producer was never intended to add volume to the instruments into which it was installed. Its chief purpose was to help balance and refine the tonal response. It took me years to fully understand the difference between good, balanced tone, versus sheer volume. I did learn a lot during our years as recording artists. We would carry several mandolins to the recording studio, prior to the actual recording session, we would have the recording engineer run a brief test tape of each instrument, before deciding which one to use for the session. (Note: we would even check the response of various picks and found it made a considerable difference). No doubt volume is of major importance to a bluegrass mandolin picker who wants to be sure he or she is not being overshadowed by a banjo player, but with modern sound equipment and a knowledgeable sound man, it would seem good tonal response would supercede raw power/volume.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
I was in audience at the recent IBMA and had the pleasure of hearing Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group which includes Jimmy Gaudreau and Jim Watson. Now, let me say right here that I am the biggest Jimmy Gaudreau fan on the planet, having followed his career since he replaced John Duffey in the Country Gentlemen. He is an awesome mando master, as is Jim Watson of Red Clay Ramblers fame. Anyway, let me get to the part about the virzi.

At one point, Jim put down the bass and got out his mandolin and he and Jimmy played a mandolin duet. Jimmy on his Rigel and Jim played the "kingsnake", a Gibson A-4 snakehead number 80267, Virzi # 10595 that he purchased from Mandolin Central back in the late 1980s. This is the latest virzi number I have ever encountered.

The superior sound of the Gibson virzi mando was obvious. Such a full presence completely dominated the Rigel, even to the point that several non-musician people at my table commented on the great sounding instrument, as well as the soundman who raved on the tone of that ole virzi Gibson!

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I have owned numerous Loar models over the years both with and without Virzi. Obviously each instrument has its own individual personality. Two instruments which appear to be physically virtually identical can sound quite different. It is my general observation, however, that instruments with the Virzi do not have the chord chop sound that Monroe style players seek. On the other hand, some of the F-5’s with Virzi which I have played, in my opinion, were among the finest sounding classical and jazz mandolins I have ever encountered. I have played some F-5’s with Virzi which I thought were definitely choked up such that the Virzi might deserve the joking name of Virzi tone reducer, however, on other instruments I have played with Virzi I have heard tones which were not only extremely pleasing but quite different from any without a Virzi. Tone is a matter of personal preference, but I can at least say that I have played and listened to F-5’s with Virzis which in my opinion are among the finest sounding mandolins I have ever heard. If a player is seeking absolute maximum volume and a true Bill Monroe sound there is, however, no doubt in my mind that a Virzi is not the way to go. I would certainly never advocate removing an original Virzi from any Gibson instrument. Original Loars are so rare that each one is an irreplaceable piece of our musical heritage. They should be cherished and maintained in as close as possible to their original condition so that not only can we enjoy them but they will be there for future generations.

QUESTION: Back in the teens (or was it twenties?) Gibson made a small number of 3-course piccolo mandolins. Can anyone provide historical information regarding why these instruments were created, and for whom? Are they better sounding in the high registers than mandolins in the same register?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I had a Gibson six string (three pairs of strings) piccolo mandolin back in the 1980’s which I sold to Mark O’Connor. There is a large color photo of this instrument on page 76 of my book Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments by George Gruhn and Walter Carter. I have never seen or heard of another example of this model. It is a great sounding instrument and is very capable of providing interesting embellishments in a mandolin orchestra, but obviously there was no great demand or perceived need for large numbers of such instruments. Shortly after getting this instrument I commissioned Steven Gilchrist to build a piccolo mandolin with four pairs of strings. It was also a very fine instrument, but needless to say, no surge in demand for such pieces ensued. Since all parties involved in the manufacture and original sale of the circa 1915 piccolo which I had are now long dead, I am unable to provide any definitive answer as to why they were created or for whom.

QUESTION: If someone is buying a 60 to 80 year old mandolin and the seller doesn’t say that it has been refretted/had a recent neck reset etc…… I would hope the buyer is savvy enough to know that it may need, as Shawn Colvin might say, "a few small repairs." Which, if done properly, ain’t cheap...

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Any reputable dealer representing vintage instruments will accurately represent their cosmetic and physical condition to the best of his ability and will disclose all modifications and repairs of which he is aware. When buying at guitar shows, from private parties, or on eBay such disclosures often are not made. Furthermore it should be noted that no seller can disclose more than he is aware of. Knowledgeable dealers should be expected to know far more than the average private seller and therefore routinely are held accountable to a higher standard. If a buyer is an expert on vintage instruments he can buy from almost anyone relying on his own knowledge. A customer who is not an expert is usually better off dealing will well established reputable dealers who provide a written guarantee of authenticity and condition. While it may cost more to buy from the established dealer than from a private party, the risk of forgeries, modifications, or need of extensive repair is greatly reduced.

Answer from Stan Jay - Mandolin Central:
When a buyer acquires a vintage instrument from a dealer of excellent reputation, with few exceptions he or she can generally be content that the piece is as it was represented. Nevertheless, the buyer should request a written "Statement of Authenticity," shipped or provided with the instrument, that describes the instrument, and all its deficiencies, complete repair history and all repairs needed, in full. If the dealer will not provide such a statement, I would suggest canceling the order before shipment.

When a buyer acquires a vintage instrument from another person, or if there are concerns that the selling source may be inexperienced or mistaken in their overview of originality and condition, then the seller's responsibility begins.

It is the responsibility of the buyer to:

a) never get involved in any transaction where a seller says "no approval, no inspection, final sale only." If you have never seen the piece and are not given an opportunity to inspect and examine RUN, DO NOT WALK away from that transaction. I suppose it could be argued that if a seller is offering, say, "a Gibson 1940 F-5 for $150" that one might feel that he or she "can't go wrong" but the problem is that I wouldn't trust a seller who says "no approval, no inspection, final sale only" to even ship me the piece, or that the instrument, if shipped, might not turn out to be a Gibson product at all.

b) have it evaluated locally, immediately upon arrival. If the instrument is suspected to have deficiencies, or if it is a piece which can easily have removed and replaced components, such as, say, a Fender 1960 Stratocaster or a Gibson 1957 Les Paul, then the owner should bring the piece to an expert for a full written evaluation. Even if there is a fee for this (and there should be - it takes us several hours to fully evaluate such an instrument and there is definitely a fee for our time) it is worth every penny to get a statement in writing that attests to originality, or lack thereof. The important thing is to negotiate, preferably in writing, a 72-hour-period from delivery to advise the seller of intent to return without penalty.

QUESTION: Why did the quality of the Gibson mandolin fall off after Lloyd Loar left the company. Also, how did it fall off, why are the earlier mandos better mandos? Did Lloyd Loar really deserve all the credit he got for the great F-5s made from 1922 to 1924 or is it more that he was just the most visible contributor.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
The mandolin boom was already growing quiet when Gibson hired Loar, and it seemed they embarked on an effort to bring back mando popularity by building a better mandolin. Enter Loar, but by no means was this a one man show. I have often felt others, like for example, Ted McHugh were as important as Loar, after all Ted was the guy with all the sawdust on his shop apron. He was also the nuts and bolts inventor of things like adjustable bridge and truss rod, without which Dave Apollon would have never been able to get to all those Rachmaninoff licks!

It didn't work however, and mandolin lost a battle of volume to the banjo, and then with the microphone came the guitar. Gibson put their accountant, Guy Hart in charge and the focus went away from mandolin to the things they could actually sell. The first Grisman Quintet album erroneously gave the impression that Guy Hart was involved in the actually making of the F-5, and I do not think this was the case. He was the guy that had to put things back together after the Loar mania nearly dismantled the financial stability of their company. Loar, Lewis Williams and others left the company in the shake up around early 1925. What we see then in the mandolin department is release of instruments made from parts from earlier eras, and later in the 30s, 40s and 50s mandolins that were carved on the machine, sanded and finished without ever being tap tuned. Therefore the tops were way too thick and sound was thin and small. Today these mandolins can be regraduated to Loar specs and often come out of surgery sounding great, especially if you get Randy Wood to do the work.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
While Lloyd Loar gets credit for the development of the F-5 because he personally signed the labels, the historical evidence points to the fact that he did not single handedly design the style 5 series instruments. As is typical at Gibson it was joint effort of their design team. The historical record is cloudy enough at this point to be uncertain who did exactly what. All the parties involved are now deceased and the company did not keep meticulous records as to who did what in the design process. It should be noted that the Vivitone instruments which most certainly designed by Loar after he left Gibson do not exhibit either great workmanship, playability or fine sound which would lead me to think that the Loar signed F-5’s had far less design input from Loar than most players would suppose.

The changes in Gibson F-5 models which occurred almost immediately after Loar left also reflected throughout the Gibson instrument line of mandolins and guitars. The company was moving toward larger volume production and more into guitars and banjos rather than mandolins. The mandolin orchestra boom collapsed at about the same time as the F-5 was introduced. The F-5 was simply introduced too late to capture the market. Loar signed F-5’s are extremely rare but for that matter so are the later Ferns and all other pre World War II F-5’s whereas F-4’s which cost almost as much in the teens as the F-5 did when it was first introduced are remarkably common. The F-4 and other oval hole Gibson mandolins were made during the height of popularity of mandolin orchestras whereas the F-5 was simply introduced too late. By the time the F-5 came on the market no one cared how good a mandolin was since there simply was no demand. It would be much akin to introducing the ultimate buggy whip after the invention of the automobile.

While there is no doubt in my mind that the Loar F-5’s are superior to those that followed and the workmanship of the mandolin line in general as well as the guitars followed along the same lines, the guitar line as well as the banjo line improved in quality not due to improved workmanship but because new and far superior designs were introduced. The banjos of the Loar period were remarkably crude compared to the Mastertone line which followed.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Re Loar's contribution, although it appears to have been considerable, exactly how so seems not to be known. Whether as a theoretician, player, craftsman, manager, or all of the above, his presence coincided with the finest quality output, and his departure signaled a decline. Declining interest in the mandolin may have been the real determining factor, especially with Loar (in whatever capacity) being gone. With a shakeup in management, who was ensuring the quality of the output? Why wasn't somebody else signing labels? One could speculate that when Loar left there was a pretty good crew doing the majority of the mandolin building, but without Loar's guiding presence the quality began to slip. Whether there was new management or no management, at that point, quality can change.

Answer from Max McCullough - Moderator:
It's convenient for us mandoaficianados to refer to "Loars" rather than "1922 - 1924 Gibson F5s" and quite a cult of the personality has grown up around Mr. Loar, whose contributions to that product are were as one member of a team, as others have commented. As Tony has indicated, though, the effect of the team's concentration on the Master models and the timing of their introduction to market nearly bankrupted Gibson, which lost money every one of the three years Loar was signing the instruments. Imagine designing, retooling and training for a new product line which probably sold a total of fewer than 400 Master Model instruments during that period.

Whether all of the "Loar" instruments are better than the post-1924 Gibson F5s is a matter of taste and fodder for a debate which didn't start this week and won't end soon. There are some fine instruments around from the 1925-29 period at 40 - 60% of the price of one with Loar's signature in it.

What did change? Among other things, as Gibson tried to stop the bleeding after Loar left it's likely some of the builders were let go as well, or transferred to other jobs within the company. The company's focus was on building a new product line of instruments people wanted to buy, since mandolins were not selling well. Lacquer replaced labor-intensive varnish as a finish, and in the opinion of many that is the single most significant change. But in my mind there was no sudden and cataclysmic deterioration of quality in the Master Model line the month, or in the six months or even three years after Loar left.

QUESTION: After Mr. Loar left Gibson in early 1925, where did he go? What did he do? Anything of as much importance as his work with Gibson?

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
After leaving Gibson, Mr. Loar got involved in a company of his own making some highly unusual acoustic (and later on) acoustic/electric guitars. The brand name was VIVI-TONE. Several versions of these were made and we own one nice acoustic copy, of which we will put a picture or two on our website.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
Loar and Lewis Williams left Gibson early in 1925 and formed ViviTone, a company that produced many oddities, including some of the earliest electric instruments. These instruments have some collector value and significant historical importance, but to my knowledge have never sold for great amounts of money. The electronics are primitive and quite frankly the ones I have seen didn't sound all that great. After ViviTone, Loar became tenured as a professor of Acoustics at Northwestern University. He continued to perform, however, and sadly became ill after his annual European tour of 1943. He died in September of 1943, roughly the same timeframe as a 32 year old mandolin supernova named Bill Monroe bought his 1923 F-5 in the barber shop in Florida for $150 and breathed a whole new life into Loar's brainchild. The rest is history.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Roger Siminoff has written extensively about Loar. You can reach him at

After leaving Gibson Loar designed the Vivitone line of instruments as well as experimental electric keyboards, but none of these later projects have gone on the achieve the recognition of the Loar signed Master Model Gibson instruments.

QUESTION: I realize that our guests are experts in fine quality instruments, but I have a personal quest to find out more about Strad-o-lins. As I've told the story on the list, my girlfriend one day told me that she thought her father had a mandolin in the attic, and when she brought it to me, it turned out to be a Cremona brown Strad-o-lin in great, almost flawless condition. I took it to a local luthier who reglued the neck, which was separating slightly, and it's basically ready to go and sounds better than you'd expect.

Since this instrument belonged to my friend's grandmother, who apparently purchased it more than 65 years ago, can any of our guests either tell me a little about the history of Strad-o-lins, or point to sources of information which are not obvious from a Google search?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Stradolin instruments were remarkable fine sounding in view of the fact that they were low priced student models. You can find information on many obscure American makers through Mike Holmes with Mugwumps. His web site is

QUESTION: Who, if anyone, might be a reliable source of information on repair work done by Gibson on F-5 mandolins belonging to Dave Apollon. Also, have any dealers had possession of any of his F-5 mandolins? Anyone know whether or not he owned any Loar mandolins?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
After his fame was secured, Apollon always had new Gibsons F-5s on hand beginning with a 1924 Loar and continuing well into the 1960s. Many of these mandolins are accounted for today. He never seemed to hang onto to any one for very long, always playing the shiny new ones. There was one killer late 20s fern that is associated with a lot of his work in the early 30s and I do not know where that one wound up. There was also the 1934 block inlay fern that must have also been a favorite and looks so great in the photos! He also had a whole nest of Lyon and Healys As and I have owned several that had the Apollon fingerboards. But I didn't get too excited, there were several great players in the 20s and 30s (especially in NYC) that demanded facility in the fingerboard extension. I guess that hadn't yet heard the sage words of Stringbean, "there's no money past the 5th fret!"

QUESTION: Anybody know how the famous "parrot Loar" turned out after Gilchrist restored it? Or know who owns it?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
The restoration turned out great of course. The instrument is owned by the Dawg. He had the fingerboard restored and removed the decal from the front, but left the beautifully painted parrot on the back.

QUESTION: If an instrument's sound or playability can be improved, why not do it?

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
It is my personal opinion far too many of these old mandolins have been ruined by being "reworked". Whereas I am certain that a good luthier could improve the sound of such an oldie, as well as of many a grand new item, I say, why destroy originality of a collectible instrument when a new, less valuable item can be subjected to such improvements. I have seen good craftsmen rework some of the (quite available) overseas imports and really liven these up. I would prefer to go that route.

As to the 1930s Gibsons, I own several that sound absolutely fine and don't require any improvements. Maintaining every degree of originality possible is important, especially to a knowledgeable collector. Once reworked, they can never be restored to original condition and all too often a piece of history is destroyed in this fashion. Therefore, I would like to lay it close to your heart, leave original vintage instruments alone and do your "modifications" on a reasonably priced new import that can benefit from it.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
The nature and quality and necessity of the repair is the key issue. Do you think the work that was done on Sam Bush's "Ole Hoss", for example, reduced it's value? I've already mentioned Howard Fry's great mandolin, how many A-juniors have an exquisite violin varnish, abalone borders and an Apollon fingerboard? All the original Cremona violins that I have ever see have been refitted with modern necks, but since playability is dramatically improved, this doesn't seem to hamper their value in the least.

If I had a 1965 Gibson F-5 that weighed as much as the same year model Buick, I would send it straight to Randy Wood, let him work his magic, which usually results in a huge pile of sawdust and a fantastic sounding mandolin. As a dealer, I can now sell this mandolin because it sounds great and somebody would actually want to buy it. As a player, I can enjoy its tone. Undoubtedly, value is increased.

All too often, we see repairs attempted by amateurs and many instruments have been ruined. Even famous factories during some of their more unenlightened periods, have applied huge gobs of finish where it was not necessary, thus ruining the tone of an instrument. When poor repair work destroys the instruments chance to sound its best, value is reduced for the for the player, collecter, or dealer.

Of course, a 1924 Gibson F-5 in origional condition would be worth more than one that had been reworked, unless of course Steve Gilchrist did the work, in which case, it should be even more valuable.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
While I strongly advocate keeping vintage instruments in their original state, I am also I strong advocate of proper restoration to keep them in good playing order. I have a full time staff of seven repairmen to restore and set up our inventory to our standards. Needless to say, if I thought that all repair work simply compromised originality and reduced value, I could get rid of seven of my most expensive employees and make more profit. Clearly it is my opinion that proper restoration increases value. We do not try to remove honest normal finish wear, but we will touch up abuse, repair cracks, reset necks, and replace worn out frets with correct original size wire. While I certainly prefer to have pristine perfect fully original instruments, as these pieces get older and are used, they need normal maintenance. I would much rather have a properly refretted instrument than one which has worn out unplayable original frets. The key is that restoration and repair must be of extremely high quality to enhance value. There is no question that poorly done amateur repair work greatly reduces value.

It is my opinion that any instrument which is played frequently should be tuned to full tension, but one which is stored for extended periods without being played should have the strings loosened.

QUESTION: I would like to know what you guys think are the most collectible vintage acoustic guitars here in 2003. What are the guitars (and mandolins) being made today that you think have the best chance of being considered collectible in future years?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
When I got into musical instruments, I was not looking for investments. I was looking for the sound that most suited my playing, and after years of trading up acquired the 24 Loar, 37 Herringbone and 34 flathead banjo I play today. I call it the holy trinity. I got these instruments because they were the best. By buying quality, I unwittingly insured my investment. The same thing has always worked out, when you buy the very best, the prices will continue to soar and that is still true today. If you can look beyond the hype and advertisements and buy the finest quality, then I think you will do fine when you get ready to sell.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
I do not have a crystal ball to be able to determine which instruments made today will be the most collectible 10 or 20 or more years in the future. Whereas in the early 1970’s I felt that I could count all the good hand builders of guitars on the fingers of one hand, today there are hundreds producing fine quality instruments. It should also be noted that major factories such as Martin and Gibson are producing far better instruments today than they were in they were in the early and mid 1970’s. Which of today’s instruments will become collectible in the future depends to a very large extent on what the state of the market for new instruments will be in the future. If Martin, Gibson, Taylor, Collings, Santa Cruz and other companies are still around and producing instruments as good or better twenty years from now than those of today’s current instruments may not be nearly as greatly sought by collectors of the future as if one of these companies either goes out of business or for any reason reduces quality. To be viewed as a collectible which is more desirable than new instruments, a used instrument must in some way differ from and hopefully be better than currently available new ones. All of this being said it is my opinion that those with the best potential for being collectible in the future are those which are the finest ones on the market today. I would place new Collings, Santa Cruz, and Golden Era series new Martin guitars in that category along with hand made fine quality instruments by makers such as Kim Walker, Marty Lanham, and others of that caliber. Since this is a mandolin forum I shall add that the new mandolins which I think will be collectible in the future are those currently being made by Gilchrist, Kemnitzer, Monteleone, and Dudenbostel.

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Collectible vintage acoustic guitars, early 1930s 12 fret (i.e. neck joins body at 12th fret) D-18s, D-28s, D-45 models. OM -18s, 28, 45 and 45 special models of late '20s and early'30s.
Future collectibles being crafted in 2003.
a- Martin Limited Edition Guitars
b- Martin Special Editions, such as D-18 GE, D-28 GE, and D-45 GE.
Note: the last two models are made of Brazilian Rosewood.
c- Current Gibson Mandolins
d- Special mandolins made by known current builders.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Collectible vintage guitars: Prewar Martin flattop guitars of all kinds, especially 00 and larger sizes. Prewar Gibson flattops and archtops. D'Angelico, D'Aquisto, Stromberg archtops. No surprises.

Current guitar makers: There are too many to know them all, but here are some of my favorites - Collings, Merrill, T.J. Thompson, Grit Laskin, Steve Klein, Marty Lanham, Steve Gilchrist, John Monteleone, Bob Benedetto, plus higher end and some Limited Edition Martins and Gibsons.

Current mandolin makers: Nugget, Gilchrist, Dudenbostel, Monteleone for sure. But there are a lot of sleepers out there, both domestic, Canadian, Eastern European, Australian, and some Japanese. The best may be yet to come, and they may be Chinese...

QUESTION: We have heard for years that overseas collectors have driven up the prices on vintage instruments, particularly the Japanese. Would any of you experts have any comment on that claim?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
While it is undoubtedly true that money from ostentacious collections in the Pacific rim countries has had terrific impact on guitar and banjo market, I really do not see that as much in the mandolin market. Occasionally these collectors will forge over into the mandolin thing, but by FAR the mandolins I have sent to Asian countries have been to players, some of whom are very accomplished. These people love, cherish and maintain their instruments at LEAST as well as our customers at home. My experience with this group is that they are honorable in their dealings and extremely conscientious in representing what they have and expect no less from me. When an instrument gets traded back, it arrives in at least as good a condition as it was when it went over (if it survives the handling, of course). I once underestimated shipping and handling to a Japanese customer, and since there are certain challenges in exchanging international currency, I decided to let it slide. It was only around $50 so I figured, what the heck. Well a week later there was an unsolicited wire transfer of $50 into my account. This has never happened with an American customer.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
The vintage instrument market has been a global market for as long as I have been in business. By 1971, I was already exporting instruments to Europe and Japan. Long before the advent of the Internet we had numerous walk in tourist customers from all over the world and we were mailing our printed catalog worldwide. It is no harder to pack and ship an instrument to Europe or Japan to send it to New York or California. Fax machines and later the Internet made the process of communication far simpler and swifter, but the fact remains that all dealers have always wanted to sell instruments to whichever clients are willing to pay the best price.

During the 1970’s I sold to both European and Japanese customers in similar quantities but after the mid 1980’s the Japanese were willing to pay far more than most European or American customers so they did indeed dominate the market for many of the high priced instruments. While we can say that they drove up prices, the fact remains that no dealer can arbitrarily drive up prices any higher than the customers are willing to pay. I have already commented on this phenomenon in a previous response for Mandolist yesterday.

It should be noted that for the past several years the Japanese economy has been quite weak. While Japanese buyers may have been leading the charge on high prices from the mid 1980’s through the late 1990’s, they are no longer doing so. The rapid escalation in prices in the past three years for Loar model F-5’s, flat head pre World War II Gibson Mastertone banjos, pre World War II Martin dreadnoughts, as well as premium electric guitars has not been due to Japanese or European buyers but has in fact been led by American collectors. Rather than selling high priced instruments in Japan, today we are actually receiving such instruments from Japanese collectors and dealers and importing them back into the USA where they are now worth more. In a global marketplace trade can flow in more than one direction.

Answer from Charles Johnson - Mandolin World Headquarters:
Unlike Fender and Gibson electric guitars, at this time the overseas collectors and players are not a major factor in the vintage mandolin market. I do see some demand from overseas for vintage Gibsons but for the most part they are players, not collectors. Most of the demand is from Europe, not the far East. At the guitar shows only a few overseas buyers are looking for mandolins, and those that do buy mandolins only buy a few.

Bluegrass is still primarily an American music and bluegrass drives the bulk of the mandolin market.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
For many years, Elderly Instruments did very little with overseas buyers. I'm not positive why, but I think it was because:

a) we are not located in a major destination city for foreigners
b) we had a strong emphasis on new merchandise
c) we didn't attend guitar shows or many festivals
d) several other dealers watched us closely and bought a lot of instruments from us, which wound up going overseas

In the last 10 or 15 years we have brought our prices more into line with "national" prices, which means the instruments don't necessarily disappear quite as quickly as before. Also, now there are new arrivals on the internet virtually every morning. Thus, overseas buyers are on equal footing with the domestic buyers, and so we do sell much more overseas than we used to. The shrinking world and easier communications has made this relatively simple as compared to 25 years ago. To some extent, the instruments move in both directions.

Have the overseas collectors driven up prices? Sometimes. Currency exchange rates affect this quite a lot, and if the dollar gets strong against a particular overseas currency then interest wanes. In recent years it does appear that domestic buyers have "stepped up to the plate" and usually seem as or more willing to pay the high prices for collectible grade instruments. The last Loar F-5 that we had went overseas, but I had at least 4 serious domestic customers very interested in it, and 3 of those could have beaten the overseas buyer if they had acted more quickly. After it was sold, everybody wanted it!

QUESTION: I would like to know what are your opinions on Collings mandolins? When they first came out I wasn't so hot on them but the latest ones just seem to have that Nugget/Gilchrist type of tone and great workmanship.

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
Unfortuantely I have not seen enough of the Collings mandolins to make a broad statement on their quality, the few that I have seen were not on the same level as the Duff you let get away, and certainly not in the ball park of the Gilchrist or Randy Wood.

QUESTION: The past few years, after Mon's Loar selling for so much, we've witnesed a steep climb in prices of Loars and then the best of the contemporary luthiers, Gilchrist, Dudenbostel, Kemmitzer and Monteleone. Is it just supply & demand that has caused almost doubling of the prices in two or three years? In your opinion, have the Loars prices brought up the others on the coat tails or has the fact that top luthiers have closed their lists and are no longer taking orders made a limited supply of existing instruments? Do you think this will be like the archtop non cutaway guitars that were discussed... where this rapid increase will taper off, and pricing will remain the same for an extended period? In other words, do you think that in 10 years time, folks that buy an $18- $25k top contemporary mandolin today will find prices at the same level due to this steep climb. Other possibilities might be an increase in the popularity of the mandolin as an instrument... and more players... or baby boomer pickers investing in collectables, rather than the stock market, opinions?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
While it is conceivable that supply would catch up with demand, I cannot see any end in sight to the popularity of the mandolin. It just seems to get bigger and better every year. Just look at all the youngsters who play so well! As long as they keep coming on strong, and they demand better and better mandolins as playing gets more sophisticated, the top mandolins will definitely hold their value and the waiting list will continue to grow. In the 1960s, most players rarely went above the high C position in the second break in Rawhide, so you could actually do that on a Gibson A-50 and leave the stage with a respectable performance. Today, if you want to compete for attention on stage in this world of superstars, you better have as much projection, tone and playability as you can muster!

Answer from Richard Johnston - Gryphon Stringed Instruments:
The steep rise in prices for Loar F-5s certainly helps fuel higher prices for contemporary mandolins, because a new F-5 replica for $20,000 is still a small precentage of the current cost of the real thing. We've seen similar reactions to steep prices for antiques like Tiffany lamps and Stickley furniture. However, that kind of precedent isn't always necessary, and flattop luthiers like Jeff Traugott can command $20,000 for a new guitar that has no connection to any vintage model. Again, the real test will be if the supply continues to lag behind demand. As soon as some used Gilchrist and Kemnitzer mandolins come back on the market and don't sell immediately, things might change quite rapidly, and in the age of online postings word will spread a lot faster than it did in the early '90s when archtop guitar prices stumbled, and then tumbled.

I feel safe in predicting that prices for top-quality contemporary mandolins can't continue to go up at the same rate they have in the last couple of years. The mandolin simply does not have a firm enough foothold in a wide range of contemporary music to continue gaining large numbers of converts willing to spend 25 grand or more.......but I've been wrong before. One billboard for an online investors' service nailed it with huge letters that asked "If your broker is so smart, why is he still working?" The same question probably applies to a lot of us "experts."

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Prices are going up including grocery stores, admission prices for bluegrass festivals cost more then ever. As to dealers contributing to increased prices is concerned, don't consumers have the last word, namely to decide whether the price is too high and hence whether to part with "the long green with the short future" or to let the dealer keep it.

The dealer renders a service. Supplying coveted mandolins, guitars, banjos, is his means of making a living. Isn't he justified to add somewhat to the price he has to pay for the instrument he buys for the purpose of resale? Business ethics vary from one dealer to the next, but most can be trusted to deal fairly.

Without dealers amassing desirable instruments, wouldn't it be far more difficult for you to find a substantial number of desirable instruments to choose from? Regarding high prices of rare collectible items, isn't it more or less a matter of demand? Some years ago, we had an old Martin D-18 for sale. At about the same time a Martin D-18 of the same vintage, but once owned by Elvis Pressley was sold in an auction (elsewhere) for over ten times as much as we were asking. Obviously the fame of its former owner played a role in its value. High prices of musical goodies are basically aimed at the professional(-i.e. not the professional musician, but the well to do doctor, lawyer, etc.) who can afford such.

Yes, prices have escalated in many/most fields, in part due to inflation, but other factors, as well. Mandolins have greatly gained in popularity and fine pre-war items are becoming scarce and sought by folks who can afford them, or are willing to go into debt, or do without other essentials. Prices of old Lloyd Loar F-5s have more then doubled within the last couple of years. (I sold my personal '23 model F-5 approx- two years ago for $40,000. Compare with what these are going for now.) As to contemporary builders of mandolins, most well known builders are backlogged one or two years, and have no way of increasing production and still maintain top standards. We can't really blame them for having increased their prices.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
It is certainly true that in the past three years the prices not only of Loar signed F-5’s but premium instruments by makers such as Gilchrist, Monteleone, Kemnitzer, and Dudenbostel have escalated dramatically. It is my opinion that the new instruments have ridden the coattails of the F-5. I would also point out that the rise in F-5 prices, in my opinion, is not due to the supposed record price for Bill Monroe’s F-5 but is an independent phenomenon. Furthermore, I would point out that the sale on Bill Monroe’s mandolin has not been consummated but is in fact a matter of dispute and litigation. The buyer has as yet been unable to pay James Monroe the price agreed upon and the instrument has not changed hands.

As for investment potential I have written extensively on this subject in my newsletters which you can access by clicking on the Newsletter button on the home page of my website . In addition, I would point out that the crystal ball that I have on order to tell me exact prices of 10 and 20 years from now has been delayed in transit. Therefore, I will have to wait until it arrives to give you those figures.

Answer from Charles Johnson - Mandolin World Headquarters:
"Used goods are worth what someone is willing to pay". This is especially true in the instrument business.

The vintage instrument boom really hit in the late 1980's. Early in the game there were only a few well known vintage instrument dealers, many of whom are on this roundtable. If you were looking to buy or sell a high end instrument, you went to one of these dealers. Dealers could influence the market to great extent - they were the only ones buying and selling.

Now, there are hundreds of books on vintage instruments, monthly publications like Vintage Guitar magazine, and on-line resources like COMANDO, eBay, Mandolin Cafe...the list is endless. Anyone can quickly get a good idea of the market value of their instrument. Dealers have almost no control on the pricing of vintage instruments - its set by market demand. The best a dealer can do is to buy under the market in order to make a little profit when you sell.

So why are prices rising?

Its the old supply and demand issue. In the case of vintage instruments, the supply of clean early instruments continues to decline, as instruments get lost, damaged, or in many cases just played until they show considerable wear. Demand is continuing to rise. Good quality vintage instruments have seen a steady rise in value year to year. With the strong economy of a few years ago a lot of disposable income was generated. Some of this went into vintage instruments. Some of the money that came out of the market when the tech bubble burst or when the late 2001 recession occurred is now in vintage instruments.

In addition, everything (except computers) continues to go up, some just more quickly than others. In some cases I am now buying mandolins at what I sold them for as recently as two years ago.

QUESTION: What is the ugliest, crudest looking mando (or mandola etc) you’ve ever come across that when played, actually sounded really good?

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Perhaps the greatest surprise I have encountered for playability and sound was two watermelon theme mandolins made by Bill Bussmann. His Old Wave brand instruments are well made rather than being crude or ugly, but his watermelon mandolins were such oddballs that few people would take them seriously. These two instruments were shaped like a slice of watermelon and were painted with the green and white watermelon rind and red interior. They had multiple watermelon seed shaped soundholes and were so odd that virtually every one who saw one broke out laughing. The workmanship was very good but cosmetically certainly not on par with a Gibson. The sound, volume, and playability of these instruments on the other hand was absolutely remarkable. They were some of the finest sounding new mandolins I have ever encountered. It was my opinion that they surpassed instruments I have played which cost many multiples more. I was not able to acquire his first prototype, but I got the second one. It was not the easiest of instruments for me to sell due to being such an oddball, but it did eventually bring the full asking price from a person with not only a fine sense of humor but an excellent ear.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
Ugly, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the ugliest things I have seen were refinished good instruments, and of course those sounded good anyway. But if you're talking about a mandolin that was made to be, well, unusual, and might be considered ugly, I'd vote for the star-shaped banjo mandolin that we had many years ago. Sold it to an old friend who's a really good fiddle player - actually he's really good on mando and guitar too, but he prefers to play the fiddle, and it sounds good enough to have served for many years as his only mandolin. I can't remember who made these, but apparently there are a few others around.

QUESTION: I have an old Alvarez A900 SN 4208. Could you tell me when and where it may have been made and a ballpark on what it is worth. I recently became aware that Alvarez also made an A910 which was sort of an F4 type. Any information on this instrument would be appreciated.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
My specialty is vintage American made instruments. I do not have a great deal of information on Oriental import models such as the Alvarez. Alvarez instruments are made in a variety of different factories. There is no actual Alvarez company per se. This is a brand name used by St. Louis Music of St. Louis, Missouri. You can get further information from their website or email them

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
We have an Alvarez, model A-900, Sn#3484, earlier than yours. It is Japanese made and light as a feather. I am not quite sure as to date of manufacture but guestimate it may have been early 1980s. I seem to recollect Alvarez making a rather nice oval hole "F" 4 type model but don't remember the details.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
We have seen many Alvarez A800 mandolins, but have no info on the A900 or A910. But certainly all Alvarez mandolins have been made in Asia, for the last 30 or so years.

QUESTION: I would like to get the panel's opinion of one of Bill's "other" mandolins, the Epiphone Strand, with regard to tone, construction quality and value. In addition has anyone ever found the lost Epiphone F Style Windsor or Artist models.

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Bill's (Monroe) Epiphone strand mandolin, I have never found out. I acquired such a mandolin, about 35 years ago and still own it. It is in excellent condition and very playable. Back and sides are of walnut and the scale is a tad longer then Gibson's. Tonal response is quite different too. It has tremendous volume and cutting power. One fellow once asked me, "where is your amplifier"? Being curious as to how it would sound to me with someone else playing it, I decided to lend it to David Grisman to use at one of his performances to which he had invited us. He took me up on my offer and used this instrument on several of his numbers. I was very impressed by the way it came across (plus David is an excellent mandolin player). As to the old Epiphone "Windsor" artist F-model, I am doubtful many or any-were made, aside from the one shown in Epiphone's (1935?) catalog. I have searched for one, for about fifty years, or more and not only have I not found one, but I have never heard from anyone, to include other dealers or collectors. If you ever find one, let me be the first one to know.

Answer from Stan Werbin - Elderly Instruments:
As far as I know, I own the only known Windsor, although it is not the elusive F-model but rather at two point with f-holes. David Grisman borrowed it for one of his Tone Poems projects. It can be heard on that CD and is pictured in the accompanying booklet. There is, coincidentally, a photo of me holding it on the credits page for Dan Beimborn's Mandolin Archives: I don't think an F-model has yet been found.

Answer from George Gruhn - Gruhn Guitars:
Bill's best known "other" mandolin would be the Gibson F-7 he played with Charlie Monroe back in the 30's. It didn't have the chord chop sound of an F-5, but Bill's playing style back then was quite different from what evolved during the mid 40's with The Bluegrass Boys.

The "other" mandolins he used during the 50's onward such as the Epiphone Strand and a circa 1960 F-5 were usually tuned to alternative tunings. He usually carried at least three mandolins with him and kept one in open D and another in his "Get UP John" tuning. The 1923 F-5 he bought at Bean Blossom on the late 60's was used for his recording of "My Last Days On Earth" and was kept in that special tuning. Since these "other" mandolins were used for specialized tunings, it is virtually impossible to directly compare them to Bill's July, 1923 F-5 which he used for virtually all his standard tuned material.

To the best of my knowledge nobody has turned up an original scroll model Pre World War two Epiphone mandolin.

George Gruhn's Monroe Story:
I attended the first Bean Blossom festival at Bill's farm in the mid 60's. I still have a vivid memory of a man showing Bill an F-4 Gibson and asking for advice on how to improve its sound for bluegrass music. I overheard Bill telling the man that the problem was that F-4's have a round soundhole while really good bluegrass mandolins like the F-5 have F holes.

He advised him to plug the soundhole and cut F holes into the top. While Bill had a wry sense of humor, in this case he wasn't joking. Hopefully the man didn't take Bill's advice and proceed, but I'll never know. I have always loved Bill's music, but I would never have asked him for information about instruments.

QUESTION: Don't know if you'll remember the mandolin I bought from you about a decade ago but maybe you keep good written records. I don't. You mentioned that David Grisman was interested in this mando; but he decided not to buy it. I'm glad. It is a blackface Gibson style A snakehead, serial # 79067. I think it is unusual in that it has silver-plated A-style tuning machines with real MOP buttons with the little screws in the buttons. I have had some pretty fair offers for just the tuners from people with Loar F-5 mandolins; reason being, they want to convert these to F-5 style machines.

I am wondering whether these machines came as original equipment on this instrument since the machines are top-of-the-line; but the mandolin is one of the plainer models?; and would it detract significantly from the value of the mandolin to replace the tuners with vintage parts more in keeping with what routinely came supplied on this model mandolin?

Answer from Harry West - Harry & Jeanie West - Fine Stringed Musical Instruments:
Yes, I remember selling this mandolin to you. I also remember the instrument quite well. I have no reason to believe the silver plated tuners with mother of pearl buttons were not original equipment. I am quite certain the man I acquired it from had owned it for many years. If I were you, I would not change the tuners at all. It does make your mandolin unique. This would be a nice item for you to keep and perhaps some day pass on to a worthy talented member of your family. Thank you for contacting me regarding your mandolin.

QUESTION: Where are the so-called Loar specs that everyone talks about?

Answer from Tony Williamson - Mandolin Central:
In my shop today are the following authentic 1920s F-5s, ranging in date from 1923 to 1927. Just for fun, I decided to fill out Calton measuring charts on each (for more info on how we measure instruments to build Calton cases around them, go to and press Calton). Anyway, these measurements tell a lot about these mandolins, like thicknesses and neck angles. I did not take in top plate measurements today, and I know that is certainly a key bit of info (and there is great variation on these as well, as well as in the size and placement of tone bars), but the measurements that follow tell a pretty wild story.

Where are the so-called Loar specs that everyone talks about? Every one of these mandolins is different, especially in neck angle and body depth. The shapes are the same and the scale, of course, but check out the more subtle measurements. Each one of these instruments was built to bring out the best in that particular assemblage of those individual pieces of tonewood. Despite the fact that they were issued by a factory, I am convinced that each one of these mandolins are unique individuals created by master builders for generations to enjoy.

Now lets jump ahead 80 years and we find a builder that has seen one Loar and he builds all his mandos to those specs. It stands to reason, that depending on each piece of wood, some will come out OK, some might even be outstanding, but some may not sound good at all. Some necks might warp and tops may even cave in!

Now, consider a factory that sets up and they haven't seen even one real F-5, and they set up to produce a mandolin. Which instrument do you think will be more worthwile in years to come?

When I see the work of masters like Steven Gilchrist and Randy Wood, I see variations from piece to piece, different graduations, even different thicknesses in minor places. These guys find the right wood, remove the excess and reveal the inner masterpiece to the rest of the world. If you can find an instrument that is built in this way, I don't care whose name is on it, it will be worth playing and keeping for years to come.

GIBSON F-5 #84682

3/4 in          A - Table to bottom of Head Stock
2  35/64 in     B - Table to bottom of Neck
3 31/64 in      C - Table to top of Nut
2 15/64 in      D - Table to bottom of Neck at 8th Fret
3 29/64 in      E - Table to top of String at 8th Fret
1 7/8 in        F - Depth of Body at Heel
1 3/4 in        G - Depth of Body at End Pin
3 3/8 in        H - Table to top of Saddle
27 7/16 in      I - Length of Mandolin 
                    (overall; endpin adds 29/32 in)
6 15/16 in      J - Length of Neck (Nut to 12th Fret)
13 1/2 in       K - Length of Body (12th Fret to Tailpiece)
                L - Width of Headstock
                      3 7/8 in widest pt.
                      31/32 in narrowest pt.
                      2 3/4 in lower point
1 3/32 in       M - Width of Neck at Nut
10 1/4 in       N - Width of Body at widest point
1 5/32 in       O - Table top to back of Mandolin at the Heel

MANDOLIN F-5 #72450 March 16, 1923

3/4 in          A - Table to bottom of Head Stock
2 27/64 in      B - Table to bottom of Neck
3 23/64 in      C - Table to top of Nut
2 1/4 in        D - Table to bottom of Neck at 8th Fret
3 24/64 in      E - Table to top of String at 8th Fret
1 57/64 in      F - Depth of Body at Heel
1 47/64 in      G - Depth of Body at End Pin
3 29/64 in      H - Table to top of Saddle
27 1/8 in       I - Length of Mandolin 
                    (overall;  endpin adds 13/32 in)
6 15/16 in      J - Length of Neck (Nut to 12th Fret)
13 1/2 in       K - Length of Body (12th Fret to Tailpiece)
                L - Width of Headstock
                      3 13/16 in widest pt.
                      57/64 in narrowest pt.
                      11/32 in lower point
1 1/16 in       M - Width of Neck at Nut
10 3/8 in       N - Width of Body at widest point
1 in            O - Table top to back of Mandolin at the Heel

MANDOLIN F-5 #75696 Feb 18, 1924

3/4 in          A - Table to bottom of Head Stock
2 9/64 in       B - Table to bottom of Neck
2 31/32 in      C - Table to top of Nut
1 31/32 in      D - Table to bottom of Neck at 8th Fret
3 1/32 in       E - Table to top of String at 8th Fret
1 13/16 in      F - Depth of Body at Heel
1 43/64 in      G - Depth of Body at End Pin
3 3/64 in       H - Table to top of Saddle
27 1/4 in       I - Length of Mandolin 
                    (overall;  endpin adds 3/8 in)
6 15/16 in      J - Length of Neck (Nut to 12th Fret)
13 1/8 in       K - Length of Body (12th Fret to Tailpiece)
                L - Width of Headstock
                      3 53/64 in widest pt.
                      1 57/64 in narrowest pt.
                      2 3/8 in lower point
1 5/64 in       M - Width of Neck at Nut
10 3/8 in       N - Width of Body at widest point
 55/64 in       O - Table top to back of Mandolin at the Heel

MANDOLIN F-5 #75709 Feb 18, 1924

3/4 in          A - Table to bottom of Head Stock
2 31/32 in      B - Table to bottom of Neck
3 23/64 in      C - Table to top of Nut
2 1/4 in        D - Table to bottom of Neck at 8th Fret
3 3/8 in        E - Table to top of String at 8th Fret
1 59/64 in      F - Depth of Body at Heel
1 3/4 in        G - Depth of Body at End Pin
3 5/16 in       H - Table to top of Saddle
27 1/8 in       I - Length of Mandolin 
                    (overall;  endpin adds 29/32 in)
6 15/16 in      J - Length of Neck (Nut to 12th Fret)
13 1/16 in      K - Length of Body (12th Fret to Tailpiece)
                L - Width of Headstock
                      3 27/32 in widest pt.
                      1 15/16 in narrowest pt.
                      2 7/16 in lower point
1 3/32 in       M - Width of Neck at Nut
10 1/4 in       N - Width of Body at widest point
1 1/32 in       O - Table top to back of Mandolin at the Heel

MANDOLIN F-5 #75941 March 31, 1924

3/4 in          A - Table to bottom of Head Stock
2 5/32 in       B - Table to bottom of Neck
3 1/32 in       C - Table to top of Nut
1 31/32 in      D - Table to bottom of Neck at 8th Fret
3 3/32 in       E - Table to top of String at 8th Fret
1 25/32 in      F - Depth of Body at Heel
1 21/32 in      G - Depth of Body at End Pin
2 31/32 in      H - Table to top of Saddle
27 3/8 in       I - Length of Mandolin 
                    (overall;  endpin adds 13/32 in)
6 15/16 in      J - Length of Neck (Nut to 12th Fret)
13 1/16 in      K - Length of Body (12th Fret to Tailpiece)
                L - Width of Headstock
                      3 57/64 in widest pt.
                      1 59/64 in narrowest pt.
                      2 29/64 in lower point
1 5/64 in       M - Width of Neck at Nut
10 3/8 in       N - Width of Body at widest point
53/64 in        O - Table top to back of Mandolin at the Heel