The Virzi Vortex

John Monteleone says that Mike Marshall's Loar once had a Virzi and fearlessly with no thought for his own safety says:

"This mandolin had originally sported a Virzi tone reducer in it, which was removed before I worked on it. Once a Virzi is removed there are two remaining notches left on the inside wall of each tone bar, where these stupid things used to be attached. I don't know what they were thinking. But I would have loved to have overheard the convincing salespitch that Mr. Virzi sold to Mr. Loar. Amazing!"

WHOA!!!!!!!!! How do you really feel about Virzis, John! An unprovoked attack on the memory of the Virzi brothers who are no longer here to defend themselves. This is almost a sacrilege! John, have you ever seen the video "The Sound of the American Mandolin," featuring Tony Williamson and our own Maxwell McCullough. I have that tape and I'll send it to you if you haven't seen it. I thought that Tony and Max pretty well proved that the Virzi's in various old Gibsons enhanced the tone. At least to my ears. They did side-by-side comparisons of As, F-4s, and F-5s, w/ and w/o Virzis. Your gonna hear about this one!

-- Glenn Bradford

The Virzi Vortex
Tony Williamson

I can fully understand the anti-Virzi comments made by John Monteleone in his recent postings, as this is a position held by many folks for many years. Especially for bluegrass players who are often called upon to drown out their banjo player, the Virzi is certainly not the answer because it reduces loudness. Lloyd Loar's research concluded that the Virzi Tone Producer, when properly installed into a mandolin does increase certain frequencies especially in the upper and lower register. I believe that some of this is felt rather than heard (There is an interesting lecture on tone by Loar printed in the 1924 Gibson catalog. Also, keep in mind that Loar was on staff with the Virzi Brothers office in New York before he went with Gibson and designed our beloved F-5). The first F-5s had the powerful sound that stands out, perfect for a soloist. The original intention of installing the virzi was to create a mandolin that would blend beautiful tones into the ensemble.

In the video, "The Sound of the American Mandolin", our ace soundman Jerry Brown (from the Rubber Room in Chapel Hill, NC) went to great lengths to insure an honest and equal representation for each mandolin. We recorded the mandolins with a pair of vintage AKG 414 mics with no reverb or effects of any kind. Comparisons of the final sound with the mandolins in question were very satisfactory, and many viewers and reviewers have complimented this aspect of our work. However, the very nature of recording these instruments removes volume from the equation, putting tone on equal footing and loudness in the hands of the remote control.

On the subject of Mike Marshall's Loar, I had played that mandolin when Rick Ryman owned it and it was an amazingly toneful instrument. Around 1977, I was visiting my friend David Grisman when Mike had Todd Phillips remove that virzi. Mike played us the hilarious tape recording of that procedure they referred to as The Virzexorcism. It is true that the volume increased immediately, but according to what Mike later told me, the tone was not completely satisfactory until John Monteleone did some additional tuning to the top. There are several possible reasons this was needed. Firstly, a Virzi Loar is braced differently than a non-virzi. That is, the tone bars must be spread out to accept the virzi. Secondly, the instrument is graduated with the virzi in mind, and once it is removed, the top may need to be retuned.

No one denies that the results were spectacular. What was accomplished however is that the mandolin was transformed from a smooth blending sound to a commanding sound. If you take 30 non-virzis mandolins and get the players to play exactly together, the result is not going to be as smooth and beautiful as 30 virzi mandolins, which are designed to blend. Take out one of the virzis, and you've got a soloist, an instrument that stands out from the pack. When assessing the value of the virzi, as well as Loar's own motives, we have to put ourselves in context of the times, when many mandolin players tried to blend together in great ensembles instead of today's every mando for himself mentality. The virzi mandolins have complex tones that balance together beautifully, while the non-virzis give the power necessary for a great soloist like Mike Marshall to step out from the pack.

The specific design of the virzi was to increase tone. I do not think that suspending a thimble full of grapple from the underside of the top of the instrument would do this as accurately as a properly graduated and installed secondary soundboard. An excellent example of this is the so-called "Parrot" mandolin sold by the Mandolin Brothers a year or so ago. This 1922 F-5 had a retrofitted virzi, but incredibly it was installed backwards! (obviously because of the position of the tone bars). In this mandolin the virzi did not do its job, and I recommended removal.

Before Gibson adopted the use of the virzi, it had acquired significant respect in the world of classical violin. According to the Virzi catalog from 1919, Jasha Heifez had one put in his Guarnarius. More recently, there have been a number of people who HAVE asked to have their virzi put back in, most notably Bobby Osborne. His 24 Loar, with virzi reinstalled, has made possible some of his most toneful recordings. In my own association with the great luthier Randy Wood, we have filled many orders for Randy Wood mandolins with virzi and these are among the best sounding instruments I have ever sold.

Over the years I have been very fortunate in having access to many great mandolins and have performed these experiments for myself. For example, at the recent IBMA I helped a fine fern/virzi Loar find a home, and believe me the recipient of that mando is one satisfied customer. The tone of that particular instrument is nothing short of spectacular. Should I have yanked out the infernal virzi? I don't think so, that definitely would have put a chink in its originality, and in my opinion could have sacrificed tone for volume. I personally prefer the virzi Loar for classical ensemble playing, recording and parlor picking while the non virzi does the job on stage and in the bluegrass band. If you are a team player, you might do well to reconsider the virzi issue in a new light.

Tony's dissertation on the Virzi is as useful and informative as any I have ever seen on the subject, and I very much appreciate his having taken the time to post it to the list. As with so many things, there is no "right" or "wrong" about the use of a Virzi except in individual contexts. The folks I know who like them tend to fall into the category Tony described as "team players" concerned with tone and blending or recording rather than "jam players" more concerned with volume and power.

Luthiers today have a broader spectrum of tools, materials, techniques and accumulated data than was available to Hart and Loar in the 1920s, and a luthier today building to the individual needs of a client has more options available to him to make a mandolin louder, mellower, darker, brighter, less or more responsive to a player's right-hand attack etc. Use of a Virzi is one of those options. -- Max McCullough

"I like 'em. Got one in my personal A-5. Wouldn't take it out for anything. 'Nuf said. -- Lynn Dudenbostel

P.S.-I have been thinking of a new Virzi option on my mandolins for those who kind of want one, but are undecided. For $250, I'll take a Virzi, smash it to bits, put it in a plastic bag so they can carry it around in their case and show people. Saves about 2 hours of labor.... no installation, no Virzectomy procedure!"

Earlier today I was a man of few words, but the solitude of the shop (right... all the kids are home from school today because of the snow!) got me thinking about the issue. I truly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the ear or the listener. Virzi type appendages, to me, are a lot like fossil ivory for guitar bridge pins/nuts/saddles. Does it make the instrument sound better? Well, I always tell customers that it will definitely make it sound different, and if that difference is good to their ear, then yes, it is better.

Back a few years ago I had the good fortune to play about 8 different Loar F-5's over a period of a couple of weeks. This was before the days of LoarFest at IBMA (thanks to Charlie D. and Andy Owens for organizing that event!). Obviously, I liked some better than others, but there were some outstanding instruments in that sampling, including Grisman's '22. David's '22 was a standout for me, powerful, full bodied, just everything you'd want in a mandolin. A couple of the others I would rate as exceptional even among Loars. But, the last one of this series I happened to run into while visiting a colleagues shop was a '24 in for repair and was the only one of the lot with a Virzi. It didn't really have quite the power and cutting qualities of David's '22, but I will tell you, there was a sweetness and rich quality to the tone that I heard in none of the others. I was really taken with it. There are other examples of Virzi Loars that I believe to be outstanding, a July 9th, '23 with a one piece back (sold by Mandolin Brothers a few years back), and a Feb. 18, '24 that I worked on for a gentleman from GA just this past summer. There are others too. Again,others may disagree with my ear, but these are the sounds I like.

Would I recommend the Virzi for everyone? No, of course not. For a great bluegrass player like Mike Compton or Ronnie McCoury, no, but for someone like Chris Thile who plays such a variety of music, it can be a good thing. Chris' solo CD "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" and the latest Nickel Creek CD "This Side" and a few Cuts on Bela Flecks "Perpetual Motion" release were all recorded with a Virzi-fied F-5 that I delivered a couple of years ago. Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and the self titled "Nickel Creek" CD were recorded with a very similarly spec'd non-Virzi'd mandolin of mine. When Chris went in the studio with the new Virzi instrument (it was about 3 weeks old) to record "Not All Who Wander..." the engineer told him that the new mandolin mic'd and recorded better than the other one. To my knowledge, the Virzi is still in that one (although the peghead scroll is missing in action!).

I hear a different focus on sound with the Virzi, a different projection,and a different balance and sustain. I have one in the current batch of 5 mandolins I'm working on with the dreaded little disc. It will be the last one in this batch and I'm anxious to hear it. It will be similar to my personal A-5 with a Swiss spruce top. If the sound is anything like the A-5, I'll consider it a success! -- Lynn Dudenbostel
"VIRZI'S--- Live Long and Prosper!"

I have to admit I have played Lynns personal A-5 with Virzi and was amazed at the tone. It was outstanding the tone was very true and straight forward. -- Maverick Hurley

"They're pretty cool (on an historic level) but I can't stand the way they make a mandolin sound. The wolf-tones they prevent make up the bulk of the eccentricities of the F-5 tone, in my opinion. The same thing applies on classical guitar camarra(sp) systems. -- Charlie Derrington

Thanks Tony for a great post. Randy told me that over the years he has had several non-virzi gibson owners bring there mandolins in for a virzi .Mr. Wood told me that he really does not have a preference,virzi or not,it`s up to the player and what he wants from his mandolin.If you give me a choice between tone and volume ,I`am gonna choose tone ,I can always turn up the mike for more volume .Now back in the day when I was jamming in the parking lot I would have killed for more volume.The Virzi was an Option on the loars as it is today by many outstanding builders.Thanks again for an outstanding post. -- Bob Smith

Wrong about Virzi being an option on the Master Models. In '22 and '23 they were a priced option. In '24 they were standard at no extra charge. (see descriptions in the '23 and '24 catalogs). Thereby the reason the majority '24 Loars had the Virzi while the majority '23 did not.

The majority of the Master Models were special ordered so the buyer could tell them in '24 to leave the Virzi off or send a '23 back to have one put in as Tony pointed out. Keep in mind in these days there were not that many William Place, Jr. or Dave Apollons doing solo work on the F5. The majority went to the mandolin orchestras of the day. Those guys were after tone. Like today they had chat rooms to talk about new stuff and the like, only it was more local and in person. It would only take one leader like Walter K. Bauer to blast the Virzi as a problem in getting sound out before the word would spread. Walter didn't think the Virzi was a good idea even though he was first string mandolinist in the Gibsonians with Loar in 1924.

He voiced his opinion to his colleagues who at the time ordered new F5's without Virzis. If a big dealer store had them in stock they came with Virzi installed in 1924. If you were a team picker in the trio or orchestra the Virzi suited your needs just fine as Tony pointed out.

I for one have a Fern Virzi Loar (all Fern Loars had the Virzi) and I would take a million dollars for it. -- Tom Isenhour

Hmmmm, does an option cease to be an option if there is a price attached ($20). I had forgotten that the virzi became standard but I was under the impression that at any time during the golden years you could order a Gibson with or witout a virzi. Congats on your Loar, enjoy, I'm going back to 'food good, fire bad' -- Bob Smith

The Virzi debate is an interesting one. A quick look online found these builders who offer the Virzi as an option (I'm sure there are others):

Lynn Dudenbostel
Paul Duff
Randy Wood

and of course that Loar guy used them, too. -- Alan Cornett

The Related Links will take you to a page describing the video "The Sound of the American Mandolin," which I have been recommending on the list for several years. Tony and our own Max McCullough present an hour program featuring a number of vintage mandolins, as well as mandolas, etc., illustrating the history and development of the American version of the mandolin. Many great vintage instruments exhibited. $25.00 and well worth the price. And yes, there is the famous experiment comparing Virzied and non-Virzied mandolins. If you love the mandolin, you need to have a copy of this tape. I get my copy out and play it every once in a while, to enjoy the mandolins and also to hear the great concert by Tony on the vintage instruments. No financial interest whatsoever.

Glenn Bradford