Charlie Derrington

It's a start of a new CGOW week here with Charlie Derrington!

I am pretty sure everybody knows who Charlie is. Charlie Derrington is probably most famous for putting Bill Monroe's Loyd Loar July 9th 1923 mandolin back together after it was smashed to pieces with a poker. The whole world held it's breath as it awaited the return of the mandolin. It was a unbelievable job that brought tears to Monroes eyes. It was as good as it ever was! Charlie Derrington has also brought the Gibson Corporation back on top in the mandolin world today. Charlie had Gibson go back to all the spec's used in the mandolins of the 1920's. One of the big changes was going back to the traditional Dovetail neck joints instead of using the Bolt-On necks of years past. Probably the best loar reproduction being made today is the Gibson Master Model. It is so close to a loar it is scary.

Charlie will be answering questions this coming week so shoot away. However there will be some questions that Charlie says he can not answer due to reasons of the business nature.

Maverick Hurley

Charlie likes to think of himself as a tenor singer who plays mandolin OK and loves wood. He won the Tennessee State forestry competition 4 years running in high school while learning to play music at the same time.

His first mandolin was a gift in 1976 from an elderly lady whose door he knocked on because he needed to use a phone when stranded with a flat tire. He noticed this instrument in the corner and asked her what it was. The old woman replied that it was a mandolin, and as she knew he was a musician, offered it to Charlie as a gift. He took it home and before learning to play it, stripped the finish and refinished it in varnish. What a way to start!

Charlie hired on at Gibson in 1984 as their only mandolin repairman, and you pretty much know the rest, including the repair of Bill Monroe's badly damaged Loar and the development of the current line of Gibson Mandolins. Charlie was recently promoted to General Manager of Gibson Original Acoustic Instruments. Under his guidance, Gibson is producing a complete line of fine quality mandolins, banjos and resonator guitars at the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase in Nashville.

Charlie also plays mandolin and sings tenor on the new CD by Trayler Parker and the Propane Tanks, "Sneakin' Suspicion," which is coming out very soon.

Rob Coleman


Q - Why did Gibson stop making Flatiron mandolins? They were of good quality and reasonably priced. Will Flatirons be brought back?

A - Basically it was an issue of self-competition. The Flatirons (since the re-tool of 97/98/99) were basically the same mandolins as the Gibsons. It made no sense to continue to offer two different models that were basically identical in spec., at different prices. We therefore decided to introduce the F-9 and A-9 models at a lower price-point than the Flatirons, which allowed a more affordable mandolin (carved to Loar specs.) to be offered. I don't think anyone would have been happy to see us change the Flatirons to only be offered in a lower price point. In other words, the other option would have been for us to make only F-9 Flatirons instead of Festivals (which were basically F-5Gs).

Some may argue the original Montana Flatirons were mainly X-braced, but again I have to state the tooling change to accomodate this would have been prohibitive on a production basis. That said, however, one can custom order any mandolin we build with the X option. Building one or two instruments with non-standard specifications is a lot different than tooling up an entire line with those spec. changes in mind.

We've made no decision to permantly shelve the Flatiron brand and if someone wants to purchase one, we'll certainly build it. The descision was not to do away with Flatiron, but to exclude it from the catalog and regular production.


Q - What are the structural ad specification differences between an F-5 Fern and F-5V (sometimes referred to as a master model)?

What changes, if any, have been made to the F-5 Fern during the last year?

What is the current status of the Flatiron line and are there any plans for new Flatiron models in the future?

A - The F-5V was a model produced in Montana. It no longer exists. The correct designation for our current top of the line model is the F-5 Master Model.

There is some similarity between the Fern and the Master, in that we use Loar graduation specs for both.

The differences are few, but significant, which I will list below:

I personally choose the wood for the Master and play every one. Danny Roberts picks the wood for all of the other models and personally checks and plays every mandolin we build (including the Master Models).

The current F-5 Fern (formerly the F-5L) is a reproduction of the mid-20s Gibson Ferns. No changes have been made in the past year. We made most changes by the end of 2001.


Q - What changes were you making from the previous production?

I have a personal ax (ahem) to grind here -- I have always been pleased to have your signature on my November 15, 1999 F-5L and am now very curious about how it differs from the "final version" F-5L that you are making now.

A - Yours (depending on how early in '99) is most likely just like the current Fern except for the binding (which was changed from ivoroid to white) and the sunburst color (which is now more towards the red-orange brown instead of the Cremona burst).

I would have to see it to be sure. Why don't you stop in sometime, while you're in Nashburg, and let me take a look at it. I certainly want you to be happy with what you've got.


Q - I have an F-5L and am working on playing it as well as it deserves but have been troubled by the label inside saying "Master Model" when there is a "real" Master Model out there that is supposed to be a lot better.

Would you mind stoking the fires of my jealous nature by describing what exactly the differences are between my fine F5-L and the finer Master Models?

What difference do these differences make in tone, playability, etc?

Please go into all the luscious detail you can -- see if you can inspire me to upgrade!

A - The tonal differences between the Master Model and the Fern are very striking but also take a discriminating ear to hear. One would hear these differences on any lacquer vs. varnish finish comparison.

Lacquer tends to have a rounder and more open bass response which also imparts this roundness to the treble notes. Varnish tends to place the emphasis on the mid-range portion. However, the varnished instrument will eventually (after break-in) have the same roundness to the bass but will always have the mid-range advantage.

Remember, neither is better, just different. I know many pro players that prefer that lacquer tone over the varnish and also just the opposite. I personally prefer varnish because of its cutting power in a bluegrass situation. Banjo players hate mandolins that cut above a banjo. And that's a good reason to love varnish.

The reason all Gibson mandolins have the Master Model label is a bit cumbersome to explain. But I'll certainly give it a try.

Gibson invented the F-5. The Master Model instruments originally included the H-5, L-5, F-5, and K-5. Of course the H-5 and K-5 were dropped from the line and the L-5 followed a different evolutionary path.

I think what I'm trying to say is Gibson has a long history of producing the F-5 Master Model. The Loars were Master Models as were the Ferns of the 20s. Our high-end mandolins have a tradition of having that Master Model line label designation. It is historically correct to have that label in every F-5 style instrument we build. Really, would you be happy if your Fern didn't have the historically correct label?

I know it is a bit confusing to have a Master Model line and a Master Model. But, that is the historically correct thing to do. I know there would have been much unhappiness with our customers and dealers if we didn't have the correct label in all of our mandolins and all of our mandolins trace their history back to one model. The alternative would be to have historically incorrect labels in all of our mandolins save one. I think it is quite easy to remember if you look on the label for the model designation (and not on the printed portion of the label) it will be quite easy to tell the difference. Also remember, unless I personally sign the upper label, it's not a Master Model.

The only other alternative would be to produce only one model of mandolin which, I think we would all agree, wouldn't be feasible.

Whew!! I hope that answer will suffice.


Q - A lot of people speak negatively about the F-9 Gibson. A major complaint is that it is supposedly built inconsistently. At Folk of the Wood they have video clips of some one playing it and it sounds very bluegrassy with good bass response. What would you say about the charges that you can't rely on one F-9 to be built as well as another? How does the A-9 match up to the F-9? Also, how does the F-9 and A-9 sound for more folk oriented music and other styles? At the beginning of the year I had my heart set on one day owning an F-9 or an A-9 -- either one would be my only shot at ever owning a Gibson -- but with all this negative talk you can't help but wonder.

A - I don't know about that statement "a lot of people speak negatively about the F-9 Gibson". We build and sell more F-9s than any other mandolin we offer. That speaks volumes.

The F-9s have the same attention to detail as any of our other mandolins when it comes to tone and playability. We are able to offer them at a lower price for three reasons. The wood selection process (in reference to streaks, knots, curl, anything related to the visual and not to the tone) is less stringent and therefore less costly, and the fact that we don't have to scrape the binding (which is extremely labor intensive) and we don't have to buff the finish (again very labor intensive). We still spend the same amount of time in graduation, neck-fit, etc. as we do on our most expensive mandolin. The A-9 should (as an average) sound just as good as the F-9 and both make great alternative music mandolins.

Back to your question. What is better? I think we have all stressed the importance of playing any mandolin before you purchase it. Every hand-built instrument (Heck, any machine-built instrument) will sound different than the preceding instrument and the following instrument. That is the nature of musical instruments built of wood. The mandolin you think is horrible will be wonderful to the next guy that comes along and visa-versa.

Don't let negative talk disuade you from owning an instrument you desire. You have to make a very personal decision based on what speaks to your heart and is affordable to your pocket-book. There is a very real tendency out there in the world to speak bad about the big guy. I don't really understand this tendency as Gibson is hand-building every mandolin we sell just like all of the small guys. And also, I'm one of you !..... as is Danny Roberts, Tony Wray, Erik Sullivan, so-on and so-on. We're all Bluegrass nuts and real good (at least for the other guys I mentioned) players to boot. We support the musical community relating to mandolins, Dobros and banjos, and nobody loves the instruments we build more than us. Just give us a small break and realize we are here to try and please and at the same time build the greatest instruments we can.


Q - First off I want to say what a great job you've done with Gibson and the master Model and the mandolin line in general. My question is, what do you think of some of the small builders such as Brentrup, Heiden, etc... and have you played any of these models?

A - Don't just stop with Hans and Heiden. I am going to repeat what I've heard so many times in the past couple of years. We live in a great time with so many good instruments being built.

I only wish the current passion in quality had been around for the last 50 years. But, we can say the same about cars, washers, dryers, and any American built products. So many people bemoan the low quality of Gibson, Martin, etc., in the 60s and 70s, but then don't stop and think about the cars, etc., that were being built at the same time. How many people do you see really looking around for a '71 Impala or Cougar?

Anyway, I digress. Lots of great mandos around. Just look at what they are copying. ;-)


Q - I want to ask you about the tune "Walking To Westport" I love it, I play it and I tell everybody about you and that you wrote it. Would you tell me where Westport is, and how you came to write the tune. Second question, tell me about Steve Carlson, I want to know everything?

A - "Walking to Westport" is a tune I wrote dedicated to my daddy. He passed away in 1998 and was my best bud and confidant. He was born in the small West Tennessee town of Westport. It's not on the map, but is located in-between Huntingdon and Paris (which is where I'm from). Anyway, my granny used to tell us about our granddaddy walking from Huntingdon to Westport to come home from the army. That's where the tune came from. And if you can tell, the timing is perfect for a brisk walking pace and one can imagine a country walk with the tune in mind.

Steve Carlson. Hmmm......

Steve owned the Flatiron Company in Montana and approached me at the NAMM show in (I think) 1987 and wanted to meet Henry. I introduced them and the rest is history. Steve's a great guy and has a great mind geared towards production. I think he tired of things and wanted to do something on his own. He is currently the owner of a firm that writes programs for the CNC to help small instrument companies to come up with processes to carve instrument parts. I haven't spoken with him in some time.


Q - Two questions I would be interested to have your opinion on. - I - Could you please tell us in layman's terms what you think are the main factors in adjusting the bass frequencies when building a mandolin? How about changing/adjusting these factors afterwards in a ready mandolin?

-II- Are the A style mandolins normally built symmetrically in construction (tonewise) so that a righty mandolin I find interesting could be changed lefty without loss of the bass frequencies?

A - The main factor is: Build it like a Loar. Adjustments were made on the Loars by adjusting the treble f-hole size.

The A shape we currently use is symmetrical (on the outside), but the tone bars are not. In other words, one needs to do internal changes to make a left-handed A mandolin.


Q - I miss the days of visiting your Bellevue shop, but must say I've really happy that you got to work for Gibson again. Here are my questions:

Can you imagine what it was like to work in the Kalamazoo plant in the early 20's? What do you imagine a day's work for the craftsmen there was like? Is it a place and time you would have liked to work? Do you think they had any idea what a legacy they were creating?

A - Yeah, I miss you guys, too. The one thing I miss about the old shop is my inability to get on the bench, myself. I miss having a Loar in one hand and a chisel in the other. But, I was serious about me having the best job in the world. I love it here, and can't really imagine doing anything else.

I have indeed imagined working at the Kzoo plant and fantasized about meeting Loar and McHugh.

The one thing we have to remember was a factory. One job all day long, day after day, year after year. For history's sake it would be nice to visit, but I don't think I'd like to stay. I don't believe they had any idea of creating a legacy, only an idea on what they thought would sell that week to keep a paycheck in hand and food in their mouths.

That may be a dark view, but I believe it is a view close to reality.


Q - Can you comment on the types of Scripts and flowerpots that has changed over time with Gibson? I notice the new Masters have a more delicate touch and defination to the flowerpot than the ones of the Loar era.

A - Look closely at all of the Loar flowerpots. They changed several times (over the course of Loar's tenure) as did the headstock veneers and color and binding, etc.

So, I didn't feel too badly about upgrading and changing the flowerpot as we had many requests to do so. One can still order a Master Model with the less refined original flowerpot. And, some do.


Q - Any suggestions on building up speed? I was just in a jam with some of those young gunslinger type mando I can already play well & pretty fast were being kicked off at a clip that was beyond my ability to play with tone & spit out the licks fast do you get from pickin' fast to being able to shift into hyper drive, when required to keep up?

A - Speed is a real concern for alot of folks and I totally understand but again speed is a relative thing. I know I've been in jams where everything was played at hyper-speed and that's really boring to me and besides most songs just aren't supposed to be that speed. Working up from a very slow tempo and playing clean is the key to me. The better you get with your technique the easier it'll be to play that fast when need but you're probably better off jamming with some folks that play tunes at a more sensible speed anyway. Also remember the faster you go the more notes you want to leave out in order to play clean and with good tone. Sometimes it's not what you play but what you don't that's the key!


Q - Alan, you have already touched on this to some degree in some of your posts, but what would you list as the "definitive aspects" of your style, to use your words, in addition to the use of triplets?

A - I think that being one of the first if not the first guy to use triplets in the fashion I do in mainstream bluegrass is definitely one of the most profound points of my style but I also play alot of Monroe sounding licks that I'm come up with over the years and I 've been told that the syncopation and drive as well as tone I play with is instantly recognizable. I've always had the goal of being able to play any style very well and I've spent many hours working at being able to switch gears in the middle of a ride from a very notey passage to the real strong down stroke style or to a rapid cross-picking style in any order just depending what I feel at the time.. Being able to do that effortlessly and very clean is no easy task. Thanks again for having me this week!


Q - How appropriate that Alan Bibey makes this comment what with Charlie Derrington up next week as CGOW! Charlie must be smiling down there in Nashville as we speak. Question for Alan. Alan, I have your AcuTab video, which is very good. You end a lot of your stuff with a vibrato. My question is, how the hell do you do that? I can vibrato a violin, an electric mandolin and certainly an electric guitar, but I can't do much with a double stringer. You actually get a pretty good vibrato sound. Is there a secret to this or are you just that strong?

A - Hey thanks and I'm very glad you enjoyed the video! Charlie and Danny as well as all the folks at Gibson are doing a great job. Just can't say enough about them. No there's really no secret to the vibrato just developing the strength to be able to execute it. It does take quite a bit of finger strength. I don't use it very often but it's just a cool effect that you just don't hear in most people's playing. Good luck and exercise those digits all you can! Many thanks!


Q - Can you tell us what impact or effect, if any, the Monroe mandolin recovery and repair had on the new F5 mandolins?

Does the F5 Master Model grow out of that or from another area?

A - Yeah, the Master Model grew out of that, but it also grew out of the many Loars I have owned or worked on in my life. In my mind, it was just another Loar. A great mandolin, to be sure, but only added to the total knowledge base.


Q - I own a '95 F5V signed by Bruce Weber. I bought it used and it I believe it was customized by Gibson with a radiused fingerboard, and with the frets on the extension removed and scalloped. My question is- besides these obvious differences from the "normal" fingerboard have you made any changes to design since this model was made?

A - Yes.

We basically scrapped all of the Montana tooling and started over using Loars as our model. That's not to say the Montana's aren't great instruments (they are) it's just that I'm a firm believer in making mandolins as close to the Loar design as possible.


Q - In one of your replies you stated that bigger companies (like Gibson) can be treated with respect and shouldn't have their size alone cause people to treat them with distrust. I agree with you completely.

But big companies have some clout and economic power that smaller firms don't have though and I ask you to consider the difficulties being experienced by the Monroe Foundation in acquiring Monroe's mandolin.

Gibson might be in a position to do a good thing for "the world" and at the same time, do great things for their brand by helping the Monroe Foundation complete its mission. I'd love to see this project succeed. Surely the Gibson brand could continue to benefit from the visibility of Monroe's July 9th Loar on display to the many thousand of bluegrass "pilgrims" who might visit it in this future home.

A - We've offered to donate a Master Model to Mandolin Café for a raffle with the proceeds going to various charities (with the Foundation being one of these).

I have a special stake in seeing that THE mandolin needs to be in a place of honor.


Q - Can you detail more of the differences in the Montana F5V's and your current Master Model F5's with a varnish finish? I was under the impression that with this model and since the early 90's Gibson set out to recreate the Loar design (without the Virzi). I was not aware that there were differences between the Montana made mando's and the current model you are making.

A - I think I have covered this in a previous question, but I'll try to expand the answer somewhat.

They did set out to recreate the Loar design and got closer than any other previous incarnation. However, knowledge is not a static thing and I have learned a few things since they first used my Dec.11 to make the early 90s try. (This wasn't my project and I had already gone out on my own by the time this project started. I offered to let them use my Loar and they kept it for about two weeks to make their patterns.)

The small things they missed were inconsequential to them and to most folks, but not close enough for me.

The main thing I can mention (without giving away any priviledged information) is the finish composition.

The varnish used in the Montana Vs is a spirit varnish and the varnish on the Loars is a oil-base varnish (of a specific recipe) with a French Polish top coat. There are also some assymetrical aspects of Loars that some folks thought were errors in the originals. They are not.

Again let me say, those are absolutely wonderful instruments and deserve all of the praise they receive. They just weren't close enough to Loars for me. I am a Loar NUT and believe every mandolin should be exactly like them. Seriously, I'm pretty deranged about this stuff.

Hope this answer will suffice.


Q - How many Master models would you say are produced each month at Gibson? Can you walk us thru the proccess of building a Master model? No secrets but just the high lights of the process.

What is your opinion on carbon fiber necks being used in mandolins these days?

What is your opinion on neck joints, dovetail compared to the bolt on.

A - We average 3 Master Models per month and we currently have a back-log of about a year.

Well, it's not that much different than the way any high-end mandolin is built. Tops and backs are selected and carved, rims selected and bent, head, points, and tailblock glued and rim kerfing added, top and back graduated, tone-bars rough-shaped and glued, tone-bars tuned, back rough graduated, top glued to rim, binding cut on top, extension and riser block glued, top bound, dove-tail cut and neck fit, back glued, back bound, final graduations on top and back, neck glued, neck leveled, fingerboard glued and bound, head-veneer glued and bound, neck leveled again, fretted, neck shaped, final sanding, nut glued and first set-up completed (check tuning and playability), hand stain, sealed, varnished, french polished, final set-up and fret check (level if needed), final qc check and playing, send to a happy customer.

I have re-set too many bolt-on necks to be happy with that system. As many old Gibson mandolins as I have worked on in my lifetime, I have never, NEVER, had to reset a neck on one. NEVER !!!! Loose backs, headblocks, tailblocks, tops, etc. etc. but never a neck joint. That is a huge testimonial to the stability of the compound dove-tail neck joint on a mandolin. There is also a definitive tonal difference between the two. If it ain't like a Loar, don't build it.


Q - Can you compare and contrast the different Loars you have owned and worked on over the years? Which is your favorite, and why?

A - That would be very difficult to do in this type of format. However, I can say that the July 9 that I recently sold to Rob Coleman was my favorite. I have owned some with great bass response and some with great treble and mids, but that July 9 was very special. But, you know, taste is a very subjective thing, Aubrey prefers the '24 I currently own.


Q - Any plans to build an Master Model A model? Also, can you special order the Master models with radius fret board and 'scooped' extension? A scooped extension that is 'fretted' like Lynn Dudenbostel builds would maintain the overall Loar look and be much more playable for most players, I believe.

A - We've talked about a Loar A model, but I don't think we're going to look at doing one any time soon.

Of course you can order it with any modification you prefer (just don't ask me to graduate the top and back differently, cause I won't do it) On my personal mandolins I use the fake frets in the last few (without the scallop) because that is something I can "undo" later.


Q - Charlie, I got to hear you play with 1946 at SPGMA last year and I was = impressed with the music and your contribution to it. I understand that = you are no longer playing with 1946. Are you currently in a group or do = you have plans to join or create a new group any time soon.

A - My current musical project is done with my brother-in-law (David Luttrell). It's a tounge in cheek name, but it exemplifies our southern roots. "Trayler Parker and the Propane Tanks". David is one of the best singer/songwriters I have ever worked with and the songs range from very serious original gospel songs to satirical trailer park trash ones. What's cool about the project is that we do mostly original songs and it gives me a chance to write and play my own tunes (which was kind of hard do to with '46 as we mainly concentrated on the songs of the '40s). Mike Stangeland has done some transcritions of my tunes and I hope he gets a chance to post them on the list.

(Ed. Note - Click here for Charlie Derrington TablEdit files.)


Q - I'm sure that most of us are familiar with the story of your reconstruction of Bill's busted Loars. We have had a number of guests who played Monroe's July 9 Loar before and after. Tut Taylor and Mike Compton both said that it was pretty well played out at the end. Did you have a chance to evaluate the mando before it was trashed to compare it with how it came out after your repairs? Why do you think Bill didn't take better care of it? He loved the mandolin so much it seems like he would have taken better care of it than he did.

Can you name the five (ten) best Loars you have played on? A lot of people think that John Reischman's Loar is the best mandolin in the world. Have you had a chance to personally evaluate John's Loar?

A - Well, I did have a chance to play Bill's Loar before and after. I can tell you it was a good Loar both before and after, however, I do believe it was experiencing some major fatigue even before I did the work on it.

You've got to remember there was a serious "worn through" spot where he rested his fingers that was paper thin and, I believe, affected the tonality of the top. I personally noticed a small tonal drop in the E string right after the repair, but also noticed that this drop rectified itself after about a year of his playing it. I do know he was happy enough to shed a tear when we gave it back to him and he had a chance to play a tune or two on it.

Speaking of which, I have been meaning to say something about what that repair has meant to me.

I have never taken credit for how the thing turned out. I don't believe it is humanly possible to take something that was that "messed up" and have it turn out so well. In other words, I really give credit to the good Lord for allowing that instrument to turn out as well as it did.

Anyway, what is really priceless to me about the whole affair was the connection I got with Mon. Afterward, he would call and ask me over, or play a tune for me and ask me what I thought about it and take time to actually show me how to play some of his tunes and just generally take me under his wing. (Heck, he even asked me to name a tune he had written. Of course, I named it "The Lloyd Loar") I had about about 9 years (on and off) with him and I really got to love that old man. I can trace my whole career back to him. When he passed away, James called and asked me to go to the funeral (which I probably wouldn't have otherwise). I cried like a baby and still (other than my own daddy) miss him more than anyone else I have lost. It's almost impossible to put into words how much that old man meant to me.

I just wish I could have comped his style as well as Mike or David have.

Whew!! Five best Loars, huh? That's a tough one.


Grisman's 22 (I don't like most 22s and early 23s as they are mostly quartered backs and tend to be a little bright for my ear. Grisman's sounds like the best 23 to my ear).

Aubrey Haynie's unsigned 25. It's a real cannon. Bass, mids, trebles...Whatever you want, its got it.

My former July 9. Very heavy mids. Drives banjo players nutty. Cuts like a knife.

The former Don Brown Loar that now belongs to Frank Ray. That thing is phenominal.

Lonnie Porchie's Dec.11

Yes, I have played that one and John's Loar is definately among the top ten, but (John, this is personal opinion and we're definately batting at knats as any comparison like this is really getting into minutia) is a little heavy on the bass side. Remember, my personal taste falls to the mid-range.


Q - It is a real pleasure to have you as our guest on Comando, welcome. Can you talk about the Sam Bush F-5 "Hoss" reproduction? How close is it to the real thing?

Sam´s input into the whole project of reproducing "Hoss"? And your opinion about Sam´s contribution to the mandolin world and bluegrass? I am the proud owner of an old 1980 F-5L and I am considering buying a Sam Bush model.

I met you in Nashville around 1985 at the Station Inn, I am an old friend of Sam B. Please tell him I say hi and keep up the great work at Gibson.

A - In a lot of ways it is real close to Hoss (at least according to Sam). The main thing we concentrated on in the developmental process was to make sure the neck size was as close to Sam's as possible. I was more than a little hesitant to make the graduations exactly like Hoss because of all of the modifications that had been done on that mandolin. It has held up just fine, but to carve an instrument that thinly and that is going to have a lifetime warranty is a little scary. So, we fell back on Loar graduations and thinned the area around the f holes to give the same appearance as Hoss. Of course, Sam was very happy with the tonal result and this is how we approached the production models.

We didn't want to pre-wear (although we are currently looking at coming out with a distressed Master Model) the Sam model so we approached the color issue to be more like the mid-30s Gibsons.

Sam's input was almost daily during the prototype process and he continues to call me almost weekly with suggestions and advise.

I can't say enough about Sam's contribution to the world of mandolin. He (along with a very few other mandoists) falls only shortly behind Monroe in terms of his contributions. His phrasing is impeccable. No one can match him for timing and he tells the funniest stories of anyone I know.

Needless to say (even though I'm nowhere close to him in talent on the mandolin) he was probably (along with Doyle and Grisman) was my biggest early influence. He's also one of my best friends. It's funny, but just recently we realized we sang together back in the early '70s in a classical vocal performance at Murray State University. Anyway, I digress.

Sam's the best.


Q - What a wonderful thing to share regarding Mr. Monroes Loar; I hope you not only receive credit for the Loar but also for changing the quality and perception of instruments coming out of Gibson. You are obviously a gift to that company as well as the mando community.

A couple added questions:

Can you give us a basic primer on how you set up instruments?

The woody sound? What actually creates that other than age?

A - I tend to have the same opinion as Tony Williamson on set-up. Every mandolin is different and requires a slightly different set-up to get the most out of it. However, as a general rule, I like the action at the nut to be as low as possible and (simply because of the physics of a vibrating string) adjust everything else at the bridge. You can have extremely low action at the nut and high or low action at the bridge. As a rough rule, I personally prefer the action at the 12th fret to be 4/64 on the E string and 5/64 on the G.

That elusive "woody" sound. I think that definition is different for all of us. But for me, the answer is (boy, do I sound like a broken record), build it like a Loar.


Q - What is your opinion on 3 piece necks?

A - I think they're pretty cool. The early Loars had them.


Q - My question is a follow up on the setup question: using lighter strings on a light-topped (flat) mandolin, would you set up higher or lower (at the bridge) than the rough rule you set out?

A - For a flat-top (depending on your attack) I would try to go for a set-up of 1/64 lower on both sides of the bridge. Of course, your frets would have to be extremely level, with no high spots.


Q - Whereas I'm familiar with Big Mon's Loar repair, I was hoping you could talk a little more about it. How may pieces was it in when it was delivered to you? Was the top seriously damaged, and how on earth did you go about repairing it? (without giving away any proprietary information). What was the most challenging aspect of the repair ?

I hope you don't find this question macabre, or too dark - I'm just amazed at the job that was done. I think it has to be the most remarkable repair in all luthier history !

A - Gee, I don't know what to say.

I was serious when I gave credit to Providence.

It was in about 250 pieces. The top was the most severely damaged part and I basically just took it one splinter at a time.

Believe it or not, the most challenging aspect was to separate out the pieces. Mon had put all of the pieces to both mandolins in a garbage bag and it was very difficult to ascertain what piece went with which mandolin. It took a magnifying glass and two pieces of white poster board to catalog and separate out the pieces. That alone took about a month.


Q - My question is what type of strings do you prefer for your instruments when they come of the line. Do you use different types for diffrent models? And to what extent have you tested different strings on your instruments ie Phos Bronze vs Bright Bronze vs Stainless etc. and guages?

A - The Sam Bush's come out with Sam Bush Monels and every thing else has the set I designed for Mon. The Bill Monroe phosphor-bronze set.

I am constantly trying different string types and sometimes can't make up my mind on what I prefer. I'm currently using a Gibson Monel-steel set with a .015 A.


Q - This brings up the dreaded question: What is your impression of the Virzi?

A - Historically, I have not preferred the sound changes a Virzi imparts to a mandolin. It tends to limit the mid-range quality that I find so appealing in a mandolin. However, I am in the process of changing my mind as my current Loar has a Virzi and I'm falling in love with it more and more everyday.

So what if I'm inconsistent?


Q - There has been a lot of talk over the past years, mainly since CITES III, that tone wood will someday be gone from our planet, or at least unavailable in the good old US of A. Now I'm not a tree hugger, I believe wood should be harvested like any crop, but it must also be renewed. I would like to know if the major builders like Gibson are concerned about this and what, if any, actions they are taking to ensure their own supply/ survival. I am hoping not to hear words like *alternate materials*. I'd also like to say I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts this week.

A - We are indeed concerned about the renewable aspect of tone woods and have put forth a lot of effort into this area. Believe it or not, spruce and maple are not as big of a concern (although we are getting Smart Wood certification for these tone woods, also) as are mahogany, ebony and some of the more esoteric tropical woods.

I'm going to include a quote from our historian, Walter Carter which also applies to the Bluegrass division:

"Gibson was the first guitar company to put a Smart Wood-certified guitar into regular production. We've received an award from the Rainforest Alliance for our support of certification programs. In addition to the Smart Wood models, we are, without a lot of fanfare, steadily increasing our use of certified wood. Currently we have some certified wood (maple and/or mahogany) in forty percent of the regular production guitars coming out of the Nashville plant."

As you can see, we're actually trying to do something about a future problem, right now, in the present.


Q - I have seen the "compound dove-tail neck joint" fail on a couple of early Flatiron mandolins and an old Martin archtop guitar (C-2). In these three cases shrinkage of the joint components was the problem. The Martin's excuse would be age (1931). As for the two Flatirons it may possibly have been poorly seasoned timber or the wild swings in humidity we get here in the tropics... don't know.

A - My actual post pertained to Gibson mandolins and not Flatiron or Martin.

However (correct me if I'm not remembering correctly) I believe the Flatiron joint is a straight dovetail and not a compound one and the Martin joint bears no resemblance to the original Gibson joint.

I stand firmly behind my belief that the compound, Gibson mandolin dovetail is the best wood joint ever attempted by man.


Q - Speaking of monels, I love them for Texas style guitar accompaniment and for mandolin. Being a huge Sam Bush fan, I love that monel tone on his mando and on my Gilchrist. My question is I can only find the gauges .011 .014 .025 .041, the standard monel mando set. Does Gibson make a heavier gauge monel set? I'd love .013 .017 .028 .046.

My wife bought a Sam Bush model last summer. Is is the best new mando I've ever heard. Compliments to you and your team on great work!

Now if you'd only make a run of mandolas and mandocellos. Just once in a while.

A - I have been speaking to the string division and trying to get them to make a heavier gauge set. I guess we have to wait a while and see what happens. On my set, I use the standard Monel set and just buy some extra .015 singles for the A.

I'm looking at a mandola for sometime in the future (we've only got so much time !!). As many of you may know, I'm really a frustrated mandola player and was a founding member of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. Take a listen to Patty Loveless' latest Christmas album and you'll hear a little mandola/mando-cello duet on "The First Noel" with me and John Hedgecoth. I love the mandola and in a lot of ways find it more expressive than even the mandolin.


Q - I have an F5-L, 2/8/2000 (#208010), with your autograph on it. For those of us who haven't had a chance to tour a mando shop/factory, can you briefly describe the process? How much of your personal mojo went into its creation? How was the wood selected (I know the guy who has its sister and he's of the opinion that he and I have gotten instruments a step or two above the "normal")? What's my mando's story ;^)?

A - You might look at the post on the Master Model construction and it almost is identical to the process on your F-5.

Either Danny Roberts or I personally choose all of the wood.

I don't really know how much of my personal "mojo" went into it, but, Butch Baldassari was kidding with me a while back and asked me, "When are you going to come out with a Charlie Derrington model?" I smart-assed him back with a reply. "Why, they're all Charlie Derrington models." Seriously though, since I was directly responsible for every production tool and design, I guess my "mojo" will be on Gibson mandolins for a good little while. I don't really want to be remembered for that, though. I just want Lloyd Loar and Ted McHugh to get all of the credit for the original design. And that's all we're doing....Just going back to those guys for inspiration.


Q - I am very impressed with the new Gibson mandolins I have played lately. You all should be commended for bringing Gibson instruments back to the forefront of acoustic music. It speaks volumes just having guys like Bush, Bibey and Steffy playing your new instruments! I wrote in last week to ask Bibey about his Signature model. Myself and 2 other of my mandolin picking buddies want to make sure we get one of the first batch so to speak. My question is can we pre-order now from Gibson or do we have to wait to get one from a Gibson dealer?

A - One of the differences of being a bit larger is the inability to buy directly from us. However, we have the advantage of having a larger dealer base to display and sell our instruments.

In other words, you can't get one from us. However, I can point you to a dealer that will have one of the first ones in stock. Please e-mail Maverick and he'll give you my private e-mail address so that I can point you in the right direction. Thanks for your kind words and I hope we can continue to offer the best mandolins available anywhere.


> > I stand firmly behind my belief that the compound, Gibson mandolin
> > dovetail is the best wood joint ever attempted by man.

> Not to mention the hardest to execute properly.

Q - It is a beautiful and complex wood joint and extremely difficult to execute, but is it necessarily the only reliable and proper method of attaching a mandolin neck to the body of the instrument? Often the complexity of the joint itself can be its downfall. In the case of Gibson mandolins*aren't two different types of wood actually being joined (maple neck to mahogany headblock)? With wild swings in humidity (like we get here in tropical Australia) different timber species will often absorb moisture at different rates and thereby expand and contract at different rates. This differential can cause some real problems with the normally reliable compound dovetail joint.

A - As it is with everything else in life, we can only make deductions based on our own experiences. I have (personally) seen every other joint fail and therefore deduce, the compound dovetail is the superior wood joint. We have wild swings in humidity in Florida and other areas, and I've worked on mandolins from those places. Same answer. The next question is: Has someone come up with a better joint with over 80 years of reliability? If those differentials cause that much problem with the dovetail, how much problem would there be with an inferior one?

Interesting point, though. I'll stick with the compound dovetail.


Q - You've talked some about the construction of the Sam Bush signature F5, as well as Sam's involvement in the development of it. As someone who just purchased the Bush F5 model, I'm curious about the "Bush string spacing." Do you know Sam's reasoning for spacing the strings differently?

A - Yes, it's pretty simple. He likes it that way. That's not a cute answer, it's the only explanation I can offer.


Q - Have you thought about putting A4s or F4s back in the product line?

A - Yup, lots of thought.

I don't believe, for the time being, the market is large enough to warrant a huge tooling expenditure (for example, how many oval hole builders do you see out there right now? One, two? ). However, I would really like to look at the F-4 sometime in the future. It's a great instrument with a glorious past.


Q - Can you discuss how tops and tone bars are carved/graduated, if it's not a trade secret? Is it a pre-set formula, or do you use tap tuning and other mysterious techniques?

A - No secret at all.

Get about 100 Loars, take graduations, thump them and see what you hear, and copy that. Then take about 25 years of finish research (all the while keeping in close contact with experts in the field) and repair another bunch of Loars (while you have them taken apart, be sure and document everything you see), marry a radiation therapist so that you can have free access to CT machines, take some engineering courses and befriend some computer engineers...while you're at it, get real close to a lot of top players and listen to their likes and dislikes, oh, and while you're at all this, buy a house, raise a family and learn how to play the mandolin. A college music degree helps also so that you can understand music physics and how all of the previous information applies to instruments.

Mix all of that together, and you've got it !!

Pretty easy, huh? I once asked Steve Gilchrist how he managed to get the square hole so neatly in his pearl tuner buttons. His reply...."I have a machine to do that for me, it's called an apprentice."


Q - Who are some of your favorite mandolin players who you like to listen to?

A - I'm a weird duck. I don't really listen to any mandolin player recordings.

When I was younger, it was David G., Sam, and Doyle. But then came along the Monroe repair thing and I realized where it all came from. Mr. Bill is probably my biggest influence, but I come nowhere near having his technical ability or heart in my playing. I was always really lucky to have an extremely high tenor voice and was able to play with people much better than I, because they needed the singing. Playing with much higher quality musicians than myself, always made me get better.

I told Sam this story and he got a big kick out of it.

Mr. Bill was listening to me play one day and told me, "Charlie, you're a real good tenor and I like your playin', but you've got to get those Sam Bush notes out of there."

My favorite players nowadays (from picking with them and hearing them around festivals, etc.) No particular order, mind you.

Dave G
Mr. Sizemore
Dave Harvey
Dave McGlaughlin (sp ?)

Gosh, there are so many. I'm sure I've left someone out.

I will tell you this, if you want tremelo, it's David Grisman. Phrasing ? Sam. Clarity? Doyle.

And I'd give my left ?? to have Dave Harvey's right hand.


Q - Could you share your thoughts on how to properly break in a new instrument? I've heard things like put new strings on it at least once a month, play it back closer to the bridge rather than just in the sweet spot, etc. Do you think any of this matters?

A - Nah, I think the answer is to just play the crap out of it.

And thank you. I have really enjoyed it also and consider it an honor to be able to chat with all of you fine folks. I hope every one of you can take the time to come to Nashville and drop by Opry Mills and "holler" at us. We'd love to have you visit.


Q - Sounds to me as if part of the difficulties in getting the bluegrass community to get behind the Monroe Foundation has to do with ambivalence toward the stated goal: to make Monroe's mandolin the centerpiece of a tourist attraction in Rosine, several hours away from Nashville or any other population center, where more people would be able to see it. It's been stated several times on this list: people really want to see the mandolin preserved, but by whom is not as important. With professionals such as the Smithsonian and the Country Music Hall of Fame in on the bidding, we can be sure that the mandolin will be in good hands, even if the Monroe Foundation doesn't get the mandolin. Since we can be confident these institutions have the experience and the resources to ensure the safety and visibility of Gibson's most famous mandolin, I can understand why some would prefer it end up in their hands instead.

Gibson's lack of real support for the Monroe Foundation seems evident. Their donation sounds to me like a token effort: they have donated a Master Model for raffle, only PART of which will benefit the Monroe foundation. A great thing, and no doubt appreciated -- but we all know they periodically give away mandolins to major artists, to promote the Gibson name. Surely donating a mandolin to charity (only ONE of which is the Monroe foundation) doesn't approach the level of support Gibson would be capable of if it thought supporting the Monroe Foundation was really in its best interest. I'd guess that Gibson's interests would be better served if the mandolin went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where tourists would be able to see it not so far from Gibson's own Bluegrass Showcase.

All that said, however, you have to respect a guy who has gone so far out on a limb to support a project he believes in. I hope he is building bridges with those who want to see Rosine become a tourist attraction. I'm not sure I'm among them, though. When I finally get to see Jerusalem Ridge, I hope to see it as a local park in something close to its original condition, rather than as part of the commercial development that will be inevitable if investors are trying to recoup such a major investment as Monroe's mandolin.

A - I don't see how we could be any more supportive of Doc. I am a member of the Foundation Board of Directors. I have offered to help in any way needed and even offered to donate a 14 thousand dollar mandolin to that end. If Doc asks me for something else, I'm sure we'll do everything we can to comply.

Lack of support??? What would you have me do? Everyone seems to think that Gibson is this great big conglomerate with tons and tons of free cash to dole out as anyone sees fit. It ain't so. We are a privately owned company trying to make it by every month just like everyone else out there. We're not offering to help to further Gibson's interests, we're offering because we love the mandolin just like you. Just ask Doc.


Q - The place at Opry mills the "Gibson Bluegrass Showcase" or whatever it's called. Is this the actual factory or is there a secret lair where all the real work goes on? Is that where you work too?

For the record I've never been there but wouldn't mind stopping byto check it out, though I think the CMT/Longaberger crowd of super tourists would probably turn me off.

A - Yup, It's where we really do the work. No secret lair, although I do have two other employees that do the kilning and rough wood work over on Massman Drive. We don't have the room here for a kiln and the rough carve CNC.

Don't come on a Sat. afternoon if you want to miss the CMT crowd. That's the only time they are here.


Q - I'd first like to personally thank you for taking the time this week to "open the doors" of Gibson for us on the CoMando list. I'm a huge fan of Gibson and especially your tenure with the company. Now to my questions; I have a Master Model as well as a recently acquired Sam Bush that was labeled on November 18, 2002. I've also owned a few Gibson mandolins in the last few years that I've traded up on. Here are my questions:

1. Is it true that you use a stash of tone wood, Sitka spruce top wood to be more specific, that came from Alaska and it's earmarked for the Sam Bush models only?

2. The Sam Bush is my favorite overall mandolin even though it's the newest and not really broken in. What's the secret to getting that loud, resonant tone? I might add the strength is in the mid-range of my Sam Bush, but what are you doing differently on it as opposed to the other F5's Gibson is currently producing?

3. Lastly, what is it with the last two digits of the serial numbers, this doesn't include the Master Models, but the last two digits always seem to be "10" on the ones I've owned in the past and others that I've seen for sale. What is up with that? :)

A - Don't think your support hasn't been noticed. It has. I want to personally thank you for your support and patronage.

1. Nope, not true. Danny and I pick out the wood for each model based only on our lines per inch spec. and tapped tonal specifications, out of each batch of spruce we get. The Master is different as we buy the Red Spruce separately.

2. Some people like the Bush's better, some the Ferns, some the Masters, etc. etc. The only thing that would make the overall tone different (Danny and I believe, as we have had some discussions on why the Bush sounds different than the Fern) is the slight thinning we do on the top, around the F holes, but even more, the larger neck seems to affect the tonal aspect of the whole instrument.

3. The serial number sequence works like this 30314010. 3 (last digit of the year 03), 0314 (March 14th) 01 (first mandolin built that day), 0 (first digit of the year 03). Hope that's clear as mud.


Q - Does Henry J. have any idea what a good will ambassador you are for Gibson,Inc.? Although I have owned and played Gibson instruments since 1965, I had developed a very negative attitude towards the Nashville operation and its products. Having the chance to read your comments and "dig your head," my negative attitude has been completely dispelled; all I want now is one of "your" Master Models!

Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with this List. It is great to know that a consummate craftsman like you is the steward of the Gibson reputation for the 21st century. Lloyd L. would be proud of you....

A - Well, I believe he does.

I love these instruments and I love this company and all of the history behind it. I said earlier I had the best job in the world, and I meant it !!


Q - There's been a lot of past discussion on the list about the "wake-up" phenomenon, i.e. that a mando tends to "go to sleep" and needs vigorous playing to sound its best--particularly those with Red Spruce tops. Do you have any observations about the veracity of this, and the best way to wake a sleepy one up in the smallest amount of time?

Thanks for your efforts. Even for those of us not playing Gibsons right now, we owe Gibson big time, for setting the original bar and now, raising the bar still higher. Nothing gratifies like success.

A - The "wake-up" phenomenon is no phenomenon. We had a small discussion on this on the Café last week. You might look that up.

I don't even think Red Spruce is special in this respect. I believe all musical instruments become a different thing when they are played. I wouldn't worry about the shortest amount of time, just play the damn thing and don't let it set around too long without the loving touch of your hands and a pick. They're meant to be played and I believe they "sleep" as a way of expressing their displeasure of being ignored for too long.

Seriously though, it is an obvious thing to those of us that have experienced it. Metaphysical ? Maybe, but real to me.

And thank you, it's still not too late, you know.


Q - I was wondering if you have ever had a chance to inspect one of the old Cremona violins or cellos like Strads or Guarneris? How about D'Angelico or D'Acquisto archtops? I saw that Elderly had two 1950's era Gibson Flying V's for sale for 45K and 50K, respectively. It seems that the old instruments have gone sky high in the past few years. 100K Loars? 50K Ferns? 50K Flying V's? Where do you see the vintage market going in the next few years. Is there really any additional headroom in the immediate future for vintage instruments?

A - Yes, I have on all counts. Some of my best friends are in the violin business.

What is sky high? There are only so many of these treasures (electric guitars ???? Well, maybe not treasures) and supply and demand is always going to account for some inflation. I have no clue where it's going in the next few years. I said they were going to "top-out" at 80k. Proves I don't know what I'm talking about. Neither did George. He told me 15 years ago, "You'll never get fourteen grand for your Loar." I did.

I just wish Loar was around to see all of this.


Q - I've really been enjoying your week as CGOW. What a wonderful insight into the Gibson mandolin mystique.

Just reading your explanation of serial numbers, I decided to look at my August 29, 2002, Charlie Derrington signed Master Model. The serial number is V 70351...would you explain the number please.

A - The Master Models have an entirely different serial number system. I took the first known Loar serial number and started there. To avoid any duplication, I added the V in front. The numbers run in order from the first one. (which since I am now at home, I can't remember which number we started with).


Q - What affect on tone do the blocks for the scroll & points on an F-model mandolin have vs the plainer A-models? It's pretty hard to get a clean comparison, but at least in general, you can tell the difference with your eyes closed?

A - I think I can hear a very slight difference. If all else is equal (if the air chamber size is the same and the graduations and tone bars are the same), which isn't always the case, depending on the builder.

The A models (to my ear) seem to have a less focused, more open tone. Very, very minor difference and I don't believe most can hear it. In other words, they should sound very similar.


Q - Congtrats on the progress you have made to put the Gibson name back up there where it belongs, for quality mandolins. I know you used to own a vintage July 9th Loar and also that you have built and played a contemporary July 9th Master Model the past few years. Was it an exact copy of "your" vintage Loar? Did it have any special features that you used to personalize it? How did they sound different? Do you try to make a new mandolin sound like a Loar back in the 1920's when it was new.....or do you try to make them so they sound "old" sooner?

A - I did answer it on the 9th, but perhaps it got lost. I've copied my original reply below.

I have owned a total of 7 Loars in my life. The July 9, of which you speak, was indeed one of my favorites, as was the Dec. 11, and the Jan. '25. They were all different. Every mandolin built is different. How different is another question.

My Master Model was not an "exact copy" of my July 9. Although I liked it as much.

I don't believe it is a good thing to try and build a mandolin to sound 80 years old, when it is brand new. I believe if one takes break-in into account, what sounds 80 years old right now will sound horrible 10 years down the road. I have stated many times that I believe we have a model to follow, as does the violin world in the Strads and Guan. violins. You don't ever hear a world-class violin builder saying he can build a violin "better" than a Strad.

I feel the correct thing to do is try and replicate what Gibson was doing in the '20s and that's as good as any of us can get. If we can reach that goal, I'll be happy to know we are building the best mandolin possible.


Q - I was wondering what the procedure is for scalloping the fingerboard extension on my Flatiron A-5L Artist. How many frets up; how deep; first remove frets: etc??

A - The procedure would be:

Get in your car and take it down to your local mandolin repairman. Hand it to him, leave, come back in a week or so, pay him, take your mandolin, and go home happy.

Seriously, if you haven't done anything like that before, I wouldn't attempt it. Plus If you have a regular Flatiron, it has a short extension and shouldn't need to be scalloped.


Q - In his Loar F-5 notes, Darryl Wolfe points out .....

"Most builders do not recognize that the neck is not square to the centerline of the instrument, nor is it square to the plane of the rim set. The neck is installed left of center toward the scroll. It is then cocked at an angle toward the tailpiece that causes the centerline of the neck to cross the bridge area mid-way between the f-holes. This angularity also has a bearing on placement of the f-holes. In order for the bridge/f-hole relationship to look right, one f-hole must be placed slightly lower on the body. Additionally, the neck is installed in a "twisted" manner that results in the fingerboard being lower on the treble side. This is why Loar bridges are thinner on the treble side."

I wonder if you could shed some light on the degree to which you embraced this off-center / tilted feature on the present Master Models and also your feelings on it being an intentional design feature of the Original Loars. I've heard a few folks comment on the off center neck of the present Master Models thinking it was fudged at the factory rather than being intentional replication of the originals.

A - This off-center design aspect of the Loars was intentional. (it is actually not very much off-center it just appears that way because of the scroll design) and the necks do tilt towards the tailpiece to help allay this feature. They are also higher on the bass side as Darryl says. In other words, he is exactly correct. I'll disagree with him on the bass f-hole being lower. I say the treble f-hole is higher and believe it was to alleviate the tilting, visual aspect of the bridge to compensate for correct intonation.

Yes, we do the same on the Master Models, and it is deliberate.