Page updated 12 January 2021
Like many people who play the mandolin – indeed, like many people who play any sort of musical instrument – I have had a great many mandolins over the years. They have ranged from the incredibly cheap and shoddy mass-manufactured “MSOs” (mandolin-shaped objects to those in the know) through to some pretty decent mandolins.
For several years I fell out of love with playing Irish music. With listening to Irish music. Rarely thought about it. Once it had consumed almost all of my spare time – at a time when I didn’t have much to spare! And having fell out of love with the music, I also had little need for instruments and for the first time in many years I found myself without a decent mandolin…
But during the summer of 2019 I felt a stirring again. And so, one afternoon I found myself outside Ivor Mairantz’s shop in Rathbone Place – the only stockists of Eastman mandolins in London at the time. The moment had come to buy a new, decent mandolin and get back into the swing.
I’m sure I’m not unusual in getting a “boost” from a new instrument – particularly one that’s well-made with a beautiful tone and which handles perfectly. And so it was when I started playing my new Eastman MD304. Such a nice feeling to have access to that sort of sound, those textures, to feel the instrument resonate…
But. My Eastman shipped out of the factory in June 2019 and so it was only a couple of months old when I bought it. There’s an issue with all new mandolins in that they’re still “tight”. It takes a lot of playing to make them open up and so while the Eastman ticked many boxes, it lacked punch, volume, “cut”. At a few sessions, it was clear that it couldn’t be heard above the plethora of other big-hitting instruments in attendance. And so, sadly, it was relegated to “indoors” or the occasional one-on-one night of tunes with a friend. And I reluctantly bought myself a cheapo second-hand tenor banjo which had enough oomph to make its presence felt in sessions.
But what to do with the mandolin? It represented a significant financial investment and I so much prefer the sound of my playing the mandolin to the sound of my banjo playing. I wanted it to have an airing…
It was then the thought occurred to me to start up this website. It would give my mandolin a role and, at the same time, would hopefully provide new or relatively new mandolinists with a resource to help them on their path into the tunes. (Incidentally I had no idea just how much material I would eventually add to the site. Or indeed how much of my spare time it would commandeer!)
Shortly after the site went live I had a few email conversations with a contact from the States, Michael Gregory, who had been in touch with me several times when I ran a previous website, Pay The Reckoning. Michael provided some very useful observations on the site and suggestions as to ways I might make the odd tweak. These conversations developed over time into a long-distance friendship. Michael introduced me to a few new tunes and provided me with tablature and sound files for inclusion on the site as well as a degree of assistance towards the costs of maintaining the site. I was deeply touched by his interest and his support. I came to know his particular interest in the music of Sliabh Luachra, a little about his domestic life and his musical life back home in North Dakota.
And then in October 2020 came an email from Michael in which he mentioned that between 2006 and 2018, under the guidance of a retired carpenter named Dennis Olson, he built 17 mandolins. (All of the mandolins bear a label inside identifying themselves as G&O – Gregory and Olson – mandolins. And all are numbered in sequence. Michael took the even numbers, Dennis the odd ones.) Michael sent me some stunning photographs of the last mandolin which he built (G&O #34), completed in June 2018.
I was very impressed. I have no skills in that area but I am very appreciative of high quality craftsmanship and it was clear from the photographs that this was an incredibly well-made mandolin. Michael explained a little about the specification. The styling was based very much on the Gibson A-2 from the 1920s – a much sought-after instrument in Irish mandolin circles. It boasted a hand-carved spruce top, a hand-carved maple back, an Orrico tailpiece, an adjustable ebony bridge and Alessi tuners with black buttons. Breathtaking photos. But even more breathtaking was Michael’s kind offer to gift me the mandolin…
I’m afraid I am one of those people who struggles to accept a gift graciously. It’s a combination of culture/upbringing and – I suppose – some “baggage” of self-doubt and low self-esteem. But it would have been rude not to accept such a generous and sincere offer. And so I thanked Michael for his offer and said that I would be happy to accept the gift but on one condition. I wouldn’t sell, trade-in or otherwise make any money from the mandolin. Instead when I am done with playing mandolin (which will be a looooooong time away), I too will pass the mandolin on to a deserving recipient who will treasure it and make it their number one instrument…
The day duly arrived when the mandolin was delivered. Michael’s photos – gorgeous though they were – didn’t do the mandolin justice. Because of course we all know that looks are nothing if they’re not matched by a quality sound. And the G&O #34 has the sort of sound that I’ve spent half a lifetime seeking out – to no previous avail. Deep, resonant bass notes and clear ringing trebles. And power. The mandolin fairly throbs as I’m playing.
As with all instruments of character, it has taken a time for me to harness that power to advantage. Some three or four months in and I find myself gradually changing my style of playing to accommodate the instrument’s particular qualities. Here’s a recording made in January 2021 which, I think, illustrates very well both the sound of the G&O #34 and also how my playing has adapted to sync with its unique characteristics. Love At The Endings – a reel written by “the plumber of the hornpipes”, Ed Reavy – recorded 12 Jaunuary 2021..
I’ve included a few pictures of the G&O #34. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a beauty!
To Michael, many thanks. It’s a wonderful instrument and an even more wonderful – and much appreciated! – gift. Go raibh míle maith agat!
Aidan Crossey, January 2021