|It has been said
that mandolin players spend half their time tuning and
the other half playing out of tune. Last fall I
discovered the reason for this, and now I give those
mandolin players slack.
Two old Gibson A-model
mandolins were in my shop at the same time. One of them
had a fretboard that needed replacing; the other had worn
frets and needed re-fretting. Old Gibson A-models have
thicker fretboard s than those we commonly find on
instruments built today, so I cut up some ebony and sent
five fretboard blanks out to Duke of Pearl ( custom fret
slotting transfered to Allen Guitars
mid "96) , who sell Mother of pearl and other shell
inlay products and do custom fret slot cutting. The
custom fret slot cutting is something I can do myself but
A. G. has jigs that can do the job faster and more
accurately than I can in my shop.
later my mandolin fretboards came back from California.
Anxious to get the fretboard replacement project rolling
I opened the box and checked the fret slot spacing
against the 1927 Gibson A-model that was in for
refretting. I could not believe my eyes. When I lined up
the end of the new fretboard With the nut on the old
Gibson the only fret that was dead on was the 12th fret.
What was wrong?
I was not
about to spend ten or more hours on a fret board
replacement without assuring myself that the new
fretboards would work perfectly. I sliced a small section
off a new fretboard, glued it to a bigger block of wood,
put frets in, installed a tuner, and set up a nut and
bridge. Then I strung it with a mandolin E string and
clipped on a Piezo transducer to create a one string
solid body mandolin. I plugged the transducer into my
strobe tuner, set the bridge so it was in tune at the
octave (the 12thfret)and prepared myself for the worst.
The plan was to use my strobe tuner to check intonation
accuracy. With a strobe tuner you can check how
many-cents, (1 /100 of a semitone) flat or sharp a note
is. I was sure that A. G. had ruined my fretboards.
With my E
string in tune I went to work. First fret-F-perfect.
Second fret-F# perfect. Third fret-G-perfect. By now my
keen sense of the obvious had noticed a trend. Yes
indeed, all the fret slots cut by D.O.P. / Allen Guitars were perfect. It
was time to test out the 1927 A-model. I put on a fresh E
string and set the bridge to be in tune at the 12th fret.
First fret-flat 5 cents, second fret-flat 8 cents, third
fret flat 13 cents, fourth fret-flat 10 cents, fifth
fret-flat 8 cents. From the fifth fret to the twelfth
fret the fret placement gradually sharpened until it was
perfect at the twelfth fret.
bit of disappointing news, I checked three or four other
Gibson mandolins that were in my shop with similar
results. The age range of the Gibson mandolins I tested
ranged from 1909 to 1939, and their frets were in the
wrong position. I assume that current instruments are
manufactured to modem standards. The 1927 A model was by
far the worst with the 3rd fret going 13 cents flat. The
average was 10 cents flat at the 3rd fret. For
me, 10 cents flat is too much. Even 5 cents is too far
out of tune. A good question is, "Why, after playing
old Gibson mandolins for 2O years have I finally noticed
this?" I have no idea.
I do know
that the corrective action needed to get the mandolin to
play perfectly in tune is to replace the fretboard. The
first step in removing the old fretboard is to apply heat
to soften the hide glue that is holding the fretboard in
place. With a little water and a thin spatula to slide
into the glue joint, I can usually pop a fretboard off in
one piece. Next, with a band saw, I trim the new
fretboard to slightly larger than final size. The final
fretboard shaping is done with hand planes and sanding
sticks. To prevent the fretboard from slipping when I
glue it on, I drill two small holes through three fret
slots into the mandolin. Small nails are used as locating
pins. Once the glue is dry, the nails are easily removed,
and the tiny hole is hidden by a fret. The actual gluing
of the fretboard is another quite tricky job. The only
flat surface for a clamp to squeeze on is the fretboard
itself. To prevent the clamps from crushing the wood on
the neck and back of the mandolin, I have an arsenal of
clamping cauls that fit irregular surfaces on one side
and are flat on the other for good clamping contact.
A few days
after the glue has dried I level the fretboard and inlay
mother of pearl position markers. When the glue holding
the dots dries, I sand off the excess glue and polish the
fretboard with progressively finer grits of sandpaper.
New frets are next. That process includes tapping in the
frets with a hammer, leveling the frets, then re-crowning
and polishing the frets.
Now I am
ready to install the nut, string up the mandolin, and be
the envy of all the mandolin players on my block. This
process is quite time consuming. I charge $350 for an
unbound fretboard and $450 for a bound fretboard. With
that kind of money involved you really have to think
twice before having the work done. Another aspect to
think about on old vintage instruments is their
collectability. A rare vintage mandolin might be worth
more "as is" than in tune.
mandolin needs re-fretting and has the original
out-of-tune fretboard, it is a good time to replace the
fretboard. The cost of re-fretting is about two-thirds the
cost of a new fretboard, and after this work has been
done, customers have been enthusiastic-their mandolins
sound better and play in tune.
fretboard replacement is out of the question. My best
recommendation is to move the mandolin bridge so it is in
tune in the first position, splitting the difference of
the out-of-tuneness between the third and fifth frets. It
will make the instrument go sharp at the twelfth fret,
but I and most other mandolin players spend most of their
time on the first five frets. Id like to think that
mandolin players whose mandolins have fretboards with
proper spacing will still spend half of their time
tuning, but the other half playing in tune.
with providing a custom fret slotting service, Allen
Guitars also sells exotic woods such as rosewood and ebony
fretboards (slotted or un-slotted) and cast mandolin & reso tailpieces.