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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."
Walt Kuhlman, Gypsy's Music 10-string nylon strung mandolin
Click all pictures for close up
Walt is no stranger to the halls of JazzMando. We were privileged with one of his custom octave mandolin builds a couple years ago, and have been following his wood and steel innovations since we met him and his wide variety of flattop tonewood creations at the Winter NAMM Show in California in 2006 at the Gypsy's Music booth. These American-made instruments have become internationally known for their artful hand-craftsmanship and are produced without being prohibitively expensive. With his simple singature design, Walt is known for taking a heel block and the stacked heel very similar to Classical guitar design, saving cost to the end-user but more importantly, lending strength to the neck and headstock.
Click all pictures for close up
The important functional components of the instruments remain uncompromised, quality tonewoods, bone nut, stable Grover machines heads, a special attention to bracings, and in some of his instruments, an induced arch capably enhancing tone. All these practical qualities while packing an unusual combination of earthy folk and deco panache.
The first question one would ask about this recent 10-string design is, "Why nylon strings?" Answer: "Why not?" Classical guitarists have used these materials and their organic predecessor for centuries prior, so it's not that big a conceptual stretch. Granted, this does affect the tone character significantly, but we would argue in a very positive way. The notion of double course combined with this smaller scale (though no stranger to the ukulele) is the only radical departure, and when you consider the challenge in the tension/register extremes of five course instruments, a reduction in string pressure makes sense.
The industry solution to the typically inherent low C string flop vs. piercing E string brilliance is laden with compromise. A mandolin scale instrument (14") with steel strings generally can't give the definitive robustness necessary to a C course, and a longer mandola scale can't support the proper tension for the E; the only answer is to compromise the extremes of both. The exception to this would be a Novak or Fanned Fret system, but we'll save that for another discussion. We think Kuhlman is on to something here with the nylon strings, and the proof is in the putting.
First, let's register up front, this is a fundamentally different instrument to play than a steel string, but not uncomfortably so. It requires a gentler squeeze of the left hand, and the picking hand will be shy of the piercing aural definition of steel, but the overall sound is still compelling; it's just uniquely different.
The traditional scale length mandolin is extremely warm, and surprisingly loud. Its restrained tonal splendor is more apparent at subdued volume levels, nonetheless it can be heard, and projects admirably as a solo instrument. It would be interesting to hear in context with other nylon-string instruments, but probably would get buried texturally in a steel-string ensemble, unless the music were written specifically for this variation. Still, we can't stress enough that this is its own sound.
Regarding the strings, Walt tells us the mandolin in this prototype is using D'AddarioPro-Arte EJ45 normal tension classical guitar strings for the CC GG DD (the E-A-D for the guitar), and Aquila Nylgut from a tenor uke for the AA EE after finding the normal nylon string too thumpy for his ear. He contends, "There is room for more experimenting here as well and like the steel sting world there would be preferences depending on the player. I am sure that hard or extra hard tension strings for the bass courses would deliver even more punch."
We asked about the initial conceptual process behind the design. "After several weeks of thought and input from several sources I decided to follow the tradition of the classical guitar and use a Torres style bracing. I incorporated an induced arch and added a little to the overall depth to facilitate the bass." For woods, he chose AAA Sitka spruce for the top, mahogany for the neck, and a striking cocobolo rosewood for the back and sides. The fingerboard and bridge are ebony, as well as the unique violin style tailpiece with braided steel chord hanger, laminated in two different directions to withstand tension and lend stability. We were given careful instructions to tune the instrument from the inside D courses alternating out to balance and properly align the bridge and tailpiece. Tucked ergonomically behind the endpin is a handy plug-and-play electronic pick-up, lending the instrument additional sonic versatility. We always appreciate it when amplification is not an afterthought, but built in from the ground up. This is a great feature in an instrument like this that wields its power in acoustic subtlety.
We already mentioned the gorgeous inlay on the headstock and pickguard, but we need to be sure to point out the complimenting walnut binding. If you look at some of the dozens of instruments out of his shop, one common theme is striking, his adventurous use of exotic wood combinations. This makes each of his creations as unique aurally as they are visually.
Walt observes, "This is a unique piece and I do think that it may appeal to jazz players as well and the European and classical players. The interesting thing about it is how it reacts to the different gauges of picks, heavy 'thumpy,' thin 'crisp,' much more distinctive then our standard steel stringed instruments. The volume is good and the projection is surprising."
We have to agree. We're very curious to see how this will be accepted in the constrictively traditional American mandolin market, but there is definitely a place for this model with its extended range, player comfort, and uniquely warm tone.
He's on to something!
Gypsy's Music Walt Kuhlman - Luthier Gypsy's Music, LLC
7122 East 5th Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ 85251 (480) 429-7711