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Sage Wisdom

"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."



James Condino

Our first exposure to the work of Oregonian Luthier James Condino was an on-line glimpse of a picture of his green "Cricket" mandolin several years ago. The bold but captivatingly quirky look caught our attention and we hoped from then on that our paths would intersect. The use of nontraditional woods, a daring departure in form and body style, and a willingness to think outside of the box will always attract our attention. We've now had the good fortune of hands-on experience with Professor Condino's craft. Not surprisingly, his work did not disappoint...

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James Condino: African Blackwood & Green Cricket

Teacher, in demand repairman, author (American Lutherie & Fine Woodworking Magazine), innovative instrument designer, and avid mountain climber (he's been known to go to literal geographical extremes to find unique quality wood!), he offers an intriguing set of options midst a consistent signature look, the ascending three circle holes on the face, and an identical three-hole acoustic port on the side. The concept of side ports is not necessarily new, and the player has to understand the sound from instrument to player ear may still be dramatically different to the listener four to six feet away. Tone still needs this amount of air mass to converge, especially with the three round hole design which still packs more "directional" F-hole tonal character than Oval hole. That said, at worst, the side ports are a captivating cosmetic feature, at best, and exciting opportunity to vary the tonal chamber and its sound aperture, which we will explore later. It also affords an interesting close-up view of the internal bracing.

We were sent two instruments, the African Blackwood and a week later, much to our delight, the green Cricket. Condino recommends medium-heavy strings on these instruments, and though we prefer playing a lighter set we found his set-up not uncomfortable with the heavier guage. We did put our own JM11 strings to compare better with other instruments in our Builder's Spotlight, and after raising the bridge a bit, found satisfying results. Interestingly, both instruments took about a week to "settle," despite being demo instruments, easily explained by the difference in climates. Many weeks in the desert prior, the instruments loosened up in the recent rainy environment, another example of allowing maximum time in thoroughly auditioning a new instrument.

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The Condino pickguards are an art unto themselves. Unique like everything else he does, it did take some adjusting to find the proper area of pick attack. Because it extends vertically more than horizontally, it took a bit more playing to get comfortable with the relationship of string "sweet spot" to pickguard position. The acclimation was worth it as we feel the aesthetics of the pickguard with their silhouette and striping are some of the most visually stunning features of his line of instruments.

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His signature headstock shape was the second attention grabber. The exaggerated wave not only identifies but gives the instrument a gallant visual swagger, an ornamental "salute," as well as physical balance not usually associated with a more conventional "A" body. Only the resolute traditionalist would find fault in this departure. He takes advantage of the space with a beautifully understated abalone inlay in the dark background. We find similar detailing on the back of the headstock and body with inlays repeating the ascending three circle theme. "You spend a lot of time staring at a piece of wood, carving and finishing," ponders Condino. "You have plenty of time to come up with a complete look to bring the best out of an instrument while it's being made."

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The tailpiece on the African Blackwood is a beautiful merging of wood and metal. Function meets form with the complementing aesthetics of wood and hidden durability of the metal string posts.

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The functionality of the tailpiece on the Cricket is up to the jury. One must understand the background of the project; 90% recycled material, the goal was using available product and the unique handmade 4-post/crossed string positioning utilized an improvised spare piece of brass. While novel and visually dramatic, this would be the first thing we'd replace, opting for a more secure string posting, as well as much desired strap peg/endpin. Granted, this is an individual preference, but the builder always offers as policy, such upgrade opportunity in approach to customizing each product to the needs and tastes of each individual customer. (Not every player is addicted to playing with a strap.)

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A word on the "concept" aspects of his building--Condino is an avid, well-conditioned mountain climber. This intense hobby is a virtual metaphor for his philosopy of building. At every moment, the athletic approach to climbing varying terrain demands a quick, physical adaptation to circumstances of extreme and daring. He's not afraid to meld traditional building concepts and materials with advantageously non-traditional. Study the landscape, use basic studied and established principles of physics, but always be prepared to improvise with what lies ahead. The Cricket is perhaps the most extreme example of this. Utilizing a ready but apt chunk of 70-year-old Douglas Fir (sometimes a substitute for Spruce in guitar tops), he dared to make back and sides of the same material. Other components such as the tailpiece, and improvised brass plate became the compilation of a 90% recycled project. (Notice the inlay.) Interestingly, the Douglas Fir specked out at a greater density than Western Maple, so this decision was not all that remote or unfounded.

Often in his mandolin-building classes, he will have his students exploit similar "available," less expensive materials. He instructs, "your first mandolin won't be in the Smithsonian, so why spend $500 in quality woods on your first effort." The Cricket is hardly a sophomore project, however. The unique composition of like woods, top, back, and sides, yields an incredibly inimitable sound. Hard to describe in words, not "complex" in overtones and harmonics, yet brave in body and fundamental. It's not a "spray" of random partials, it's a gushing "faucet" of frank tone. You don't pull tone out of it with the pick, you push it. (And plenty of it!)

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In contrast, the African Blackwood, packs a greater palate of tone and sonic capablity. Auditioning one after another, the difference is strkingly transparent, the AB with additional complexity and nuance, warm but capable of punch and brilliance if needed. It's worth noting the difference in internal bracing; the Cricket can probably attribute its improbable power to its aural-spanking cross-bracing. The AB on the other hand, is sculpted internally with rounder sounding parallel tonebars.

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We mentioned the three-hole design on the face, but let's look at his "mirror" of the three holes on the side. Side ports can be a bit problematic in that the sound that comes gushing out of the top to the audience likely won't be the same sound to the player; not better, not worse, just different. Another problem is the way it affects the aperture of the air in the chamber, we found a striking difference in the tone of both instruments when the side holes were covered. James offers custom-made plugs for his instruments, and we would likely opt for this, as it boosts the bass significantly, and adds a dimension of richness to the bottom end. That said, we found you can vary the amount of hole-covering by blocking only one or two of the ports, very much like adjusting individual bands of EQ on your stereo. Practical? We might never use this, but a musician with more creativity might unravel a whole new world of tone variety, right within the same instrument!

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There is a point to the Condino craft that must not be lost. Like any world-class builder, his specialty is customizing for each customer. He has a signature look and established symmetry to his instruments, but as dynamically demonstrated in these sample instruments, his forte is adapting wood, structural carving, and ultimately cosmetics to the needs and wishes of the individual player. The amazing versatility manifested in these two instruments demonstrates some vigorously dramatic results.

About his other instruments he tells us "I also build instruments with that look which sound and respond like the other models you currently have using more traditional materials. It is all part of the beauty of building instruments on an individual basis. I used to build production instruments for Breedlove using CNC machines and a lot of fancy equipment in a factory. When you have a huge overhead and high payroll dollars to make each month, they don't have the flexibility to experiment and try out new ideas on a regular basis. The cricket is a fantastic example to bring into a classroom when I am teaching lutherie at one of several regional universities. Drop that one on the workbench and suddenly the wheels get turning for everyone who thought that a mandolin had to look like grandpa's old one."

James Condino has built well over 150 fine musical instruments in the last 20 years. He has worked in solo practice, built instruments for one of the leading production facilities, taught Lutherie from 1996-2000 at Oregon State University (classes on history, design, and construction of the modern carved plate mandolin), and been published in American Lutherie magazine. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon, where he builds mandolins, guitars, and double basses. In addition to building and teaching lutherie, he is writing a book on the history, design, and construction of the modern mandolin.

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Contact: James Condino




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