We've been on a lengthy quest to find out what makes a great 10-string mandolin. The built-in problems are the dynamic tension disparity between high E strings and the low C course, the compromise in length between two inherent instruments (mandolin AND mandola), and the extended width of the fretboard necessary for the extra pair of strings. The use of the 10-string has come to recent attention of the US market, largely attributed to the popularity of Brazilian superstar, Hamilton de Holanda, but the instrument was already commonly used in the European markets for decades. With the recent enlistment of two high profile American artists, muli-instrumentalist virtuoso Mike Marshall and jazz/Celtic specialist John McGann, we are likely to see a new enthusiasm for its use. What is intriguing is to see how the domestic builders are tackling the instrument's challenges, and what better place to start than the axes of the aforementioned musicians who both own products of the reputable builder,Lawrence Smart.
Lawrence's clientele include some very familiar names. Players including John Reischman, Ben Winship, Matt Flinner, and of course Marshall and McGann sling the glorious outcome of his fine mandolin family craftsmanship, and he's also constructed guitars, bouzouki, and a Florentine style mandocello, a project not for the squeamish. His 10-string design continues to be a work in progress, although we'd maintain he has achieved a concrete concept of a serious professional instrument in this world-class ax. You can hear audio examples in Mike Marshall's recent recording with Big Trio, and Berkelee Professor John McGann is promising some delightful 10-string audio in a not-too-distant future project.
(NOT an optical illusions of the camera)
First thing the uninitiated needs to do in playing this instrument is close the eyes. The fanned-fret fingerboard may be hard on the retinas of the observer, but in the hands of the player, the angles slant quite naturally in line with the natural palm fanning of the fingers. Personally, this system ultimately feels more natural in accommodating this physical nature of the hand. The only adjustment is NOT trying to adapt to the arguably more unnatural stretch of traditional straight frets.
Lawrence credits the genesis of the concept of this model (this is his fourth) to inspiration from Mike Marshall and world renown bassist Edgar Meyer while they were on tour together. The initial design has not changed much, although with Marshall's legendary large hand span, the original model has gone through a fingerboard revision to accommodate the artist. We personally felt the 1-9/16" neck width (1-13/16" at the angled nut) a bit of a challenge, although Lawrence said there was still room for something slightly narrower (or wider) on a custom order.
Click pictures for close-up
Addressing the aesthetics, other than the fanned frets and the offset F-holes, the shape is very much a traditional A body. The builder recalls, "My goal with these visually so far has been to build a fairly normal looking mandolin family instrument since the 10 strings and fan frets are already sort of 'out there.' I didn't want to alienate more traditionalists any more than they already would be." His sonic challenge was to overcome the difficulties of an instrument with 20% more total string tension, and its inherent structural integrity issues, as well as overall playability. The balance on all five courses is amazingly consistent, no bass string "flop" or high register tension strain to the fingers. (Best we could measure, the E strings are approximately 14-1/4" in scale, the G course about 16".)
For materials, he was extremely conservative with the widely popular choice of Engleman Spruce top, red maple back and sides, X-braced with Red Spruce, and a neck of hard maple. The subtle glamour of the spirit varnish/French polished finish is a lovely autumnish amber burst, all these traditional aesthetics mediating a tasteful cosmetic emotional reprieve from a radically "alien" fretboard.
We mentioned its superb playability, and it sounds as world-class as it plays. It's loud, a capable crunch, but the smoothness of string fundamental gives it a warmth in all registers. The innate problem with achieving 10-string satisfaction is the player who wants a mandola will typically be disappointed with the lack of resounding lower register, and the mandolinist will be missing the piercing high register edge. Lawrence has found an amazing equilibrium between both needs; both ranges are responsive and articulate well.
Really, the only difficulties in the instrument will be in the wider board, and as we already mentioned, the mindbend of the fanned frets. Both challenges diminish the more you get acclimated, no more than when a mandolinist picks up a mandola for the first time.
An interesting approach to the tailpiece, of course a custom bridge (ebony adjustable) was necessary to accommodate the five courses, but he chose to use a standard 8-string James tailpiece. The two unwound E & A wound courses overlap snuggly and share one tang each. We went two weeks without even noticing this, so it is definitely not a problem, plenty of spread by the time the strings reach the bridge. Lawrence tells us he did use a 10 tang tailpiece on the others, but found no advantage in the extra two. Perhaps in the future, he intends to develop an angled version to match the nut and bridge with the goal of enhancing playability and sustain, but this is still in the concept stage. What's here is certainly working well.
The conservative pickguard is another "mellowing" agent as far as looks. Some might object to it covering the corner of the bottom F-hole, but there is so little sonic impact on its forward placement. It's a proper choice even if somewhat Dali-esque in appearance. Our only trivial concern was the thinness of the end button where the strap holds; with wear over time this might need replacing to prevent it from breaking.
Other than the basic, familiar A body type, this instrument is full of bold choices and well-calculated succesful compromises. Anyone looking to extend their playing range would do well owning one of Lawrence's amazing 10-strings.
A truly Smart choice...
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.O. Box 1054
Hailey, ID 83333
Builder's website: Smart Instruments
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