Gallatin Soprano Mandolin
It's a natural curiosity for a seasoned mandolinist to venture out of the familiarity of the standard GDAE double course tunings. For some, it's the trip an octave below (GDAE) in the baritone nether regions, for the less adventurous it may be the (American) mandola tuning (CGDA). The latter is an easier trip because you can still maintain the standard "finger every other fret" spacing (16-17"), and there is no radical change to your technique. The octave, let alone the mandocello (CGDA a 12th below) is a different story.
Going down to registers below the standard soprano/alto range of the mandolin gives new sonic opportunities, including vocal accompaniment, orchestral ensemble, and especially for the jazz enthusiast, the power to produce the rich harmonic potential of complex extended chord voices.
The other direction, going UP above the soprano, much like a moving from a flute to a piccolo, alto to soprano sax, or Bb to piccolo trumpet, can yield untraveled timbre, although on a plectrum instrument, you have the additional challenges of short scale and reduced sustain. No wind behind the sound to push it forward once the pick strikes.
Imagine standing in front of the keyboard of a grand piano. Hold the foot pedal and strike any note left of middle C and you can count many seconds of the note's natural sustain. Even with the pedal down, hitting any of the piano's top octave and the sustain is a fraction of the length.
This is the inherent challenge of the soprano mandolin. Not only is the fret spacing immensely more narrow, you have an instrument that requires full concentration on healthy strikes and fiercely precise, left finger control. Still, with a little adjustment and practice, the soprano can be a sparkling addition to your instrumental sonic palette.
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Until 2012, the soprano mandolin was available only in an obscure vintage collection or through a mere handful of contemporary cottage industry builder commisions. We're happy to see these now developed and produced in relative large quantities though one of the industry's leading mandolin producers, Weber Mandolins, now part of Two Old Hippies LLC. We were given the privilege of putting company founder Bruce Weber's personal Gallatin "Sopranolin" F-body through its paces, and have some pretty good things to say about it.
We would have expected no less from the legendary builder.
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Out of the box
Admittedly, tuning a new E string up to pitch on any mandolin is scary. The inherent fear in cranking toward the high tension of something an octave above a guitar E string is severe enough, now imagine tightening a cringeworthy 4th higher (A) on the soprano. Shipped with reduced tension, we braced ourselves for the worst, and sure enough, the 2nd E string popped under the act of restoring to normal pitch. We highly recommend keeping a spare .010 string around as spares for this reason. Once a fresh string was on, no more problems, though.
As you can imagine, the shortened (11") scale fret spacing takes some getting use to. Imagine putting a capo on the 5th fret of your mandolin, and you'll get a sense of the task, but in this case the lower crook of the headstock becomes an immutable barrier for the corner of the player's palm. This takes some left hand technique adjustment in the lower fret position.
We generally prefer the thicker frets standard in most Weber instruments. Perhaps thinner ones would suit the soprano, but there's always a trade off in finger security. (Curious to see if future versions might offer this as an option.) We will say, despite the challenge of the shorter spacing, the Gallatin had crystal, bell-like clarity especially above the 5th fret. The lower frets in the two wound courses lacked power compared to a standard mandolin, but this is going to be the nature of the beast.
The reduced real estate of an 11" scale also constricts the sweet spot in the picking area. For that, we're certainly pleased there is no crowding "Florida" fingerboard extension. Again, this will demand some attention to technique to exploit maximum pick strike area. It also makes intonating the bridge to precise placement a chore, especially at this excruciatingly high tension.
The soprano came with an armrest, very much a necessity on the smaller body. With it, the fleshy part of your forearm securely grips the instrument without stifling the top. This is an interesting design, starting south of the endpin and covering the face to about the 8 o'clock point.
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After a few hours of adapting to these differences, the instrument really is a joy to play. Understand, you have to work around the aforementioned challenges; the limited sustain of the extreme high register demands full attention to technique, and harmonic restraints make it a poor comping instrument.
We'll be curious to see how musicians embrace its sonic potential now that the folks at Weber are making the soprano available currently in every F model, and we're told the A-bodies are in the long term plans as well.
Every Sousa march has a place for a piccolo. Time will tell if the literature of the mandolin will open up a place in the world for the soprano. Now because of the innovative and bold, forward-thinking vision of Bruce Weber, there's equipment available to make this possible.
Body Type: Traditional F Mandolin With Open Scroll
Neck Wood: Maple
Solid Wood Top: Hand Graduated and Tuned Solid Spruce
Solid Wood Back/Sides: Maple
Finish/Color: Natural, Satin Nitrocellulose Lacquer
Fretboard: Black Bound Ebony; Radiused
Nut Width: 1 1/8 Inches
Tuners & Hardware: Cast Weber Stainless Steel Tailpiece/Nickel Grover Tuners
Body Depth: 1 3/4"
Tuning: CGDA (octave above mandola)
Est street price: $2499
Visit builder website: Weber Mandolins
Current soprano models
WEBER FINE ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS
61573 American Loop
Bend, Oregon, 97702, USA
Sopranolin and "friend."
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