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December 20, 2007 | Judging builders
We consider it a great privilege, auditioning instruments for our Builder's Spotlight, a number of pro-active premium builders (17 as of today). If you haven't read some of our thoughts, now might be a good time to glance over some of the names listed; if they aren't familiar already, you can trust even the up and coming will be broadly known, their products in high demand. Most of them have a waiting list 12-24 months out.
Before putting pen to paper and passing an instrument out to staff, local focus group players and repair techs, we have some guidelines not only on what gets reviewed, but procedures and peripheral considerations. We covered these basics of Time, Adjustables, Environment, Opening Up, Aesthetics, and Specifics in a recent Tips and Tricks article, The Basics of Auditioning Instruments. We also mentioned some of the pitfalls of decision "thin slicing" in our decision making process in our entry on Variables. First (and granted few have this luxury), we think a good evaluation will take at minimum a week because of the acclimation of instrument and player. You probably will not have more than 48 hours approval yourself, but understand, as a purchaser you've probably already done your homework, and have sifted out the specifics of the instrument prior to plucking the first chord. "Disapproval" period is more technically correct, or you're wasting your own time, and that of the seller.
Understand, the instruments we review are generally jazz oriented. We're looking for maximum sustain (over percussiveness) and ease of playing. "Chop" or "Bark" will never impress us, and that bias should be factored into your own conclusions of what you read here. Though nothing is wrong with them, we steer clear of F5 copies even though many will work great for jazz (think Gibson "Goldrush"), simply because they have garnered enough market attention elsewhere.
Back to the trial agenda, you'll need to keep in mind when an instrument has been shipped or even dangling in stasis on a music store showroom hook, it's highly in need of crucial "opening up" time. It's hard to quantify the factors causing this near "mystical" phenomenon, but a mandolin that hasn't been played for a while, recently has been restrung, or left rigid in a case (let alone brand spanking new) needs time for elements to settle. Bridge needs to acclimate and sit flush and proper, neck and fingerboard have to lock in, tuners and strings need to stabilize, top, back, and sides need to get to know each other. There's probably some credence in the notion that energy from string vibration alters the very cells of the wood more effectively over time. Whatever it is, most instruments make a rapid change in about 20 minutes of playing, another leap happens after 3 or 4 hours logged, and a similar change occurs in another 5-7 days. (Look for several more "wake up" steps at 3 months or seasonal change, and a couple years.)
Some of this should be attributed to the player getting use to another radius or fingerboard width, the way the instrument balances on the strap, proximity to player's abdomen, the feel of new(er) strings... all these factors can impair and improperly rush a conclusion.
String 'em up...
We generally will not change strings within the first three days, partly because of the settling going on, but more this just adds yet another confusing "variable" of the instrument's tone and performance. Even a bridge adjustment is probably better AFTER several hours of playing, just to see where the strings (and player) settle. Playing in rooms you are familiar with, "A/B" testing with other instruments can also give you a measuring stick of capability. A red fabric can seem "redder" when you put it next to a maroon cloth; instrument tone can be analyzed the same comparative way.
Gets along with others...
A huge acoustic "environment" factor is how the instrument interacts with others in an ensemble situation. Few people will only own an instrument for just porch picking, so it’s a good idea to see how well an instrument fit playing in a group setting. You may find it doesn't cut enough, or it's too bright, even though it's completely satisfying on its own.
Finally, understand the aesthetics of an instrument are almost always personal. You have to live with the way it looks and no one can fault you for your own preferences. On the same token, don't write off another player's instrument just because you don't think it cuts it. One man's junk is another's treasure.
Keep in mind the Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome (MAS) is chronic; few ever legitimately find a cure, but there's a heckuva lot of fun in going through therapy.
Posted by Ted at December 20, 2007 2:32 PM
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