Lynn Dudenbostel | 2008 | Luthier Interview
Lynn Dudenbostel makes some of the finest mandolins and flattop guitars in the vintage style. Even in this period of great talent & technique in lutherie, Lynn’s work stands out from the crowd. Close attention to detail and a relentless pursuit of vintage tone has both flatpickers and fingerpickers lusting after his instruments. Lynn graciously took the time for a quick chat about mandolins and construction techniques.
|Sound Clip: OOO21 guitar Adirondack/Brazilian [Markham Brown]|
|Sound Clip: F5 Mandolin [Mitch Corbin]|
TT- Lynn, you’re one of the few luthiers to be reknown for building both carved top Mandolins as well as flattop guitars… could you tell us a little about how different the build processes are for these instruments?
LD – I first started building with the intent of making F-5 style mandolins, but thought it would be a good idea to build a guitar to help learn some of the basic skills. I found there were certain skills common to both mandolins and flattop guitars, such as bending sides and carving necks, but I also discovered there were far more differences than similarities. Mandolins and flattop guitars are just totally different beasts. A different mindset is required to build each. To this day, I rarely have both under construction at the same time.
TT- Speaking of Varnish finishes, there’s a lot of buzz going on about them- it seems the players either love it or hate it. I understand there are many different kinds of varnish finish, which do you use and what are you thoughts on the advantages of varnish over say, Nitro?
LD- I think there is a real acoustic advantage to varnish over nitro.
The tops just seem to be so much more “alive” with varnish. I’ve never used anything but varnish on a mandolin, but have used both nitro and varnish on guitars and have heard the difference first hand. It’s quite amazing. However, it’s not just the finishing material that contributes to an instruments tone, but proper application as well.The alkyd resin oil varnish I use is very durable, but in order to get a good gloss, it must be French polished.
The French polish tends to take on a patina over time that mandolin players seem to be O.K. with, but guitar players aren’t so fond of. Guitar players seem to want that bright shiny gloss look. To this point, for me, it’s been a trade off between sound and looks. The good news is, French polish is easily “refreshed”, bringing it back to a new look once again. I have been on a search for a better way to achieve a nice gloss finish with the same varnish that will stay glossy. I think I’ve found it. My initial tests look great and I’ll be incorporating it on both guitars and mandolins.
TT- It seems like you’re doing a lot of R&D – although you’re very well known for your Martin reproductions, I take it you’re not slavish on the little details?
LD- Well, I am a very traditional guy. It’s the vintage Martin guitars and Gibson mandolins that first caught my eye years ago, however, I think there are a few improvements available (but very few!) that will makes these more serviceable instruments. Today, we have better tuners, truss rods, tailpieces (for mandolins), and finishes available. But, for the most part, what worked in the 1920’s and 1930’s works today.
As George Gruhn once pointed out to me, when the 1930’s Martin guitars and 1920’s Gibson F-5 mandolins were built, they were the most desirable instruments of their time produced. Today, they are still considered the most desirable of their type ever produced. The designs have stood the test of time, and it’s really difficult to improve on what has become the “standard”.
With that being said, I am constantly searching for those little things that will make my instruments sound more like the finest vintage examples. As you know, not all of the old ones were created equal, and I learn as much from the somewhat “lesser” examples that come thru my shop than I do from the “great” ones.
A gentleman asked me at the Mandolin Symposium last year what I thought was the best mandolin I had built. I thought a minute and said I hoped it was the next one! I think we have to work hard at improving our craft. It’s a constant learning experience.
TT- Are there similarities between the good ones or are they rather heterogenous as a group of guitars? For example, are some with popsicle, some sans, some scalloped some straight etc?
LD- I think there are great guitars in each of the “groups”. I hear great guitars with the popsicle brace and without, same with forward X and non-forward X. But, I think there is a higher percentage of guitars with a certain set of attributes (i.e. mid-‘30’s Martins) that sounds great, due to the design. This is often reflected in the price as well. But, each instrument should be taken on it’s own merit and not automatically rejected just because it’s not in a certain group.
TT- How about yourself? Which attributes do you feel produces the tone you like best?
LD- On vintage guitars, I tend to like the forward X braced Martins from the mid-‘30’s (who doesn’t?!). That would also mean Adirondack spruce. But, some of my very favorites are the 12 fret D’s and 000’s. The “forward X” moniker doesn’t exactly apply to those. The bracing is a bit back, but has more to do with the location of the soundhole being more “forward”. The 12 fret guitars just have a wonderful voice, in part due to the bridge being more in the center of the top.
As for the guitars I’m building, I think the number one factor in getting great tone is proper selection of top wood. I go to great lengths to get outstanding spruce. What I find works best for me is a very hard, stiff piece of spruce
Often, these tops are a bit wider grain with much more definition between the early and late growth rings. Same on mandolins.
These are not always the prettiest tops, and may not be what you would want to build a very elaborate instrument with, but if you are after tone, these are the ones that have it! Contrary to what a lot of folks think, tight grain does not mean “better top”. I’ve yet to see a really hard, stiff piece of spruce with tight grain. I guess there is some out there, but after going thru thousands of tops, I’ve yet to find it.
The spruce I’m really impressed with these days is Carpathian spruce (picea abies) from Romania. It has all of the great characteristics of top notch eastern red spruce, but seems to open up and mature much faster. Like all spruces, Carpathian varies a lot in density and stiffness. For that reason, I most always buy my spruce in person, where I can sort thru hundreds of tops.
After spruce selection, I’d say the finish, back/side wood selection, and bracing/graduation have the most profound effect on tone. I’ve not seen a huge variation in bracing on mid-‘30’s Martin D’s for example, but have documented quite a wide range of graduations on 1920’s Gibson F-5 mandolins. I’d say I tend to vary my mandolin graduations based on the tone I’m looking for much more than I vary my guitar bracing shape/size.
TT- Based on that what kind of guitar would you build for yourself- I gather you’ve not built a personal one yet?
LD- The only guitar I own is the first one I built. It’s a 14 fret mahogany D. I built a koa 12 fret 000 for myself years ago, but got talked out of it. I am presently building a mahogany OM for myself. I just hope I can keep it!
TT- Actually, it’s strange you should mention that- most of the builders I have spoken to can’t seem to be able to hold onto an instrument for themselves!!
LD- It’s the classic “cobblers kids without shoes” thing. I do have a nice old set of Brazilian that a good friend gave me. He said “here, this is for you, build a guitar for yourself”. That was over 10 years ago. Obviously, when I built that guitar, it’ll never leave my hands.
TT- If someone wanted one of your guitars, are you still taking orders?
LD- I’m actually getting near the end of my list on guitars. Much closer to completing those orders than I am the mandolin list. I think I’ll probably take a very limited number of orders at the beginning of 2009. At that point, I should be no more than 2 to 3 years out.
Folks are welcome to inquire about availability any time, as I sometimes get a used Dudenbostel guitar or mandolin to sell on consignment. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org It would only make sense for me to contact those folks first when it comes time to take a few orders.
TT- Where do you see the instrument building industry in this current economic climate?
LD- Concerning the current economy, I think its effect on the instrument market is very dependent on the price range you are looking at. During tough economic times, the less expensive instruments take very little hit, as folks have less money to spend, in general.
They will continue to sell. The upper end also continues to sell well because those buyers are less affected by the change in economy. It’s the mid-priced items that tend to take the biggest hit. I think this is true not only in instrument sales, but cars and many other segments of the economy as well.
We are also seeing people who are using high end custom and vintage instruments as an investment these days. I had a client comment about a year ago that he lost a Lloyd Loar mandolin in the stock market the previous year. When people start talking like that, you bet they are looking to diversify their investments!
Dudenbostel guitars: email@example.com
©2008 Terence Tan. firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictures and MP3s courtesy of Lynn Dudenbostel, Robin at Guitar Gallery and Markham- ©2007. Used with permission.