ago Butch Baldassari began a quest, a quiet search for a mandolin builder
who could capture the essence of his vintage Gibson F-5’s resonant
Butch’s 1925 model, while not actually signed by the legendary Lloyd
Loar, came from Loar’s tenure at Gibson in the early 1920s. It’s
been called an “unsigned Loar,” and it certainly epitomizes
the fabled Loar-era tonal characteristics. That sound has been a Holy
Grail for many mandolin players, and certainly the source of much searching
Finally, says Baldassari,
the search has paid off. “To me,” he says, “there’s
no more wait.”
The end of his waiting
has to do with his turning recently to Will Kimble, an increasingly renowned
luthier based in Cincinnati. Kimble spent months with Baldassari’s
Gibson, analyzing, listening, and unleashing his luthier’s skills—
not copying the 1925 F-5 exactly, but attempting his best interpretation
of the coveted sound.
Butch asked me to review
the result, the first of a limited-production signature Kimble model,
called the BB’25. (The explanation for the “BB” becomes
obvious, of course, when you remember the name of its signature player.)
This prototype instrument was so new that the varnish finish and French
polish topcoat had barely dried. Even a week spent with a mandolin cannot
do justices to all its nuances. But several things stand out.
First and most obvious
is the sound. The sheer volume of this brand-new instrument strikes you
right away. I’ve played and reviewed other new instruments, each
from brands well-known among most players, but in the volume department
this instrument had a strong edge.
Just as striking was the
quality of sound. Deep resonance and complex overtones rang out, yet without
muddiness or overlapping into other notes. Across the range of pitch,
there was a throaty timbre, a robust depth that often eludes modern instruments.
At the same time there I noticed a bell-like shimmer in the upper registers
of pitch. The bass was woody and satisfying. The mid-range had its own
Played next to the “original”
1925 F-5, some barely perceptible differences emerged. The “unsigned
Loar” original has a slightly more mellow quality. When one considers
the maturing and aging of wood that takes place over eighty-plus years,
though, it’s easy to conclude that the actual 1925 model must have
sounded very similar when it emerged from Loar’s shop. Knowing that
many mandolins experience a development in tone within weeks, and certainly
gain strength within the first year or so, it is hard to imagine the depth
and power of the tone of this instrument in a few months—much less
a few decades. Certainly its rich range of tone suggests that it can function
well in straight-ahead bluegrass, mellower acoustic settings, and Celtic
and old-time sessions.
Some comments on the BB’25’s
tangible appointments: A red spruce (Adirondack) top, artfully stained
in a traditional sunburst, graces a well-flamed (and similarly expertly
stained) maple back and sides and neck. Schallers form the standard option
for tuners on this instrument and future models. Kimble had considered
Waverly tuners but noticed that Baldassari’s 1925 sported Gotohs,
and Schaller tuners came closer to the Gotohs.
The tailpiece is worthy
of note, known simply as a James tailpiece for its creator, Bill James.
Says Kimble: “It is the only tailpiece I have used since it became
available last year. The quality is fantastic, Bill James has excellent
service, I love the way the rubber grommets dampen string noise behind
the bridge (and keep the cover from rattling), and I like that the tailpiece
is sturdy but is not too stiff or heavy.” While I did not try to
change strings on the BB’25, the straight-line string-end hooks
looked like a convenience indeed.
Another feature was the
headstock inlay: a flourish leaf design gracing the signature logo. While
not a flowerpot, certainly, it still had a wonderful vintage look, and
the inlay work itself was impeccable.
The ivoroid binding throughout—body
and fingerboard—was crafted well. Not, perhaps, as absolutely seamlessly
as I’ve ever seen, but certainly competently and carefully done—and
near flawless in its curves and joints and abutments. Add a faux-tortoise-shell
pick guard to the profile and the overall appearance of the mandolin is
striking, even stunning.
Baldassari is convinced
that he has found the mandolin of his quest. “It makes me think,”
he says, “that this must be what a ‘Loar’ sounded like
when it was new.” From someone who owns both a Nugget and Gilchrist
(both mandolins that Baldassari prizes for unique characteristics), and
from someone who has played the vaunted Loars of his colleagues (to say
nothing of his own), that is high praise indeed. No wonder Butch Baldassari
has gladly lent his name to this new model. While this will be a limited
edition offering, now at least a few mandolin players in years will soon
benefit from Baldassari’s patient searching, and Will Kimble’s
Timothy Jones writes the Gospel Profile
column monthly for Bluegrass Now magazine. His instrument
reviews and cover-story profiles have appeared in Mandolin Magazine.
Tim has also authored several critically acclaimed books with combined
sales topping 250,000.