A New Tradition in Mandolin Artistry
A Profile of Ray Dearstone, Luthier, by Tony Bolin
"Heard any good mandolins lately?"
Chances are you've heard quite a few good mandolins in the past year or so. The popularity for the defining instrument of Bluegrass music has not been greater since the mandolin orchestra movement at the turn of this century. Today, you can hear the mandolin in a surprising range of musical settings that extend far beyond Bluegrass: Nashville Country, Classical, Alternative and even Rock-n-Roll, to name just a few. For mandolin players there is even more good news. Some of the best mandolins ever made are being crafted today by a growing number of individual luthiers; craftsmen with an affinity for the exacting handwork and intuition required in the construction of a premium mandolin.
One of the best practitioner's in the art of mandolin construction is Ray Dearstone, who has been making mandolins and guitars for over eighteen years. Ray lives in Bristol, Tennessee, located in the northeast corner of the state and just a shade south of Clinch Mountain and the Virginia state line. The region is rich in Bluegrass tradition, from the Stanley Brothers to the Carter Family, and is also home to some of the best new music being made. Ray's mandolins have become the favorite instrument of such great players as Dempsey Young of the Lost & Found and Shawn Lane of Blue Highway.
How can any individual, even one possessing consummate skill, compete with the large instrument manufacturers? The answer shouldn't be a surprise. Consistently producing superior sounding instruments requires personal skill and attention to detail, something often missing in large production-oriented operations. The fact that Ray Dearstone, and his fellow luthiers, are enjoying the benefits of this upsurge in mandolin popularity reminds one of the old adage about luck and timing: "what often appears as good luck is, in reality, the result of hard work and preparation meeting opportunity."
Ray's approaches to building mandolins are not radical. He adheres to time-proven methods, with great respect for the classic designs. To appreciate where we are with the state of mandolin construction today, it helps to look at the mandolin's recent history. Among fans and pickers alike, the name William Smith Monroe is synonymous with Bluegrass mandolin. Mr. Monroe virtually reinvented the mandolin, transforming it from a parlor instrument of immigrant heritage to the firebrand of an exciting and emotionally-charged new musical form. The style, startling and unique, was based on the ancient tones of traditional music and became known to us all as Bluegrass.
Growing up in Rosine, Kentucky, Mr. Monroe was at first drawn to the guitar, long considered a man's instrument. His older brothers, however, had first choice and the only role remaining was to play mandolin, an instrument often given to women and children due to its smaller scale. The rest is history as Mr. Monroe developed a mandolin style that fused the rhythmic excitement and cascading notes of fiddle tunes with the emotional depth of country blues.
Mr. Monroe placed great importance in performing a song with feeling and emotion and considered the raw technique of playing as secondary. Nonetheless, his playing was masterful and you will find few, if any, bluegrass mandolin players who haven't closely studied his style. Many players remain in awe of his right hand that, in machine gun fashion, could so effortlessly let loose a torrent of triplets. No one before had approached the mandolin with such fire and drive.
Mr. Monroe chose to play a Gibson F-5 mandolin with its distinctive Florentine scroll and ornate headstock, and today that design continues to be the standard in Bluegrass circles. This type of mandolin works well for Bluegrass, due to its ability to "cut through" and be heard when playing in the company of banjos and fiddles. Even so, Mr. Monroe's influence was so strong that many claim had he played a round-back, "tater-bug" mandolin, then that's the model we would all play today!
From that origin the mandolin's popularity waxed and waned through several decades. In recent years the growing popularity of Bluegrass, Roots and Americana music has brought the mandolin back to prominence. Mandolin Café, (www.mandolincafe.com), a popular web site for mandolin enthusiasts, lists in its Builders Directory over one hundred individual luthiers, located around the world from Australia to the United States and Europe. These luthiers build mandolins in the traditional way, applying great skill to carefully hand-carve the arched top and back, a process that tunes the mandolin's body to its most resonant pitch. This critical step is required to deliver volume and tonal complexity. It is one of the main reasons that the mandolin, along with other acoustic instruments such as the violin, have never adapted well to mass production or assembly line methods. Machined precision alone cannot create a great sounding instrument. Variations in wood density and flexibility require minute adjustments in the arching graduations that are best achieved by skillfully applied hand methods.
Carving the top and back graduation is the true test for a luthier and it is here where Ray Dearstone's skills really shine. His mandolins possess a deep, woody tone, with a pronounced bass timbre that retains, amazingly, a sparkling bell-like brightness in the higher treble range. Ray's growing reputation, however, doesn't rest only making a mandolin with great tone. What is most striking is the consistent quality of tone from one of Ray's mandolins to the next. He has been able to develop a tonal signature that takes into account the individual characteristics of each piece of maple, spruce or redwood to create a remarkably complex acoustic chamber capable of producing rich musical tones.
This consistency is very important to buyers of custom-made instruments. Most luthiers build instruments on a custom-order basis. The buyer has input into its construction and can usually match the instrument to their particular requirements. With custom orders it may be difficult to "try before you buy." However, most luthiers will bend over backwards to satisfy their customers. There is usually some waiting period after placing the order and the mandolin may not be delivered for several months to a year, depending on the builder's backlog of orders. The buyer must be willing to accept a certain element of risk when ordering a custom-made instrument, trusting that the builder will be successful in creating a mandolin that meets and perhaps exceeds expectations. If the builder has developed a reputation for quality and consistency, with many satisfied customers, the buyer has greater assurance that the instrument will meet with their approval, rewarding both their investment and patience.
Ray Dearstone's consistency was among the first things that caught the attention of Dempsey Young, founding member and mandolin player for the Lost & Found. Dempsey often has the opportunity to meet many great mandolin builders and to play some of their best instruments. A skilled player contributes much to a mandolin's tone, so it is little wonder that builders seek out players such as Dempsey in order to hear the full potential of the instrument they have built. Mandolin owners feel the same way. It is not uncommon for fans to ask Dempsey to try out their mandolins and give an appraisal.
Dempsey's first serious look at a Dearstone came in just such a situation. Several years ago Lost & Found was performing a concert in Bristol, Tennessee at the Paramount Theater. A young man approached Dempsey and asked him if he would try out his mandolin. Dempsey agreed and found the mandolin's sound impressive. The young man then suggested that he try out his friend's, which was also a Dearstone. The second mandolin sounded just as good. It surprised Dempsey that the mandolins were made right there in Bristol. He was even more surprised to learn the person who built them, Ray Dearstone, was in attendance that night. They met and kept in touch over the next few months. The end result was that Dempsey put down the mandolin he had played for over twenty years and started playing a new Dearstone.
If you ask Dempsey to describe the sound of his Dearstone, he's straight to point, "It's that woody sound, with probably a little more bottom than you typically hear. Just the same, the treble strings are sweet and almost bell-like, without any harshness. I don't believe too much in the theory that a mandolin has to be "broken-in" for three or four years before it starts to sound good. If it doesn't sound like you want it to right from the beginning, it never will. My Dearstone plays well, too. I didn't do a thing to the action or setup, I just started playing it."
Dempsey continued, "I told Ray it would probably take a while for his name to get out. When I first took it out on the road, people would come up and ask me what kind of mandolin I was playing. They were mostly unfamiliar with a Dearstone. Recently I've been surprised how well-known Ray has become in just a short time. Not only are fans familiar with the name Dearstone, they sometimes bring their own Dearstone to show me. I guess I've played over a dozen of Ray's mandolins and I thought each one was very good. I told Ray that whatever he was doing, to just keep on doing it because it was obviously working."
Despite the praise and recognition from some of the best players, it's hard to get Ray Dearstone to admit how good his mandolins really are. He would much prefer that his work speaks for itself. A much more comfortable topic for Ray is discussing what goes into the making of his mandolins and the methods he uses to achieve that killer tone. I had the opportunity recently to talk to Ray about his approach to building mandolins.
TB: You're receiving a lot recognition from the Bluegrass community for building a great sounding and playing mandolin. A number of well-respected performers are playing a Dearstone. I've talked to Shawn Lane and Dempsey Young and they're both pretty happy with their Dearstones.
Ray: Well, both of those fellows have been just great in helping people become more familiar with my mandolins. They're great players and it's a thrill to hear them play anytime---it makes me pretty proud to know they're playing a mandolin I built.
TB: What do you think persuaded Dempsey to change mandolins after playing the same one for almost twenty years?
Ray: The "woody" sound. It's hard to put into words, but it's like a deep, woody tone on the bass strings and a solid, bell-like tone on the first and second strings. Good projection and balance from the E-string to the G-string.
TB: Was there anything special in terms of construction or setup that Dempsey asked for?
Ray: No, I didn't do anything special. But he thought it was the better of the ones he played.
TB: How about Shawn Lane? He's from the same area up around Bristol, isn't he?
Ray: That's right. I told him I'd make him one and when I had finished it he came by and was really impressed with it. I don't know that it's identical to Dempsey's, but it's pretty close in tone and the way it sounds. Both Dempsey's and Shawn's mandolins have a redwood top. Redwood is a little softer than say red spruce and it will carve a little thicker when you tune it. I think it gives you a more woody sound than spruce.
TB: Well, I spoke to Shawn and he's very pleased with the mandolin. He's only had it a couple of years but he said it's really opened up and sounds even better now. I had the opportunity to play it as well and it has a wonderful deep tone.
Ray: Well, that's good to hear. I think I heard that Shawn and Dempsey had the chance to compare them and thought they were pretty similar in sound.
TB: When first did you become interested in building mandolins and guitars?
Ray: Around 1979, 1980, I got the urge to do this as sort of a hobby and just started reading whatever I could get my hands on. Just dove in and started making them. I've always been kind of handy with my hands but never did any real woodworking before that. I play guitar and bass and a little bit on the mandolin, so maybe that helped some.
TB: Has the input you've gotten from players like Shawn and Dempsey caused you to change the way you build your mandolins?
Basically, what I've been doing all along is tuning the top and back, along with the tone bars. At the beginning I really didn't tune the F-holes, I just cut them out to size. But I found that if you leave the F-holes small and gradually open them up, you can make the resonant frequency of the box come up to a standard pitch. I think all of that has to happen in order for the mandolins to be consistent from one to another.
TB: You use a strobe tuner, to help determine the note or frequency at which the top will resonate as you carve the top to a particular graduation, or thickness. I'm guessing there's more art than science when it comes to building mandolins.
Ray: Yeah, that's right. I normally tune the top to a C-note and the back to a D. I had a couple of mandolins where the spruce I used for the tops was pretty hard. I had carved the top down to a C#, but I didn't want to go any thinner because of the structural aspect. So I decided to leave it at C# and make the back tune to a D#, to maintain the same relationship. These mandolins ended up sounding great. I think the relationship of the frequencies, how they all work together, are more important than tap-tuning to a particular note.
The tone bars also play a big part. I shave these down after they have been glued to the top plate. This regulates how the top vibrates when you strike the strings. I seldom get two mandolins where the tone bars have the identical shape. The tops may resonate on the same note, but the thickness and shape of each mandolin's tone bars will be different.
TB: Have you considered replacing the tone bars with X-bracing?
Well, people have asked me that, but I really don't see how I could maintain the same results I'm getting now. I pretty much know what the tone bars will give me, but I don't know what X-bracing will. I played one of Adam Steffey's mandolins that had X-bracing. Of course, it sounded great when Adam played it, but I couldn't get much out of it. It sounded a little too dry and bright for my taste.
TB: Seems like everyone comments on the consistent tonal quality you deliver from one mandolin to the next ---overall woody tone, deep bass response, bell-like higher register, --plus loud enough to make a banjo player think about "plugging in". How do you account for this consistency?
Ray: I think it all goes back to the relationship between the top, back and tone bars. If everything is working together, you generate complex overtones and they really account for the character of the tone. If you've gotten the right overtones, you'll get that deep woody sound and be able to make a Bluegrass "chop" that's percussive and solid--almost thick sounding. The wrong overtones cause a harsh, metallic sound-too bright and thin. Carving the top and the back so that they are one musical step apart helps to minimize the unwanted overtones.
Part of the consistency comes from doing the same things the same way each time. I pay a lot of attention to being consistent in my method of construction. If I can come close to doing things the same way each time, then the only variable is the tone quality of the wood itself.
I also keep a detailed log about each mandolin. I record what note the top and back are tuned to, what the tone bars came out at, the resonant frequency of the box and other things like that. I try to get each mandolin as close as I can to being the same, and this helps me track the characteristics of a particular run of wood. I think it will prove very useful in the future to compare how the sound evolves over time.
TB: Acoustic-based music is on the rise. Bluegrass, Blues, "Roots" and "Americana" are surging in popularity. Have you seen interest in your mandolins grow as well?
Ray: I think there has been more interest lately-in Bluegrass and in other types of music too. The majority of my mandolins are used in Bluegrass, but I hear mandolin more and more in rock and some of the newer country songs being recorded.
TB: It's said only 170 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F-5 mandolins were made in the early 1920's They've become the standard by which all other mandolins are judged. Aside from being so rare and commanding a price of $40,000, what is it about a Loar that elicits such awe?
Ray: To be honest, I don't have a clue. My only experience was a single opportunity to play a mandolin said to be a Loar. It had pretty good tone, but it didn't have any volume. I have played just one other since, but I was told that the top had been changed on that one, so it didn't really qualify. Mandolins do improve over time, so maybe what we're hearing today in a 1923 Loar wasn't there when it was first made.
When I first started carving tops I had a Magnavox organ that I would lay the top on and start pressing keys until I could feel the top vibrate sympathetically on a particular note. Later on I used a frequency generator to sound a particular note. Both of those methods got you in the "neighborhood." I use a strobe tuner now which allows me to measure in 1/100th increments around a note. My ears aren't good enough to tell the note that sounds when you tap a mandolin top with your knuckle. I don't know what Mr. Loar used -- a tuning fork or maybe his ear was good enough to determine the note. But he obviously knew the wood and also knew what it needed to sound like when he tapped on it.
TB: How long does it take for you to complete a single mandolin?
Ray: Well, I haven't really sat down and calculated it out. Mandolins have so much handwork that it's hard to mechanize. The way I make them, it's not a production approach. Some mandolins may take longer than others. Joining the neck and body, for instance, I might do one faster, maybe an hour quicker, than I do another one.
I try to build an inventory of standard parts, such as neck blanks, body blocks, and tops that have been joined, cut to shape and are ready to be carved. At any one time though I may have three to five mandolins in various stages of completion. It's only my brother and me in the shop and we just try to make the most efficient use of our time---but it's a long way from an assembly line type thing. I suppose I could use more machinery and come near to the same product, but when you get to final carving, binding, scraping and inlay, there's no way to replace the handwork with a machine.
TB: The F-5 designs introduced by Gibson in the Twenties and made famous by Mr. Bill Monroe, practically reinvented the mandolin and created an "American Original". Many of us still have a bad case of "scroll fever." What do you think of the ongoing debate of F-style versus A-style?
Ray: Well, you're right -most Bluegrass people still want the traditional F-style with the scroll. I don't think an F sounds any better than an A. I've only had orders for three A-style mandolins, and I liked the sound of all three just as good as the F-styles I've made. The scroll on the F-style does have an effect on the tone, but I'm not sure that it effects it in the better way. That's really in the ears of the beholder.
An A-style top plate will tune differently. You can make an A model and an F model from the same piece of wood. Since the A model doesn't have the scroll it will tune to a different top plate thickness compared to the F-style. I'm not really sure how the overtones are affected. You also have differences in the volume of the air chamber between the two styles, with the F-style being slightly greater.
TB: What are some of the advantages in acquiring a mandolin from an individual luthier, such as yourself, compared to just purchasing a mandolin from one of the well-known "mandolin manufacturers"?
Ray: The positive thing is that if you're familiar with some of the instruments that the luthier has made, then you know about the quality of his work. You will have an idea of what kind of sound he gets- if the sound is consistent from one to the next. If you don't know that or haven't been able to see any of the instruments, you could probably get third party opinions pretty easily. Of course, a lot has to do with personal preference.
TB: Let's say a person is a little more experienced and has a good idea of what they're looking for in a mandolin. Let's go farther and say that they've played your mandolins and decided that they want one. What does Ray Dearstone bring to the table in that situation?
Ray: Well,...(pause), that's...........(pause)...
TB: Am I putting you on the spot?
Ray: Yeah, (laughing) that's pretty much what you're doing there.
TB: OK, then. We'll turn the tables and I'll tell you what my experience has been. The conversations we've had over the last eight or nine months have been great. We discussed things like whether the top plate should be redwood or spruce, should the fingerboard be flat or radiused, and how the mandolin should be finished. You've taken an interest in what was important to me. That level of personal interaction just isn't available from a production line manufacturer. I think it's a real kick to actually know the person who made the mandolin you play.
Ray: Well, that's nice to hear, but hard for me to say. It really does personalize the process to have those discussions and I'm always interested in what different players want and try my best to work that into their instrument.
TB: What are your future goals for Dearstone Mandolin Works?
Ray: I would like to get to the point where I might have two or three employees and still be able to produce the mandolins in the same quality. I want to continue to have the same personal involvement with my customers, but it would be nice to build them in a little higher volume. To get there I need to become more efficient in some of my processes. I want to improve the quality of what goes into the mandolin in a few areas and at the same time speed up a few areas.
Aside from those things, I just want to be known for making a great mandolin.
TB: Thanks, Ray. It's been great talking with you.
For more information contact:
Dearstone Mandolin Works
P. O. Box 447
Blountville, TN 37617-0447
Tony Bolin lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and performs with Wild Blue
Yonder, an amateur Bluegrass band. Recently, he became the proud owner
of his very own Dearstone mandolin. (firstname.lastname@example.org)