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Review: “Lloyd Loar Mandolins” by Tony Williamson

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Lloyd Loar MandolinsBy Joe Ross
Tony Williamson’s Lloyd Loar Mandolins (Mandolin Central MCP0065) is the ultimate and quintessential mandolin tasting. Featuring solo performances by Tony Williamson, the CD has a baker’s dozen of the world’s finest mandolins, most signed and dated by the legendary acoustical engineer Lloyd Loar. Brilliant craftsmen built these instruments in the Gibson factory of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in a two-year period beginning December 1922, except for two which were shipped out a few years later with no signatures.

I see that the instruments even have their own endearing names like The Fern, Fred, 22, Cleveland, Gold ’un, Green Hornet, Lloyd, Lloyd’s other brother Lloyd, Mon, Short Fern, Crusher, Tiger, and Zeibarth. All instruments on this CD are preserved in original condition except Short Fern (#87367) which has been restored to period correct condition. They were set up identically and strung with D’Addario EXP74 strings. Each mandolin (except #71635: Crusher) was played studio live into a pair of vintage Neumann u47 microphones and delivered through Neve pre-amps. There were no electronic effects or EQ used in mixing and only minimum room placement employed in mastering.

It is Williamson’s hope that you can hear the natural brilliance of these amazing instruments and also that you appreciate the subtle differences in their tonal nuance. Father of bluegrass music Bill Monroe would refer to the “ancient tones” that fiddlers would embrace to get the most vibrations and loudness out of their instruments in a traditional-sounding way. Williamson does the same kind of coaxing with these antique mandolins.

Check Williamson’s webpage at Mandolin Central for photos, history, and details of each individual instrument and stories about the songs. Mandolin Central is an international resource of mandolin lore, vintage instruments and accessories which Williamson founded in 1990.

After the 13 songs are presented (mostly classic jazz numbers, along with a few fiddle tunes and original compositions), we hear Williamson sing his self-penned “Lloyd Loar Mandolin Song.” Played on the 1924 “Lloyd,” he sings about having an instrument and a girl to make everything alright. Finally, at the end of the CD are 14 almost identical tracks (identified only as scale A through M). Each of these tracks was played on a different one of the 1920s Loar era F-5s heard on the CD, along with one on a modern instrument built by world class Australian luthier Paul Duff. To find out which is which, you’ll just have to go to Mandolin Central.

Williamson has experience with many genres and bands (e.g. Bluegrass Gentlemen, Bluegrass Alliance, Duke University Symphony Orchestra, Champagne Charlie, ASH&W). His critically-acclaimed albums have featured a variety of stringed instruments, original material, unique arrangements, and first-rate supporting casts. He performs an entertaining one-man show called “The Sound of the American Mandolin.” With his latest album, the man who lives and breathes mandolin now gives us an unique opportunity to experience the clarion sound of several vintage instruments.

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