Rhapsody in B/W

20 years ago, or so, I was working
in a condo on Locust St. which was owned by a gentleman whose prize
possession was an Aeolian Duo-Art piano, and hundreds of piano rolls,
arranged on shelves that covered every wall, or nearly so.  As I
learned from him, this instrument was a “reproducing piano” which
differs from a player piano in that it had hundreds of air hoses
inside , arranged and connected in such a way that they controlled
the force with which the original pianist struck the keys, the pedals
he used, as well as the notes.  The effect was a virtual performance
by the original pianist on a full sized grand piano in your parlor.
Rolls were made by by some of the best contemporary soloists, and
occasionally by the composer himself.

In 1987, a cd was released of George
Gershwin’s piano rolls, one of them a Duo-Art full reproduction
version of  him playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” which gave me a new
perspective on a tune we’ve heard (or at least heard parts of) all
our lives.  The biggest surprise is the tempo at which he played it,
in parts probably twice as fast as you’ve heard, the great
instrumental ability he had, and the overall playful and upbeat
feeling he conveyed in it, which contrasts with most orchestral
versions I’ve heard.  It no doubt is one of the best pieces of
American music ever written, and maybe the daunting task of bringing
a fully orchestrated version to life imparts a seriousness that was
never intended. The effect of watching and hearing this is like seeing the ghost of Gershwin, 26 years old when he wrote it, having a lot of fun playing it, a rock and roller at heart.

George G. originally wrote it under the working title “American Rhapsody,” but his brother Ira convinced him to call it Rhapsody in Blue, after seeing an exhibition of Whistler paintings, with names like “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” etc.
The black and white binding, made of holly and ebony, that I made for this mandolin, reminded me of piano keys, which reminded me of Gershwin, so I think a good name for this one is
“Rhapsody in B/W.”
European flamed maple backs and sides, Highly figured Englemann spruce top (from Alaskawoods.com) black and white rosette, ebony and holly highlights, I even located a black tailpiece for this.
I made the sides deeper for this, by 1/2”, it has great volume as a result, a surprise effect was that the sound is bright and not as round as I would have expected.


Emma Nevada

19 years ago, we were deciding on a name for the baby we were expecting soon, and in the event of a girl child, had decided on “Emma,” which was not a common name at that time, but has since become maybe the most popular name for baby girls.  With the rise of Emma Watson’s star, it  will likely hold that place for a while longer.  We thought it was pretty, there was some family history (in the geneological sense.)  “Emmie” was my favorite Laura Nyro song, and even though Emmie in the title is Emily,  we felt  Emily was too common at that time.

We brainstormed a bit over a middle name, even to the point of browsing baby name books, and one jumped right off the page; “Nevada,” Spanish origin, meaning “white as snow.”  It was perfect for this fair skinned, blonde baby girl, had the additional appeal of referencing my name, but what sealed it for me was the delightful way “Emma Nevada” rolls off the tongue with its own rythym, reminding me of Poe’s “Annabelle Lee.”   And so it was, Emma Nevada Jackson Fahs.

It was several years later when my sister showed up with a gift, found at a yard sale, of a framed etching of a locomotive named the Emma Nevada.

The "Emma Nevada"

Startled, I did a web search and discovered that the train was named after a famous opera singer of the late 19th century, who had risen from humble beginnings to be a world famous soprano.   Born Emma Wixom, she chose a stage name that included the state of her birth, in a mining camp, and I like to think that the musical nature of the name appealed to her as well.

Emma Nevada

I’ve been naming my instruments as I work on them, hopefully contributing to the process of making each one unique, and having its own personality.  This one gets the name because it’s pretty and complicated, like my daughter, and has a beautiful voice like the original Emma Nevada.

Sitka spruce top, flamed European maple back and sides, with a bloodwood center strip.  bloodwood and maple shopmade  rope binding, Padauk headstock, 5 piece laminated neck of padauk, ebony and lacewood.  Note, the truss rod cover has been taken off here, showing an adjustable rod.   Hopefully, I’ll be adding some sound files in the next week, as well as a few additional instruments.


Hi Nev:

Well you’ve inspired me!  I’ve been
considering just taking on the mandocello project this summer and wonder if you
might give me a few pointers to get started.  I am in the middle of a Gibson A4
Mandolin reconstruction and I figure this would be the ideal time to go about
construction of parts while I have these parts in front of me as a reference,
especially when it comes to carving the top and the bottom. 

Good books you’d recommend regarding
carving or any other details you consider important?  Tools:  did you primarily
use Ibex planes or what to do the lion’s share of the carving?  I’ve ordered
some books from Stu Mac to include the Siminoff Ultimate Bluegrass Mandolin
Construction Manual

I understand you started with an A-5
set of plans and upscaled the body?  At what ratio?

How did you determine scale for the
neck?  Did you find a source for actual K-1 dimensions?  Would you be willing to
sell a slotted fretboard and at what cost?  Did you slot your own or find some
shop that could do that with the precision required?  That’s the one area I’m
not sure of doing myself, but that may not be hard with exact scale dimensions.
Is that also a matter of sizing up from standard 13 7/8 scale?

How to purchase tonewoods?  (I’m
thinking of Engelmann Spruce and curly maple of Did you start with an archtop
guitar set from Exotic, the source you purchased from?  Or is there a better way
to go about acquiring tonewoods?

Probably some dumb questions in there
but I’m just getting started in the planning. 

I’d appreciate any help and mentoring
as I get started.  Thanks Nev!


Hi Mike
You sure ask a lot of questions! I’ll see what I can do to help.
Most or all of the scaling I did by looking at as many pictures I could
find, and here’s a little secret:  The fret board acts as a ruler in those
pictures, a pretty accurate one.  So if you get a dead on front picture, you can
pretty much scale it using the fretboard in the picture and a fretboard in your
hand.  Apparently most m-cellos have a scale of 24 to 27 inches, the vast
majority have 24 3/4 or 25.  25”scale fretboards are available from any luthier
supply. like Stew-Mac or LMI.
Exoticwoods is a great source for back and sides sets, I used a rosewood
set for a dreadnaught guitar, and ripped the sides appropriately, about 2
  The top I used on the one in the picture was Englemann spruce that I got
from www.alaskawoods.com  That guy is a
great source, his products are beautiful and bone dry, and very reasonable and
he uses only reclaimed wood, cuts no trees down.  What I received was
bookmatched wedges for archtop guitar,  1 7/8” tapered to 3/4”.  I jointed the
fat edge and glued it up. To save myself  lot of planing, after it was dried and
squared up I set my table saw blade and fence to the angle of the wedge and
stood the piece on end and ripped the bottom, so that I had a piece 25X16 that
was tapered on 3 sides. Then cut the shape.  If you don’t follow what I’m saying
I could send you a pic or a sketch.  From there, it’s a lot of planing, a block
plane works fine for most of it, but I also use a #20 Stanley adjustable( the
bottom of the plane adjusts to any curve, concave or convex, and it’s well worth
it to find one), although that comes in handy more for the inside of  the top
than for the outside.  As you get closer to the contour that you are looking
for, an orbital sander will get you there gradually and surely.  I tried for the
highest arch I could get, with an aesthetic that was pleasing to me.  The higher
the arch, the stronger the top.  The Gibsons had a flatter area right near the
rim, and I didn’t try to duplicate that on this one, though sometimes I do on
mandolins.  I t’s more of an organic approach, but I like to let the wood and my
eye tell me when it’s done.
Once I have the top where I want it, I’ve devised a trick with the drill
press that requires  some care, but is the fastest and most accurate method I’ve
found.  I grind most of the guide tip off of a 7/8” Forstner bit, and chuck it
in the press and set the table so it stops 1/4” from the table to the bit at its
lowest point.  Then, making sure at all times that the top is lying perfectly
flat directly under the bit, and gripping the piece as firmly as I can, I drill
a series of holes, actually as many holes as I can, on the underside of the
top.  This would be a lot easier if I had a foot operated drill press, but I
don’t yet. Most of the wood that remains can be popped out with a chisel or
gouge, then I finish with the #20 and coarse sandpaper.  Once it is smooth, you
can begin tap tuning it, removing wood to get the sound you want, but remember,
you can’t put the wood back, so work slowly. For acoustic reasons, the top
should be thinnest close to where it is glued to the kerfing.
A Very important note here, and a hard learned lesson for me when I started
mandolins.  Cut the soundhole and rosette grooves BEFORE you carve out the
underside of the top.  You risk damaging the top by doing so later when the wood
is thinner, and it also helps you gauge the overall thickness of the top.  The
top should be slightly thicker in the area around the soundhole.
You’ll have to make a form for the rim, and a template for the top and
back.  My form is three layers of MDF, in two pieces so I can take it apart.
both sides should be traced the same for symmetry, and the middle layer is just
spacers to keep the weight down.
When you go to make the neck, the fretboard again will be your guide.  The
neck touches the body at the 12th fret, the headstock will be similar in size to
a mandolin headstock, same tuners, after all.  I made a mistake on the
mandocello in the picture, I made the neck too narrow at the nut, the thicker
strings require that the nut be much wider than a mandolins, not a little wider.
Cut the fretboard to the size it should be( or use a template of same) and work
the neck gradually down to it, allowing for edge binding if you’re going to use
Read Siminoff’s book the Luthier’s Handbook often as you go, I leave mine
in the bathroom, because you can’t even get all of what he’s saying in there
until you’ve been there, it’s the best all around book of theory for building
instruments that I’ve found.
I’m honored that I inspired you.  You can do this.  Feel free to ask
anything else I can help you with as you go.
I may post this email on my blog, I’d like to start a section on tips and
techniques with pictures, and this might be the time.
Regards, Nev

The Dad Factor

My Dad made dulcimers.  He ended up making a lot of dulcimers.  The best estimate my siblings and I can come up with is somewhere between 800 and 1000.  They kept getting nicer and nicer, too, though he only raised his price for one maybe once in 30-odd years.

The family lore is that I was responsible for his pursuit of what started as a hobby, but became a lifestyle for him. I had bought a dulcimer kit on a trip out west, and when I put the kit together, I wouldn’t let him help or participate, in spite of his experience in woodworking.  There were a couple reasons for this; first, it was an incredibly easy build.  Second was my uneasy relationship with his Shop, which was not always the same shop, but he always had one, and it was his sanctuary, one he deserved,  for respite from 4 kids and a demanding job.  My older brother Bo was more welcome there than I was, and when I would try to join the two of them, they would do an elaborate dance, subconsciously, I’m sure, that made me feel like wherever I stood was in the way.  So I’d leave.

I’ve often said that my dad taught me everything I know about how to be a man.  I’ve had to figure the rest of this shit out for myself.

There may have been paybacks in my mind when I saw him chomping at the bit to get involved in my project.  My Mom says he would sneak out to the shop after I was done working on it to assess my progress.  He was surprised and pleased when I finally finished it, but what rocked his world to the core was when I strung it up and started playing it, the dulcimer being second in difficulty of playing to the kazoo, but he didn’t realize it at the time.   It became his mission, I think, to get these instruments into the hands of all who thought they couldn’t play an instrument.

Growing up, our house had always had 10 or 12 instruments laying around, auction finds that he couldn’t resist.  Aside from the pump organs, which were playable, but for young kids were like trying to play a keyboard while working on the StairMaster, they were all variations on the zither.  Like the Guitar-Harp Zither, that resembled neither, and upon which I am willing to bet no one ever played a tune and had someone observe “Wow, that was rockin’!”  All these old zithers, and autoharps with missing pads on the chord bars, needed to be tuned with a piano wrench, which even if we kids had one, we had no reference for an actual note anywhere.

These monsters are a relic of the time just before the invention of the radio and the phonograph, when people were desperate to bring some music into the house, but not smart enough to buy something they might actually be able to play.

Try to find tabulature for this!

When my brothers and I started playing guitar, and getting better, I think my Dad started to overcompensate for the years of bringing crappy, unplayable instruments into the house to torment us with their potential, only to plunk and twang unmelodiously in return for our efforts.

So about the time he started making dulcimers in earnest,  he started buying and trading in all kinds of playable instruments, to the point where when you entered his house, it was difficult to find a place to sit or to lean an umbrella, because they were everywhere.

He kept making dulcimers up to his last days, but the collecting and trading tapered off out of necessity and waning interest, I guess.  He had one instrument of note when he died, and Bo  sent it to George Gruehn in Nashville to sell on my Mom”s behalf.  He loved the craftsmanship of this one, and I’ve only realized as I’m writing this,  I had forgotten about it until now, I swear to you.  But I think the Old Man continues to inspire me.

It was a circa 1920 A model Gibson mandolin.


Padauk headstock veneer, I'm considering the name "Redhead Instruments "

Before I had even finished making my first mandola, I realized I would have to make a mandocello.   Especially after hearing one playing a Bach cello suite, here.  I recently finished this one,  which is in the old K style that I prefer, and have bought the wood to make another, which I’m looking forward to.

I’m happy with the looks of it, but I’m thrilled with the sound, rich and deep and full.  I only wish I could play it like Mike Marshall, but all things in due time.  But my plan is to sell this one, and probably the next one, too, so who knows.

I didn’t have a plan or blueprint for this, so I worked from as many pictures of vintage Gibsons as I could find, and used construction details from the mandolin plans.  It has a well arched top, and like the A mandolin, this eliminates the need for exessive bracing, using only a single cross grain brace right below the soundhole.  I  modified a trapeze tailpiece intended for a guitar, adding a piece of ebony at the front as a tensioner and guide for the strings.  I reslotted the tailpiece to accept both ball end and loopend strings, and in fact, I’ve used a combination of the two on this, as I preferred the sound of bass guitar  strings for the lower C set to the loop end ones that came with the D’Addario Mandocello set.

The back and sides are rosewood,  I’d like to do a carved maple back next.  I dressed the back up with a little bit of marquetry where it meets the neck, using some checkerboard trim I had made up for a banjo resonator, and that was too pretty to sit in my parts drawers.

Exotic Woods, Suburban Locale

Earlier this year, while researching sources for instrument woods, I stumbled upon a link to Exotic Hardwoods of Sicklerville, NJ, which is only about 10 miles from where I live.  I say stumbled upon, because I had been searching for “guitar woods” and “Luthier supplies,” but in desperation I finally searched for “Exotic woods,” and Bingo.  I remembered this place, I had been there a few years ago to get a fretboard and I think mahogany for a neck, but hadn’t remembered it until I saw the listing.

It’s on a typical outer  suburban road, an unassuming white house with a driveway that leads to two small warehouses in back.   The man and woman who work the yard and shop greeted me, asked what I was looking for, and then sent me in to get a sales slip from the owner so that we could start picking.

I started chatting with the owner, an older man of Indian heritage, and we ended up talking for about an hour.  He flies all over the world and hand picks each shipment of wood, so that he doesn’t end up with junk, and from the way he talks about the woods, it’s clear that this is a labor of love, as well as an enviable lifestyle for someone of a similar mind.  But in that hour, there were no other customers coming in, and when he started talking about being 72 and a little weary of it all,  I mentioned that if he increased his web presense, maybe adding some pertinent key words (as If I know how to increase web presense!)he could maybe increase business to make it more worthwhile. He smiled tolerantly, and when I was finished, he told me that 95% of his business is selling to makers like Gibson and Martin.  In fact, there was a pallet of mahogany outside, 16″X2″X 16 feet long and straight as the day is long that was being shipped out to be made into Les Pauls at the Gibson factory.

Having been totally schooled by the old guy, I headed out into the yard, where the two people I mentioned gave me their full attention for the duration.  I need a couple mahogany neck blanks, here they are, hundreds of them, pick the ones you want.  Same with the Rosewood back and side sets, all matched and numbered and in leaning stacks of 50 or so per stack, take your time, find the set you want I was told, so I did.  I needed flamed maple mandolin backs and sides, which sent them searching all over the warehouse, as it’s not something they sell a lot of.  What they came up with was violin backs and sides, which were beautiful, but at 1 7/8″ thick, twice as thick as I needed, which was not a problem, the guy just ripped it in half on his monster bandsaw, giving me two back sets for the price of one, and he threw an extra side set in to go with it.

I poked around for a while, got some other stuff, then as they were writing the slip, they asked me if I wanted any of the cutoffs that were stacked by the gang saw,  so I took 4 or 5 of the Les Paul mahogany pieces, 16X12X2, figuring I’d do something with them.  I’ve ended up making kalimbas from them, I can get 2 or 3 from each.

I think you can imagine that I didn’t want to leave, but I was out of money.  Another cordial conversation with the owner, who asked me to bring pictures next time, and I left.  Driving home, I was struck by my good fortune at living so close to a place that any instrument maker should visit, but probably won’t because there is no other reason to visit Sicklerville, NJ.  I felt like a surfer living next to Wakiki, or a skier who lives on Mt. Blanc.  But if you order from the website, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be disappointed.  They have no junk to sell you.

I’ll be going back soon, bringing pictures.


In the style of Gibson A model pre 1925

I pretty much followed the blueprint for this, though Iused a round hole of the same area instead of the original oval.

The back is European flamed maple, intended for violin backs and purchased from Exotic Woods of Sicklerville, Nj.  I’ll have to write more about them later.  The top is Alaskan Englemann Spruce and the neck is a 3 piece laminatiom of maple and rosewood with a non adjustable truss rod.  The headstock is a rosewood veneer.