If you ask him very nicely there’s a chance that Steve Andersen will build you a mandolin. In a dusty corner of his shop’s basement there’s a 20-gallon plastic storage tub with all the molds and whatnot he used back in his mando-buildin’ heyday, but he doesn’t seem especially eager to pull it off the shelf, so your best bet might be finding something used (and that’s your only bet for an F-style–Steve says he’ll never build another). There are a few out there to be found without even looking too hard. In fact, there’s even one at Steve’s shop, an oval hole A-style built in 1992 that’s the subject of today’s “Catch of the Day.”
Even just giving it the once-over on his website, the mandolin has a distinct appeal, with its classic lines and strikingly figured woods–Eastern maple for the neck and Western maple for the back and sides (the figure on the back, in particular, is a dizzying mottle of big leaf flame). The Engelmann spruce top is tightly grained and neatly carved, with some signs of wear and a bit of finish touch-up recently performed by Steve (structurally, the instrument remains in perfect condition). The appointments are simple… ish: tortoise celluloid binding for the top and back, a nicely inlaid fleur-de-lis on the (Gibson open book-style) headstock, gold tailpiece and tuners with pearloid buttons. The natural finish has ambered up nicely over its 24 years and a strap button has been added to the underside of the heel.
Steve points out that his “fretboard extension (and where it meets the top) is atypical, but the carving and shape of the top are pretty standard” for an A-style mandolin.
Of course, Steve’s shop being a hop, skip and a jump from the Fretboard Journal offices, we were also able to give it the once-over in person. The instrument plays easily up and down the neck and rests comfortably cradled between hand, forearm and ribs, even without a strap, but it’s really most remarkable for its voice: sweet and clear, with warm, rich overtones and almost ridiculous sustain (I had a moment when I channeled Nigel Tufnel, playing a single note and listening to it trail off to infinity in Steve’s shop). Really, it’s impossible to overstate the lovely, ringing tone of this mandolin, which might be a deal-breaker or -maker, depending on what you’re looking for: it’s not one for chopping out the backbeat on “Orange Blossom Special,” but I’d love to hear David Grisman tease a bittersweet version of “Over the Rainbow” out of it.
As Steve explained, “The customer wanted a non-bluegrass instrument, and changing from f-holes to an oval soundhole is the easiest way to get that. You lose the brightness and punch of a bluegrass instrument and gain warmth and sustain, making it good for a variety of musical styles. The bracing and graduation is very similar to an f-hole mandolin.”
Meanwhile, at the bottom line, $3100 seems like a steal for a mandolin of this exquisite quality. It’s priced more or less in line with a Collings MT-O, for a custom instrument from a builder whose mandolins were once prized (Sam Bush famously used an Andersen f-style for a while) and may never build another. It is available directly from Steve; for more information e-mail [email protected].