In 2006, when the David Grisman Quintet released Dawg’s Groove, a couple of changes were immediately apparent: George Marsh’s drum kit filled the rhythmic space previously occupied by Joe Craven’s percussion, and the sound of Grisman’s mandolin was subtly different. A look at the cover explained the latter. Instead of his Loar F-5 (“Crusher”), Grisman cradled a rather unusually shaped mandolin. An avid collector, he’s never been shy about playing a diverse range of mandolins, especially when they support his interest in a wide array of musical genres. But this particular mandolin’s profile was a radical departure even for him. The liner notes gave us a little more to go on — this instrument was the creation of Corrado Giacomel, an Italian luthier based in Genoa.
Since then, other notable players have taken up Giacomel instruments — Doyle Lawson, Tim O’Brien, Carlo Aonzo. And the voices and the distinctive look of these instruments piqued my curiosity. So a few weeks ago, while in Bergamo, Italy, I decided to forego a trip to the Milan Expo in order to spend a couple of days in Genoa. The lure of visiting Columbus’s birthplace — yes, his house is there (or so they say) —and the studio of an innovative mandolin builder was too powerful to resist. Meeting Giacomel gave me insight into his instruments and career.
Finding Giacomel’s shop — “il laboratorio Giacomel” — is a bit of a challenge, so be forewarned. Like most Italian cities of any size, Genoa is a tangle of narrow, winding streets that can very quickly become disorienting. The address on his website — Mura della Malapaga 2R-4R — is between the Porto Antico di Genoa and a military base on the eastern side of the harbor. Using Apple Maps on my iPad I pinpointed the address, but the electronic map didn’t inform me that Giacomel’s shop is not on Via Mura della Malapaga as one might think, nor is it inside the wall of the old harbor fortification; rather, it’s on top of the rampart itself. And finding your way into the old neighborhood and through the maze of heavily shaded alleys between tall buildings, which reveal only slivers of blue sky overhead, requires patient guesswork. When I finally found the unmarked stairs that lead to the parapet on top of the wall, then followed my map a few steps to the left, I discovered a glass-fronted studio with stringed instruments visible inside. Once inside, the 45 minutes I spent wandering were all worth it.
Giacomel — a lean, soft-spoken, middle-aged man — greeted me warmly, thanked me for contacting him in advance and introduced me to his nephew Alessandro, who is assisting in the shop and beginning to learn the craft from his uncle. Giacomel very generously gave me his next hour or so to tell me about his 25-year career as a luthier, show me where and how he develops his exquisite work and invite me to sample finished products.
In the early 1990s Giacomel began by making a number of different guitars and mandolins. His passion for archtop instruments resulted in his first copy of a Gibson F-4 in 1993. While building as many as 20 A-model and F-5 mandolins over the next eight years, he also began researching and experimenting with his own designs. He found a lot of information about violin-making traditions, and especially about the essence of tone woods discovered by the great Italian luthiers, that he could readily adapt to the construction of mandolins.
In 1997 he built his first prototype of his own design, a mandolin somewhat close to his now fully developed line of Giacomel instruments in the mandolin family, and he still plays that prototype today as his personal mandolin. But the fullest expression of the J-5 mandolin and its mandola and mandocello cousins wasn’t defined until 2001, when he began production on the instruments most closely associated with his name. It was these instruments that drew David Grisman and Beppe Gambetta to Giacomel’s shop in 2005. Grisman’s enthusiasm for the J-5 and willingness to serve as U.S. distributor of Giacomel instruments“changed everything, ”the luthier gratefully admits. To date, Giacomel has built 40 J-5 mandolins and close to an equal number of J-5 mandolas and J-3 two-point mandolins.
The workshop where he produces these distinctive instruments consists of two sunlight-filled rooms. The first is a reception area and showroom with a couch and a cabinet holding an array of guitars and mandolins. The second, on the other side of a large window, is the actual shop where everything from cutting to carving to tap-tuning to assembly and finishing happens. The only power tools I noticed were a small band saw and a drill press for pegheads. Everything else he does by hand.
Although there were five mandolin back plates and one for a mandocello suspended on a line above his bench, Giacomel told me that he only builds one instrument at a time, and that he produces eight to nine instruments per year. His research and experience with tonewoods has led him to select maple from Germany for sides, backs and necks; for the tops, he insists on only using spruce from the same region of Italy where the great Cremona violinmakers obtained their wood.
He was in the early stages of carving a back plate during my visit, and he showed me how he shaves away broad curls of maple with a variety of chisels before the fine carving with ever smaller finger planes enables him to graduate the plates closer to their finished precision-tuned dimensions. For top bracing, Giacomel employs several techniques. In addition to the traditional x-bracing and tone bars, he has also developed an innovative design with curved tone bars that produces very interesting results. When we moved to the showroom side of the studio, I heard first-hand how those different bracing techniques contribute to distinctly different tonal effects.
I sampled four different mandolins. The first was an F-5 style that was very authentic in its tone and responsiveness, providing evidence that Giacomel spent his early years as a luthier learning how to deliver what players expect from this traditional instrument. His attention now, however, is on his signature J-styled mandolins. I played three different versions of this design. Two J-5 mandolins have the modified scroll body and modern, gracefully shaped “s” holes, but one was x-braced and the other had tone bars. Both were impeccably crafted, and the playability was comfortable and fast. As a result of their different bracing, the sound of each was distinctly different from the other. The x-braced model was closer to the mellower tone of an oval-hole but with all the projection of an f-hole mandolin, and the tone bar instrument had the clear ring and bark that bluegrass players desire. The sustain on both instruments was astounding; harmonics at the seventh fret rang for nearly 15 seconds, and the octave harmonics even longer. The third mandolin of the signature models was a J-3, a two-point shape with revised f-holes, reminiscent of those on the Monteleone Radio Flyer. This J-3, Giacomel pointed out, also had his curved tone bars. The sound was equally as rich as the two J-5s, but the brightness was somewhere between the x-braced and tone bar constructions.
The responsiveness of all three was remarkably even through all registers. Single-note lines had clarity and articulation regardless of where on the fretboard I played them; multiple chord inversions had equal authority or subtlety, responding to the attack. While every instrument has a sweet spot, I really couldn’t detect a preference in positions among them. What’s perhaps more impressive is that these mandolins had very little playing time at this point in their lives. The complexity of the tone and the volume will increase with time, though given where they are now, it’s hard to imagine how much more improvement they can deliver.
His one other visionary mandolin design, which I did not play, has a double back; a modernization of the traditional bowl back. You can see and hear Carlo Aonzo playing this on two different YouTube videos: one is a duet arrangement of a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with a Giacomel Saturno guitar played by Lorenzo Piccone; the other is a medley of fiddle tune duets with Martino Coppo on a Giacomel J5. These performances were recorded in Giacomel’s shop and demonstrate what his mandolins are capable of in an unembellished recording, with just exceptional players on exceptional instruments.
As remarkable as these mandolins are to play and hear, they are also stunningly beautiful objects to look at. The maple is deeply figured — “molto marrezzato, ” in Italian — and the spruce is luminescent. Bound in wood, not plastic, these instruments are radiant, perhaps due to the minerals in the varnish that Giacomel makes from his own recipe. The mother of pearl block inlays at the 10th, 12th and 15th frets offer a visual highlight to the ebony fretboard that complements the contemporary style. Giacomel’s reinterpretation of the Gibson flowerpot and the name “Giacomel” in mother-of-pearl set off the headstock tastefully, while the asymmetrical placement of the tuning machines adds a distinctive angular look. His finger-rests and tailpieces are also of dark hardwood, ebony or rosewood. Though I’ve often admired the style of the tailpieces that you’ll see on Giacomel’s website, his newer versions are smaller, with a cleaner, more proportional look and concealed string ends.
In the last 40 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of very good mandolin builders develop their craft. Most have remained loyal to the A and F styles of Lloyd Loar’s refinements of Gibson’s early models. A very small number of luthiers have dared to experiment with new designs. Giacomel is noteworthy among this select group. His J-style mandolin family of instruments shows what dedication, craft and artistic sensibility can produce. No doubt, some players may find the shape of the Giacomel J-style a bit too radical. Indeed, this design is an acquired taste, one that grew on me very quickly. But whether or not one appreciates Giacomel’s revision of tradition, there’s no denying his talent and the remarkable quality of his work.
Genoa is not often on the itinerary of Americans traveling to Italy. But in addition to the city’s beautiful hillside location overlooking the Ligurian Sea and its fresh local seafood, Giacomel instruments give any lover of the mandolin more than enough reason to visit Genoa and to learn about these fine mandolins in person.