A new horse in the stable

So I have suffered from MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome) for a while now, even though I’m really not much of a player. I have a reasonably priced F-style mandolin that I like, but the tone of an oval hole (more sustain and bass, less percussive), better fits a lot of the music I play. I’ve been getting by on this front (and gigging) with a Washburn M1SDLTR, a surprisingly nice, inexpensive oval hole, but I’ve been looking for something better.

Behold the Morris flat-top oval hole:


It doesn’t have a model number because it didn’t come from a factory. It was built by a luthier in Oregon, who’s put together a few hundred mandolins of various styles and has sold them at prices far below a lot of similar handmade instruments.

This is the cheapest Morris model — the simple design, flat top (doesn’t require the painstaking carving of a chunk of wood into an arch like most mandolins), oval hole (easier to cut than F-holes) and lack of binding all help reduce costs. But it’s still a $650 mandolin new; I paid considerably less than that used even though it is only a few months old. (I bought it from a banjo player who wanted to learn mandolin but gave it up, which is too bad because that means he still plays banjo.)

This is my first American-made, small-batch mandolin. Mandolin people are even crazier than harmonica people, and they assign all sorts of debatable mojo qualities to American small-batch mandos — even though there are really good mandos coming out of China for a fraction of the price. But the quality of this particular mandolin shines through, from the finish to the fretwork to the wood itself. The sides and back are maple, a very common choice for mandolins and guitars, but the top is red cedar — rare, in part because it’s considered a ‘softer’ wood that could be susceptible to denting. In reality, a lot of that depends on the quality, not the type, of wood.

In this case, as soon as I started installing an acoustic pickup in the mandolin, I knew that the maker had taken care about the wood he had chosen.

I decided to put the pickup jack through the endpin, a common and neat procedure that also lets the jack double as a strap holder. I wanted to be careful about the finish on such a nice mandolin (with the cheap Washburn, I more or less just attacked the endpin hole with a drill), so I picked up a manual wood reamer to cut out the hole. But I had a terrible time opening up the hole through the tailpiece and the end block — because the maple top-notch quality and really dense/hard, making it a pain to work with by hand. I eventually used a nice, sharp step bit on an electric drill to finish the work and even then, the wood smoked a little as I cut it.

The Morris has a much more balanced tone than the Washburn, which has a shorter fretboard and bigger body. This gives the Washburn has a distinctively ‘tubby’ tone, similar to (but not as complex as) the Gibson oval holes of 100 years ago (many of which are still in circulation). The Morris is much louder overall even though its body is smaller than the Washburn.

I’ll keep the Washburn as a ‘campfire’ mandolin, and I’ll still play my Loar LM-520 when I want that F-hole sound, but the Morris will be my gigging machine going forward. I love it.

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