Meet the Maker: Northfield Mandolins
There’s been a mandolin renaissance in recent years, both in terms of the quality of the new instruments available and also the wider range of music played on mandolins of all types. The “bluegrass, Irish, or old-time?” trio of styles that used to define a majority of mandolin music played in North America is now only where it starts, and new companies and ways of building the instruments have also expanded. A prime example of this new direction is Northfield Mandolins, and instruments by this relatively young company have played a big part in Gryphon’s expanding mandolin inventory and sales.
Northfield Mandolins is the brainchild of Adrian Bagale, a Michigan native who worked up to the position of Vintage Acoustic Instrument Specialist for Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI before moving to San Francisco in 2002.
We tried to hire Adrian to work at Gryphon but failed as he’d already done retail and wanted to try something new while still staying with the guitars and mandolins he knew so well. He was quickly hired by Saga in South San Francisco, the importer and distributor of a wide variety of stringed instrument brands including Kentucky mandolins. After years of importing Kentucky mandolins from Japan, Saga was then beginning to import mandolins made to their specifications in China. Adrian soon found himself Saga’s Global Liason, commuting to Japan, Korea, and China. Before long he and his family were living on the other side of the planet as Adrian was overseeing production of mandolins, banjos, and guitars for Saga. Being the highly personable guy that he always has been, Adrian soon had friends in all stages of instrument production in both Japan and China, plus a growing network of musicians and builders in the states who focused on the mandolin. Kosuke Kyomori, a Japanese builder working as a production manager in China, shared Adrian’s desire to change direction and focus on building small numbers of high-quality mandolins instead of constantly hustling to fill shipping containers with them.
Adrian and his family didn’t live in China for long, moving back to Marshall, Michigan in 2008. Northfield Mandolins soon began to take shape as a multi-national effort involving American, Chinese, and Japanese guys who all shared a love of fine woodworking and fine mandolins. As well as running the business end in Michigan, a lot of time and effort goes into sourcing wood.
While most Northfield mandolins are made in the coastal city of Qingdao, China, the maple and spruce used to build them all comes from North America.
The Sino-American-Japanese team that Adrian has assembled to design and build carved top & back mandolins is ironically headquartered in an 1870s-era brick building just a few miles from Kalamazoo, where Oroville Gibson started the whole American-style mandolin revolution over 110 years earlier. Tradition runs deep in this new company!
Of course Adrian and his 6-man team aspire to building mandolins compared to the early 1920s instruments built in Kalamazoo under Lloyd Loar’s direction, but they don’t stop there and continue to push mandolin design into new territory from a couple of angles. For instance the Northfield “Big Mon” looks like a standard F style, but some of the dimensions are just slightly larger and the sound is a bit different, with a more gutsy punch in the midrange.
Along with the standard twin tone-bar top bracing used on the original Lloyd Loar F-5s, Northfield also offers a 5-bar bracing variant which offers a wider range of harmonics and increased bass response. Other experiments include a varnish/lacquer hybrid finish which retains the tonal characteristics of varnish but with better resistance to wear.
Northfield seeks input from the best mandolin artists working today, and their artist roster reads like a who’s who of mandolin music. Mike Marshall has been actively involved in a long series of sound tests and recordings with the Northfield crew, and Adam Steffey has been onboard since the earliest stages of the Northfield saga. More innovation is on the way, including a model made from start to finish in Michigan. While the Big Mon F models sell for over $4,000, the Northfield S Series F models sell for much less. These S models offer the same quality woodworking and excellent tone but by only binding the edge of the Adirondack spruce top the number of hours in each instrument is significantly reduced (the back and neck are left unbound).
The result is an impressive F-5 style instrument for under $3,000 and an oval soundhole version will be landing at Gryphon soon. Mandolin music, and the instrument itself, have both changed in the last century and it’s clear that the Northfield crew will be bringing new models, and new ways of building them, to the growing mandolin family.