Oval Hole Mandolins: An Old Favorite Gets Updated and Improved
Carved top, oval hole mandolins date back to the 1890s, the era when the mandolin was the most popular instrument in America. Large companies like Martin, Washburn and Vega, and dozens of smaller builders, cranked out mandolins by the hundreds of thousands to meet the demand. For the most part, the mandolins they produced were in the bowl-back Neapolitan style. The bowl-back mandolin had a delicate tone that was well suited to the classical music and sentimental songs that were popular at the time but they were difficult to hold and they didn’t have much volume. In Kalamazoo, Michigan a young luthier named Orville Gibson had a brilliant idea that solved both problems. He reasoned that if a mandolin was tuned to the same pitches as a violin, why not make a mandolin with a carved top and back like a violin?
Orville’s original design featured a carved top with an oval shaped soundhole, a style that produced a sweet, mellow tone with lots of projection and a respectable amount of volume. In 1902, a group of Kalamazoo businessmen joined forces with Orville and formed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company to build and market his instruments. As popular as Gibson mandolins were in the first two decades of the 20th century, and they were very popular, by 1920 the mandolin’s place as the most popular fretted instrument in America was taken over by the four-string banjo, the ukulele and the guitar.
Gibson responded to the slower demand by creating the F-5. The F-5 took Orville’s original idea one step further and along with carving the top and back, they replaced the oval hole with f-holes that were closer in design to those found on violins. The F-5 also had a longer neck and a cantilevered fretboard. These changes combined to produce a crisper, more focused tone with exceptional volume. The new design took a while to catch on, but in the hands of Bill Monroe, and the bluegrass mandolinists that followed in his wake, the F-5 style became the dominant mandolin style in America and, like the bowl-back before it, it looked like the oval-hole style was on its way to extinction. (Confused about the difference between an F-Hole and and an F-Style mandolin? This explainer should clear up and confusion.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. A few years ago Collings and some other mandolin makers started building hybrid mandolins that combined features from the two styles. If you look at an older Gibson oval-hole mandolin from the side, compared to a Collings MT O, you’ll notice the space between the carved top (above the soundhole) and the fingerboard extension on the Collings. On the old Gibson, that portion of the carved top above the soundhole is very thick, and the fingerboard is glued to it.
As you can imagine on an instrument this small the cantilevered fingerboard on the Collings leaves a lot more of the carved top “active,” so it can vibrate. Another difference which you can’t see is that the top of the oval-soundhole Collings is X-braced, while the old Gibson has a single horizontal brace just below its soundhole. The thinner X-braced soundboard, with a larger vibrating surface, delivers a lot more volume and a bigger, more open tone. We still love those vintage Gibsons, but the new versions of the old style deliver the characteristic sweet tone but with volume to spare.
Another advantage to the f-hole mandolin has always been that by getting the oval soundhole out of the way, the bridge could be moved up and the neck extended, granting the player two more frets clear of the body. Leave it to Northfield, one of the most innovative of the new breed of mandolin companies, to eliminate this obstacle as well. The Northfield NF-F2S has an oval soundhole higher in the soundboard, tucked up almost under the 20th fret. The result is the same access to the upper frets that you’d enjoy with an f-hole model.
But what it you want a new mandolin made in the original Gibson style? You are in luck because Eastman has you covered. The Eastman oval-hole mandolins are made much like the original Gibsons (the fingerboard isn’t cantilevered above the soundboard) but they still offer the sweeter tone of the oval-hole style. Please don’t assume Gryphon has a prejudice against f-hole mandolins, we love both types and sell lots of f-hole versions, but new oval-hole mandolin models haven’t been available until the last few years. For the bluegrass player, the percussive “chop chord” that is a critical part of the mandolin’s back-up role in a band is best provided by an f-hole instrument. But for those who play Irish tunes or old-timey music on a mandolin, the more open, smoother tone of the oval-hole models is often considered to be easier on the ears.