It wasn’t too many years ago that archtop mandolins were divided into two groups: modern versions had two f-shape soundholes, like a violin, while old-fashioned mandolins had an oval soundhole. Gibson made so many of this second category in the ‘teens and early 1920s, during America’s mandolin craze, that it seemed there would always be enough to go around. But the difference in sound, especially the overall volume when playing chord backup, was dramatic and as a result even players who liked the sweeter tone of the older oval-hole models believed that when you needed to get loud, especially for bluegrass, you needed a mandolin with f-holes like on Bill Monroe’s F-5. As prices for old Gibson F-5s skyrocketed lots of independent mandolin builders began offering great alternatives, but builders like Steven Gilchrist, Lynn Dudenbostal, Michael Kemnitzer (Nugget brand) and others only offered f-hole models.*
But a funny thing happened to oval-hole mandolins on the way to oblivion, or at least being considered inadequate for contemporary styles of music. A few years ago Collings and some other mandolin makers started building new hybrids, mandolins that combined the two styles of construction.
If you look at an older Gibson oval-hole mandolin from the side, compared to the 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 with volume to spare.
Of course even the plainest Collings A model mandolin is still a fairly expensive instrument (prices for a MT O start at just under $3,000) but Eastman offers new versions that start at under $500.
The Eastmans 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 fairly recently. 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.
*Note: There’s potential confusion between the terms used to describe mandolins, as there are f-hole models and F-style models. The first term just applies to the shape of the twin soundholes, and while a violin’s soundholes look like the letter “f” the soundholes on a mandolin, as on an archtop guitar, almost look more like a lazy, less-curvy “S”. But a mandolin described as a “F style” is something else entirely, as it refers to the shape of the body, not the soundholes. Gibson almost singlehandedly originated and defined the American archtop mandolin, and its higher models with the iconic carved curl on the upper left side of the body, next to the neck, were called “F style” in the earliest Gibson catalog from 1902. (Gibson mandolins were either A style or F style, it’s earliest guitars were given the letter “L” or the letter “O”, and harp guitar models all started with the letter “U.” The number following the letter indicated the level of decoration, and the higher the number the higher the price.) Gibson’s F-style mandolins, like the F-2 and F-4, had been around for over twenty years, and all had oval soundholes, before the F-5 (which had f-soundholes) was introduced in 1922. This is the model Bill Monroe played, and both the look and the sound of Bill’s Gibson F-5 came to define the bluegrass mandolin.