12/14/2011

c.1930 Unmarked Portuguese Mandola Conversion





This started out as a probably '30s era short scale (17.5") Portuguese guitar, obviously hand-made. It was cracked up on top, needed some brace regluing, and some hairline repairs as well as a fret dress and setup. It was also missing 3 of its 12 tuners with a 4th damaged. So... 8 good tuners, 4 short length, 4 long -- and then it struck me, that the relatively narrow (for a Portuguese guitar) nut of 1 5/8" would allow for a fine mandola on its frame.

So, I did the necessary repairs, fret dress, and whatnot, then cut a new compensated bridge (I tried a bone one but went with rosewood because I like the sound better on this particular instrument) and shimmed and then recut the brass nut. I also arranged the tuners more favorably (spaced better) for the new 4-course, double-strung tuning.

I also installed tiny gold MOP dots in the face of the neck (in mandolin positions) for ease of use.


And the result? A beautiful-sounding, great-playing mandola with a definitely different vibe from a typical flattop or arched/carved-top American-style offering.

I'd always thought mandolas were wonderful accompaniment instruments due to the lowered tuning vs. a mandolin but while I love the sound of traditional heavy-strung, shorter-scale mandolas for playing counterpoint and tunes in different keys, they seem a little awkward for singing with.

This one, with its plain-strung D course, deep and lightly-built, resonant body and lighter string gauges coupled with longer scale (17.5" vs. the usual 15-16" or so scale), makes a wonderful almost bouzouki sound. It's great for crosspicking (or even fingerpicking) chords behind other players but also comes out very fiery and loud when used for melody play (as one would expect of a Portuguese instrument -- they're vibrant to say the least). This has a warm, sweet voice with incredibly good sustain.

The longer scale also means that the two common mandola tunings (CGDA or up a step, DAEB which is more common in Celtic circles) can use lighter-gauge strings for proper tension. I've currently got 32w, 22w, 13, 09 strings on it which are perfect for the DAEB tuning and slightly slack (but extremely quick) for the CGDA tuning. I think perhaps a medium or heavy set of regular mandolin strings (38w or 40w, 26w, 15 or 16, 10 or 11) would suit CGDA better if the objective is pure volume.


Brass nut and typical Portuguese-style tuners. To string these up I usually take loop-end strings and attach the loop at the tuner side, then pull the string to the tailpiece and bend it over the tailpiece nib. After that I take it to a stationary small rod (I put an awl in a vice) and then twist my wraps with the remaining length around the string on that. This lets me make sure the 2nd loop is in the right place because if the strings are too loose before you put them on it means that they won't tune up to pitch as the tuner will run out of room to tune it.


Compensated rosewood bridge. Note the two big cracks on the top -- they've been filled and cleated and are stable.



The top is some sort of softwood while the back and sides look SORT OF like mahogany but I almost think it's "cigar box cedar" which tended to be Spanish cedar (the stuff used for guitar necks in the 1800s quite often and of the mahogany family -- if I recall correctly). The back and sides are paper-thin and have hairline cracks in a number of places on the sides -- all glued up and stable (some by me, some from before) but the player will have to take care not to make more as the sides are so thin that they can easily be damaged.



Nicely crafted Spanish heel keeps this instrument sturdy.



Looks like capo marks on the neck?



One piece back looks dandy.



...and an original brass tailpiece as well!

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