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Lloyd Loar

Lloyd Loar

By Michael Eck

Lloyd Loar. There are few words spoken with such reverence in the mandolin world; few names uttered in such hushed tones.

As a popular touring musician, Loar already had a long artistic association with The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company by the time he’d become an official contractor in 1919.

Among Loar’s titles at the Kalamazoo facility was that of acoustic engineer. His deep studies and extensive performance work gave Loar a singular insight into the functionality of musical tools, the hows and whys of soundmaking. His irrepressible curiosity and honed artistic vision (shared with today’s Weber team) resulted in exceptional instruments (fewer than 350 signed by the master’s hand!) that still inspire today.

At heart, what made Loar’s mandolins—like Stradivari’s violins—so special was a sui generis merger of art and science, simple and complex at the same time.

Company namesake Orville Gibson was already dead by the time Loar started making his mark in Michigan, but he based his efforts on the work of the founder, who had developed the modern flat back style matched with the clean, sweeping lines, quality wood and fine craftsmanship of those early days.

Loar, with his own eye out for Stradivari, added f-holes for a more focused, elemental sound. He lengthened the instrument’s neck, effectively placing the bridge closer to the soundboard’s center. He elevated the fingerboard. And he carefully tuned the spruce tops by hand, creating a replicable, signature sound, rich in fundamentals, but surrounded by a familiar overtone blend of the dark and the glistening.

What Loar did, through these and other thoughtful, well-researched improvements, was to create what we now consider the traditional mandolin. And he did, as noted, by joining art and science as snugly as Weber luthier Marty Lewis fits a dovetail neck joint.

Your Weber mandolin is being made today in the same time-honored fashion.

Certainly, elements of construction have been modernized, just as Loar would have encouraged. State of the art CNC machines rough parts under a watchful eye, before they move on to the hands of luthiers like Scott Wegner and Mike Fischer, who will ensure that each piece is given appropriate detail and respect as it takes its journey from raw material to finished mandolin.

One of the earliest and most important stops is at the deflection station.

This is where the real science of mandolin making happens, and this, perhaps more than anywhere else, is where the distinctive sound of your Weber mandolin is born.

Deflection, in this case, has nothing to with how you turn aside and wince when a noob calls your treasured mandolin a ukulele. Instead, it refers to how a particular piece of carved wood produces, reflects and bounces back sound.

Every player knows there is magic in the marriage of spruce and maple. But there is much more than that. Every piece of wood, like every picker, has its own identity. By balancing very specific elements of weight, stiffness, arc and bracing, Ryan Fish and the Weber team can make that billet on that shelf sing, and sing like a Weber every time.

“Stiffness of wood is very important in determining the sound quality and long-term stability of an instrument,” Fish says in his writings on the topic. “Wood from the same species or even the same tree may have different properties.”

The Weber deflection jig, which Fish designed at the workshop in Bend, Oregon, puts good wood science to use at more than one point in the process of building a mandolin. Initially, when the top is joined to the rim, the jig is used to apply pressure mimicking string tension at the specific point where the bridge will meet the body.

Every top is measured and recorded before being hand tuned by careful finger planing and precise sanding to meet exacting standards. This way, each individual top gains its remarkable aural fingerprint as a true Weber mandolin.

“Deflection tuning,” Fish writes, “gives us the optimal relationship between the strings’ load and the top’s resistance to the load.”

The instrument returns to the jig for a second measurement—each dialing in within thousands of an inch—immediately prior to its ultimate fine 400 grit sanding, the last step before it hits the finishing booth, where Dalton Bell, a scientist in his own right, not only brings forth all the beauty of Gallatins, Yellowstones and Ferns, but through his methods and applications, completes the final audio portrait of each as well.

Like Loar, Fish and the builders at Weber understand that what matters to the mandolinist is not science, but alchemy—that special blend of sound, playability and appearance that doesn’t just urge the player to pick up the instrument, but to find their soul within it.

But Fish and the others also know that in science lies the path to alchemy. Lloyd Loar understood the subtlety of that equation when he drove towards the unique sonic beauty of the F style mandolin; when he thought about it sits in the lap and falls in the hand. So does Weber.

When your pick hits the string, and makes the sound you want to hear, that is science speaking. You call it whatever you’d like. We’ll call it Weber.