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Mando Bizzaro

Joe Cleary's new musical invention has strings attached


Published August 17, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

In his light, airy, second-floor workshop on Cherry Street in Burlington, Joe Campanella Cleary lays three instruments on a workbench. A tall, lean guy with dark, delicate features, he handles the instruments carefully with long fingers.

The first is his violin, an instrument he made himself and plays when performing bluegrass with the Cleary Brothers Band. The third is the mandolin he plays with the same band -- familiar, dark-bodied and flat-backed, with white ivory-esque piping around the edges, just like the one played by Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass.

The instrument-in-progress in the middle is in every sense somewhere between the other two. It's a mandolin, surely -- there's the rather pineapple-shaped headstock with holes for eight tuners, the familiar fingerboard, with its frets ascending from small to tiny, and that familiar spit-curl decoration on the upper edge.

Then why does it look so much like a violin? For one thing, it has the color of a violin, that lovely tawny red-brown. The typical bluegrass mandolin, stained the color of well-chewed tobacco juice, seems artificial next to it. For another, that decorative twist on the upper bout -- the raised shoulder, so to speak, of the instrument -- is much more explicit and richly curved. It looks like . . . the scroll at the head of a violin.

That ivoroid binding is gone, too. The edges look just like the edges of a violin, with their slight overhang. The back of the instrument's neck has been left unvarnished, as on a violin, to cut down on friction and help the left hand move up and down more quickly. And finally, also like a violin, it has had minimal sanding: Cleary has left the faint ripple showing the gouge and scraper marks, the signs of the artisan at work.

This unique creation is a variant produced by a man who has played fiddle as much as mandolin, and has studied with both violin and mandolin makers. The interpretation is sufficiently unusual that it earned Cleary a Creation Project Grant from the Vermont Arts Council, and the curiosity of many mandolin players.

The instrument represents a resolute step toward individual, high-quality hand-craftsmanship at a time when mandolins are still expected, by and large, to be clones of the Gibson F-5 played by Monroe, and when mass-produced violins are imported from China in the thousands.

This puts Cleary at an interesting point in the history of stringed instrument making in America. About 20 years ago, individual custom-guitar makers began challenging the big factories, at first making copies of Martins and Gibsons, then developing their own looks and sounds. The violin world, by contrast, is still firmly entrenched in the 18th century. The mando world is somewhere in between.

Around 2000, when Pete Langdell of Rigel Mandolins, now based in Cambridge, Vermont, began playing around with shapes and colors, he attracted some fans but also a lot of derision. Five years later, things are beginning to change, and a clientele open-minded enough to consider Rigel's bumblebee design might also be open to Cleary's mando-violin experiments.

Jamie Masefield certainly is. The head of Vermont's innovative Jazz Mandolin Project is performing a special acoustic concert on Cleary's new instrument this Thursday at Burlington's Firehouse Gallery.

Joe Cleary shares a shop with veteran violin maker John Moroz. Both men work surrounded by shelves of wood, racks of tools, and benches full of familiar rococo shapes in progress. A cello hangs on one wall. Quiet-spoken and bearded, Moroz looks completely at home bent over a violin, a tiny finger-plane in hand, his glasses pushed up on his forehead. Cleary treats him with respect, often beginning sentences with "John taught me how to . . ."

The two of them try to explain why it makes sense to build a mandolin like a violin, starting with that ivoroid binding. Here's the thing. The basic soundbox of mandolins, violins and guitars consists of a top, back and sides, the last called "ribs" in the violin trade. Each is pretty thin, more or less a tenth of an inch, and so the builder has a problem: How to join them to each other? Simply running a thread of glue around the edges doesn't provide enough strength or stability.

Like most guitars, most mandolins have relied on a strip of ivoroid -- that is, plastic -- roughly a quarter-inch wide, run around the rim of the soundbox and glued to the top and the sides, and another glued to the back and sides. The binding increases the gluing surface, and everyone is more or less happy.

Violin makers approach the problem differently. They make the top and back with a slight overhang, about 3 millimeters, and glue the ribs to that overhang. As a result, the profile of the two instruments is quite different. The mandolin is squared off, but the violin looks like a closed hardback book, the top and back protruding slightly.

Cleary and Moroz see three problems with the ivoroid binding tradition. One is aesthetic: You choose the best woods on the planet for the rest of the instrument and then bind it together with plastic

second is acoustic: Plastic doesn't conduct sound in the same manner as wood. Why would the builder go to such lengths to create a highly responsive acoustic wooden transducer, only to deaden it with plastic? It's like wrapping the thing in duct tape.

"I know wood sounds better than plastic," Cleary says. "I may not be able to tell you how this little bit of wood overhanging the edge is going to affect the sound, but we know it does."

The third issue has to do with repair. Every instrument needs fixing sooner or later, and one with plastic binding is a lot harder to take apart without a certain amount of damage -- and is much harder to put back together, as the edges must all match up perfectly again. The violin repairer has that 2- to 3-millimeter overhang to play with, so a half-millimeter drift won't show. This means that the violin maker can afford to open the instrument up and effect a much better repair. Trying to fix an instrument from the outside, Moroz says, leads to a lot of bad fixes.

Cleary holds up the grant instrument for inspection, pointing to the ribs bent around the mold that gives them their shape.

"If I'm a bit behind where I might like to be," he says, "it's because I spent quite a bit of time making varnish back in June and early July." Cleary sounds like he's slightly ashamed of the fact. Certainly, he could have just driven the mando to Cambridge and had Langdell spray it for him, or he could have used some of Moroz's varnish, but no. This is another sign of Cleary's determination to go "above and beyond" in his pursuit of the violin tradition.

After tunneling through the history of craftsmanship, Cleary hopes he has made an instrument with a special tone. Many bluegrass mandolin players, picking virtuoso high-speed runs, are looking for volume and cutting power. This in turn requires a quick response: The note is created and rises to its full delivery rapidly, decaying just as quickly and thereby not muddying the notes before or after. Cleary wants a little more, so "you don't have to hit the instrument as hard to get a good tone out of it."

Now he's starting to make his instruments two at a time -- one violin and one mandolin -- to ensure an even aesthetic, a parallel methodology. One Massachusetts musician, who saw Cleary's work at a bluegrass show, has commissioned him to make a violin-and-mando pair in matching woods.

The customer, Mike Forney, was skeptical of the mandolin at first. "I thought it was kind of funny-looking," he says. But he was taken by the fiddle, which he says had "a marvelous, unique sound -- it sounded like a person singing." When Forney tried the mandolin, he found that, even compared to a more expensive, $6000 Gibson, Cleary's was "louder, sweeter, with more sustain." More, in fact, like a violin.

Vermont writer Tim Brookes recently authored Guitar: An American Life (Groove/Atlantic).