Sunday, April 22, 2007

It all started with Irene’s mandolin. A few years ago Irene decided that Alan Bibey was the finest mandolin player in bluegrass, if not in the world. Her opinion is not hers alone; lots of knowledgeable people agree. A couple of years ago at a Bluegrass appearance in Lodi, NY, we asked Alan to recommend a better mandolin than the inexpensive Kentucky A model we had bought a year earlier. He noted that he is a Gibson endorser and then recommended the Gibson A9 as a reasonably priced and very good for the money. After much soul searching we ordered the mandolin from First Quality Music in Louisville. It arrived in a few days and heaven was restored to its rightful place. The mandolin sounded wonderful and played ever so much more easily than the Kentucky.

A few months ago, I noticed that Irene was haunting the Gibson web site. She asked me to print the specs for several F models. While A and F mandolins have similar size sound boxes and perform similarly, the F, with its curlicues and elaborate shapes is the Cinderella of mandolins, a beautiful creature that reaches way beyond its simple origins, looking and sounding like the belle of the ball. The signature mandolins produced by various makers are the beauty queens. The manufacturer has worked closely with the signatory performer to create an instrument that looks and sounds like the player would want it to if it were his own to play from the stage. For Irene, the Alan Bibey signature model slowly moved from being an object of admiration to one of desire. After a discussion with Alan about his mandolin (actually his own stage instrument, a 1923 Loar of such surpassing beauty and value that it deserves a story all its own) and decided to purchase one.

Alan e-mailed us from Nashville that he had played a number of mandolins at the Gibson OAI store there and had found a “killer” mandolin that he thought would suit Irene. It had a one piece back, a wonderful tone, and was easy to play. He liked it so much that he asked Gibson to build another one like it for himself. There were some setup problems he didn’t think were quite up to snuff, so he sent it back to the factory for adjustments and it would be along in a while. We agreed that we would pick it up at a Grasstowne performance sometime in the near future.

When Alan arrived at Down Home in Johnson City, TN for a concert he casually mentioned to Irene that he had a mandolin he thought she might like to see. Knowing he was busy preparing himself for his performance, Irene didn’t want to bother him about the mandolin. Deep into their second set, Alan pulled a brown beauty out of a case that had been sitting on the stage and announced that he was playing “Side by Side” on request. This song, about a long and successful marriage, is guaranteed to draw tears from Irene. When Alan announced that he was playing it for a member of the audience whose mandolin he was playing. Irene wept through the song and then dissolved in tears as Alan stepped off the stage to hand her her own new Bibey mandolin. Over the next few days it seldom left her side.

On Tuesday afternoon she took out her Bibey (it still doesn’t have a name of its own) and saw to her horror that the outside E string had slipped from its slot and was nestled next to its twin. While she was trying to re-tune it, the E string popped, and she refused to try to change the string herself, not understanding how the tail-piece worked. After some stress and a lost night of worried sleep we decided to look for a local music shop to make the change. It would have to be an authorized Gibson repair shop. It was then that I remembered that was located north of Atlanta. A trip to the park Lodge and a brief search on-line confirmed that the store was located only a few miles away from where we had been staying for nearly two weeks.

As it has changed so many other elements of our society, the Internet has had a huge effect on the sale of musical instruments., in business only four years, has become a major retailer of high quality musical instruments. I had wanted to visit there myself and saw such a trip as an opportunity to play a few Deering banjos, an instrument I thought I might like to consider for my next one. My first banjo was a Deering Goodtime, an inexpensive but very good beginner banjo, which I had replaced with a Sullivan Festival after a year. The Sullivan, considering its price, is an excellent banjo and I had generally been quite happy with it. Nevertheless, I was interested in a new instrument and Irene wanted me to have one since she had a new instrument of her own and she believes, at a deep and fundamental level, that fair is fair.

We decided to make our visit to an adventure, so we took a series of back roads to the location instead of following the excellent on-line directions the web site provided. After driving through the burgeoning sprawl of suburban Atlanta, we turned into one of those office parks which provide office and warehouse space for small and medium sized businesses everywhere, this one located in Marietta. On the window were logos for both and a unicycle business. Racks of instructional books and banjo tab filled the window. We walked in the door and were greeted by John Drummond, owner of the business. He assured us that Barry would be able to replace Irene’s string and check to see if there was a problem with the mandolin. Meanwhile, I looked around.

The office space felt cramped. The front room is filled with a wall full of unicycles and bookshelves filled with instructional DVDs. Behind this, another room is an instrument lover’s paradise. Banjos almost beyond imagination – bluegrass, old time, open back, tenor, and more. There were also some other instruments including a large bass fiddle, but I hardly noticed them. John offered us the five cent tour and we were conducted back to the warehouse, truly a treasure trove of instruments waiting to be sold. can stock more instruments than other stores because the largest part of their business is conducted on line. Nevertheless, the number of customers who drop into the store has been steadily increasing and Drummond is considering a new store more convenient to hiway travelers.

An elderly gentleman was playing an open back, so we sat in the front room and tried several models of Tennbrooks. I liked the Saratoga Star well enough, but the neck felt to thick and heavy for me. The 30th Anniversary, however, was the finest banjo I’d ever had my hands on. It had marvelous sustain, beautiful tone, precise fingering, and cost way to much to seriously consider….After a period of guilt and encouragement, we decided to go ahead and a new banjo rode home with us in the truck. Since buying it a few days ago, it has only become better and seems to make me a better player, or demand that I live up to the standard it set.

The folks at are extremely knowledgeable and helpful. During the several hours we spent in the store I never felt the least bit of pressure. In fact, Barry spent some time improving the set-up of my Sullivan. Despite its improved characteristics, it only made the Deering sound and feel better. can be found on line at The web site is easy to navigate and also offers precise directions for visiting the store. Their prices are more than competitive and the entire shopping process was a pleasure. is located at 1148 JVL Court, Suite 170 Marietta, GA 30006. Their phone number is 1-877-253-9948

Thanks to Lisa Burnet of for the picture of Irene with her mando. The pictures of John, Barry, and the 30th Anniversary Tenbrooks are from the website.