Joshua’s Custom Built 5 String Electric Mandocello

Doesn't it look at home there among the rocks and dead grass?

Our new friend Josh came in a week ago to try out some of our fancy Strymon and Fromel pedals and ended up taking a few home. Before he left, we struck up a conversation centered upon this uniquely interesting instrument. Built in ’06, this handmade wonder came from a luthier skilled in making acoustic instruments. Joshua said he’s spoken to a bevy of other builders that refuse to do what he wants because his requests aren’t “traditional,” which is just sad if you ask me. Luckily, one man did it, and you see the result here.

Josh plays in Seattle band Gontarrah in which he creates washy layers of broad-range goodness atop powerful drum beats and where’s-that-coming-from vocals, sort of a post-rock/hardcore amalgam in the vein of Low or Mogwai. From loose compositions leap rhythmically driving blasts of almost mathematical formula, coalescing into psychedelic jams that end in electronic free fall. Beautiful. It’s as if Jefferson Airplane had a one night stand with the much younger This Will Destroy You, and the resulting love child was adopted and raised by life partners Slowdive and Boards of Canada. Hopefully these guys start playing more shows soon, because when they do I’m there! I’ve only just pulled up their music and I’m really enjoying it- nay, loving it!

In the course of our conversation, Josh mentioned that while he was in love with his custom-made instrument, we was less than thrilled with the intonation of its one-piece bridge. He tunes this instrument just like you would a mandolin, but with an added low C. Coupled with the huge variance in string gauges- .014, .022, .034w, .052w, .065w- and one can easily imagine why a non-adjustable bridge would be frustrating. I told Josh that I was sure we could remedy that problem.

Ick. This was made of super-light, chintzy-looking metal that seemed incredibly snappable. Snappable. S. Napp. Able.

After some internet searching, I found one page with 5 string Strat-style bridges. Just one. These bridges were of the string-through-body variety, which was a plus to both Josh and myself. More resonance = better tone. Luckily, the bridges were in stock and shipped the next day. Easy enough! The hard part, I’ll tell you, was the install.

Of course I was aware that string ferrules would need to be installed, and thus, holes for the strings would need to be drilled through the body. Easy enough. What I hadn’t anticipated was the builder’s routing the wiring directly beneath the bridge plate. When I drilled initally, I didn’t know exactly where the wires were going, but I thought, “Surely, they wouldn’t be there! That would be preposterous!” (My interior voice is British.)

Lo and behold, after I made my first few holes, I peered down through them to find three wires had narrowly escaped being severed by my drill bit. How serendipitous! How marginally annoying! It really wasn’t too difficult to unsolder them and pull them out into the large control cavity, but it was difficult to create a new, invisible rout through which I could re-route the wires.

Since there was plenty of slack, I decided to run them from one side to the other through the bridge pickup cavity. Since we only have large drills and inflexible bits at the shop, careful planning was crucial at this stage. I had to drill not one, but two holes horizontally through the body with the goal of having them meet each other. This was easier said than done, and I’ll gladly admit my fright at the prospect of drilling too far and poking the bit out the other end of the body.

I slapped a few pieces of painter’s tape on the body and drew guide lines that I could follow, and started drilling. In order for the drill to be at the right angle to the body, I had to also remove a chunk of wood beneath the upper control cavity. I wish I had photos of this but in my luthier’s preoccupation, I neglected to capture these precious moments for posterity’s sake. Shame on me.

That last step took a long time. Hesitation combined with methodical strokes and before I knew it three-quarters of an hour had passed. Finally, my two incursions met; I cannot fully describe my elation with the written word, but suffice it to say, I imagine that not even Ransom felt so relieved when he returned to Earth after his sojourn on Malacandra. Kudos if you’ve read that book. We can be friends.

After that, everything else seemed like a breeze. Even the drilling for the string ferrules went exceedingly well, and they came out looking pretty even as well. I have to say, I’m proud of my work. I do wish I could show you that as well, but as I mentioned, I’m a bonehead.

When I returned to work the next day, I set about stringing ‘er up. Once I had the strings tuned to pitch- CGADE- I fell in love. What a tone! Part of it’s the tuning, reaching from baritone lows to mandolin highs, but the other is the wiring. Joshua has some hot pickups in this bad boy, a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the neck and a Dimebucker in the bridge. True story: Joshua was given that bridge pickup by it’s name giver: the Darrell Abbot. Josh told me about him being a big influence and how great a guy he was, having known him a long time. One day he said, “Hey, you want one of these? I have tons of them!”

Aside from the pickups, the wiring is the other ingredient to this bird’s killer tone. Josh has a myriad of switching options at his fingertips, and also his elbow. The switch on the upper bout is for pickup selection, and on the lower bout there’s Volume controls for both pickups, treble roll-off (the smaller knob), and two series/parallel switches, and coil tap. With all of this wiring comes the ability to go from sweet-yet-sullen to crisp and beefy, and then on to seat-rumbling power chord distortion. I didn’t expect the palette to be so broad, but that’s the beauty of custom-built instruments.

When he came to pick it up, Joshua seemed pleased. I also felt that way, having spent time setting up the instrument with a more refined action and intonation. I’m sad to see this one go; as I play-tested it, I though of a host of ways in which to use this kind of instrument for my own devious musical designs!

SO pretty!

Here’s a link to Gontarrah’s music on Soundcloud. Give it a listen!

(Josh- if you read this and want to add anything- or clear up my wood chip addled mind- feel free! This includes photos of the back side and string ferrules! -Michael)


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