Style 35 Harp Mandolin
So, can you pick this one out of the lineup? I talk about the subtle differences in these specimens on my Dyer Mandolin page over at Harpguitars.net. I had the opportunity to take this mug shot of three Style 35’s when this one came in on consignment. The others are my own, and Stephen Bennett’s, currently for sale here.
Normally, one would have to grade and discuss something like this totally on its own merits, but I have the rare opportunity to directly A/B/C compare and test drive it with others, so that’s how I’ll approach this.
Serial number: The original label is mostly missing, so, while we know it is a Style 35 from its features, we don’t know the serial number. I don’t know how important that is anyway, since we can’t precisely date these. Anywhere between 1910 and the late ‘teens would be a safe guess.
Specimen Quality: Theoretically identical to the others, other than small differences which are not quality-related. Stephen’s appears to have a better grade of mahogany, as it has a natural finish with the beautiful red grain showing on the back and sides. Mine and this one have a darker finish which somewhat hides the mahogany (the most common finish I have seen).
Condition: Extremely solid with just the one clean repaired crack on the front which . No other repairs that I can see. Finish is nice on the top (a couple dings and scuffs in finish), pretty decent on the sides, and has some noticeable wear spots on the back. Some wear and chips on headstock, and light scratches here and there. There is one tiny piece of abalone missing from binding. Overall, Stephen’s is cleaner, and priced accordingly. The top is depressed above the soundhole just as I find most of these (and most Dyer harp guitars as well). That and a neck issue make this – at the moment –not quite playable.
Playability: These otherwise perfect little instruments almost always need to have the action addressed, due to the aforementioned top deformation. Lowering the bridge is a quick fix (was that done already on this one? …possibly), but sometimes not adequate (nor the ideal solution). Mine had the neck reset (by Kerry Char) among several other repairs. Stephen’s plays and intonates OK as is, but could use a minor set-up to become an even better instrument. It’s pretty easy, as the neck uses a simple Knutsen-style butt joint.
This one appears to not only have the typical top buckle, but additional neck movement from string tension. Additionally, there is some twist in the neck and a fair amount in the headstock, from being anchored to the tip of the arm (a mixed blessing of an invention for sure). This is common to Dyers, and especially Knutsens, though usually much more subtle (and sometimes not at all). Normally, one can just set the fingerboard straight along its length and use the bridge and saddle to compensate for any bit of twist. There are various techniques to address this – we leave it up to the new owner to make the decision on how fancy to get with getting it working.
Action is thus high, and moving the bridge back to try to intonate at the 12th fret just moves it to a higher point on the curved body (Larson significantly arched their mandolin tops), so the action just goes higher while remaining out of tune. Definitely plan on doing some sort of neck reset before you beginning enjoying this little gem.
Tone: I re-strung it to judge the sound and, again, to compare to the others. I had begun to theorize that the quality of tone and volume of the Dyer mandolins must be directly related to the top movement – the deformation above the soundhole, the neck angle, and the subsequent low break across the bridge. A properly set-up or unchanged original instrument should sound better, right? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it seems pretty random. Mine has a near perfect restored alignment of all the geometric components, yet is still the weakest sounding of the bunch. Stephen’s is a notch above mine, and this one is a bit louder and warmer yet.
In the past, I’ve probably been too disparaging of the tone of these instruments – they’re actually very sweet, and “prettier” sounding than Knutsen’s, which are usually beefier (and really an unfair comparison). They’re certainly nicer than a bowlback mandolin, and they have decent volume and balance on the low strings unlike the cheaper bluegrass style mandos.
Bottom line: This is priced low enough that one should be able to spend the absolute max on a full blown restoration and set up and still come out ahead. You can then buy Stephen’s, offer me an outrageous price for mine, and begin cornering the Dyer Style 35 Harp Mandolin market!
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