• Northfield Celebrates July 9 Centennial with Special Batch of New Instruments

    Adrian Bagale and company nod to Lloyd Loar's innovative spirit.
    Northfield Celebrates July 9 Centennial with Special Batch of New Instruments

    July 9, 1923 is perhaps the most famous date in mandolin history. On that warm Kalamazoo afternoon, Gibson Acoustic Engineer Lloyd A. Loar would sign a batch of groundbreaking side-bound F5 instruments—designed to change the sound of and approach to the classical music mandolin repertoire—which are still being copied and sought after today.

    One of them, #73987, 22 years after it left the bench, found its way, second-hand, as legend would have it, via a Jacksonville, Florida barbershop, into Bill Monroe's grip, who used it to create and shape bluegrass music, over which it has held sway ever since.

    Inspired by Loar's legacy, and always looking to further the scope of the mandolin family, Adrian Bagale's Northfield Mandolins, based—thirty miles from Gibson's historic Parsons Street plant—in Marshall, Mich., will issue a bold new collection of instruments this month, in celebration of the centennial of Loar's, needless to say, auspicious date.

    About the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a member of the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. A member of Lost Radio Rounders and Good Things, Eck is a signature artist with Weber Mandolins and Bedell Guitars.

    "Everything we're doing here," Bagale said in an unedited promotional video, filmed in late spring "is really just an invitation to celebrate this 100th anniversary."

    The "July 9th Batch" expands Northfield's existing lineup with a mandola, a short scale teardrop octave and a far-reaching electric octave (all made in Marshall); and, stepping into a new field, a six-string archtop guitar (constructed at the company's Qingdao, China workshop) based on its popular guitar-bodied octave.

    Bagale, a Rochester, N.Y. native and Pat Metheny aficionado, who found his way into music through jazz guitar, launched Northfield 16 years ago. While basing its foundation on many of Loar's concepts, the small company has quickly gained a following, particularly among artists like Mike Marshall, Adam Steffey and Joe K. Walsh, for its fearless experimentation within the form—an adventuresome spirit that has led to innovations like the five bar bracing on Artist Models, the larger-chambered Big Mon and, of course, the afore-mentioned game-changing archtop and flattop octave mandolins, which Bagale, always effervescent when speaking about Northfield's output, considers a meeting point for guitarists and mandolinists.

    Bagale's eagerness for the sacred day to come is palpable.

    "I have always loved the idea of batches of anything artisanal," he said, via email from a June vacation in Malta, near his wife's family, and where his daughter, a performing jazz vocalist and clawhammer banjoist, will study. "Everything from pastry to garments to instruments. It's a combination of art and ingenuity; expression and commerce; uniqueness and availability. The idea of setting up to assemble multiples of things inspires a whole set of problem-solving techniques that aren't present when you're just trying to get one example done. There's a lot of planning and improvising throughout, and there's magic in that."

    "We're begging for new music and new creativity," he exclaimed in the video.

    A few days after the email, he spoke on the phone from the Mediterranean, homing in even tighter on Loar's legacy, not only with Gibson, but with his later electric venture, Vivi-Tone.

    The EleOcto Electric Octave Mandolin

    The EleOcto, which even features art nouveau lettering on the rear control panel, a la Vivi-Tone, is, he said, "a big-time nod to Loar."

    Northfield EleOcto

    With a 22" scale on a chambered solid Les Paul Jr.-like maple body, the EleOcto which weighs in at less than six pounds, might be the most adventurous voice of the new crop. The instrument, featuring a spruce top, will be available in two electronics configurations, both anchored by custom bridges and classic stacked humbucker Fender Jazz Bass-style pickups set at steep angles, which, Bagale notes, conveniently have eight polepieces.

    A straight electric axe, "If you want to rock out," features an aluminum bridge and only the Jazz Bass unit, while the other, with a considerably smaller pickguard, boasts a piezo—driven by a Fishman Powerchip and embedded in the resonant chambered body closer to the neck—and a third knob to blend the signals. In another video, the CEO stressed, "The mandolin doesn't have to be stuck inside of one form forever... we are obsessed with the possibilities."

    Like its acoustic Northfield peers, Bagale—who got his first taste of Loar's craft while working retail at Lansing, Mich.'s Elderly Instruments—expects this to find a home not only with existing mandolinists but also with singer/songwriters and ensemble players searching for new sounds.

    "We call them gateway instruments."

    Sonic adventurers Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, and Mary Meyer he said, have already been experimenting with prototypes, and Walsh has recorded instrumental videos in Marshall with fellow mandolinist/fiddler John Mailander, as have Jake Howard, Grant Flick and Elden Kelley.

    The Quickstep Mandola

    The mandola, which Bagale does not envision being shipped in large numbers, harks back to the early 20th century Gibson H series, which predates Loar's brief term with the company. Originally known as the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd., the Kalamazoo factory serviced—with Orville Gibson's carved top, oval hole designs versus the then-common bowl back—the popular mandolin orchestras of the day, which quickly faded from style with the advent of the guitar's rise.

    Northfield Mandola

    Northfield's mandola, oft requested by players, features a similarly sized body chamber as Bagale's own "longnose" 1928 H-1, but with the more comfortable, less bulky neck joint and scooped, elevated fretboard favored by modern players. It also replaces Mr. Gibson's oval hole with Loar-like f-holes, which offer a more focused sound.

    "It's for our mandolin community," Bagale said on the phone. "It really shines. It's a neat thing; beautifully resonant. We wanted to do it for the people who've been asking for it for so long."

    Made in Marshall, the teardrop mandola, like a number of selections in the July 9th Batch, features a West Virginia red spruce top over Michigan red maple back and sides, with a striped ebony fretboard, compound radius, pearl dots, larger frets, Gotoh Tuners and a Gilchrist-designed tailpiece. It will be available in dark amber and shaded burst finishes.

    The WaveLength Octave Mandolin

    The short-scale acoustic WaveLength octave, also mounted on a teardrop frame with an ebony bridge and made in Marshall with similar wood choices, lops three inches off the neck of Northfield's ubiquitous guitar-bodied OMs. Bagale feels the 19" scale is more immediately attractive to mandolinists in the same way the company's GBOMs pulled guitarists into the fold.

    WaveLength octave

    "Your left hand can play through fiddle tunes a lot more easily," he said in a video, calling it "a mandolinist's octave mandolin."

    "It's really quite different from any of the other octave mandolins in our lineup," he added on the phone.

    Bagale himself assayed fiddle tunes on the video, showing off the instrument's easy adaptation by nimble fingers. Mandolinists who have explored different octave scales will immediately understand the difference.

    "It's an easy jump from mandolin playing. If you're sacrificing technique, you're sacrificing tone."

    After this article was written but shortly before being published, Northfield, in the spirit of continuous development let us know they were still in the process of making decisions about the octave model. They've opted to wait on posting video and audio until that is resolved. Keep an eye on their website as they roll out more details of this new model.

    The Rival Archtop Acoustic Guitar

    As noted, the July 9th Batch's guitar is the outside addition to the Northfield line, featuring six single strings as opposed to eight paired ones.

    Northfield Guitar

    Northfield Guitar

    In some ways it's a natural fit, as Bagale said most of his team, like him, came to the mandolin family from the guitar world.

    But, made in Qingdao in both acoustic and electric variations, this archtop, finished and set up in Marshall, is not your standard wide-body jazz guitar. Bagale and his crew, including Chief Acoustic Designer Kosuke Kyomori, have returned once again, as they did for the company's GBOMs, to Martin's rare C-style archtop instruments of the ‘30s as a launching pad.

    These, too, like the GBOMs, feature a roughly 14-inch body with Northfield's OM style pickguard—available in amber and shaded burst with flat red maple backs and carved Italian spruce tops. Nugget-style cast brass tailpieces have been re-tooled to accept ball end strings and tuners on the six-string are by Schertler. Fretboards are flush and attach directly to the body, and join at the 15th fret, like a mandolin. Electrified models feature a slim humbucking pickup created to work within the limited space.

    Most curious, though, is a very short 24" scale length, which hews to Bagale's demand for ergonomics in instrument design.

    "This is a seriously comfortable instrument to play," he said. "It's friendlier on the left hand."

    The acoustic sound is not conquering, like a Super 400: "Think L-5 meets Selmer-Maccaferri," Bagale said in a video.

    "Think about that punchy range, as either rhythm or lead. You get the resonant complexity and desired tonal character of an archtop guitar without some of the cumbersome aspects of those larger ‘boxes.' It just sounds, feels and looks right to us."

    The Northfield July 9th Batch is in the build now and will be available for preorder direct via the Northfield website, with some items rolling out to select dealers in 2024.

    Northfield will also be in attendance with selections from the July 9th Batch at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, July 12–16, in Oak Hill, N.Y; and Fretboard Journal 's Fretboard Summit 2023, Aug. 24-26, at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.

    NOTE: please refer to the Northfield website for pricing which is listed at each of the links below.

    Additional Information

    Comments 10 Comments
    1. musicofanatic's Avatar
      musicofanatic -
      Congratulations on the new additions to your line! The only thing that would bother me is how the Jazz Bass pickup looks on the electric octave...it would have been much hipper to have sourced a small, four-pole pickup (Duncan has one in their Antiquity line) that would have a far more proprietary look, rather than the clunky "borrowed" look of the bass pickup. Additionally, I think many will balk at the bar bridge and its lack of adjustment for string length. Most electric players prefer some fiddly bits to fiddle with
    1. Mike Marshall's Avatar
      Mike Marshall -
      Quote Originally Posted by musicofanatic View Post
      Congratulations on the new additions to your line! The only thing that would bother me is how the Jazz Bass pickup looks on the electric octave...it would have been much hipper to have sourced a small, four-pole pickup (Duncan has one in their Antiquity line) that would have a far more proprietary look, rather than the clunky "borrowed" look of the bass pickup. Additionally, I think many will balk at the bar bridge and its lack of adjustment for string length. Most electric players prefer some fiddly bits to fiddle with
      I love how you guys are shining a bright new light on our mandolin world.
      Your openness and creativity are a welcome sea change. Building on our wonderful tradition while pushing at the boundaries.
      Can't wait to get my hands on some of these things. Keep it up guys!
    1. Steven_bxl's Avatar
      Steven_bxl -
      Glad Northfield is experimenting with new models. Would love to try them out.

      Will they also be available in Europe? For the archtop octave mandolin there was a delay of a few years
    1. urobouros's Avatar
      urobouros -
      I dig the octaves! I can't wait to try one!!
    1. tmsweeney's Avatar
      tmsweeney -
      was at Grey (mud) Fox yesterday and got to try them, surprisingly the oval hole 19 inch octave was the most impressive, it just had unbelievable punch, I actually preferred it to the F hole 19 inch which had a more traditional octave sound. The mandola has great tone and played like butter, I guess I was asking for Northfield mandola last year and boy did they deliver. The electric octave is a dream and I almost bought one ( but I already have an Eastwood so). A really great effort by Northfield here, as they venture into new territory.
    1. rnjl's Avatar
      rnjl -
      Yes, agree with above comment. I was at Grey Fox too, just Thursday (wow some rain but what a rainbow!) and played the mandola for a few minutes and one of the short-scale octaves for just a minute or so.

      I loved the mandola, sounded great. The short-scale octave came in both oval and F hole versions, I don't remember which I played, but yes, it seemed easier than a 21 inch octave.

      But did I mention the mandola? Sounded really rich and loud, was easy to play, alas out of my price range for a few years yet, so I asked them to make a mandola Calhoun and got a reply along the lines of "hey give us some time it took us a couple of years to bring these new lines to the table." But Adrian (sp?) did say I wasn't the only one who asked for an affordable Calhoun mandola.
    1. tmsweeney's Avatar
      tmsweeney -
      Yes that was the first time I saw lighting underneath a double rainbow. I thought the mandola was reasonable priced at 3500? I thought it was a fairly high end instrument. The Electric octave at 2200 was also a decent price. I think the short scale octaves were around 2K or just under. So I thought the pricing was decent, I understand if folks need something a little lower range.
    1. rnjl's Avatar
      rnjl -
      Hi again. I didn't at all mean to imply that the new Northfield instruments were not fairly priced. I just got a new custom Ratliff so my budget is busted for a while. I think Northfields are great value and have good attention to details and I'd own several if I had time, space and $. I meant only praise for what they are doing.
    1. Baboon's Avatar
      Baboon -
      I was at Grey Fox and really wanted to try them, but I never did find the Northfield booth. The folks at the Info Booth didn't know either. Where was it?
    1. tmsweeney's Avatar
      tmsweeney -
      Quote Originally Posted by Baboon View Post
      I was at Grey Fox and really wanted to try them, but I never did find the Northfield booth. The folks at the Info Booth didn't know either. Where was it?
      on the main vendor drag - if you are walking to wards the main stage on the right - maybe a 3rd of the way down from the corner, wasn't a very big tent with only a small area to display and sample, they may have been closed or moved on by the time you got there.