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Thread: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

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    Default Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Iíve just acquired a very nice, almost pristine 1921 A-4. it sounds exactly like you would expect a nice old Gibson A model to sound. The frets are in good condition, but theyíre the original tiny frets on the original flat bound fingerboard. The bridge is non-adjustable.

    Iíve been playing a Kimble two-point with a radiused neck and much larger and higher frets. So this Gibson feels a bit harder to play beyond the 7th fret or make four string chords such as a Bm.

    Would it be crazy to have a luthier to radius the neck, put in more modern sized frets and install a adjustable bridge? Or should I just leave her alone and let this nice old collectorsí piece remain intact. Iím torn What would you do?.
    Bruce Kaplan
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    I think it comes down to what you want out of it.

    Do you want a pristine historic piece ? Then leave it be!

    Do you want a nice sounding mando with easy playability? Take it to the luthier!

    Also, are you financially ready for investing the cash into changing the fretboard etc?

    Sounds like it could be a fun endeavor either way, but after just acquiring my first new octave mando from a builder compared to my 1914- Radiused fingerboard and nice frets definitely feel good! Granted an octave mandolin and a normal mandolin will be different in many aspects.

    Ryan

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Play it some more, it may take time to adjust to the new fretboard. If after a while you still can't deal with it, change it if you like the sound enough to keep it. I have an old Gibson with an 1 1/4" wide nut and flat fingerboard, I can go back and forth with no problem from my modern ff hole mandolin. I don't play the Gibson much these days, but when I do it still feel natural.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    If you bought it to add to your “collectibles” leave it alone. If you want it to be as playable as possible, get the work done. I bought a 1917 A-4. I could hear a voice I really liked, but those old, small frets were a pain. I took it to Bruce Weber for new frets, new tuners, new James tailpiece. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Your choice.

    FWIW, I've installed modern frets on dozens of old Gibsons. A large number of the ones that I've done were for a couple of well known professionals.

    On occasions where some of those instruments later came up for sale, no one complained, at least as far as I know.

    Radiusing a board on an old Gibson might be controversial to some people. I say it's still your choice.

    There are some buyers who frown on signed F-5's that have been re-fretted. But most of the professionals that I know of who own one have had modern frets installed.

    Installing a different bridge will affect the sound of the instrument. You might like it, or you might not. But as long as you keep the original bridge, it only takes about 15 minutes to re-install it.

    I have had good results installing wire with an .080" wide x .040" high crown on the old Gibsons.
    Last edited by rcc56; Sep-12-2022 at 2:16pm.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Fingerboards and frets are wear items, like strings. Well, frets anyway.

    Didn’t both Mike Marshall and John Reischman have radiused boards and large frets installed on their Loars?

    If you decide on a new fretboard and frets, you can keep the original so that a buyer could return it to original condition. Same goes for the bridge.

    I had large frets and a compensated bridge put on my beautiful old L&H.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Quote Originally Posted by pops1 View Post
    Play it some more, it may take time to adjust to the new fretboard. If after a while you still can't deal with it, change it if you like the sound enough to keep it.
    Wait and see is often a good strategy.

    The last A model I had was a eBay A-0 snakehead salvage special and probably in the worst condition of any instrument I've ever purchased. The headstock was cracked, the neck was pitted, and the nut seemed to made of petrified chewing gum. Oh yeah, it was also painted with what appeared to be automobile paint and the binding was yecchy..

    So after we glued the crack, replaced the nut, radiused the neck, and repaired the pits, we left it clearly in much better shape than when we found it. It played and sounded great, but it still looked like it was painted by a 12 year old. I kept it for 5 years, played it only occasionally and then when a friend admired it, I sold it to her. I might have lost $100 on the deal, but these projects do provide some entertainment value.

    In the case of the A-4, it's not clear I'd be leaving it in better shape than when I found it, though I suspect the choice of luthier will make a big difference.
    Bruce Kaplan
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Chris Thile also had his Loars' FBs changed, radiused, and modern frets installed. I buy instruments to play, not to collect (at least so far), so my vote is to get the work done to make it play the best for you, especially since you like the voice. Vote #2 would be to play it for a while and see how you adjust, but the board is still going to be flat and the frets tiny and mean, lol. I had a Flatiron 1N that had a flat board and string spacing I didn't like. I could adjust to it, but I just didn't like the feel of it, regardless of how exclusively I tried to play it to adjust to it. I had finally decided to have it radiused, new frets installed (the old ones had some wear), and a new nut/bridge installed when we decided to downsize, so it found a new home instead. I love those little mandolins, but I don't really miss that one. If I'd already had the work done and enjoyed the feel as much as I enjoyed its tone it probably would have survived the move, but I really don't miss it...
    Chuck

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Yes, the choice of the luthier is important.

    If the intonation is good on the instrument and you want a radiused fretboard, it can be done using the existing fretboard.
    Some of the 1921 A models have intonation problems, some do not.

    The reason that the fretboards were replaced on most of the Loars cited above was to correct poor intonation due to inaccurately located fret slots. Some, but not all of the Loars have this problem.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Quote Originally Posted by BruceKap View Post
    What would you do?.
    Iíd leave the 1921 alone and buy a 2022 A4 with modern playability features.
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    It all depends on how you see yourself. If you are a collector, or an investor, don't mess with it. If you are a player, well do what you gotta do.
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    To each his own. I prefer the old mandolins, and have had no qualms about putting modern frets in mine.

    I've always been comfortable with flat boards. I did have one mandolin with a radiused board, and to me, it didn't feel much different than a flat board. Others might feel a big difference.

    The way the market is operating now, re-fretting an A-4 will not have a significant effect on its market value as long as the work is well done. If you change the bridge, the original bridge should be kept with the mandolin.
    Last edited by rcc56; Sep-12-2022 at 5:07pm.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Changing the fretwire is NOT modernizing an instrument.

    Almost every Stradivarius violin on the planet has a non-original neck and the few that are somewhat intact have been modified for overstand and reach. THAT is modernizing and it has very little effect on the current pricing.

    For me, the real question is why has the mandolin world not adopted this approach and modified all of those century old Gibsons with a longer modern neck and an elevated fingerboard. I've played a couple of conversions like that and they were fantastic, very useful instruments. It is just an old production mandolin, not the Mona Lisa.

    I've never had someone ask me to build an oval holed A style mandolin who said, "One more thing....can you make the neck shorter like they did 100 years ago so I can only play half the tunes I like in half the keys I like and so it is a struggle to get into higher positions and then make the frets so small they look like they got jammed up in a belt sander and 95% of the wire was ground off????"

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Hi All, interested in your thoughts. Iím thinking about getting a Ď16 F4 refretted to a modern size frets like my Collings has. The F4 sounds so good Iím hesitant about messing with it. It plays fine but the Collings feels really good, too. Will refretting change the tone? Thanks in advance. Matt

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    It might possibly improve the sustaining qualities of the instrument a small amount, perhaps 5 to 10%. Any changes other than that will be negligible.
    The instrument will be easier to play, and that might improve your tone.

    I've re-fretted dozens of the old oval hole Gibsons, and have never had any complaints about a change in tone. Everyone liked the improvement in playability.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    My 1917 A4 has replacement tuners, bridge, and frets. I had it for 20 years until I wore some frets right down to flat. I was a little concerned that the sound might change but I can't detect it. Overall it was a great move. I play better and the instrument sounds like it always did.
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Quote Originally Posted by j. condino View Post
    For me, the real question is why has the mandolin world not adopted this approach and modified all of those century old Gibsons with a longer modern neck and an elevated fingerboard. I've played a couple of conversions like that and they were fantastic, very useful instruments. It is just an old production mandolin, not the Mona Lisa.
    Interesting! The one's you've played have been converted to both longer and elevated fingerboard??

    I wonder how much such a conversion would cost... I really love my f-2, but find the lack of higher fret access can be frustrating sometimes.

    Maybe it would be more cost effective to find a new f-5 model from some current builder rather than taking it to be totally redone??

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    I say update the fretboard and wire. If you can, save the old fingerboard in case you ever want to sell it as a historical piece. It's just money and there are actually lots of A oval gibson mandolins floating around out there.

    Jamie
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    In the few minutes I have free every day from mando practice I maintain and drive an old (1965) British car. The questions raised in this discussion are frequently the ones brought up in the 'classic car' hobby. For instance, if you have a 1957 Chevrolet BelAir convertible, do you really want to add a/c, power disc brakes and a modern Corvette engine with compatible transmission, suspension and differential? Well, maybe. But if you want the classic car experience of driving a '57 Chevy, keep it as original as possible, safety features notwithstanding (seat belts, radial tires, etc.) If you want to drive a car that will keep up with a Corvette, buy a Corvette!

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    To further the conversation on the car analogy, I rock a modern bluetooth stereo on my 1989 Miata. Just because I love driving a classic car doesn't mean I want to carry around a bunch of cassette tapes on long drives!

    Go ahead and radius the neck, throw on modern-sized frets, and add the adjustable bridge! If it were mine, I'd want that done on a new fingerboard–#the tip to save the original board and bridge in case you decide to bring it back to factory spec is sound.
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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    Removing and replacing a fingerboard always entails a certain amount of risk to an instrument, no matter how good the worker is.
    Unless there's a compelling reason to pull a fingerboard, I recommend avoiding it.

    I generally suggest choosing the least invasive method possible to get a job done when working on an instrument.
    The current fingerboard can be radiused without removing it.

    Or-- I have found that the playability of these instruments is greatly increased by simply installing a decent set of frets and leaving the fingerboard flat.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that replacing the board on an A-4 is going to increase the cost of the repair by several hundred dollars.
    For reference, in my shop, radiusing an existing board on an A-4 would add $150 to cost of refretting it, while replacing the board would add +/- $500.

    Bear in mind that A-4's have bound fingerboards with a scalloped extension. Inlays and side dots have to be installed, the edges of the fingerboard will have to be French polished and blended into the neck, and the nut replaced. That's a lot of labor in addition to simply removing an old board and gluing on a new one and fretting it.
    Last edited by rcc56; Sep-22-2022 at 1:39pm.

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    Default Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    I dunno… maybe I am one of the only weirdos out here who prefer the old short-neck, transverse brace, oval hole A style. My 23 snakehead A-2 is still in my posession and I always come back to from my other mandolins and am amazed at the sound and playability. If I want a more modern sound and truly need a longer neck the. Yes I go to the modern makers. OTOH I have played a few modern oval hole hybrids by respected makers and they just don’t do it for me. And I do like their A-5s. My Brentrup as built by Hans in the old style but will more modern voicing and it is one of my modern go-to mandolins.

    IMHO especially since the OPs A-4 is near pristine, I would leave it as-is and find a modern oval hole that has what he wants including larger frets and radiused fretboard. I believe that although the altered fretboard might not affect the market value after sinking a bunch of dollars into the alterations selling it might not recoup what he has in it.

    BTW I understand fully the argument that old top name violins are not original but that is what works in that market and regardless a re-necked, re-fretboarded mandolin might not sell for the same price as an wholly original one.
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    Question Re: Modernizing an A-4. Yes or No?

    My 1922 A4 paddle-head got a fingerboard leveling as part of a re-fret.. frets similar to the original..
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