The name Lloyd LaPlant is widely recognized among bluegrass musicians in Minnesota and increasingly beyond. Although he is an accomplished guitarist and plays with members of his family occasionally in a band, Lloyd is not recognized so much for his music as he is for his hand crafted instruments. The LaPlant name is inlaid in abalone and mother of pearl on some of the finest sounding guitars and mandolins to be found anywhere.
Lloyd LaPlant built his first guitar in 1959 for himself. He was a carpenter who played guitar in his spare time, and one day he went to Duluth to look for a guitar. When he saw the prices of the Martins and Gibsons, a friend told him that he could do just as good building one himself. He did, and eventually a hobby turned into a vocation. LaPlant started building F-style mandolins in 1979; he just completed number 141.
I am fortunate to be the owner of mandolin number 26, built in 1987. It was first played by a friend of mine, Dick Kimmel, an accomplished picker as well as renowned wildlife researcher. When Dick decided to sell the instrument, he offered me "first grabs" at it. I had been playing mandolin just over a year and was not really looking to upgrade from my Flatiron A-style at the time. However, once I held the LaPlant and picked a tune or two, I knew I had to have it. Sometimes the best things in life just fall into your hands; you have to be ready to catch them.
Lately, however, number 26 has not been out of its case nearly as much as it should be. With the demands of kids and home building, and our limited space, I have had numerous excuses to not play. When I have taken it out of the case lately, it has seemed awkward and difficult to play. I thought it was just me, but on closer examination I found that the strings were up to 1/4 inch off the fretboard, and the bridge was out of place. This required extreme pressure to fret the notes, which sounded out of tune.
Lloyd LaPlant lives as close as any decent instrument repair shop, and we wanted an excuse to meet him and find out more about my mandolin, so earlier this week The Hermit called him, and yesterday I took the day off work and we made the 100 mile drive to his house. It was a beautiful morning for a drive, sunny and clear. We passed indigo blue lakes and quiet bogs surrounded by cedars.
LaPlant greeted us warmly in his shop, where he was working shaping necks for the four guitars he is currently building. The shop, heated by a wood stove in the corner, is pleasantly cluttered with odds and ends of tools, instrument hardware, forms for shaping instruments, and old fiddles. LaPlant, in his seventies, has a youthful, easygoing appearance about him; he could pass for someone twenty years younger. He opened my mandolin case, looking at number 26 as if greeting a long lost child. After looking up and down the neck he said with a smile "Wow, this must be hard to play!" He decided to start by removing and sanding down the ebony bridge, then he would later make adjustments to the neck. As he worked we talked about many things; his experience building instruments, the sources of the wood he uses, the local bluegrass music scene, and family. Taking a break, he took us on a tour that included a look at his two vintage cars and numerous instruments he has collected over the years.
When he had completed all of the work that required shop tools, Lloyd invited us into the house to get the mandolin tuned up and play a few songs. When I started playing number 26, it felt like I was playing a whole new instrument; the tone was brilliant and clear, and my left hand had much less trouble fingering the notes on the fretboard. As I picked my way through a couple of fiddle tunes, Lloyd picked up a guitar and joined in. "It's nice to get the chance to sit down and play," he remarked. "I spend so much time making these things, and too little time playing them!" Although I felt like I could stand to practice a lot more, he complimented my playing. I think the instrument had a lot to do with it.
All too soon it was time to leave; but by the time we left we felt like we had a new old friend. He invited us to stop by anytime. I have an excuse to go back there; Lloyd had glued my pick guard back together, and the glue wasn't quite dry enough to take it. I rarely use the pick guard anyway, but it will be worth the 200 mile round trip to come back here and enjoy some picking and conversation with a true craftsman and a wonderful person.