Friday, November 11, 2005

a mandolin meets its maker

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.

13 comments:

Terry said...

An instrument like that has so much more meaning than something that just rolled off a production line.

Do you have any photos of it?

Jim said...

Deb-

There is an experience to cherish alright, not only the owning and playing of a fine locally made mandolin, but actually going to meet & play music with the artist who built it.

Like the way community used to be and I became more interested with every word of your account, like I was reading a chapter in a good book.

When you get the mandolin back in your hands do you think you could post a picture of it?

I have a friend, Craig Thomas, of the Stagerobbers who also make beautiful mandolins, the brand is Arlen Mandolins, named after his daughter.

http://www.stagerobbers.com/arlenmandolin.htm.

Craig is the brother of my very dear friend Brad, a botanist and guitar picker extraordinaire, you may have seen the photo of them jamming on the deck at Earth Home Garden.

Every couple of years we host a bar-b-que pot-luck & beer-fest with a live band, inviting everyone in the neighborhood.

Usually about 100 people show up and it's always a blast, but that's also why we only do it every couple of years, it takes a while to recover!

;~)

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Deb-- What a fantastic adventure and a great story. I love the sense of reunion when Lloyd picked up the mandolin. What a moment. If you could post a picture of that mandolin, I'd love to see it. A true work of art, and a labor of love. You are lucky to have such a fine instrument.

Have you ever heard the music of the Santa Cruz band "City Folk"? They did some fine picking and harmonizing, and had a good mandolin player (Kimball Hurd) when they were together.

Floridacracker said...

I'm not very musical, but loved the description of the wood shop it's craftsman. Thank you.

madcapmum said...

Do you have that digital camera yet? I'd love to see a picture of your mandolin. What a delight to have its "daddy" so close!

Deb said...

*click here to donate to Deb's digital camera fund* ;)

I'm afraid the money I had earmarked for a digital camera this payday went for other, more frivolous things...like keeping the house warm this winter. Maybe next time! I would love to post a picture of the mandolin some day, so you all can see what a work of art it is.

Jim, it sounds like you have some interesting friends. Let me know the next time you have a party! ;)

Eleutheros said...

A picture of the mandolin? Perhaps. Rather, says I, post us an audio file of Deb's Greatest Hits.

Deb said...

Eleutheros- I do, in fact, have one audio file posted, if the dharma bum still has it on his server. I'm not playing mandolin on it; it's a practice recording with a friend on mandolin and me on guitar and vocals. Here's a link: Early

Madcapmum has had some wonderful results with AudioBlogger, so maybe I'll go that route someday with the mandolin.

Deb said...

A great postscript to this post: When I was at the mandolin workshop with Mike Compton and David Long last Sunday, there were at least three LaPlant mandolins there. Mike was interested in them, and he asked to play mine. Right away he commented "This one's been played a lot more than the others!" I don't know exactly how he could tell, but I think it has something to do with the tone as the wood ages. Anyway, I am proud and delighted that the likes of Mike Compton has now played Number 26.

Jim Gallaher said...

I love to read stories about Lloyd and his mandolins. I own #11, built in 1983, but I live in Virginia and haven't had the opportunity to visit Grand Rapids. Your account makes Lloyd more human for me.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is blessed with one of Lloyd's guitars. It is a 000 size and she has had it for 3 years. We were at a bluegrass festival and she was walking through the crowd with it slung over her back, and we heard Hey, I know that guitar. It was Lloyd. We have since been to his home several times and a nicer person you will never meet.My older daughter plays mandolin and I would love for her to be able to own a LaPlant someday.

Hookman Brown said...

I just found LaPlant guitar # 26 in a thrift shop yesterday,November 3rd,2009.
My name is Hookman Brown.I live in Houston, Texas.
The guitar has a paper tag glued inside the body that is printed with the name Lloyd G. LaPlant.And in handwriting is the date 1969 and the #26.It is beautiful and very well-crafted.
Amazing are the coincidences of life.

Hookman Brown said...

My email is hookmanbrown@yahoo.com
Please email me if you can find out any info about guitar #26.
Thanx,
HB