Tag Archives: Mandolin Bridges

Red Henry

Folks, I recently participated in couple of picking sessions that showed something about what to do--and what not to do-- in a jam. Let's call them Jam Session #1 and Jam Session #2.

Jam Session #1 was the good old Thursday evening session at Linda's Mercantile fruit stand, run by David and Linda Lay on U.S. 522 a mile or so north of Winchester. Everybody's welcome, so we always have a mix of talent. There are folks who've only been playing a little while, and folks who've been playing all their (long) lives. There are folks who know just a few tunes, and folks who know lots. So when I go pick at Linda's, I know that I'll be fitting in with a dozen or fifteen other pickers of widely varying experience and musical skill.

Usually during the evening at Linda's, I'll sing two or three songs as well as backing up and taking breaks on everybody else's numbers. What's important when playing at Linda's? At least a few things, such as:

(a.) When it's your turn to sing, pick out a song that LOTS OF PEOPLE KNOW. They'll be playing along in back of you, so make sure that you sing a song they know and can play along with. And DON'T PLAY TOO FAST. Then everybody can play along together, and the music sounds good. And the pickers (as well as the audience) like it.

(b.) When you are playing lead or backup on someone else's song or tune, always remember the K.I.S.S. principle of bluegrass music: Keep It Simple, Stupid! When play your break on a number with a wide variety of pickers, that is not the time to show how hot a player you are and how many notes you can pick. It is the time to play AS PLAINLY AND CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE so that everybody can hear what you are doing and play along. That's the way to keep the picking session sounding good.

Now, let's consider Jam Session #2. This session happened to include just three people, at an old-time music gathering where the rest of the folks were taking a supper break. The instruments present were a fiddle played by a good player, a guitar played by a non-guitar specialist, and a mandolin played by me. So, as one of just two lead players it was my turn to pick out every other tune. I selected interesting but well-known numbers that sounded good even in such a small group, and were easy for the guitar player to back up even though guitar wasn't his best instrument.

BUT... when the fiddle player picked out tunes to play, they were not like that. They were some of the fiddler's favorite rare, obscure, "unsquare" tunes, which neither I nor the guitarist knew or could play well. By the time we'd gone through each tune several times I had learned the basics of it, but the effect of a learning mandolin player and a hesitant guitar player meant that the tunes sounded a lot weaker, and to me (at least) were much less satisfying to play, than the tunes I had picked out specifically to avoid that situation and help us all sound good. I thought that the fiddle player lacked good manners.

So whatever session you're in, YOU use good manners. Pick tunes that the other musicians can play, and play them in such a way as to make it easy for the others to play along. Sometimes in advanced sessions, this means that you can play about anything you want any way you want to, even without announcing the name of the tune. But in other sessions, it means that you have to pay attention to the other musicians and help make everybody sound good. Think about it.


Red Henry

Folks, what's the easiest and most enjoyable kind of practice? Naturally, it's the kind that doesn't seem like practice at all: PLAYING music. So I got a lot of easy practice last weekend.

Friday night, there was Old-Time picking at the Cabin. That's the "Cabin" with a capital C, the one where the Old-Time pickers play. And how do you get there? Well, it's way out in the woods on little crooked roads. In fact, in order to find it, you need to already know how to get there. (That sounds like circular reasoning, doesn't it? Well, we do play around with the tunes. Stop it, Red.)

The Old-Time pickers (call them OTP's for short) generally like to play a lot in one key before changing. When we started Friday night, we were in the key of A-- all three of us. In fact, I wondered if I'd come there on the wrong night. But people kept drifting in and in an hour or so, we had ten players-- all pretty good players, too-- three or four each of fiddle and banjo, plus guitar, bass, and two mandolins: a good mix. And what did we play in the key of A? Good stuff-- not only the familiar tunes, but also some oldie goodies like Old Mother Flanagan, Pretty Little Dog, and June Apple. After a couple of hours, we got into the key of D and played some there too-- more good stuff.

On Saturday the music was a hair more serious because I was playing a party gig, with a three-piece band including my friends Scott and Cousin David. We played a mix of bluegrass songs and old-time tunes for a delightful outdoor event in Clarke County, Virginia. Scott played guitar and sang, and David switched off from banjo to lead guitar, while I picked a little mandolin. Everybody had a good time.

Cousin David is a very versatile musician. Between sets, he was playing some new-age music on his old-age guitar. A mischievous band member said, "Play 'Wipeout'! and he did. Then the same person said, "Now play 'Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud!'", but David wouldn't play that. Spoilsport.

Sunday afternoon's music was back in the traditional groove, playing with the OTP's at a country church in West Virginia. There were  eight of us there, again a well-matched ensemble, with three fiddles, three banjos, bass, guitar, and mandolin. We played in the key of D: Cowboy's Dream. Yellow Rose of Texas (not the one you know). Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine. Mississippi Sawyer. Hard Times Come Again No More. More good stuff.

When the Sunday music was finished, it was time to go home and collapse for a while. As one of the OTP's said as we packed up, "Now I've got to go to work this week to rest up for the weekend!"  But you know what? I was in practice.

It was easy.


Red Henry

809 bridges. That's right, 809 of them. That's how many mandolin bridges (mostly maple) I have made since I started making them in the summer of 2002.

About 130 of the bridges were experimental models made while I was developing the idea and the design. Here are some of the bridges I made while I experimented with designs and woods:

--as you can see, I tried lots of things. Altogether, I tried about 25 mandolin bridge designs and over 30 different woods. In the end, though, maple proved to be the best-sounding wood, and I settled on just two designs for my production bridges, the 11-hole design and the winged design shown above.

All these experiments showed that maple usually provides the best combination of tone, volume and sustain for a mandolin bridge, and I eventually began selling the bridges. Over 750 bridges have been made for sale and shipped them out to customers, and most of those bridges are now installed on someone's mandolin. I have several site-pages devoted to the bridges, including my "hard-sell" page.

So, what conclusions can I draw from selling bridges for eight years? Well, for one thing, making and selling mandolin bridges won't make you rich. But the bridges are certainly worthwhile, when you see the look on a mandolin owner's face when he or she first hears their mandolin with a maple bridge on it!


Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, I just ran across a photo and wanted to share it with you. A few years ago, a member of the "Co-Mando" mandolin email list held a gathering at his house in Maryland, a couple of hours' drive from here. Our friend David McLaughlin rode over to the gathering with me, and we joined nine or ten other mandolin players for an afternoon of visiting and picking.

At one point, we lined up our mandolins on a soft couch so that everyone there could try all of them out (it's called a "mandolin tasting", and someone took a photo. Here it is:

Seen here at the party are 11 mandolins, my mandola, and my home-made mandocello conversion. Among the mandolins are the two I brought (Randy Wood #1 and #3), as well as the one David brought (a 1923 F-5). Others seen in the photo include two Rigel mandolins, one late-1950s Gibson, and a few other makes. The other pickers were especially excited to have the chance to play that 1923 F-5, after David generously put it on the couch for "tasting." They were also amused to play Randy Wood #3, the one formerly owned by Bill Monroe, and get themselves a few molecules of Bill as they played. (My four instruments in the picture are distinguished by their light-colored maple bridges.) See if you can pick out David's Loar in the photo!

As you can guess, a good time was had by all. And we've got the pictures to prove it!


Red Henry

Red Henry

As many of you know, I make one-piece maple mandolin bridges, and we offer them on our website. A week or two ago I mentioned that for bluegrass mandolins, I was thinking of going back to an older model I used a few years ago, which featured "wings" on the ends of the bridge. This bridge-type might deliver a few percent less volume than my standard design, but is has advantages in the low end richness, sweetness, and sustain it produces:

Well, I have made the change. For bluegrass mandolins, I'll be offering this 6-hole winged bridge. For other bridges, to go on oval-hole and round-hole mandolins, my regular 11-hole and 6-hole designs will continue to sound great; the wings don't seem to matter as much on those kinds of mandolins.

Interested? If you have any questions, drop me a line at redhenry@visuallink.com .

Red Henry

Red Henry

Maple mandolin bridges are still catching on, though slowly. So far I've sold almost 700 of them myself. Over the last 7 or 8 years I've gone through a few different models of the bridges, and I'm considering making another change.

For the last four years or so, my standard bridge has been an 11-hole model, which seems to give the best overall response-- combination of tone and volume-- on the majority of mandolins. I decided on this maple-bridge type after trying 30 or so designs in about 25 different woods. Here's a pic:

But lately I've been thinking about the winged bridges I made at first, which often gave the richest and bassiest tone, deeply desired by many bluegrass mandolin pickers because quite a few bluegrass mandolins don't have much bass. The volume it gave, however, was a few percent less than with other bridge designs.

But I've found now that a slightly-modified version of those old winged bridges will give both (1) the rich tone most bluegrass players want and (2) almost as much volume as an 11-hole bridge. I have made several of these bridges, and really like the sound. This would be a mandolin bridge specifically for Bluegrass:

--so if there is some demand for it, I may produce this modified winged design for use on bluegrass mandolins. How about it, bluegrass mandolin players? Is enhancing your mandolin's low end as important for you as it is for others? I may put these bridges into production. Let me know.


RedI was recently talking with one of our students about my mandolin bridge experiments, and thought that others might like to see some examples of how I found out which bridge woods sounded the best. Here's a detailed experiment in which I compared mandolin bridges made from ten different woods other than maple, and some of the woods were rather exotic (each bridge is about 4 inches long):

Ten mandolin bridges.

Here are the 10 woods, with the weights when the bridges were finished and tried:

In the left column:

Bridge #83. Ebony, 10.5 grams

Bridge #85. East Indian rosewood, 7.5 g.

Bridge #84. Brazilian rosewood, 8.9 g.

Bridge #67. Bloodwood, 10.4 g.

Bridge #66. African Blackwood, 8.7 g.

In the right column:

Bridge #89. Extra-heavy maple, 7.1 g.

Bridge #90. Teak, 7.6 g.

Bridge #88. Satinwood, 10.1 g.

Bridge #91. Persimmon (American Ebony), 8.7 g.

Bridge #92. Honduras mahogany, 6.4 g.

...and here were the results:

...continue reading

Red HenryOne of the most enjoyable things about making and trying mandolin bridges has been (sometimes) verifying old assumptions about bridges, but (more often) finding out new things. Last time we talked about bridge weights, and how conventional bridges can bee heavy enough to mute the mandolin. Today, let's talk about another dimension: bridge length.

The Gibson company, long ago, made one-piece ebony bridges for their mandolins. These bridges were about 4" long and a little less than 1/4" thick. But then after Gibson introduced adjustable bridges, they began making them 4 1/2" long. If the change was made gradually over several factory-sample bridges, probably no one there noticed a difference in the sound. And bridgemakers ever since have copied that Gibson bridge-length of 4 1/2".

But soon after I began making maple bridges, I wondered about how bridge length could affect the sound. My earliest bridges were about 4" long, but I decided to make an extra-short bridge, only 3 1/2" tip-to-tip. Here's a photo (this was a very early winged bridge):

Bridge #10
The sound of this bridge was very disappointing, and I was at a loss to explain why. My previous bridges had almost all sounded fine. But after thinking about it for a while, I wondered if I'd made the bridge too short for good sound. So I made my next bridge #11, much longer, about 4 1/2" tip-to-tip:

Bridge #11

...continue reading

Red HenryIf some of you are members of the Mandolin Cafe discussion site, you've seen that mandolin bridges have generated a couple of good discussions lately. One topic has to do with a subject of many experiments I've done, and that is mandolin bridge weight.

Most folks may never think much about the bridge that comes on their mandolin---it's only a bridge, right?---but finding the right bridge is possibly the easiest (and sometimes the cheapest) way to give your mandolin a big improvement in sound.

One well-proven possibility is to put a maple bridge on your mandolin. Maple bridges are easy to make, and the material is cheap. I also offer bridges that I make (check out my bridge page), but I recommend that you make your own, starting with designs that I've developed and going on to test your own ideas.

One of the most remarkable things about maple bridges is that they weigh so much less than conventional, two-piece ebony ones. For example, a maple bridge will typically weigh from 6 to 10 grams installed, and a two-piece ebony bridge might weigh from 13 to 22 grams! ---that's a lot of extra bridge-weight for the mandolin to try to overcome.

So how did I find this out? By making over a hundred experimental bridges. First, I tried to make lighter and lighter bridges. Here's a photo of Bridge #2:
Red Henry bridge #2

This bridge was fairly thin and weighed only 4/5 grams, which I soon found out was pushing the low end of the bridge-weight range. My next bridge, #3, was even thinner and lighter, coming in at about 4 grams:

Red Henry bridge #3

--and not only was the bridge thinner than the last one, but the sound was thinner too, with less volume as well. So now I had a lower limit on bridge weight. I made a much heavier bridge, almost 1/2" thick, and reduced the thickness gradually while playing it to see how the sound was changing. It turned out the best sound came into the bridge at about 10g., and then there was very little variation until the weight came down to 4g. or so. After another 15 or so bridges, experimenting with the design as well as the weight, I developed a standard model:

Red Bridge #18

This "winged" bridge was my standard for a couple of years. These have all weighed about 7g. to 10g. installed (on bluegrass mandolins), and their sound is very rich, clear, and consistent.

So that's how I found out the best weight for a mandolin bridge. Don't believe it? Try making one for yourself!

Red HenryWhen I first began making maple mandolin bridges I got a good bit of flak from folks who were wedded to the conventional bridge stereotype---the idea that because the Gibson company had used ebony for its adjustable bridges (and for the one-piece bridges before that), there was no way to improve on the conventional mandolin bridge. But I believe that the Gibson company, restricted by its requirement for profitability, may never have experimented much with mandolin bridges. It takes some time and imagination to do a lot of bridge experiments, and all that would have gotten in the way of producing mandolins. So now, it's up to us!

For centuries, the violin world has known that maple is the best wood for bridges. Now, the Gibson company boasted that they took many of their F-5 mandolin design aspects from fine violins: the arched, finely "graduated" top and back; the f-holes; and the elevated fingerboard and tailpiece, for example. But they seemed to stop when it came to the bridge. So I thought I'd make a one-piece maple bridge for one of my mandolins (Randy Wood #3) and see how it sounded. Here's a photo of Bridge #1. The bridge was really crude, but it sounded great!

Bridge 1

...with this bridge, the tone was smoother and the treble was clearer, and the volume took a jump. I could see that I was onto something. So I kept on trying more and more bridge designs until I found my three favorites, the ones I talked about a few days ago.

While I developed the one-piece bridge designs, I also tried out new woods. If maple worked so well, I thought, shouldn't I try out a lot more woods including the traditional bridge woods, ebony and rosewood? So I started making bridges from lots of wood, and you might think I got carried away. I eventually tried out about 30 or 35 kinds of wood. Here are eighteen of them, with their sound compared and described:

... you can see that while there were quite a few woods that approached the sound of maple, none of them were better. So that's why I settled on maple as the best wood for mandolin bridges. Since then some mandolin builders I was in touch with, including Peter Coombe, Bill Bussman, and Randy Wood, have started providing one-piece bridges of maple (or ebony, in Peter's case) on the mandolins they make, either as standard equipment or by the customer's request.

I do sell maple bridges on our website but I recommend that you make your own. If you play mandolin and you'd like to do some light woodworking, check out the bridgemaking page, where the steps to making a bridge are listed and described. It's fun, and it's by far the cheapest way to upgrade your mandolin's sound! Try out some different designs and let me know how they do. Good luck!