For his 65th birthday, Stephen Mangold, a long-time bluegrass guitarist who already had some guitar-building experience, gave himself a gift–a weeklong class in ukulele building, held at a luthier school in Vermont. He had, as many players do, discovered the ukulele after years of guitar playing and wanted to spend some time with the smaller instrument. He hasn’t regretted it since; he’s been busy creating ukes (along with guitars) ever since.
When I went to visit Steve, a retired UT electrical engineer, at his northwest Austin home, he showed me a tenor guitar he’s been working on the past few months [below, right]. “The top is Engelmann spruce,” he told me, and the back and sides are Brazilian rosewood. “Not the endangered kind,” he hastens to add.
A tenor guitar, of course, is a beast hovering somewhere between the guitar, the banjo, and the ukulele, with a guitar body and a slender neck, with four metal strings, like those on a tenor banjo. “Tenor guitars appeared in the days of the jazz bands in the 1930s,” Steve said. The banjo players saw that the banjo’s days in jazz groups were ending, and the guitar was taking its place in the rhythm section. “A banjo player could pick up a tenor guitar and play it right away. It’s tuned just like a banjo.”
He’s built 7 ukes so far, two of them sopranos and the rest mostly tenors. “I build them from scratch,” he says. He bends the sides, builds the fingerboards, the nuts and the saddles, and crafts the tops mostly from spruce that he buys at one-eighth of an inch thickness but thins down to .07 of an inch (a guitar top, for comparison, is .11 inch). He likes to create the binding–the decorative strip at the point where the top or back joins the sides–from curly maple. He builds each instrument with a convex back [left] for a louder, fuller tone.
Steve has been to a couple of AUS meetings so far; at the March meeting he played a solo and mentioned that he’d built the uke he played it on. After the meeting he was immediately surrounded by a group of folks who wanted to see his work up close. It’s tough for Steve to get to meetings, though, because his bluegrass group holds their jam on the same night at the New World Deli. He’ll try to get to the AUS meetings more often, he promises. If you’re interested in contacting Steve to learn more about how he builds ukuleles, you can email him at fiddlersam[at]sbcglobal.net. —Walter