While Chris Thile may well be the best mandolin player in the world, he couldn’t care less. Other musicians might worry about their place in the hierarchy of “good,” “better,” or “best”; Thile is too busy playing music. Even on a “light” day, he practices at least two hours, and has since he was 10.
Thile released his first album, Leading Off, in 1994, at the ripe old age of 13. He has since released five solo albums and four with his first band, Nickel Creek.
For most of his career, Thile has played mandolins built by luthier Lynn Dudenbostel. He acquired Dudenbostel #5 in 1998, then sold it to buy #14 in 2001. Several years later, he bought back #5 because he liked it so much. “When I first got it back I hardly recognized the sound. The mandolin hadn’t been played much and had gone to sleep. I could still hear it in the background, but I was a little concerned that my memory was bad about how it sounded. It took several months for the mandolin to get back to the sound and feel that I remembered.” His experience with “Dude #5,” as he calls it, convinced Thile that instruments go to sleep if they aren’t played regularly. “I think if you honestly love your instruments, you have to play them regularly.”
Even though he readily admits that Dudenbostel #5 is his primary instrument, he had a nagging desire to own a vintage Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F-5. One day in Nashville, while having Dude #5 worked on by setup whiz Joe Glazer, Thile visited Gruhn Guitars. “I played three Loars, all of which were good, but none of them moved me,” he said. When he returned to Glazer’s shop to pick up Dude #5, he mentioned the Gruhn visit to Glazer, who asked, “You looking?” Thile admitted, “Yeah, I kinda am.” Glazer referred Thile to Crawford White, who had just come into one.
The interior labels of all Gibson Loar F-5s include the date the instrument was finished and signed by Lloyd Loar. “When I asked the signing date, White said ‘Feb 13’,” said Thile. “I knew that date was wrong since there are no Loars with that date, but I hoped that he actually meant Feb. 18, 1924.”
Thile’s guess proved correct, and the date interested Thile because the Loar belonging to John Reischman – widely regarded as the best-sounding F-5 on the planet – is from the same batch. “Several of the Loars I’ve played and thought were really good have come from this batch. In particular, the samples [without the Virzi tone producer” resonator disc].”
White immediately took the Loar to Glaser’s shop. When Thile first opened the case he was delighted to see that the mandolin was indeed dated February 18, 1924. White described the mandolin, #75316, as an uncirculated example that had never been played professionally.
“He had already told me it had never been refinished, but I had to ask him again, it was that clean,” Thile marveled. “He told me the story about how an 18-year-old senior in high school bought it new in 1924, played it in a mandolin orchestra for a year, then married his high school sweetheart. On his wedding night, he put it under his bed and never played it again. White bought it from his 98-year-old widow. So I played it and right away I could tell it already had some of the characteristics I wanted a Loar to have.”
After thinking about it for two weeks, Thile bought the mandolin. “I agonized over it, came back to Nashville and played it again, and that night, I got two hours of sleep… But then I realized that whatever buyer ‘s remorse I could experience would be nothing compared to the agony of seeing someone else buy that mandolin.” He now refers to #75316 as “The Bank of Chris” because he poured his entire savings into it.
After playing the mandolin “as is” for a little over a week, Thile sent it to Steve Gilchrist, in Australia, for setup and minor repairs. “The pickguard was intact, but a small piece of binding on the side of the fingerboard was missing due to shrinkage. And there was a small opening on the seam at the bottom of the mandolin. Steve is going to replace the bridge top and put on a bone nut. I’m not a big fan of pearl nuts. He’ll set up the mandolin optimally and I’m going to see if I can get used to the things that are unlike Dude #5, such as the un-scalloped fretboard extension. If I can’t get used to the fretboard as is, I’ll have no qualms about scalloping the extension if I love the instrument and I need to do that for optimum playability.”
When they begin touring in December, anyone who sees Thile with his new band, The Tensions Mountain Boys, will have an opportunity to see and hear his new Loar. It should be the experience of a lifetime – hearing a virtuoso on an instrument that inspires him. Does music get any better than that?
This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.