During his tenure at Gibson, Lloyd Loar oversaw the production of over 250 F-5 mandolins. But he produced just one A-5 model – a special order for The Griffith School of Music in Atlanta.
In those days, most Gibson instruments were sold through music schools and teachers, a method that populated mandolin orchestras with Gibson instruments. If you lived in the South and wanted to buy a Gibson, Dr. William B. Griffith was the man to see. And he had clout in Kalamazoo, so when he asked for an F-5 “without points,” Kalamazoo complied.
The instrument remained in the possession of the Griffith family until the late 1950s, when it was purchased by Tut Taylor, a well-known bluegrass musician and instrument collector. Tut played the mandolin for 20 years before he sold it to a collector in the late ’70s. In the mid ’90s, he borrowed it for a recording project, and while he had it, his son, Mark, took measurements and X-rays, then made drawings of the instrument with the intent of one day making a copy.
What’s so special about the A-5? Gibson (among others) has been making A models since they began building mandolins. But neither Gibson nor anyone else has ever made a mandolin that had the exact specs of the Loar A-5. Every other has been an approximation. Taylor’s company, Crafters of Tennessee, is the first to make faithful replicas, and they call it the Prodigal 5.
The first Prodigal 5 was produced in ’03, and so far 12 have been built, every one snatched up by a mandolin connoisseur (many of whom also own original Loar-signed F-5s). With its five-digit price tag, the Prodigal 5 is one of the most expensive A-styles available.
Mark Taylor recently arranged for me to look at #7, owned by Mitch Simpson, who graciously allowed me to examine it.
The Prodigal 5 makes a stunning first impression. The quality of its finish ranks with the finest from any builder; the color and tone perfectly match that of a vintage Loar. The binding and inlay work are also impeccable, the intricate headstock inlay is especially impressive. With nickel silver Waverly tuners, a pearloid-engraved truss rod cover, and a specially engraved vintage tailpiece, the Prodigal 5 looks like a premium instrument.
The woods on the Prodigal 5 also demonstrate that no expense was spared. The bookmatched flame maple back and sides complement the tightly grained silky spruce top. The ebony fretboard is fully bound, with the edges of the frets lining up beautifully with the ivoroid fret ends. Small details, like the way the underside of the pickguard is carefully finished, indicate that the Prodigal 5 comes from a builder who cares enough to get even the smallest details perfect.
The Prodigal 5’s neck profile is quite narrow, similar to skinnier Loar-period F-5s. While not quite as triangular as some Loar necks, its canoe-shaped profile takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you routinely play beefier necks. Without a neck strap button or any points sticking out to secure it on your lap, it requires using your left hand not only to fret the strings, but also to hold it in playing position. A strap is necessary to play any A-style comfortably.
The Prodigal 5 has a unique sound, with more bass energy than nearly any mandolin I’ve ever played. The sound is ideal for bluegrass-style chop chords and bass-string tremolo. For upper-string single-note work, it’s rather dark sounding. In a bluegrass ensemble situation, it did not have the same projection on high notes as it did on bass chops. Overall, it was not as harmonically balanced as the best vintage Lloyd Loar or modern F-5s I’ve played.
Obviously “perfect tone” is a subjective thing. Some prefer brighter or darker harmonic balance. Anyone looking for a new mando with the bass fundamentals of a much older instrument would be delighted by the review Prodigal 5. Players who want an instrument with a more even volume throughout its harmonic range may find the Prodigal 5 less to their tastes.
The True Loar Model A-5?
The principle reason most players own an A-style rather than an F model is that A models are almost invariably less expensive than F models. The Prodigal 5 is more expensive than most F models, including even the Gibson varnish-finished Master Model (which lists for $12,500, but usually streets for less). Given its price, the Prodigal 5 will appeal to a limited number of buyers. While it is not my sonic cup of tea, the Prodigal is a special instrument. It’s a beautiful instrument that is certainly competitive with other premium mandolins of similar cost.
Crafters of Tennessee Prodigal 5 mandolin
Features Bookmatched flame maple back and sides, spruce top, ebony fretboard, ivoroid fret ends, nickel silver Waverly tuners, pearloid-engraved truss rod cover, vintage-style tailpiece.
Contact Crafters of Tennessee, 14919 Lebanon Road, Old Hickory, TN 37138, phone (615) 773-7200, www.crafterstn.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.