The Griffith Project

I do want your mandolin Madam!
In my early 20’s, while I was discovering mandolin, I began taking classical lessons and became a member of the Providence Mandolin Orchestra.  I sat next to a fellow mandolinist, who was always telling me about music that I should check out, from classical to bluegrass and all the music in between.  One day we were discussing my interest in purchasing a vintage instrument.  He told me to take a listen to the album “Tone Poems” by David Grisman and Tony Rice, as the album was recorded with a variety of vintage instruments accompanied by a pamphlet that had a small write up of each instrument.
I must have listened to that album over 1000 times.  In fact, I’m listening to it as I write this!  It was really interesting to hear how the different instruments sounded in the hands of the same player, using the same microphones and set-up for each track.  The one instrument I found myself gravitate towards was on track 9, “I Don’t Want Your Mandolins, Mister”.
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I really enjoyed the tone of this mandolin.  There was just something about it that really drew me in.  Now, back in those days, although the internet was a thing,  it wasn’t as full of information as it is today.  I was left with just this small pamphlet of info regarding the instrument.  The more I listened to it, the more I couldn’t believe that there was only one Loar signed A5!  Just one? Why?  Who were W.B Griffith and his wife?  Where is it now?  I was unfamiliar with Tut Taylor, Norman Blake and John Hartford, so that was an avenue I was going to have to explore.  As the internet grew, more and more information became available, so I was able to learn more and more about the instrument…………..
This is a continuation of our Griffith mandolin project blog.  Most of this information is the result of notes taken from reading bits and pieces of the story online.  If you are reading this and can add any information or detail, email us and we will include it.
Griffith Mandolin History
The Griffith School of Music was located in Atlanta, Georgia. It was founded and directed  by Mary Burke Griffith who ran the school with her children out of their three story home.  Her children all married and eventually all lived and worked together. The three children who worked in the school were: William Butt Griffith (1880-1964), his wife, Margie Keelin Griffith (1891-1965), L’Ella Griffith Bedard (1883-1971), and Mary Griffith Dobbs (1890-1970).


The school sold, taught, and repaired all stringed instruments, and were representatives and dealers for the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company.



Margie Keelin Griffith would teach mandolin from time to time, and would borrow her husband’s Gibson Loar signed F5.  As the story goes, she loved the sound of his mandolin, but the points on the F5 mandolin bothered her leg, so she asked if they could order one without the points.  The mandolin was completed and the label signed by Lloyd Loar in 1923.  Serial # 74003
All three of the children, as well as William’s wife Margie, were still living and working at the school in the early 1960s.   After the death of William Butt Griffith in 1964 and his wife in 1965, the remaining Griffith sisters closed the Griffith School of Music, sold the house, and moved elsewhere.


Tut Taylor bought both the F5 and the A5 from the remaining sister in the 1960’s.  The A5 was played by Norman Blake on John Hartford’s Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, which was  released in 1971.  At some point in the 70’s, Tut sold it.  Around 27 years later, he was able to “have it back for a while”.  I’m not sure if this means someone let him borrow it or he bought it back.   In 1994,  David Grisman and Tony rice released Tone Poems with the Griffith A5 on track 9.   The mandolin was put up for sale in Oct 2010 for the asking price of $345,000, but as far as we know, it did not sell and stayed with the current owner, who is located in Washington state.

OK, so now we have some details into the history of this mandolin.  I am friends with a couple people who have had access to the instrument, so as new info comes in, I’ll be sure to update the history page.
The next thing we are going to do is go through drawing up the plans for a “copy” of the instrument.  I chose to start with the peghead overlay.  Reason being, my friend Bruce Harvey from Orcas Island Tonewoods was able to obtain a direct tracing of the peghead outline from Bill Halsey, a bow maker out of Michigan.  Here is a photo of the template that Bruce mailed to me:


The first thing I need to do is import this picture into my drafting program (I use Rhino 3D) and trace it.

traced template

An interesting point on the overlay is that it is not symmetrical and we will be replicating that in the final product.  Here is a shot of the peghead folded in half so you can see the difference.  Subtle, but definitely there.

asymmetrical headstock folded in half

Here is a picture of the overlay traced and cleaned up in Rhino………

peghead and binding drawing close up

Bruce had this really good idea, to inlay “The Griffith” into the peghead of these copies.  I had him send me a picture of the inlay that he had made for his project.  Again, I traced that in Rhino then sized and placed it on the overlay.

inlay tracing

higher res of g inlay

Here is a whole peghead shot with tuners drawn in.  We will be using Gotoh tuners as they are the closest looking to the original.  They are not perfect, but close.  I also drew in the classic Fleur-de-lis

headstock with Fleur

Here is a picture of the original peghead…………………….



For the fret board, I choose to take the measurements directly from Adrian Minarovic’s detailed Loar signed Gibson plans.  A few interesting points about the original fret boards…  Scale length on most modern mandolins is usually set to 13 7/8 ths.  The original Loar fret scale was advertised as 13 15/16th, so this is the scale length we will be using on this project.  This fret board also had the small fret wire common at the time which measured around 0.034 wide by 0.032 high.  This size fret wire is no longer in production so we decided to go with the smallest available Jescar fret wire which measures 0.040 by 0.039.  The binding on the fret board measures 0.040 wide, and that is a common size available today.  The frets terminate at the edge of the ebony and do not overhang the binding, another detail in which we will replicate.  The dots will be mother of pearl sized at 0.25  Finally, the fret board will be milled flat true to the original.  On future copies, I will install radiused boards with larger fret wire if the customer requests it, but for the first two, we are trying to get it as close as possible to the original.  Here is a picture of the fret board drawn up in CAD.

fretboard drawing

For the next step I need to draw up the plans for the rim.  My friend Harvey Marcotte happens to own a Gibson A2Z from the same year that this instrument was made.  Since the Griffith rim would have been made from the same set of forms, I feel this is the most accurate way to get the correct body size.  There actually is a difference in size of the snake head mandolins vs the earlier paddle head variants.  The snake head models had a overall body length that was shorter by about 1/4 of an inch.  Click here to see an interesting thread on the Mandolin Cafe.  I verified this myself taking tracings off actual instruments.  I would find this really interesting to find out why the snake head rim sets were actually a bit shorter, but most of the information from this time period is missing.  All we know is that there is a difference, so we will follow it.

So to do this, all I used was a couple of blocks and some card stock with a hole cut into it to get an accurate tracing.  Since the back is arched, it is impossible to lay it on a table and trace it.  Here is what I came up with.

snakehead scan3

Snakehead trace

Snakehead scan2

After the tracing was made,  I drew in a perfect 1 inch square then brought it down to my local office store so that I could scan it, them import it into my drafting program.  Here are the results.

Snakehead Scan

The scan was imported into Rhino (autocad) and traced for the final result:

Rim drawn in Rhino

There is no way to get accurate drawings of the blocks used unless I had access to the actual instrument and a CAT scanner, or if I had access to a disassembled snake head which I do not.  I decided to draw in the actual size tail block used on an F5 of the same time period.  The head block was an average of two sets of plans and visual inspection of the block on the snake head. I have drawings, from published plans, of head blocks that were similar but each were somewhat different, and neither of them matched the outline of the actual snake head, so I took some artistic liberties and drew it in the best I could from all the data I could collect both in print and visually.  I don’t suspect any minor differences in the neck block shape will alter the tone of the final product.


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