1930s Larson Brothers Mandola

 

Carl and August Larson never received much credit in their lifetimes for the instruments they built. None of the guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and tiples built by the brothers bears their own names. They did purchase the Maurer brand name and later built under their own Euphonon and Prairie State brands, but you won’t find the name Larson on any of their instruments. Many of their creations bear the brands of distributors (as was common practice in the early 20th century) such as Stahl, Bruno, Dyer and Leland. For decades, as a result, very few people knew that instruments from a wide scattering of brands actually originated in the same factory.

Today, thanks to a series of articles in guitar magazines and a recent book published by Carl’s grandson, vintage instrument aficionados recognize the outstanding nature of the brothers’ work. Their high-end guitars sell for astronomical prices, and even their lowlier guitars and mandolins demand more than their more common contemporaries. This isn’t just the result of age inflating instruments’ value (though there’s some of that going on); the Larsons’ guitars and mandolins are solidly built and generate superb sounds. They’re tonally distinct from the most well-known brands, but in ways that make them excellent alternatives for the best that Gibson and Martin offered.

They were also visually appealing. All but the lowest-grade student instruments had some amount of binding and. The Larsons ran wild with abalone and patterned wood purfling, plus pearl and abalone inlays in their fretboards and headstocks. Their mandolins often had slightly oversized bodies, which not only produced great volumes of sound but also caught the eye. The Larsons stuck mostly to flat-topped instruments, though they did build a few carved-top instruments and a few bowl-back mandolins early in their careers.

This particular mandola is typical of their output from the early 1930s. There is no brand name evident, but many Larson creations have surfaced without any kind of label. The brothers built a number of one-off creations, not to mention custom-ordered instruments. (Les Paul ordered three guitars from the Larsons in which he would install primitive electric pickups. One had a ½” thick maple top without a soundhole; the brothers thought he was crazy and warned him that it would sound terrible as an acoustic instrument.)

Various traits such as the size and shape of the body, a slightly bowed back, and a wide band of ebony visible under the fretboard binding are giveaways that the mandola was built by the Larsons. It’s very similar to a number of their creations, primarily mandolas built under the Euphonon brand. However, it’s the only one I’ve seen with an abalone rosette and multi-ply binding around the body; usually, Larson instruments have the same type of purfling in both places. The back and sides are built of Brazilian rosewood, as is the headstock veneer. The thin pickguard is inlayed into the top, and it’s similar in shape but slightly shorter than what’s usually seen on Euphonons. The instruments were all built by hand, so small discrepancies like this exist between just about every “identical” Larson instrument. The mandola is in excellent condition, with no cracks or repairs, and just a bit of pick wear off the end of the pickguard. There is a bit of clouding to the finish on the back, as is not uncommon on Larson instruments; another Larson mandolin I used to own also had clouding on the back. It’s purely a cosmetic issue.

The sound is fantastic. I am not generally a fan of Gibson’s archtop mandolas; I find them thin on the bass strings and lacking in sustain. This flat-topped mandola avoids those problems entirely. The bass notes are firm and resonant (I hate the overuse of the phrase “piano-like lows”, but I think it applies perfectly here) and chords ring out for quite some time. There is excellent balance across the strings. The overall tone is a perfect balance between warmth and clarity; I know I’m starting to sound like a sales advertisement from the 1930s, but this is honestly the best-sounding mandola I’ve ever played.

 

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