Graham McDonald, Australian author/luthier

IMG_0532Graham McDonald with one of his Kickstarter mandolins and his own, personal player, and Marv with his autographed copy of Graham’s book


Monday, May 16, we had a special guest here at the Pickin’ Parlor. Graham McDonald, a luthier from Canberra, Australia, dropped in to buy some cases for several of his mandolins, and ended up staying for several hours, talking with us here and packaging his mandolins for mailing.

Graham is a 5th generation Australian; his family moved to the island from Scotland in the 1840s. He has been building bouzoukis, mandolas, mandolins, ukuleles, and hardanger fiddles for over 35 years.

The official reason for Graham’s visit to the United States is a lecture he is giving to the American Musical Instrument Society at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD, on Wednesday, May 18. He will be talking about mandolin acoustics and the difference between classical (European) mandolins and American mandolins.

Like the best of 21st century multi-taskers, Graham is taking advantage of his visit to the States and using it as an opportunity to deliver several Kickstarter rewards to his backers. The Kickstarter was for the publication of his third book, The Mandolin, A History. The rewards are his gorgeous, hand-carved mandolins. Graham came to the Pickin’ Parlor on the recommendation of members of the Mandolin Café website: he posted on the board asking, “I’m flying into the Twin Cities: where can I get cases for my mandolins?” The very first answer he received was, “The Homestead Pickin’ Parlor!” Thank you so much to the users at the Café for the recommendation!
Graham had three mandolins with him when he stopped in. All of them were beautiful examples of his skill and artistry. Two were Kickstarter rewards and the third was his personal player.

HPP - 051616 - McDonald -DSCN0183 (CER-)Photo by Ron Miles


The first was based on an Italian, deep-bodied mandolin, with an arched and canted top of simple spruce, and back, sides, and neck of Tulip satinwood. The headstock was slotted and topped with an exquisitely carved finial that hooked forward like a letter “J” and terminated in a flat-heeled, ebony faceplate.

HPP - 051616 - McDonald - DSCN0178 (CER-)Photo by Ron Miles


The second was a copy of an early-Twentieth century, deep-bodied Lyon & Healy mandolin. It was again made with Tulip satinwood for the back, sides, and neck, and spruce for the hand carved top. The body style was a two-point A-style body. The inlays on the fingerboard were in the shape of clouds, which echoed the hand-carved, art-deco-style cloud motif on the top of the headstock.

HPP - 051616 - McDonald - DSCN0181 (CER-)Photo by Ron Miles


The third was Graham’s gorgeous personal player, built in 2014. The body was a simple Gibson-based A-style, built with woods native to Australia: a King William Pine top, Huon Pine body, and Australian Red Cedar neck (Graham explained that Australian Red Cedar is similar to mahogany, and used as a premiere cabinet-making wood in Australia). This mandolin smelled INCREDIBLE. Since none of the woods used are readily available here in the United States, there are no good words to describe the smell, only that it was very strong in a pleasant way, and smelled almost minty, like menthol, and sweet, and piney.

All three mandolins used Rubner tuning machines, with contrasting bright, polished brass backing plates and black buttons and tuning gears. Rubner is a German machining company started in 1843. They are still today based in Markneukirchen, the birthplace of C.F. Martin.

IMG_0536Packing up the Kickstarter mandolins for shipping to NJ & TX


And all three sounded amazing! The tone on these mandolins was well balanced, with clear high notes and a pleasant mid and low range. Bruce Johnson played Graham’s personal player and said, “Wow. That’s really nice. That’s really well done. It comes across in all the ranges and plays really well.”

The book—Graham’s third—has taken 6 years to finish. Along the way he got to travel all over Australia, the United States, and Europe, researching, taking pictures, meeting folks, and talking to experts about the history of the mandolin. He said that sometimes you meet a person who is the absolute expert on ONE particular aspect or piece of history, and their knowledge is deep and fascinating. He also got to take a lot of the photos himself, while others were provided by various collectors and collections. With either source he had to take the backgrounds of the photos out himself, and said, “I now know more about Photoshop than I ever thought I’d need to know!” He also said that one of the most fascinating things he discovered while writing his book is that, for the most part, Americans are ignorant of the existence of European mandolins, and Europeans are ignorant of the existence of American mandolins.

Before going to Vermillion, SD, and the conference, Graham is heading to Mason City, IA, to pursue another interest of his: the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. We told him about the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station in Cloquet, MN; he was very interested but didn’t have time on this visit to go and see it.

After the conference, Graham will head to Seattle to meet with a film-maker/mandolin player about the possibility of doing a documentary based on Graham’s book. Graham said that he is excited about the possibility, but mentioned that documentaries can be hard to get finished because the licensing of the music for them can be very expensive and difficult to navigate.

You can learn more about Graham, his book, and his instruments at McDonald Strings.

Marv is talking to Graham’s American distributor in the hopes of getting copies of the book here at the Pickin’ Parlor. I’m personally hoping we can figure out a way to carry a few of Graham’s mandolins here at the shop, too.

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