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Mandolin Brothers

Editor's note: Stan Jay, the beloved owner of Mandolin Brothers, passed away on October 22, 2014.

“I went to Staten Island Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin”

Every Joni Mitchell fan knows those words from her album Hejira. She was singing about visiting Mandolin Brothers where she bought a Gibson Mandocello and a 1913 Martin guitar. We talked to the effusive Stan Jay in his West Brighton store about stars and guitars and mandolins.

Welcome to the best guitar shop in America.

Has Joni Mitchell been back?

Joni herself hasn’t been back to visit, but occasionally Jimmy Buffet will call and buy something he’s seen in our bi-monthly publication “The Vintage News” or web site. We’ve done two transactions with Bob Dylan, three with actor Christopher Guest. Bruce Springsteen’s wife bought him a nice mandolin as a Christmas present and Robin Quivers of the Howard Stern Show came over and chose a Kamaka 6-string tenor uke as a birthday present for Fred Norris, who loved it.


Do you sell new mandolins or mostly vintage?

In units we sell more new ones than vintage, but in dollar volume a vintage instrument can be more expensive. Our definition of “vintage” is an instrument made during an excellent period, using materials or techniques no longer employed. Every instrument has its own vintage period. In mandolins one would have to say that vintage begins in 1894, when Orville Gibson invented the carved back, carved top mandolin in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and made obsolete the old fashioned, Neapolitan-style mandolin, sometimes called “potato-bug” or “roundbelly”.

I see a lot of “reissued” guitars today

Mandolin Brothers invented the reissue guitar. Back in 1977, when this company was only 6 years old, my original partner Hap Kuffner and I drove to Nazareth, PA to the Martin Guitar Factory and met with the president, Frank Herbert Martin. “Frank,” we said, “what if we asked you to build 225 Martin model D-28 guitars as you last made them in 1944, and another 91 top of the line model D-45 pearl inlaid guitars?” Frank said he needed to think about it, but while we were still in the factory he called us back in and said “I’ve thought about it and we’ll do it.” And so, back in 1978, when they first started to come off the line, Mandolin Brothers introduced to the world the first “Reissue 1934 D-28 Herringbone Guitars” and the first “Reissue 1939 Martin D-45s.” We sold so many of them that other dealers got them to release generic guitars that came close to our exclusive models. Thus the era of the “Reissue” guitar was born. Now just about every manufacturer makes reissues of their earlier product. And to think it all started here on Staten Island.

Can a better guitar make me a better player?

I really, truly think that it can. A better guitar will usually play more easily – the player doesn’t have to struggle to press the strings against the frets, does not suffer the cut fingers, does not experience the embarrassment of not being able to learn how to play while thinking that it’s all their own fault. I would guess that more students who say “I just can’t do this” and give up do so because their instrument doesn’t allow them to learn. When making that decision to buy, go for the better instrument – neither you nor the younger student will ever regret it.

Parents often prefer not to lay out a sufficiency of money for that first instrument – and yet without having a reasonably high quality instrument to play the student is almost guaranteed to not succeed. The pride of owning something fine makes a player want to take that guitar out of the case and play it every day. The sense of fulfillment one receives from hearing an exquisite acoustic voice to create or accompany a song or a tune is an experience not duplicated by any other in one’s lifetime. Suffice it to say that the less expensive the instrument the more likely that none of this will ever happen.

What about carbon-fiber guitars, headless guitars, the Chapman Stick. Are these all just novelties?

Carbon fiber guitars have taken their rightful place – a guitar (or mandolin) whose owner no longer has to worry about environmental changes that can damage a wooden instrument! The warm, punchy, articulate tone of acoustic carbon fiber guitars surprises nearly every person who picks one up and plays it.

Interesting that you mention headless carbon-fiber guitars: my former partner, Hap, and I along with Bob Young and Ned Steinberger co-founded Steinberger Sound Corp. and changed the course of the electric bass and electric guitar market forever with our headless, graphite award-winning instruments. A product that many said would never find a market was ultimately embraced and favored by musicians including Sting, Allan Holdsworth, jazz bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Mike Rutherford (Genesis), Geddy Lee (Rush).

As for the Chapman Stick – this unusual fretted instrument involves tapping the strings with the fingers of both hands. It is innovative, versatile and striking sounding, pun intended. Emmett Chapman’s 40-year-old design has captivated the imagination of the modern musician who seeks a challenge.

What’s the difference between the selection at Mandolin Brothers versus some of the national chains?

Guitar Center and Sam Ash are the two largest music chains and provide beginner players with a good selection of quality instruments; they carry all sorts of things besides just guitars, banjos and mandolins, they are local and convenient. With only a couple of exceptions we do not find ourselves competing with them. We get calls from both companies when they need information or evaluation of vintage instruments and a few years back we appraised the entire vintage collection of the Guitar Center’s flagship Hollywood location. Although we do have some less expensive guitars by C F Martin, Taylor, Guild, Fender, Paul Reed Smith and Epiphone, our selection tends to be mid- to high-end.

Some guitars use endangered hardwoods. Do you think this will change, and will it affect the sound?

One source says “Guitar making has accounted for only a miniscule percentage of what was harvested and used over the years” and yet, for guitarists seeking to own the finest acoustic guitars in the world, having restricted access to these most respected of tone woods creates a hardship. One of these listed woods over the past several decades has been Brazilian rosewood, the other, just recently added, is mahogany. Naturally, the sound of a guitar made from Sapele (a wood now being used by some makers instead of mahogany) is not exactly the same as the sound of genuine Honduran mahogany. It’s not a bad sound, just different, with a somewhat different appearance. To get a guitar made from the finest and rarest tone woods, at least right now while some of it is still remains available, costs more.

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