Mandolin | Musical Instrument Guide | Songlines
Sunday, March 21, 2021

Mandolin | Musical Instrument Guide (with Alex Vann)

By Glenn Kimpton

Glenn Kimpton finds out why Alex Vann, of Spiro and Three Cane Whale, traded in his f-hole instrument for a round-hole mandolin

Alex Vann SL copy.jpg

Alex Vann is currently one of the players at the forefront of English instrumental music, picking mandolin for Spiro and Three Cane Whale. To find an instrument to fit both outfits perfectly, he made the decision to trade in his custom Phil Davidson f-hole, built for him in the 90s, for the less flash, round-hole carved top design. “I found myself becoming gradually less satisfied with f-hole mandolins, because I wanted a rounder bottom end,” Vann explains. “Even though you get a great evenness across the neck with f-hole models and they might even be more versatile, I still wanted to switch to a round hole. I wanted to prioritise the sustain and warmth that you get from a round hole over the f-hole’s punch... Plus, I do always feel an urge to support the underdog, which is what I feel round hole mandolins are. In fact, it’s probably why I picked up a mandolin in the first place. I was playing guitar and drums in rock and punk bands as a teenager; folk music was my guilty pleasure!”

When I first meet Vann, he is carrying a beautiful old Gibson mandolin, but for both Three Cane Whale and Spiro, musical precision is key and a maverick vintage instrument has its shortcomings. “I’ve played that Gibson for years now and it’s brilliant, but it’s a bit of a rough old thing and not that precise in different parts of the neck,” Vann says. “What I wanted was something really well-crafted and even, but with the plummy sound of a round hole. So I went to see Phil and he had a few mandolins he’d built for customers to try and one was this Celtic model from 2005 with a spruce top and mahogany back sides and neck. One of the ideas that fed into Gibson’s original development of f-holes was about keeping as much of the grain running the whole length of the top as possible. Phil’s design for this mandolin made the hole a narrow lengthwise oval to maximise that effect on a round hole instrument, which I liked. I was playing with it for a couple of hours and said ‘I’d like it exactly like this, could you just sell me this one?’”

Anyone who has heard Spiro or TCW play will appreciate the intricacy in the music, which marries well with master luthier Phil Davidson’s skill. “There’s great accuracy and precision to Phil’s work,” nods Vann. “He’s a great craftsman and this mandolin is very even with a lot of sustain and punch, but also with a lot of delicacy. I need that delicacy, particularly in Three Cane Whale, because we do some stuff that is really quiet; the Gibson is less good for that, but the Davidson can sing and sustain at a very low level and then be very punchy and loud for Spiro. In both bands I try to play in a simple clean style with every note articulated. I tend to avoid grace notes, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, turns and all of that. I tell myself that the lack of style is a style in itself, but I think it also chimes with the unadorned playing of traditional English players. That’s not where it comes from with me, but perhaps there is a reason for that connection deep within the English psyche. I think for me it’s more linked to the fact that my earliest influences were punk bands.”

➤ This article originally appeared in Songlines #141. Find out more about subscribing to Songlines

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