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NMM 10809.  Electric mandola by Vivi-Tone Company, Kalamazoo, Michigan, ca. 1932-1933
Serial number 39.  Ex coll.:  Dennis E. Hartnett, New York
Arne B. and Jeanne F. Larson Fund, 2004

Front of Loar electric mandola Bass side of Loar electric mandola Back of Loar electric mandola

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Born in Cropsey, Illinois, in 1886, Lloyd Loar demonstrated an early interest in both science and music. While studying music at Oberlin Conservatory, he began to play mandolin, mandola, violin, viola, and piano professionally. Early in his career, he was associated with the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., playing the company's distinctive instruments in Gibson-sponsored mandolin ensembles that were all the rage in the 'teens. His interest in the design of the instruments led him to a job in 1918 as acoustical engineer at Gibson in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he was the motivating force behind the creation of Style 5 instruments. The F-5 mandolin, first offered in 1922, combined Gibson's distinctive scrolled body outline and arched top and back with violin-style f-shaped soundholes and tuning the body components for resonance.

By the mid-1920s, the mandolin orchestra was falling out of fashion. Loar had envisioned innovations on a completely new path, but they were ahead of their time, so he left Gibson in 1925 and continued to develop ideas for electric stringed instruments on his own. There was already significant momentum for using electricity to produce music. Electronic vacuum tube oscillators (like those in the theremin and ondes martenot) and electromechanical tone wheels (like those in the telharmonium, choralcelo, and later the Hammond organ) had been used to generate completely new instruments. This cutting-edge technology had even gained some household recognition, as in the case of the theremin, and the radio was replacing recorded gramophone music with live broadcasts, literally electrifying the music and entertainment scene.

Loar, inspired by the opportunities of the electric revolution, continued to work on a magneto-electric pickup that would convert vibrations generated by a stringed instrument to an electric output that would then be converted back to sound with an electronic vacuum-tube amplifier and speaker. In 1933, he co-founded the Vivi-Tone Company in Kalamazoo with Lewis Williams and Walter Moon, and began producing his new electro-acoustic instruments under the Vivi-Tone brand.

Although electric stringed instruments are known for producing a huge variety of tone colors that diverge significantly from the sounds of their acoustic predecessors, alteration of basic tone was not Loar's goal. While his creation of one of the first electric pickups was innovative, it was not intended to be radical. NMM 10809 combines the pickup technology described in U. S. Patent 2,020,842 (applied for in 1933, awarded 1935) with a somewhat conventional-looking, semi-acoustic body (lacking soundholes, however) fully enclosing the pickup mechanism. Though Vivi-Tone made violins and guitars with skeleton bodies at the same time, they apparently also produced instruments that were more orthodox for customers with a conservative aesthetic.


Signature on mandola

Inscriptions:  Light blue paper label with single-line border and cut corners, affixed to top under tailpiece, the model and serial number written in black ink: Vivi Tone Mandola / PATENT APPLIED FOR / No. 39 / Manufactured By / Vivi Tone Company / Kalamazoo, Michigan
Spray painted in black ink on head: ViVi / " Tone
In raised lettering on cord connector: BIRNBACH / BAKELITE / CORD CONNECTOR

Body:  Soundboard: one-piece mahogany plywood; black spray-painted f-holes and soundhole trim. Back: one-piece, three-ply birch plywood; hole in back for access to screw adjustment on pickup. Ribs: brown-finished synthetic material; panel on bass side for access to pickup unit. Head: mahogany veneered with white celluloid on both faces. Neck: mahogany; integral with head; white celluloid stripe.

Inlay:  Binding: white celluloid; black and white celluloid strips on inside edge of binding. Soundhole: oval opening in top where bridge feet rest on bar-armature. Back stripe: none. End graft: none.

Neck, Peghead, and Tailpiece

Back of neck Back of peghead Tailpiece Access panel on bass side

Trim:  Heel cap: ebony. Fingerboard: ebony bound in white celluloid; 20 nickel-silver frets; single mother-of-pearl dots behind 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, and 15th frets; double mother-of-pearl dots behind 11th fret. Nut: bone. Bridge: ebony; every other set of string notches offset (compensated). Tuners: eight nickel-plated steel, worm-gear machine tuners with white ivoroid convex heads and engraved plates. Endpin: none. Pick guard: imitation tortoise shell plastic raised on wood brace affixed to top with two steel dome-headed screws. Lacquer: clear with prominent craqulure.


Two Views of Bridge




Total mandola length:  683 mm (26-29/32″)
Back length:  351 mm (13-13/16″)
Upper bout width:  19 mm (3/4″)
Waist width:  208 mm (8-3/16″)
Lower bout width:  335 mm (13-3/16″)
Rib height (including edging) at heel:  44 mm (1-3/4″)
Rib height, at waist:  58 mm (2-1/4″)
Rib height, at end block:  62 mm (2-7/16″)
Head length:  160 mm (6-9/32″)
Head width, top:  49 mm (1-15/16″)
Head width, bottom:  57 mm (2-7/32″)
Neck length (nut to ribs):  178 mm (7″)
Neck width, nut:  34 mm (1-11/32″)
Neck width, heel:  38 mm (1-15/32″)
Soundhole height:  12 mm (15/32″)
Soundhole width:  104 mm (4-3/32″)
Vibrating string length (nut to bridge edge):  A: 351 mm (13-13/16″); C: 355 mm (13-31/32″)


Arian Sheets, "Lloyd Loar's Other Instruments . . . Four Rarities from the Workshop of an Electroacoustic Pioneer," National Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. 32, No. 1, (February 2005), pp. 1-3.

Return to Checklist of Instruments Designed by Lloyd Loar

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