In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Trevor Moyle Interview
Trevor Moyle is the owner of the Acoustic Music Company and Mandolin Man. It’s a few years since we first interviewed him so here’s an update.
First, a few questions about yourself as a player?
How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin the first instrument you played? Why did you begin to play the mandolin?
I played recorder at junior school then Scottish bagpipes in the local ATC band. Then at secondary school I tried to play guitar. I think the mandolin appealed because it was a bit different, everybody was playing guitar. Also I had plans to back-pack around the world and thought I might be able to carry a mandolin.
How well do you play the mandolin and what sorts of music do you like to play yourself? Do you perform publicly?
I had a revelation a few years ago, realizing that I was never going to be great player I relaxed and started to enjoy it more. I gave up open mike nights years ago and now mostly play at home and in the shop. I don’t have a particular style, I write some of my own tunes, do some of my own songs and play Irish music with some friends about once a month (the Lost Socks), otherwise lots of noodling and checking out new arrivals..
What other instruments do you play?
I’m working hard on my guitar playing, not sure if I could remember how blow up or play the bagpipes? .
Now, to the shop?.
What made you decide to open a shop specializing in high quality mandolins and guitars? After all, many music shops in the UK seem to be looking for a quick turnover with cheap instruments.
After my mid-life crisis (not recommended) my business partner had bought me out of my previous business (importing and wholesaling Mexican furniture). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, one day I was walking up St James’s Street in Brighton and saw a small music shop for sale.
The proverbial light lit up in my head. I had visited the US many times since 1972 and had had Bill Bussman (of Old Wave Mandolins) make me a ten string so I was very aware of what was available mandolin-wise in the US but not on sale here. The owner of that business wouldn’t accept my offer for stock that I didn’t really want so I looked around and took the lease on No 39.
I wanted to do something that I believed in and loved doing. The idea went through various phases, initially to sell all kinds of folk instruments, specializing in the quality end of the market. By the time I opened the shop it was down to mandolins, guitars, harps, banjos and dulcimers (the latter three soon dropped).
I knew there was a gap in the market for bluegrass mandolins and the initial plan for guitars was to stock well known quality brands that were not available locally. Then one day I was reading Acoustic Guitar Magazine, I noticed that there were many American small-(work)shop and individual luthiers that were not represented in the UK. As I was planning to stock mandolins from small makers and individual luthiers this seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve always had an aversion to `big business’ and `men in suits’, so this seemed like a way to do something that I loved and fitted with my personal philosophy.
I thought that it would be great to deal directly with the luthiers that build the instruments and have their names on the headstock, rather than reps who in most cases know nothing about the instruments and have even less interest in them.
I went into a music shop in my local area. It had a couple of mandolins on the wall, both in the £100 – £200 range, like most of the guitars on display. The instruments were festooned with alarm wires and big notices warning customers not to touch the instruments. By contrast, when I visited Mandolin Brothers in New York recently, Stan Jay, the owner, welcomed me into the shop and told me that is was my duty to try every instrument in the shop. The mandolin prices ranged from $500 to over $25000!
How do you feel customers should be regarded when they visit you?
I’m with Stan on that one. I try to establish a customer’s needs and invite them to sit in the playing room. I then bring them a succession of mandolins (tuning them up first).
I tell them not just about the instruments and woods but also about the makers. I know most of them and it is important to me (though not to everyone) that the maker is someone I like and respect. I see myself as the contact between the maker and player. Customers can’t visit the makers but I can tell them about them. Most luthiers don’t have the time to spend with a customer who might be there a day and then buy elsewhere – that’s my job – and they don’t carry any stock..
Once I have an idea of what might suit them I leave them in the playing room with a selection and try to shut up and leave them to play. I try to give them as much information as possible to help them make a decision and point out that my views are just that, though having said that I will not stock any mandolin that I think is not a quality instrument for its price and a good mandolin. I would normally expect a customer to spend anything from one to five hours choosing but it can take days. Some know what they want, try it, buy it, and leave.
People often comment that it’s hard work! That’s a shame but many people have never seen more than two or three mandolins at a time and often none of the type and quality I am showing them. So it’s not surprising if I show them twenty hand-made F5s or F4s and they get a little overwhelmed. A coffee/lunch break often helps, but many have traveled a long way, sometimes from other countries, and are staying in Brighton overnight so they will often narrow it down on the first day and come back the next. I would hate to have to choose just one myself.
What sort of people are your customers? Given that you sell high quality – and therefore expensive – instruments, I wouldn’t have thought you get a lot of casual buyers dropping in and coming out with a top grade mandolin or guitar.
Very little of my trade is local. Most of what I sell is only available from me in Europe so people come from all over the UK and other European countries.
It’s hard to define a typical customer but most are keen amateur players, generally over thirty. Some are excellent players, others novices wanting to start with a quality instrument. I can remember when I thought it was a shame if a top end instrument was owned by a beginner but then a couple of things happened. First, I was in Denver many years ago and was invited by Harry Tuft at the Denver Folk Lore Centre to his monthly play-in.
There was a guy there playing the most beautiful guitar I had ever seen or heard. He played very badly; “What a shame,” I thought. But as I thought about it it occurred to me that it was better he spent his cash on a fine guitar than an SUV or assault rifle (lots of those in Colorado). Second, having a good instrument does make you play better!!! But only because if you have something that you just can’t put down it makes you play more. Unfortunately this is the only way to improve (I know I’ve tried getting better by looking at instruments) .
The mandolin is a far more prominent instrument in American bluegrass, country music and other `folk’ music forms than it is here. There are, therefore, many more individual American luthiers and small `boutique’ factories than in the UK. How do you think British luthiery stands up in comparison to that across the pond?
Since you last interviewed me I have stopped selling new flat top/folk mandolins and specialised in carved top and back mandolins – I refer to them as bluegrass mandolins though technically this is not correct term and they are great for all kinds of mandolin music. The quality of British lutherie for folk mandolins varies enormously, there are very few British bluegrass mandolin makers that are of professional standard.
You could also refer to the bluegrass mandolin as an American mandolin. Many of the US luthiers I work with started in the 1970s when there was a dearth of quality mandolins available. Others are recent arrivals. The big difference is their exposure to quality work, between festivals and various get-togethers there is a great pool of knowledge that is commonly readily shared.
Given the instruments to which you have access, I’d like to know what instruments you own yourself and why you chose them.
For cashflow reasons, and that I have several on order due soon, I recently put up some of personal collection for sale. My personal interest is in mandolins that are a bit different, hence one of my keepers is my Melondolin by Bill Bussmann (Old Wave), I also have a beautiful contemporary style A by Andrew Mowry, an Eclipse due from Hans Brentrup, an Elite A from Bruce Weber and a ten string mandolin/mandola from Lawrence Smart. I am sure there will be many more to come..
There is much discussion in the mandolin world about the right sort of instrument for particular types of music: oval hole for Celtic and Jazz, round back for classical, f-holes for bluegrass and so on. Many players seem to adhere to these rules, with notable exceptions being Simon Mayor who plays every style on his f-hole Vanden and Niles Hokkanen with his oval hole F4. Where do you stand on this issue?
My personal tastes have changed over the years though my answer has always been whatever does it for you is right. I try always to bear this in mind when talking to customers. It’s definitely true that we all have a different ideal mandolin sound running through our heads. I don’t think you have to have an F5 for bluegrass or an oval hole for folk, you should have the mandolin that works for you.
Looks are also important, your instrument has to look great to you as well as sound good. We all try to tell our selves and friends that the sound is most important but I think it has to look great. If you always wanted an F5 then get one! If highly figured maple does it if for you then go for it. I have bought instruments in the past because they had spectacular woods!
What advice would you give in terms of buying a mandolin to the absolute beginner on a budget? What about to the more experienced player wanting to move up to a good solid wood mandolin without spending the Earth? And what about if the sky were the limit?
It’s always best to play an instrument if you can.
For the beginner, buyers beware! I don’t sell entry level instruments now. It is important to realise that the cheapest isn’t always the best deal, a bad sounding, hard to play instrument isn’t worth having.
It is also essential that the shop knows what they are doing. Have they set it up properly? (For instance do they know how to position the bridge on an adjustable bridge mandolin?). Can they answer all your other questions about strings, picks, playing and whatever else you need to know?
When considering mid range instruments, all I stock now are Eastman, I have been selling them for years and find them to be great value, a definite step up from entry level instruments but not as good as small workshop or individually made instruments. I can’t comment on others that I haven’t played.
At the top end.. It’s not a science thankfully and people hear and see things differently so it comes back to the individual again. My best advice is to visit, spend as long as you like and I will show you some wonderful instruments. The more you spend the more important it is to see and play the instrument before you buy.
I would also recommend being wary about buying abroad on several levels. First; price, it may look cheaper in the US but by the time VAT, duty, shipping etc, etc are added it should be no cheaper than buying from me. Instruments shipped and under-declared can’t be insured. Also don’t try bringing in instruments undeclared or under-valued these days. The customs guys can use the internet…(and they confiscate and fine and you get a criminal record..) Second; service and warranty issues. If your instrument was bought in the USA and it needs warranty work you will have to pay to send it both ways. I take care of all warranty issues at no cost to my customers. Third; delivery companies and paperwork/customs etc., can be a nightmare, I do it most days of the week and it still drives me crazy.
What has changed and are your plans for the future?
As well as stopping selling entry level mandolins I have stopped doing almost all accessories. There is just me in the shop now and my technician two days a week. I earn enough to get by doing something I love doing, selling fine hand-made guitars and mandolins. The only future change I am that may happen is to move to an upstairs or off main street premises. I am also considering going to appointment only.
If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
What would be your reaction if a friend sat on your favorite mandolin?
To shoot myself for leaving it where he could sit on it.
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Ian Harris Interview
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