SpeedNecking- a Story

SpeedNecking- a Story

By Brian Beker

One score and seven years ago, I sold a Lloyd Loar F-5. Included in the deal was a brand-new Gibson A-5L. The A-5 was okay, but that was it, and not because I was spoiled by the Loar. As a new mandolin, it was just holding something back, and I expected it to open up. It took years, but eventually it developed a pleasing, though never exceptional tone. The worst thing about it was its thick neck, a sharp V-profile under heavy, high-gloss lacquer, which created lots of friction. Every time I played that mandolin, for a quarter of century, I regretted that neck.

A well-regarded luthier turned down my request to reshape the neck, saying that its integrity would suffer. I took his word for it and kept playing until that sharp V started to hurt my hand. The mandolin started spending a lot more time in the case.

This was heartbreaking. It was my only mandolin. It had traveled the world with me. It had been in all of the Lower 48, in Europe, all over south and southeast Asia, even on the back of a motorcycle for a 6000-mile motorcycle trek through India and up to nearly 19,000 feet to the Tibetan plateau. I was never much good as a player, but I loved playing and didn’t like to go anywhere without my mandolin.

You know how you look inside your mandolin from time to time? I’m not sure what it is anyone might expect to see there, but it’s part of being a mando player and if you’re reading this, you probably know exactly what’s in your f-holes like I do. In mine, there are the Gibson factory labels, signed in 1990 by Steve Carlson.

A few months ago, out camping with my dog in east Oklahoma, I tried playing the thing. That sharp V dug in. It seemed like it was going to cripple my hand with permanent nerve damage. It occurred to me to track Steve down and ask him if there was room to safely trim the wood. Steve wrote back to say he took his old A5-L out to look it over, and sure, it could be done. He warned me, though, that it might look a little funny because of the way the flat of the back of the peghead tapers into the V of the neck.

Steve suggested asking Bruce Weber to do it. Had this not been an actual conversation, that’s when I would have said, “Bruce Weber? The Bruce Weber?”

I looked Bruce up online. Montana Luthiers did not yet have a web site, so he wasn’t where I emailed him.

I didn’t hear back. I wasn’t surprised. Yeah, right… Bruce Weber, whose name has faced countless audiences on the pegherds of countless prized mandolins in the hands of great players, was going to file a neck down for some guy whose only audience is a dog who looks like she wants to be returned to the shelter every time the mandolin comes out.

In the meantime, I was waffling anyway. What if I actually got the job done and didn’t like it? There wouldn’t be any going back. Maybe I ought to just leave it alone. Find another mandolin. Trade it in and done with it. No, couldn’t do that. It had been with me too long. It had weathered and aged, the finish was checked. If it wasn’t for that awful neck, it was beautiful. There just had to be a good mandolin wrapped up in that one.

But then (the poor dog and I were camping in West Virginia by then), the phone rang. It was Bruce. It had taken someone some time to forward my email to him., but as soon as he got it, he called.

The amount of time Bruce spent on the phone with me must have set his building schedule back. He wanted to make sure I had every opportunity to try to convey what I hoped for. Just talking about getting rid of the painful V made me feel better. And the gloss lacquer? Begone! I expected the raw wood look of a speedneck to be on the annoying side, but that mando was already as uniquely worn as an old boot. So what if it got a little weirder.

He said he’d be happy to do it. I shipped the mandolin to him from a little country post office up in the panhandle on a Friday.

Bruce let me know when got the mando on the following Monday. By Tuesday he was texting me progress pictures. When the wood was trimmed, he sent another picture to ask if he should apply a touch of tint to bring out the figuring in the maple or leave it blonde. We went with a light tint. And then another photo when that was done. In the course of our talks, we had begun to discuss a favorite topic for both of us — dogs — and Bruce texted me a picture of his new puppy Ranger playing in my packing material.

It was looking good. When Bruce got it strung up, he determined that the original pearl nut was producing a slight buzz (I had been suspecting one and could never figure it out) and asked if he should change it. My choice: bone or pearl. He said bone wouldn’t last as long but would warm the tone up a bit more. I went with bone.

On the Friday of that same week, the mando arrived (in Maine, then) via Priority Mail. That’s worth repeating: Bruce got it on Monday in Montana and I had it back, by Friday of the same week, without expressing it.

I was surprised at how anxious I was when I unpacked it. I mean, I might have asked for something that I might not have liked. I would know the second I put my hand around the neck.

And it did, in fact, take only a second. It was the neck I had hoped for. The only mandolin I had ever played that it resembled was the one on my old Loar. Even with the strings still detensioned for shipping, I knew this was perfect. And though some folks might not find the way the black finish at the heel and top of the neck on any speednecked mandolin might look, it’s beauty surprised me. Much more so than the bulletproof lacquer there was before (by the way, the nitro on the body isn’t like that at all – it’s finished beautifully). The tiger-striped grain in the maple shifts in the light. Why such a beautiful piece of wood was ever covered up is a mystery.

Steve Carlson’s warning about the neck looking odd where the flat of the back of the peghead meets the neck, was handled perfectly by Bruce. He sculpted it beautifully to preserve the V at the bottom of the peghead. There is no indication of any line being off at all. It is artistry. The feel of the quality of the instrument was changed entirely.

On the change in playability from speednecking: the before and after is mindblowing. All friction is eliminated. Position shifts that I used to believe were beyond me are coming easily. The difference in no hand drag is huge. It is as great an improvement as the flatter neck profile is.

In case you’re wondering just how big a bribe it took to get someone of Bruce Weber’s caliber to do the neck, replace the nut, dress the frets, take the action down as far as it would go (what a great setup this mandolin has now!) and swap out the tuners for some play-at-home hobby player — and do it in two days… well, I’d rather not say. I’d hate to alert him to what might well have been a serious accounting error in my favor. I doubt that, though. I think Bruce and Mary just don’t suffer from the affliction of greed.

All in all, nothing about this whole escapade was less than ideal. Master luthier perfectly enhances mandolin to where I now love it. It sounds, feels, and even looks, better than it ever did. I don’t know if a bone nut can account for that much of a difference or if the removal of some wood or the finish does, but it is ten times the mandolin it ever was. I’m so glad I held off until fate and Steve Carlson steered me to Bruce. Bruce justified all my hopes in the mandolin, all the time and distance it’s traveled.

So, that’s my once-in-a-lifetime re-profiling and speednecking story. I used to turn that mandolin over and frown at that neck. Now I find myself gazing at it with a smile. It could not be improved.

To be completely honest, though, I should disclose that I did have one issue with the job, which I sent to Bruce immediately as a text that read MAJOR COMPLAINT: (I paused for a few seconds) and then reported that I was still not able to play like Bill Monroe.

Bruce texted back that he had forgotten to put the BM mojo in the box.

Well, at least he didn’t skimp on any of the BW mojo.

Brian Beker Author of ‘Notes From a Dog Rescue in Progress’, and upcoming book, ‘The Dog in the Clouds’. Check out his blog which is a memoir-in-progress about a dog sent for too short a time into a life on the run.   http://thedogintheclouds.com

Common Mandolin Repairs


Paint Your Face Blue and Adjust the Truss Rod

Paint Your Face Blue and Adjust the Truss Rod

Preventable Repair #2  

The neck on your instrument is bowed because the truss rod has been neglected.

There is a lot of fear involved in adjusting your instrument’s truss rod on your own, even by those who think nothing of sky diving or playing their mando in front of a huge crowd.  When adjusting the rod the neck often makes snap, crackle and popping noises- and then you start to sweat while thinking, ‘what have I done!?’  Some of this fear is generated by a few horror stories that make the rounds. Mary may have contributed by posting this picture, on MandolinCafe, relating that the rod was sticking out of the back of the neck.
   Yes, cringe worthy and anxiety producing however most adjustments are done with no problems at all. I posted it again because it’s very dramatic but mostly to show how important it is to keep an eye on the neck of your mandolin and keep up with needed adjustments. I believe that anyone and everyone should pay attention, at least monthly, to “neck health” and learn how to adjust the truss rod of their instrument. The picture above is an example of a truss rod that most probably was NEVER adjusted before, then an attempt was made to force straighten the necktrying to solve a problem created over years in a single hair rising session.  Over an extended period of time, if not corrected, the neck will settle into a position where the truss rod is no longer able to straighten, requiring some TLC from a luthier.

Why adjust the truss rod:  Environmental factors such as heat and humidity will expand and contract your instrument’s tone woods including the neck, affecting string height (action) and neck station. The strings exert pressure on the neck (and the top) pulling the peghead up towards the tailpiece. This string pressure is also the reason you should loosen the strings if your mando is going into long-term storage (be sure to dig it out of the closet or from under the bed to check the flatness of the neck periodically), or being shipped (with the possibility of taking a hit).

If your truss rod is not adjusted when needed (to keep the neck flat) eventually it will, at minimum, need a plane and re-fret and as worst case a new neck (as the picture above demonstrates). In reality, the truss rod is your friend.  It was a great invention that will keep your neck playable.

When to adjust the truss rod:  Monthly, changing seasons, travel, storage, uncomfortable or hard to play, noticeable bow in neck. See trouble shooting below.
However, after reading this please free to contact The Bruce if you need additional information or a pep talk.

Be brave of heart, paint your face blue and charge through the directions below.

The correct order in basic setup:  Truss rod, Action, Intonation.

The neck should be near flat as you sight down or lay the edge of ruler down the length of the fretboard on both the treble and bass edges.  Under full string tension, just adjust the rod 1/4 turn at a time, checking the neck as you go.  The neck may groan and pop a little. If the neck is slightly twisted, use the first edge to reach true as a good place to stop.

1.  To take relief (bow) out of your neck, tighten the truss rod. (turn CLOCKWISE)

2.  To relieve hump in the neck, (rare, unless you’ve over tightened the rod) loosen the truss rod. (turn COUNTER CLOCK-WISE)

  1. If the rod will not move or spins freely and you still have a bow, it would be best to visit a local luthier or send it to Bruce.

CHECK ACTION:  More often than not you’ll have to adjust the action (playability) after a successful adjustment session (the fingerboard is flat). Tightening the truss rod, bringing the neck back to true, will lower the action.  A good medium action on your mandolin is 1/16” from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the G string and a hair less on the E side.  Most mandolins will have some way to adjust your action at the bridge.  If you’ve over tightened the rod, the instrument will buzz on the first five frets at a good action.   

CHECK INTONATON:  If you’ve done either a major truss rod or action adjustment, the intonation my need to be tweaked.  If the instrument plays sharp at the 12th fret, loosen all but the outside G and E strings and gently move the bridge towards the tailpiece checking the intonation on the outside strings as you go. Small movements of the bridge will serve you well in this process.  If it plays flat, move the bridge towards the peghead.  When you are satisfied with the intonation you can bring the remaining strings up to pitch while insuring the saddle hasn’t started leaning towards the peghead as you go (we’ve had many sent in that turned out to be just the saddle leaning, robbing the instrument of tone and volume).

Note:  If you play with a high action, your bridge placement will be slightly closer to the fingerboard.


If you’ve made sure that the fingerboard is flat and the action correct but are still having issues perhaps the information below will help you figure out the problem.

1.  Buzzing
-While played open: action is too low, nut slots are too deep, or cut at the wrong angle. The nut should be replaced.

-while fretting at a single fret:  the next fret is too high.
-buzzes on frets 1-5:  truss rod needs to be loosened and adjust action.
-buzzes on frets 6+:  truss rod needs to be tightened and adjust action.

  1. One or more strings sound fuzzy or won’t note clearly as played up the neck:  slots in the saddle need to be recut at the correct angle.

    3. String goes sharp while playing:
    -String is sticking in nut slot:  first try graphite (pencil lead) in slots- slot may have to be widened or the nut replaced. 

    4. String goes flat
    -String is sticking in bridge saddle slot:  first try graphite (pencil lead) in slot- slot may have to be widened or the saddle replaced.
    -Machine heads may be worn and slipping.

    5. Instrument will not intonate
    (If you’ve recently changed your strings make sure your saddle is not flipped, bass for treble, and that the bridge is not sitting at a steep angle across the top of the instrument.

If intonation at the 12th fret:
-Plays flat :  move the bridge towards the peghead
-Plays sharp:  move the bridge towards the tailpiece
I hope this helpful! Once again, don’t hesitate to contact (LINK) me with any questions or concerns you may have.