By Jon Chappell
There are usually two reasons to do something yourself rather than to pay for it to be done by someone else: 1) it’s cheaper; 2) you want to learn how something works, and you want to be enriched by the learning experience. Number 2 is definitely the approach of do-it-yourselfers. They operate on the principle that it doesn’t matter whether you can do a better job or that it takes you a long time (and ends up being more expensive in the long run). It's the process that's rewarding. An example of #1 is changing your own oil. If you buy four quarts of oil, a filter, and the filter wrench, you’ll save a lot more money than if you drive into the local Jiffy Lube. Building your own solidbody guitar is an example of #2. Chances are it's going to look a lot uglier than even a $300 off-brand version, especially your first time out, but you don't care.
For most DIY projects, from home improvement to modding my gear (instruments and electronics), I’m constantly faced with the above two questions. Often it’s not a clear-cut case of #1 or # 2, but some combination. That was the situation when I decided to make a “tone frame” for my mandolin. A tone frame is a structure that affixes to the back of a mandolin or ukulele in order to bring the instrument away from your body slightly, allowing it to vibrate more freely, creating a fuller tone with better projection and volume. Several world-class mandolinists use them, including Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Andy Statman, Mike Marshall, John Reischman, and Don Stiernberg.
To be perfectly accurate, these players endorse a certain tone guard called a Tone-Gard™, manufactured by Tony Pires (http://www.tone-gard.com). When I decided to get a Tone-Gard, I went to the Tone-Gard site. Fig. 1 shows an example of Pires' invention, which is both artful and functional.
Fig. 1. The Tone-Gard, manufactured by Tony Pires.
Pires offers many reasons for using his Tone-Gard. One compelling observation he makes is that Lloyd Loar, creator of the F-style mandolin (considered the standard design in bluegrass mandolins), was a classical player, and was always photographed in a seated position. Therefore, it is logical to assume Loar designed his mandolin to be played when seated. When you sit and play the mandolin, you rest it on your right leg and hold it away from your body. Indeed, photographs of classical mandolin players show them sitting erect and leaning forward—presumably creating a cavity of air between the back of the instrument and the body. Pires’ Tone-Gard allows for this same void in a standing position.
I was all ready to buy one of Pires’ Tone-Gards based on his elegant design and his description of the materials and the construction process. And if I had, I certainly would have gotten something that looked a whole lot better than what I could fashion myself using stuff around the house.
But something drove me to build my own, for much the same reason people make their own wine or beer in the basement: They may not wind up with something better than the store-bought variety, but they want to try it just because they’re curious as to the process. And making your own allows you to appreciate what’s involved more than those who don’t, even if you go back to pre-made versions of your project. So armed with such altruism, I came up with the Tone-Frame©®™☺. (Note that the last symbol indicates that the first three symbols are meant to be a joke.)
The best thing about my version is that you don’t have to spend one cent to make it. It’s made entirely from a wire coat hanger and tape (electrical or duct, your choice). You don’t even need any tools, except for a pair of pliers to bend the ends of the wire pieces. And I was perfectly happy to sacrifice any artfulnes if I could keep the functionality part and save money. Read on to see how I did it.
To make your version of the tone frame the way I did, start with an all-wire coat hanger (surely you must have one around, in case you lock your keys in the car). It’s faster to cut the coat hanger apart using snips, but I made the necessary individual pieces just by flexing the metal back and forth until it fatigued to the breaking point.
Fig. 3. A sketch of my mandolin’s back, with the lengths of the wire pieces labeled.
I found that though my homemade frame worked, it wasn’t holding fast to the instrument as I thought it would. Although the frame held its shape, it really needed some “elastic pressure” to grip the sides, and coat hanger wire doesn’t have this property. So I used a small bungy cord (you can buy bungy cords of various widths and lengths from any home improvement store; I bought the one in the photo at Home Depot). Threading the cord through the wire and cinching it tight caused the whole frame “shrink up” with elasticity and hold its position on the instrument without slippage. In the end, I had the guard that you see in Figs. 4 and 5.
Fig. 4. The back of my F-style mandolin showing my homemade tone frame installed. Note the bungy cord that supplies elastic pressure to the tape-wrapped three-wire frame.
Fig. 5. A close-up of the frame, showing the wire pieces joined by electrical tape.
I think that if I ever went out on the road, completing a mandolin trio with Ricky Skaggs and David Grisman (as if!), I’d buy a proper Tone-Gard from Tone-Gard.com. But right now, I record my mandolin at home in a standing position, and I enjoy the functionality of my homemade tone guard. With the frame attached, the insturment sounds fuller and louder, and I can mic it from over my shoulder, in the same way I mic classical guitar (also played in a seated position, away from the body)—because the sound is allowed to emanate from all sides of the instrument, including the rear. My apparatus for achieving this option may be ugly, but it’s definitely functional. And you can’t hear ugly when you record.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate #Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).