Weber Mandolins: Science to Song
By Emerald Butler
Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments was founded in 1996 when former Gibson general manager and luthier Bruce Weber decided not to move to Nashville with the Gibson Mandolin division. Instead, Weber continued building instruments in Montana and founded Sound to Earth Ltd. By 1998, Weber’s business and the team grew as they created 20 different mandolin models. In 2011, Weber met Tom Bedell, owner of Two Old Hippies Guitars. The two businessmen hit it off, and in 2012 Weber was incorporated into the Two Old Hippies family. Weber mandolins have a well-crafted reputation among bluegrass, folk, and Americana artists for being a versatile and valuable instrument.
Bruce Weber retired in the spring of 2016, but he left his company and his instruments in the hands of highly skilled craftsmen. Today, Weber instruments are signed off by luthier Ryan Fish. The Denver native found his passion for the instrument building craft while he was in high school. After messing up his Fender Stratocaster, Ryan took his guitar to a repair shop and instantly fell in love with the whole repair process. Ryan continued to pursue this passion at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduating, Ryan went to work with Modulus Guitars. A few years later at NAMM, Ryan dropped off his resume to Kim Breedlove of Breedlove Guitars.
He soon found himself moving to Breedlove’s headquarters in Oregon. It was at Breedlove that Ryan began making mandolins, but as the Two Old Hippies group expanded, so did Ryan’s opportunities. “When Two Old Hippies and Tom Bedell bought Weber, they moved out here and they were building alongside us. Being mandolin people, we just got to be close. I went to lunch with Bruce Weber and we were just ‘nerding’ out on mandolin talk, and then he asked me if I wanted to join the team.” It’s Ryan’s passion for music that seems to continually inspire his craft. “I love playing music,” Ryan stated, “I spent a lot of time playing the music, and I was building things so I like being able to build instruments that people play that give them the ability to write music and play music with friends and everything great that goes along with the music. I enjoy the details of different woods and everything you can do to impact the sound of the instrument and the quality that you build. I love the community of musicians and being surrounded by like-minded people.”
Ryan usually starts his workday at 6 am by
cutting dovetail neck joints or fretting the mandolins. Later in the week his morning work may start by stringing up mandolins, setting them up, and then doing final fretwork before signing it off to its new home. “It can be pretty diverse depending on what’s going on. We’ve got a great skilled team so we kind of move around and jump in where it’s needed.” The Weber mandolin team is made up of five talented luthiers including Mike Fischer, Scott Wegner, Dalton Bell, Erik Has-Ellison, and Ryan Fish. The team makes about three mandolins each week. The current mandolin models in production are the Heritage, Yellowstone, Bitterroot, and Gallatin series. From the traditional Diamondback F14 to the Exotic Paulina A20-D Special Edition Octave, Weber balances tradition and innovation for a variety of players. “I happen to like Adirondack Spruce tops,” Ryan began sharing his preferences. “They sound really nice, and they’re interesting to work with. They are the hardest of the spruces so you can graduate it to get a livelier sound out of it. Maple is fun to bend. Based on how each wood looks you kind of know how it is going to react.”
There are a ton of mandolins out there, so how do you tell if a good mandolin is good? According to Ryan, a good mandolin is “a combination of both good wood and attention to detail. Graduating the tops and backs makes a huge difference in the sound.” To do that, Weber has embraced science. “We put the instruments in a little machine that we’ve made that simulates string tension, so you know how each individual piece of wood is going to react underneath that string tension.” Still, the end of the production line is just the beginning. Every Weber mandolin is handcrafted in a consistent pattern for a unique player, and there the science will give way for the song.