It’s Thursday morning, Nov 1st and just a day and a half left before the Harp Guitar Gathering madness begins.

About noon, while host Joe Morgan is off wrangling the final files at Kinkos and other errands and the women settle in for collating and sales table prep, they inexplicably give Frank and me a couple hours off.  This gave us the perfect (and only) opportunity for a last-minute lucky break to visit a brand new Dallas-area friend, Matt Woods.  We grabbed Hiro from the hotel and quickly took off.  (All but 1 of the following photos are Hiro’s)

My introduction to (and subsequent invite from) Matt came via my Bohmann-historian pal, Bruce Hammond.  Bruce ended up coming for the entire Gathering (with goodies to show us) while Matt attended both concerts.

I had been told that Matt had the world’s largest and best set of Bohmann mandolin family instruments (other than one other collection in South Carolina, it’s probably the only set).  These are the c.1910 slope-shouldered, heavily domed top and back instruments that are like nothing else in American fretted instrument history – and extremely cool.  The whole set (and then some) was there: mandolin, tenor and octave mandolas, ‘cello, plus a guitar and a fascinating short-scale 12-string (6 course) mando/guitar something.  This alone would have been worth the trip.

But unbeknownst to me, it turns out that Matt is an aficionado (of ginormous scope) of the entire field of mandolin family and other 4-course (tuned in 5ths) instruments like tenor guitars.  For starters, he has the entire mandolin family set of nearly every American 1895-1920 manufacturer.  No collector or museum I know has so methodically and intelligently assembled such a group.  Somewhat like my own private museum hidden within Los Angeles, Matt may be the DFW area’s best-kept secret.

The A-shape Gibson set (I’m admiring his mandobass, which is more complete than mine) with the Lyon & Healy set in front.

I expect that everyone will know (and share in and enjoy) Matt’s monumental efforts and care he gives these instruments before too long (a groundbreaking project in the works that I was honored to witness).  But that’s his surprise for later.

Fine banjos – mostly tenor and plectrum, plus some guitar-banjos.

A one-of-a-kind, early Stahl Larson brothers octave mandola, with an unusual, almost round body, that he acquired from Bob Hartman.  Yes, the whole “normal” (and still rare) Stahl mandolin family set is there.

Speaking of Larsons, he also had a nice Dyer Style 5 he got from Bob.  The subs of a harp guitar remain the only thing in his collection he hasn’t yet mastered.  Inspired by our two concerts he attended in the following days, that may change.

He’s even obtained a rare 7-bass c.1860 Scherzer while in Vienna.  In excellent condition, with the violin pegs replaced with 4:1 tuners.  Frank wants it.

Not surprisingly, Matt also has a Gibson U harp guitar…or does he?  No, it is not a one-of-a-kind custom Gibson harp-mandocello, but that’s what he turned it into!  Missing the original tailpiece, and not being a harp guitarist, he figured, why not?  Normally, I’d be horrified at the prospect, but let’s face it – Gibson’s are pretty common, although this is a rarer 1920’s version with separate “stair-step” bridges and 11 subs.   The original configuration would have looked like this.

What blew my mind was the sound.   Gibson archtop HGs have a deserved reputation for sounding – well, pretty lame on the neck.   But what a mandocello it makes!  Even without counting the intense resonance of the basses, it sounded like a super-K4.  I would have loved to walk away with this one.  Heck, if the contemporary mandocello hadn’t seemingly lost its musical momentum (from the Marshall-Angor heyday), I’d seriously consider a side business of converting Gibson U’s into harp-‘cellos!

The size of this one also felt different somehow.  In measuring, I discovered that where my ‘teens U is 18-5/8” wide at the lower bout, this was a full 19”.  That mere 3/8” or so makes a big difference.

Matt has done various other conversions to instruments that are otherwise not worth preserving in original condition.  Another favorite was the distinctive Gibson Style O Florentine guitar converted (beautifully, by a local luthier) to an octave mandola!

Matt kept imploring us to play these instruments, which we were all somewhat loathe to do, due to their value, condition, and rarity.  But that’s what he insists they are for.  And they only come out on display once or twice a year (he times one such for his friends around the Arlington Guitar Show, which just happened to be the prior weekend).

Hiro finally got into it with a fantastic-sounding 14 fret National Style O, while Matt jammed on a tenor.  Ever more impressed with Hiro’s musicianship, we were amazed to hear him improvising hard-core jazz and blues.

Thanks for the incredible visit, Matt!

Next: Our first authentic Texas barbeque, and last night of relative peace…

HGG10 blog series starts here