a Moon Beam
Bluff luthier's mandolins shine
in a universe of imitators
|Glenn Robertson taps the edge of a mandolin body with a bass drum
hammer as he tunes the top. The soundboard of a mandolin must be
carefully carved to properly transmit sound. The Poplar Bluff luthier
builds 10 to 12 mandolins each year.
Glenn Robertson holds
the partially constructed body of a musical instrument to his ear and
gently thumps it with the felt hammer of a bass drum. He listens intently
to the wood resonate as he watches a sophisticated display on his workbench.
The device, a stroboscopic tuner, shows him the exact pitch of the
vibrations emanating from his mandolin soundboard.
which areas of the body are vibrating freely and which are not, he
lays the project on the bench and carefully trims the instrument’s
internal bracing with a small plane. The procedure is repeated until Glenn
is satisfied. When he’s finished, the gracefully arched soundboard
will resonate like a speaker.
“You have to
convince it that it’s a mandolin,” Glenn says. “Sometimes,
it thinks it’s still a tree.”
Glenn builds mandolins
in a small shop near Poplar Bluff. He is also building a reputation
for stunning instruments that recall proven designs while setting new
standards for sound quality and ease of play.
F-style mandolins are closely modeled after designs originated
by the Gibson company, he incorporates subtle differences that
make the instruments favored by players.
have a traditional mandolin. I think we build a better mandolin than
a traditional mandolin,” says Glenn, who markets his instruments
as Moon Beam Mandolins. “I truly believe I’ve found a better
The mandolin is a
small, 8-string instrument that is tuned like a violin. Prior to the
early 1900s, mandolins were deep and rounded like a bowl. In 1898,
Orville Gibson patented a mandolin with a nearly flat back and arched
top, inspired by the way violins are made. The Gibson mandolin quickly
became one of the most imitated instrument designs in history.
body size, the body shape, the headstock shape — all those
things that Gibson does with their scroll and their headstock — there’s
a thousand builders out there all doing that same thing,” Glenn
just copying. They’re not trying to better the instrument.”
30 years old, Glenn has been making mandolins for the past 10 years.
Initially, he faithfully copied Gibson’s designs. But now,
having made more than 40 handcrafted instruments bearing the Moon
Beam logo, he’s begun to distance
himself from the pack of imitators.
|Glenn carves relief into the scroll area of a mandolin.
Moon Beam mandolins
differ from the Gibson formula in subtle ways. The body is imperceptibly
larger. There are minor cosmetic differences. Glenn’s color
offerings — or “illuminations” in Moon Beam
speak — lean
toward the wild side, with brilliant purples, reds and greens
in addition to the traditional brown and black most builders
are more pronounced. For example, Glenn says the body scroll that defines
Gibson’s ornate F-style
mandolin actually prevents the instrument from realizing its
full sonic potential. Glenn’s design features a scroll
that is actually part of the sound chamber.
Gibson scroll is really thick and that’s all excess
wood that’s taking away from sound waves. It’s
a dead spot, right there in the mandolin,” Glenn says. “What
I’ve done is the
opposite. I’ve actually made it a functioning part
of the instrument.”
The differences are
not lost on Glenn’s customers.
is a Hollywood special effects man who has worked on such films as “Speed” and “Apollo
13.” He also is an amateur mandolin
player and the proud owner of Moon Beam No. 35, an F-style
instrument finished in Majestic Moon, Glenn’s vibrant purple
is the most incredible instrument — the richness of the tone,
the sustain,” Bisetti
says. “I can’t say enough.”
checks his progress while sanding the edge of a mandolin.
of Glenn’s instruments when a co-worker brought
a Moon Beam mandolin onto the set of a film. Bisetti
played the instrument and was sold. “It
was perhaps one of the finest sounding instruments I’d
ever seen,” he
says. “I was just awestruck with it.”
immediately contacted Glenn through his Web site and
placed an order. Although he says he was prepared to
pay $8,000 for a mandolin, the Van Nuys, Calif., resident
was pleased to learn that Glenn’s instruments were more
The basic Moon Beam
mandolin costs $3,500. Upgraded woods, additional decorative embellishments
or other custom features add to the bottom line. Even without
elaborate ornamentation, each mandolin takes nearly
1,500 hours to construct. Just carving the top takes
Glenn typically uses
spruce, cedar or maple to build his instruments, but woods from fruit
trees, such as cherry, apple and pear, are also used. Most of his wood
is purchased from luthier supply houses but he can also tap into a
treasure trove of aged woods he was given when he first began building
Holding a small plank
of straight-grained sitka spruce, air-dried for 30 years before he
received it, Glenn says, “This
piece would be like a $500 upgrade on a mandolin, because it’s
one piece. It’s big enough to make a
|Glenn uses a tiny hand plane to remove material from the internal
braces of a mandolin. Building a mandolin requires nearly 1,500 hours
even know anybody else who uses stuff like that. It’s
so rare,” he says. “This stuff
instruments might seem expensive to the uninitiated,
actually a bargain in the world of hand-built
mandolins. American-made mandolins typically
cost $10,000 or more — often a lot
more. Highly ornate instruments or top-of-the-line
models bearing a popular musician’s
endorsement sometimes sell for $25,000.
seems outrageous. You shouldn’t have
to mortgage your house to get a good mandolin,” Glenn
says. “My whole purpose in building
these instruments was because I couldn’t
Glenn built his first
mandolin while attending the College
of the Ozarks, near Branson. A music major,
Glenn had played French horn and trumpet
in high school but now was taken with the mandolin.
He needed an instrument for his studies but neither
he nor his parents could afford one. Instead, his
father bought him a book on building mandolins.
With its carved top
and intricate body shape, the mandolin is one of the most complex instruments
to make. It’s hardly a project for a beginner. But
with his father’s help, Glenn
set out to do the improbable.
Cirillo, Glenn's fiancée, installs a tailpiece on
a Moon Beam A-style mandolin. Like the more elaborate F-style, the
A-style mandolin was poularized by the Gibson company
in the early 20th century.
dad has always been really handy
with wood,” Glenn says. “He
told me I could do it, and I did
That first mandolin
served Glenn well during college and carried him
through part-time work as a stage
musician, performing in Branson shows.
But the instrument-building bug had
bitten and Glenn continued to construct
Glenn learned to
carve the graceful arched top and tune the instrument’s
internal bracing. He became skilled
at shaping necks, bending thin wood strips for the instrument’s
sides and inlaying the abalone that create his crescent moon logo — a
shape he adopted initially because it was easy to carve.
quality of the instruments came rather quickly with me,” says
Glenn, who has since trained
his fiancée, Bobbie Cirillo, to help in the
shop. “By my third one,
they were really, really, really
that time, he’s continued
to refine his instruments
by experimenting with different
woods and perfecting his
|Glenn plays one of his mandolins while accompanied by his father,
Glenn Robertson, Sr., on guitar.
I have grown as a luthier.
And the instruments have
says. “The sound,
the tone, everything is
getting more complex right
their striking colors
or the subtle differences
in his designs, Glenn’s
mandolins appeal to players
looking for something
a little out of the ordinary.
Mickey Anderson of Hillsboro,
Ore., was looking for
just such an instrument
when she spied a Moon
Beam mandolin on eBay
and contacted Glenn.
described it as a sweet-sounding
appealed to me. I’m
a Celtic player so
tone was very important.”
Glenn builds about
10 to 12 mandolins
each year. Although
he says he would
like to increase his production,
or at least speed
up the time it takes to
carve tops, he’s
with the way his
business is progressing.
make 25, 30 a year,
but then I wouldn’t
have any time to
The Moon Beam logo adorns each headstock.
Glenn says he
hopes to continue to
build a dozen
or so mandolins a
year, while branching
out into other
as arch-top guitars
and the mandola,
a larger member
of the mandolin family.He’s working on songs he hopes to record with
his family and he continues to try to improve his instruments. And that, more
than anything, is what he says drives him.
not about making money for me. It’s about building the
I can,” he says.
“It’s a really happy time for me right
now because they’re
into something beyond what you can find anywhere,” Glenn says
of his mandolins. “I
to other mandolins,
and they have
For more information,
call Glenn at (573) 686–6044 or log onto www.moonbeammandolins.com.