1975 Dobro Safari Mandolin

The Dopyera brothers never let popular conventions dictate their designs or their business decisions. In the late 1960s, four decades after the foundation of the original National and Dobro companies, the various brothers began several new ventures. Most of them were short-lived; the Dopera Original banjos, for example, probably total well under one hundred pieces. One venture, however, would have greater staying power: in 1967, Rudy and Emil Dopyera started a company that, within a few years, would morph into OMI and carry ownership of the Dobro brand into the 1990s.

Indeed, the 1970s saw a genuine renaissance for Dobros. Not only were they widely available, but the new Dobros were of higher quality than any previous instrument to bear the name (including both the original pre-War instruments and the Mosrite-built instruments of the 1960s). OMI expanded somewhat on the traditional Dobro product line, introducing a few biscuit-cone models, 12-strings, and a broader selection of brass-bodied guitars than the original Dobro company ever did. They even revived the resonator mandolin, offering the mahogany-bodied Ampliphonic (later re-designated the Model 15) by the mid 1970s.

In 1975, recognizing that the US bicentennial was approaching, Rudy Dopyera commissioned some special instruments to commemorate the occasion. A series of spider-cone resonator mandolins were announced, available in three models. Two models featured mahogany bodies, but the third was a more radical departure: the first brass-bodied mandolin with a spider cone, and the first metal-bodied mandolin since the mid 1940s. That much demonstrated that Rudy was still innovating at the sprightly age of 80, but the other features were even more unexpected. Most of the mandolins would not feature the Dobro brand name but a new one instead: Safari. I have no idea where this name came from, but it was complemented by a headstock decal showing an explorer in full gear and pith helmet.

Known Safari mandolins all seem to be different, but many of them share a few traits. Despite there nominally being two models made of wood and one of brass, the majority seem to be made of brass. They all have extensive engraving and chrome plating (confined to the cover plate and tailpiece on the wood models). Most have simple maple necks (probably single pieces of wood), apparently without a truss rod; mine is the exception in having a 3-piece mahogany/maple neck and adjustable truss rod. Most have broad hand rests reaching most of the way across the cover plate, though mine has a narrow one similar to the Ampliphonic model. Engraving patterns vary widely; more surprisingly, so do scale lengths.

At least one Safari-type brass-bodied mandolin was completed in 1980 bearing only the Dobro brand name. OMI was not averse to customization, and it’s possible that they used the existing dies to make a new instrument. My mandolin appears to be unique, however, in bearing only the Dobro brand with a 1975 serial. (I still call it a "Safari", as it must have been built around the same time as the others). I have considered the possibility that mine is a prototype, as it bears several other odd features. The tuners are similar to those used on the Ampliphonic, suggesting that they’re probably original, but the holes appear to have been drilled for a wider shaft. In addition, the intonation was noticeably off, as if the fretboard were intended for a slightly longer neck. (A replacement bridge saddle, offset toward the tail of the instrument, has greatly improved the intonation). At 13 5/8” the scale is close to standard for a mandolin but shorter than other Safaris.

Although some printed literature survives announcing the manufacture of the Safari series, very few were ever built and they never became a regularly-cataloged product. They remain a particularly obscure digression in the history of the Dopyeras’ creations, which is not to say that the more common Ampliphonic/Model 15 is widely known. The only famous player of a Safari mandolin that I am aware of is Levon Helm, who said in an interview that he owned two metal-bodied Dobro mandolins. He can be seen playing one during the closing theme to The Last Waltz.