1930s Slingerland Songster 181

The archtop mandolin was created by Orville Gibson in the 1890s, but it was several decades before the archtop came to dominate the mandolin world. There are several reasons for this. The original archtops featured hand-carved tops and backs whose production was lengthy and labor-intensive (and therefore expensive). The early Gibson archtop mandolins were not louder than contemporary flat-top instruments. The tone was also different than what mandolinists were used to hearing from their flat-backed and bowl-backed instruments. With the rise of bluegrass music in the 1940s, however, the archtop sound became the iconic signature of the mandolin.

Many brands attempted to compete with the sound of Gibson mandolins, but few made a significant dent in the market. Some tried their own variation on the carved-body concept (see my Martin 2-20 for one example), while others went for a cheaper approach in an attempt to woo those who couldn’t afford a Gibson. Pressing a piece of wood into shape, rather than carving it, quickly became a popular way to manufacture archtop mandolins and guitars. The practice had been used at least as far back as the turn 20th century (see my Howe-Orme mandolinetto, for example) but was now being used to mimic a more laborious construction technique.

I have always been keen to point out the difference between “affordable” and “poorly made”, and this Slingerland model 181 Songster mandolin makes an excellent demonstration piece. It was a mid-priced instrument, selling for the same $25 as a Gibson A-00. Where the carved-top A-00 made economies with minimal decoration (early ones had a flat back, too), the Songster has a bent top and back and more elaborate trim. The sound of the two instruments is different, the Slingerland could not be said to be objectively poorer in tone. It’s certainly as loud as the average A-00, if not even louder. It has a good mix of firm bass and cutting highs, allowing it to stand out in a string band while playing either solos or chords.

The Songster is a well-built instrument as well. It is made entirely with solid woods, though some with laminated backs have been reported. The spruce and maple used in the body are of high quality, and there is some beautiful flame visible in the back and sides. The neck is built of a single piece of mahogany without a truss rod, but there has been no warping or twisting from the years of string tension. The mandolin is tastefully appointed with ivroid binding and Brazilian rosewood in the bridge and fretboard, plus the Songster line’s trademark sparkle inlays in the headstock veneer.

My mandolin is generally in very good condition. There are two cracks in the top that were repaired so tightly that they’re hard to see even close up. Everything is original, though the case (if it was ever sold with one) is long gone. The mandolin is surprisingly playable for a vintage instrument without a truss rod, and the original neck set is still perfectly aligned. It’s a fun mandolin to play – the 13 ¾” scale length gives it a surprising amount of volume and treble without sounding harsh.