Reproduced with permission of  The Local Planet Weekly  of Spokane, WA

The Stradivari of North Idaho

The Heritage of Mandolin Maker R. L. Givens

by Aaron Bragg

Published on 3/7/2002

Rich Strong is afraid to take his mandolin out of his house. The Chicago newsman figures it’s worth far too much – as much as $50,000 or more – to risk even the remotest threat of damage. "It’s a unique instrument that can never, ever be replaced," he says. Speaking with the kind of hushed reverence usually reserved for metaphysical questions, Strong acts as though the instrument were actually a living, breathing entity. Its creator, R.L. Givens, has achieved a mythical status to both Strong and nearly anyone who has ever played a Givens mandolin.

Between 1962 and 1992, working mostly in North Idaho, Bob Givens handcrafted a few of guitars, a few hundred banjo necks, and almost 700 mandolins (the exact number is hotly debated). It is for his mandolins, though, that Givens will be forever remembered – idolized, even – by those who play the instrument.

"History will prove that R.L. Givens mandolins are the best-made in the world," said Strong, a professional musician since age 12. Strong is a thin and energetic man who used his booming voice to build a career first in radio and now in television. He knows sound and he loves the sound of a Givens mandolin. "They are tonally perfect from instrument to instrument. And yet there are more Stradivarius violins in existence today than there are Givens mandolins. Figure that out."

An instrument from Italy

There are perhaps as many varieties of the original Italian mandolin as there are those who make them. Traditional American mandolins – with a flat back and slightly arched belly – are descended from the Sicilian variant of the Neapolitan style, which has four pairs of strings and is tuned in fifths like a violin. While the American mandolin figures prominently in bluegrass, its predecessors can be heard in the music of Vivaldi and countless sub-genres of European folk music.

Bob Givens knew that nobody made a decent American mandolin – not since 1925, anyway, when Lloyd Loar made his last Gibson F-5. Loar was a brilliant acoustic engineer who’s also credited with inventing the electric viola, and it’s his mandolin that Bill Monroe – the acknowledged father of modern bluegrass – played. Monroe’s instrument was one of about 125 that Loar produced. And though Givens himself wasn’t a mandolin player, he recognized a business opportunity when he saw it.

"Bob was an excellent machinist with the capacity to become a good musician. He just chose a different road," said Steve Weill, a Cocolalla, Idaho-area luthier who worked with Givens first in 1980-82 and again from 1990-92. "He was a guitarist with a good mechanical mind. And he saw a hole in the market."

Givens, barely out of high school but already with experience in tool and die, headed to Nashville armed with little more than "blueprints, panache, and talent," according to Weill (pronounced wheel – "without the ‘h’"). Once there, he set up a business plan and looked for a backer, eventually partnering with dobro legend Tut Taylor. The two purchased the old Harmony guitar factory at an IRS auction (in a twist of irony, Givens himself never once paid income taxes, unless it was during a short stint with the Coca-Cola bottling plant in L.A. as a high-schooler) and immediately went to work, contracting with the Baldwin Piano Company to market A-model mandolins under the "Ode" moniker. Givens was also producing custom, handmade mandolins to order, working 18-20 hours a day.

The partnership didn’t last long – about six months maybe. "Once they started turning a profit," said Weill, "the money started disappearing." Weill doesn’t know the details, though he concedes that there’s plenty of conjecture to this day. Whatever the reason, Givens didn’t wait to find out. "Around midnight one night, Bob backed his Jeep and Willys-box trailer up to the shop, loaded it up with tools and jigs, and headed west," said Weill. "He didn’t steal anything: he was an owner. He was just taking his cut."

Givens landed in Anacortes, ostensibly to continue where he left off in Nashville, but it was a brief stop. He soon found himself in Australia with Taylor on another deal that Taylor had put together. And though Taylor eventually bailed on Givens, leaving him to find his own way home, the timing was such that Givens was able to avoid the Vietnam draft. He stayed in Australia for about four years, picking up yet another trade along the way. "He was hired to weld pressure vessels," explained Weill. "But he didn’t know how. So it cost him a half-pint of whiskey a day to have a drunk teach him how – while he was already working as a pressure-vessel welder."

Watergate, the imminent end of the Vietnam War, the ensuing apathy about all things political, and a little money enabled Givens to slip back into the country with relative ease in the early seventies. With a reputation for quality work already firmly established, he eventually worked his way from California to North Idaho, where Weill met him in a Sandpoint bar in 1979.

"We shot pool and drank beer," said Weill, who looks every bit the North Idaho logger that he is. "Bob was a big man…Irish-looking, reddish-blonde hair, with big – no, huge – hands, unusual for a luthier... He was a common enough guy. It was a couple of months before I knew what he did."

Chuck Erickson, aka the Duke of Pearl, added, "Bob was kind of like…I don’t know, Prozac Guy or something. He talked slowly, quietly…it was almost soothing listening to him. I never once heard him raise his voice."

Weill, meanwhile, was building boats and custom cabinetry in a shop on 80 acres near Cocolalla – and starving. "I drug one of my 16-foot Whitehalls over to Bob’s shop," said Weill. Givens had built a trimaran before, and Weill wanted to show him his work. "Bob liked it. I told him I wasn’t making it, though, and I was going to have to find something else to do for a living." Givens offered Weill a job – at five bucks an hour – and Weill gladly accepted. "I was the only professional woodworker that ever worked for Bob, probably because luthiery is too time-intensive to pay what the pros are worth."

The Givens sound is born

In 1980, Givens began making both the soundboards and tone bars of his mandolins out of Englemann Spruce, a species that is chemically identical to European Spruce. The choice of wood is critical – the soundboard, or "belly," resonates as the strings are plucked or strummed, and the tone bars, placed under the feet of the bridge, likewise play an important acoustic role. Originally, Givens had used Sitka Spruce, which is more readily available and also a harder wood than Englemann. To Weill, the combination of the Englemann Spruce cut to a precise thickness makes for the unique and powerful Givens sound.

Rich Strong agrees – about the sound anyway. "I was at a [bluegrass] festival in Missouri. We played this huge cow palace, and the sound engineer kept complaining that my mandolin was just smoking him. That’s how much power a Givens mandolin has." But it’s a mystery to Strong, who cannot fathom that kind of volume without some loss in tone quality. "I don’t know how he pulled it off," he said.

Steve Weill knows. "There was never any artsy-fartsy mystic wood crap with Bob," he explained. "It’s attention to detail and tradition, that’s all." Also some reverse engineering: Givens, knowing full well the quality of the Gibson series crafted by Lloyd Loar, simply took one apart and studied it. The machinist in him understood the workings of the instrument, and the musician and woodworker in him knew what kind of tone and sound to extract from the wood. "Bob was a genius," said Weill.

He was also extraordinarily generous with both time and advice. "Bob was the only luthier on the west coast who would talk to me when I wanted to start building instruments," said Erikson, who first met Givens in 1965. "He was that confident in his ability that he wasn’t threatened by me at all. Bob kind of pre-dated the information-sharing that’s now part of this business."

It was Givens, in fact, who got Chuck Erikson started in the pearl-cutting and inlay business – a business that netted Erickson and his wife over a million dollars last year. "Bob was always willing to help out," said Erikson, a dead ringer for Santa Claus (or Jerry Garcia), "and he always had more work than he could handle. I practically had to give my instruments away, but Bob was always complaining about all the work he had." It got to the point where he secretly rented a separate shop, didn’t give out the address or phone number to anybody, and when a piece was ready he contacted the customer by pay phone so nobody could track him.

Givens mandolins are not especially noted for other-worldly craftsmanship – not that he wasn’t capable. Both Weill and Erikson agree that Givens was primarily interested in beauty of sound rather than beauty of appearance. "He had good artistic sense," said Erikson, "but he was a world-class builder, not a world-class craftsman."

"Bob would make ‘em pretty if that’s what they wanted," Weill added. "But it was never as important as a good sound." Rich Strong says that that sound is immediate, where most instruments take time – sometimes several years – to mature. "It’s an oddity when you pick up a brand-new mandolin and it sounds so good. But that’s the way Givens made them."

Some sounded better than others, according to Weill. "We had some we called ‘Killer,’" he said, "and still others were ‘Atomic.’ The Sugar Maple [used for the sides and back] is really reflective wood."

Strong knows that sound. "I first got hooked on a Givens mandolin the first time I heard one," he said. "It was near Effingham, Illinois, at Lake Sara Campgrounds in 1979. There was a bluegrass festival going on, and my band was playing there. Lucien Boyles played mandolin and bass with another band, The Downstate Ramblers, and he owned a Givens mandolin. I got to play it at a late jam session, and that mandolin just blew me away."

Givens may have been a world-class luthier – "…at least in the top five or six," according to Erikson – but he wasn’t making much money at it. At a time when Stivers mandolins were selling for $2000, an A-Model Givens could be had for less than $600. "He was wholesaling them for $390 in 1990," said Weill. By 1992, though – after 30 years – Givens was finally gearing up for mass production.

"I think he was ready to make some money at it," said Weill. "He doubled his wholesale price and had the amount of jigs he needed and seemed ready to go." Sadly, Bob Givens didn’t live to see it happen.

"He had developed some swelling in his neck," said Erikson. "But he hated going to the doctor. He thought maybe it was the fumes from the varnish, or maybe the glue." Givens spent hours in the library, self-diagnosing, self-medicating, anything but seeking professional medical attention. "He fought it off for two years with self-hypnosis," said Weill. "I think he knew it was serious."

Givens had lymphatic cancer. When he finally saw a doctor, a biopsy was ordered, and Givens refused. He resumed his holistic approach – learned from his mother – but it was too late. On a visit to Spokane to meet with his distributor on Christmas Day 1992, Givens suffered an edema and was rushed to the emergency room at Sacred Heart Medical Center. The cancer had metastasized. Three months later, surrounded by family at a hospital in Southern California where he grew up, Givens died. He was 50. "It was a senseless death," said Chuck Erikson. "If he’d gone to a doctor right away he could have been treated."

The Givens legacy

Suddenly, Givens mandolins were worth a lot of money – and today Steve Weill is troubled by that disturbing trend. "The instruments should be played," he says, "for that’s the gift that they are built to give and convey. To be put away in a ‘collection’ is a sacrilege…Bob put his heart and his soul into his mandolins."

Most who knew Bob Givens count him as a friend and teacher. To this day, both Weill and Erikson – and perhaps many more – read and discuss quantum physics, DNA evolution, or theology as a result of workshop conversations with Givens. "Bob was always searching," said Weill. "And I do believe he found what he was looking for before he passed on." Erikson agrees. "He was interested in everything," he said.

Above all, though, Bob Givens the Renaissance Man was "just a regular, easygoing guy," said Weill. And despite the mythic undertones surrounding the man and his craft, despite the veneration bordering on sycophancy of a couple of generations of mandolin players, Givens’s friends choose to remember him as something more than the world-class luthier that he was.

"Bob came to visit me once," recalled the Duke of Pearl. "He wanted to check out the bars around town while he was here. So we went…I drank 7-Up, and Bob got everybody else to pay for his beer." Among many of Givens’s talents, apparently, was darts. "He was good enough to go to Nationals," said Erikson, "though I don’t know whether he placed. It was a passion of his. He probably should have spent more time building instruments than playing darts." The locals of Grass Valley, California, got hustled by a modern-day Stradivari.

In a way, Steve Weill honors the memory of Givens through his own line of mandolins – the Givens Legacy series. In production since 1994, Weill’s instruments are named for Givens (with the Givens family’s blessing) not as an imitation but as a continuation of the master’s art, still incorporating over 2,000 steps in the building process, still with an ear toward the fabled Givens sound, still with a healthy dose of modesty. "Perfection isn’t found down here," Weill said.

Rich Strong knows otherwise. As far as he’s concerned, his Givens A-Model, serial number 387, handmade by R.L. Givens in October of 1987 in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, is proof that perfection is found in pieces of Sugar Maple and Englemann Spruce, an ebony fingerboard and a nickel-plated tuning set. And, above all, that sound, of which "…there can be only one."

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