CD & Book Reviews
Review of Mann EM-5
By Martin Stillion
Tennessee builder Jonathan Mann arrived on the e-mando scene a couple of years ago and is quickly making a name for himself. He graciously sent along one of his EM-5 "Manndolin" 5-string instruments for a review, and while gushing is not my style, I’m very pleased to have the chance to examine such a fine instrument.
The EM-5 is a great balance of aesthetics and cost-consciousness. It’s not exactly fancy, but neither is it no-frills. Mann’s commitment to simple elegance is evident in eye-catching touches such as a royal blue flame maple top and headstock veneer (which would be a nice match for my blue 5-string fiddle, if I’m ever in the market), a custom ebony tailpiece and truss rod cover, understated mother-of-pearl fret markers, the signature Mann 3-piece maple/walnut/maple through-the-body neck, and a traditional adjustable ebony bridge with diagonal, rather than stairstep compensation (an approach I’ve always liked). On the other hand, there are no fancy inlays or binding, although the natural maple edge of the instrument’s top sort of looks like binding—a nice touch. The back and sides are natural mahogany. Workmanship and finish are excellent, with all joints and tool work clean and tight.
Once you seize the instrument and pick a few notes, you realize that Jonathan has focused a great deal of attention where it counts the most: on playability. The 9.5" radiused fretboard, banjo-size frets, and slim neck add up to a comfortable experience for the left hand, while the string spacing (1.1875" at the nut, 1.75" at the bridge) is ideal for 8-string mandolinists making the switch to five. Fretting is true, in tune, and easy all the way to the 24th fret, and the action was set just about perfectly, enabling me to get good picking response without a lot of left-hand noise. I know I’m playing a good instrument when new improvisations seem to spring out of it with just the slightest bit of coaxing from my fingers—and that was certainly true of the EM-5.
While Jonathan has built some solidbody instruments, the one at hand is hollow, with a single D’Aquisto-ish soundhole and a stylized electric guitar shape, sort of like a Telecaster that’s survived a taffy pull. Unplugged, it has a pleasing if quiet twang, but plugged in it’s more jazz than country. The DiMarzio “Cruiser” twin-rail humbucker, in the neck position, warms up the sound a good deal and responds evenly across all the strings (a more difficult feat than you might imagine, judging from the number of production e-mandos I’ve played where this is not the case). The expected volume and tone knobs do their job, but there’s a surprise: the tone knob also switches the pickup rails between series and parallel. Push it in for a good basic, clean sound (which is more than adequate in itself) and then pull it out when you want a little extra juice (for a lead break, let’s say). A handsome, whimsically cut black-white-black pickguard surrounds the humbucker, while the electronics are accessible via a plastic back plate. The input jack is located in the lower treble bout, while strap buttons occupy the endpin and bass bout. The tuners are single Grovers.
My nitpicks are minor, but a perfectionist like me always feels compelled to mention them. First, Jonathan has used gold hardware everywhere on this instrument except the bridge, which has nickel posts and thumbwheels. Five out of 10 mandolinists won’t care about this, and four won’t even notice. But then there’s the tenth guy, who always seems to be the one writing the review. Second, as a matter of preference I like to have dots on the bass edge of the fretboard, corresponding to the fret markers. Sometimes it’s dark up there on stage, and those dots can help you keep your place, especially when the ordinary fret markers are as small as the ones Jonathan uses. This instrument has no dots, but that’s easily fixed.
Finally, although Jonathan has used a. 052-gauge C string, there’s still a tiny bit of "flop" in it—the bane of every builder who attempts a 5-string mandolin. I should add that it’s much less floppy than what I’ve encountered elsewhere, and it’s quite manageable with a lighter pick stroke. I pointed this out to Jonathan, who opined that some flop is practically unavoidable with a standard 13.75" mandolin scale length, which is what the EM-5 has. He intends to make a batch of 14.5"-scale electrics (still very playable for most mandolinists), which he hopes will cure the problem. Sounds good to me.
With a serviceable gig bag, the Mann EM-5 checks in at $899, and for what you get at that price, it’s hard to think of a better value in the e-mando market. Jonathan seems unafraid to experiment, and he also appears to be here to stay—a rare combination, and, I hope, a successful one. For more information, visit Jonathan's Web site.