History of Phoenix Mandolins

Rolfe Gerhardt has been building mandolins since the early 1970s. Actually, his instrument building began even earlier, during the folk music era, when he attempted to build a mandolin-banjo by putting a 5-string neck on a “potato-bug” body. That interesting failure encouraged him to find an antique Mandoline-Banjo and copy it in Brazilian rosewood. With the $25. from that first sale, he went on to copy a dulcimer and a lute and then, when he moved from Maine to San Antonio, get involved in American folk and bluegrass instrument repairs in addition to his full-time employment as a minister.

In the early 1970s, there were no books or resources on repair work, so he set about to teach himself by doing the work. While learning the ropes with instrument repairs, he built two guitars — a custom model for a folk singer and a copy of an early Martin D-45. He also built several banjos, but the mandolin intrigued him since it was the only instrument, during the resurgence of American folk instruments, which the traditional American manufacturers failed to reproduce with quality. Not even the Japanese had then learned to make a passable mandolin. So, starting with some plans obtained from Benny Cain, and observations of a local Gibson Loar F-5, Rolfe made two reproductions of the legendary 1920s Gibson F-5 mandolin. He began experimenting with mandolin design. This was the beginning of the Unicorn line.

A basic model sold back then for $640, and now brings twice that or more from vintage collectors. A variety of top-of-the-line models featured abalone trim on top and back and theme inlays, such as the Bicentennial model with mother of pearl stars and tiny red-white-blue wood purfling next to the abalone purfling.

Rolfe built 149 mandolins (including the F-5 copies) before selling Unicorn to Dave Sinko in 1980. Dave eventually moved Unicorn to Nashville and built some excellent mandolins from 1981 through the late 1980s before his demand as a premiere sound technician mothballed Unicorn. Dave graciously gave Rolfe permission to use the trademarked Unicorn vine inlay on the Deluxe model.

The sale agreement for Unicorn included a clause that Rolfe would not build mandolins for ten years. He didn’t last that long. In the late 1980s, Rolfe started dreaming of mandolins again, especially dreaming of how all the technological advances in musical instrument construction could be applied to mandolins.

Phoenix, of course, was named to intimate a metaphorical return from the “ashes” of his days of building Unicorn mandolins, but the name also had the possibility of some great inlay designs. The first attempt at a Phoenix mandolin was based on the F-5 but with the scroll carved as the head of a Phoenix, the headstock incorporating a prominent phoenix inlay, and the headstock outline following the inlay — the only zoomorphic mandolin design being built today. The new design eliminated the truss rod and all its problems, substituting a graphite-epoxy stiffener which works amazingly well, used graphite-epoxy in the tone bars and changed the sizes and locations of the bars according to new studies of violin and guitar physics, and incorporated new adhesives. But the carving work on the scroll and the fussy binding work reminded Rolfe how much he hated that F-5 style, and after six months of puttering, he put the unfinished prototype in a box, and went back to dreaming about new mandolins.

The two-point or cutaway design next occurred to him, and he built two of that shape with the phoenix inlaid headstock; they are the prototypes of today’s Ultra. Then he went back and finished the original F-style that had been sitting in the box and began another F-style while working on jigs and fixtures for the two-point design. It was two-point models all the way from there except a third and final Phoenix F-style was finished in May 1997; all future models will be the two-point design since the tooling for the F-style has been destroyed or converted.

There were many small but significant changes in the progression of Phoenix mandolins. All are excellent instruments, but the refinements matter. Friends and other builders made many helpful suggestions that refined the mandolins. John Montelone suggested the radiused fingerboard and his finger-rest design inspired the Phoenix finger-rest, which Al Boehly further refined. Evan Reilly, a friend from many years back, inspired the Bluegrass prototype and provided a Loar F-5 for study and measurement. Jim Payne, a local musician in Richmond, offered a wonderfully critical ear and player’s perspective and tested each mandolin after it was completed. Bob Benedetto’s jazz guitars inspired the artistic approach to the Neoclassical. And many more builders and players have offered suggestions. Today is a great time in which to be building instruments because the interchange among builders, most of whom belong to A.S.I.A. and the G.A.L., is so open and helpful. At the beginning of the Phoenix venture, Rolfe said that if he could not build a better mandolin than his successful now-vintage Unicorns, he would not bother. That has not been a problem; the Phoenix mandolins have set new standards.