- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - James Bernabe’s nondescript backyard workshop is a hideaway of sorts.

While jazz plays on a tabletop boombox, Bernabe painstakingly transforms slabs of spruce and maple into musical works of art. A real-estate man for part of the day, Bernabe spends the much of the rest of his time as a mandolin maker and musician.

“I wanted a mandolin to play but couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars that a decent production model cost,” he said. “This was all pre-Internet days, around 1996. So I found this book, ‘Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin,’ I still have the very book.”

Bernabe made his first dozen or so by the early 2000s, “but they weren’t very good.”

He said none of those early instruments survived. “I would take them apart and try to make them better.”

Bernabe makes six to eight instruments a year in his Ardmore workshop, selling each for about $4,000. He is currently working on three instruments simultaneously, numbers 32, 33 and 34, with 33 crafted especially for Harry Clark of the bluegrass band Volume Five. His mandolins are played by local and national touring musicians Mark Schimick, Jamie Harper, Mimi Naja of Fruition, and Daniel Justin Smith of Big Daddy Love, who owns two. And Bernabe has played with bands like Possum Jenkins, The Loose Cannons and now with Blue Dogs out of Charleston, S.C.

His love for music started when he was young.

“My dad was getting into bluegrass music after moving to Elkin from Denville, N.J. We had kind of a family band. Dad played guitar, my brother played banjo, and I started played mandolin about 11. Two other guys played with us.”

By the age of 14 or 15, Bernabe said he quit the mandolin.

“It was like an accordion. It just wasn’t cool. Kids didn’t play mandolin, and they didn’t play bluegrass music.”

He picked up the guitar while serving in the Marine Corps and has played all kinds of music - jazz, country, rock - but by his late 20s, things had come full circle and he was back to playing mandolin.

Bernabe likens mandolin making to beer brewing and the growth of microbreweries.

“You’ve got the big guys out there like Gibson and Fender, Martin for guitars. But there has been a renaissance of mandolin and guitar makers. There are a lot of them out there; not all of them make good instruments.”

“There are three things that make a good mandolin,” Bernabe said, “it’s got to look good, it has to be easy to play, and has to sound good - the last two being the most important.

“It’s hard to get a big sound out of that tiny body,” he said.

As far as the appearance of the instrument, Bernabe said, mandolin makers are judged by how well they can carve the scroll on the body.

“The appearance will get someone in my door, but it all boils down to the tone and responsiveness and if it feels good playing it.”

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Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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