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Interview: Steve Ryder of Steve Ryder Stringed Instruments

April 2011\First published in MelBay's Mandolin Sessions

by Joe Mendel

Like many folks Steve Ryder’s first interest in music came in elementary school, playing trumpet for a couple of years before getting his first acoustic guitar, which was very hard to play. Eventually he got an electric guitar and played in high school bands.

After that ran its course he kept playing, mostly jamming with friends. Eventually he got a copy of Irving Sloane’s, Classic Guitar Construction. Using that book as a guide Steve built a flat-topped acoustic mandolin and was soon hooked on building instruments and buying books and Frets magazine for information on building.

Joe Mendel: How did you decide on a mandolin as you first instrument? How much help was the Sloane book for building a mandolin?

Steve Ryder: I had been playing fiddle for a few years with some friends and when another fiddler joined the group I opted to take up the mandolin. Having most of the tools and materials at my disposal, I decided to try building one. Sloan’s book gave me some basic ideas on construction and the necessary info for special tooling needed and fret distance calculation.

JM: How did the first one turn out?

SR: It was an original design and came out nice with plenty of tone and loudness. Unfortunately the bracing was a bit too thin so it became a wall hanging after about a year.

JM: Have you and do you build instruments other than mandolins?

SR: I’ve also built several acoustic and electric guitars for friends and family members. The last guitar built was an OM style with a mahogany top. It has a nice tone and I still play it.

JM: What made you want to build an electric mandolin? How did you come up with the design of your first one?

SR: I guess because there weren’t many e-mandos available at the time and I was curious to explore some ideas that I had. The first e-mando was the EM-24 which I wanted to look as much like a Telecaster as possible.

JM: Would you give a little evolution of your e-mandos, from your early ones to what you are building currently?\

SR: Starting with a solid body model, the EM-24, next the line expanded to include two semi-hollow models, the EM-18 and EM-30. After that came an original design solid body with a bolt on neck and flat tailpiece – the EM-44 and 45. The EM-50 model is a semi-hollow arch top/flat back variation of the EM-30 and utilizes a tune-o-matic style bridge and stop tailpiece combination.

The latest additions are electric octave mandolins…the EOM-44/45 and EOM-54/58. The latter can be either flat-top or arch-top and will be offered on the web site soon.

JM: What is your most popular model? What is your favorite?

SR: The most popular is the EM-24. Presently I’ve been playing the EOM-58.

JM: Do you have preferred woods for certain models? Do you have a particular wood that you really enjoy working with?

SR: Alder and swamp ash give the best tone for solid body instruments and, the less weight the better. My favorite is mahogany. It’s easy to work with and looks great under a gloss nitro finish.

Finishing & refinishing

JM: Your finish work is very beautiful. How many different finishes do you use?

SR: Only one; nitrocellulose lacquer formulated for musical instruments.

JM: Do you recommend different finishes for various musical applications?

SR: It’s up to the discretion of the finisher as each type has its pros and cons. Hand rubbed oil is the simplest and most economical finish that provides some protection against moisture and liquids but very little protection against normal wear and tear. Oil and spirit varnishes are traditional finishes used by many luthiers, especially violin makers; but require a certain degree of skill to apply correctly. Catalyzed finishes, which are used mostly by manufacturers can be applied in a minimal amount of time but are more expensive than the others.

JM: Have you found methods that work well most of the time for you? Are you always looking for a new method of finishing or new finishing materials?

SR: For now I’ll probably stick with nitro but the toxicity is something to be concerned about so I may change to another type sometime in the future.

JM: What is your finishing schedule?


Day 1: Washcoat, (pore filler if open pore wood)

Day 2: For pore filled woods, sand away the pore filler on the surface and spray 3 clear build coats

Day 3: scuff with 400 grit

Day 4: spray color coats (if needed) otherwise 4 more build coats for a natural finish

Day 5: scuff with 400 grit

Day 6: spray 4 clear build coats

Day 7: scuff with 400 grit

Day 8: spray final satin coat if you want a satin finish, or a final washcoat for gloss.

For gloss wait 1 week, then sand level with 800 grit, wait another week and buff out with coarse grit followed by fine grit compound. For a higher gloss finish, buff with extra fine compound.


JM: How did you get into winding your own pick-ups?

S.R. I wanted to make a mandolin version of the Fender Telecaster and as there were no pickups for the bridge position available – the only way to do it was to make the pickup myself.

JM: Was there much information available on winding them when you set out to wind your own?

SR : The only readily available source was Donald Brosnac’s Guitar Electronics which provided a good starting point. I then spent countless hours in the city library looking for any information I could get on inductors, magnetics, and materials suppliers.

JM: How did you go about winding your first ones?

SR: I purchased a motorized hand-guided coil winder and dereeler from a manufacturer on Long Island, New York and started experimenting. The first ones were Stratocaster replacement single coil pickups that I made for some area musicians. After that I focused entirely on 3, 4 and 5 pole pickups.

JM: Pick-ups seem a little mysterious to many of us. How do you determine how you want a pick-up to sound, and how do you get the sound you want? What are the variables?

SR: There are several variables that determine the output of a magnetic pickup: some of which are wire gauge, insulation, number of wraps, type of magnetic material, size of magnet(s) and coil size and shape. What’s important is to make sure you get as even a response as possible across the frequency range of the instrument.

JM: Do the same principles apply to pickups for various instruments? For example, does what makes a fat sounding guitar pickup work for making a fat sounding mandolin pickup?

SR: Basically the principles are much the same from one instrument to the next but in general the smaller the pickup, the smaller the output and then you have to use active circuitry to get it high enough for the amplifier.

JM: You mentioned that you are building electric octave mandolins, are there any special challenges with them?

SR: Since I’ve started making octave emandos there seems to be more of a demand for custom scale lengths. Requests have ranged from 18 to 22 inches which require proportional neck and body sizes. That’s where CAD comes in handy and it really saves a lot of time!

JM: Are there any other new items coming soon?

SR: Over the past ten years there have been a number of requests for something to replace the economy grade pickups used in the imported emandos. Presently I offer replacements for some of the Fender electrics and a stacked humbucker for the Epiphone Mandobird will be offered soon. Other ideas on the drawing board are a travel emando and a humbucker that can be mounted in the soundhole of acoustic octave mandolins and bouzoukis.

JM: Did you learn at lot while working for Dana Bourgeois & SBS Guitars?

SR: Working for Bourgeois Guitars and SBS Guitars provided the opportunity to really develop my building and finishing skills and gave me much more exposure to the stringed instrument industry than I would have got just working in my own shop.

JM: Steve, Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview, it is appreciated.

Steve is building some very beautiful electric mandolins & octave mandolins, in different styles, neck through or bolt on, flat or arched tops, etc. In addition to building and repair, Steve also makes & rewinds pick-ups and does finishing and re-finishing also. Thank you Steve for taking the time to be interviewed. Steve may be contacted through his website:

Email Steve RyderTelephone 207 329-1023 • Mailing address 280 1R Lincoln St. South Portland, ME 04106
Shop and shipping address
278A Lincoln St. So. Portland, ME 04106