Review Article: The Kimble BB’25
By Timothy Jones

        Some years ago Butch Baldassari began a quest, a quiet search for a mandolin builder who could capture the essence of his vintage Gibson F-5’s resonant sound.
Butch’s 1925 model, while not actually signed by the legendary Lloyd Loar, came from Loar’s tenure at Gibson in the early 1920s. It’s been called an “unsigned Loar,” and it certainly epitomizes the fabled Loar-era tonal characteristics. That sound has been a Holy Grail for many mandolin players, and certainly the source of much searching and discussing.
        Finally, says Baldassari, the search has paid off. “To me,” he says, “there’s no more wait.”
        The end of his waiting has to do with his turning recently to Will Kimble, an increasingly renowned luthier based in Cincinnati. Kimble spent months with Baldassari’s Gibson, analyzing, listening, and unleashing his luthier’s skills— not copying the 1925 F-5 exactly, but attempting his best interpretation of the coveted sound.
        Butch asked me to review the result, the first of a limited-production signature Kimble model, called the BB’25. (The explanation for the “BB” becomes obvious, of course, when you remember the name of its signature player.) This prototype instrument was so new that the varnish finish and French polish topcoat had barely dried. Even a week spent with a mandolin cannot do justices to all its nuances. But several things stand out.
        First and most obvious is the sound. The sheer volume of this brand-new instrument strikes you right away. I’ve played and reviewed other new instruments, each from brands well-known among most players, but in the volume department this instrument had a strong edge.
        Just as striking was the quality of sound. Deep resonance and complex overtones rang out, yet without muddiness or overlapping into other notes. Across the range of pitch, there was a throaty timbre, a robust depth that often eludes modern instruments. At the same time there I noticed a bell-like shimmer in the upper registers of pitch. The bass was woody and satisfying. The mid-range had its own depth.
        Played next to the “original” 1925 F-5, some barely perceptible differences emerged. The “unsigned Loar” original has a slightly more mellow quality. When one considers the maturing and aging of wood that takes place over eighty-plus years, though, it’s easy to conclude that the actual 1925 model must have sounded very similar when it emerged from Loar’s shop. Knowing that many mandolins experience a development in tone within weeks, and certainly gain strength within the first year or so, it is hard to imagine the depth and power of the tone of this instrument in a few months—much less a few decades. Certainly its rich range of tone suggests that it can function well in straight-ahead bluegrass, mellower acoustic settings, and Celtic and old-time sessions.
        Some comments on the BB’25’s tangible appointments: A red spruce (Adirondack) top, artfully stained in a traditional sunburst, graces a well-flamed (and similarly expertly stained) maple back and sides and neck. Schallers form the standard option for tuners on this instrument and future models. Kimble had considered Waverly tuners but noticed that Baldassari’s 1925 sported Gotohs, and Schaller tuners came closer to the Gotohs.
        The tailpiece is worthy of note, known simply as a James tailpiece for its creator, Bill James. Says Kimble: “It is the only tailpiece I have used since it became available last year. The quality is fantastic, Bill James has excellent service, I love the way the rubber grommets dampen string noise behind the bridge (and keep the cover from rattling), and I like that the tailpiece is sturdy but is not too stiff or heavy.” While I did not try to change strings on the BB’25, the straight-line string-end hooks looked like a convenience indeed.
        Another feature was the headstock inlay: a flourish leaf design gracing the signature logo. While not a flowerpot, certainly, it still had a wonderful vintage look, and the inlay work itself was impeccable.
        The ivoroid binding throughout—body and fingerboard—was crafted well. Not, perhaps, as absolutely seamlessly as I’ve ever seen, but certainly competently and carefully done—and near flawless in its curves and joints and abutments. Add a faux-tortoise-shell pick guard to the profile and the overall appearance of the mandolin is striking, even stunning.
        Baldassari is convinced that he has found the mandolin of his quest. “It makes me think,” he says, “that this must be what a ‘Loar’ sounded like when it was new.” From someone who owns both a Nugget and Gilchrist (both mandolins that Baldassari prizes for unique characteristics), and from someone who has played the vaunted Loars of his colleagues (to say nothing of his own), that is high praise indeed. No wonder Butch Baldassari has gladly lent his name to this new model. While this will be a limited edition offering, now at least a few mandolin players in years will soon benefit from Baldassari’s patient searching, and Will Kimble’s skillful craft.

Timothy Jones writes the Gospel Profile column monthly for Bluegrass Now magazine. His instrument reviews and cover-story profiles have appeared in Mandolin Magazine. Tim has also authored several critically acclaimed books with combined sales topping 250,000.