Rigel Mandolins 

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com

It is the Vermont maple that makes the Rigel mandolin what it is.  Not just the material, but the building technique developed by Cambridge, Vermont-born Pete Langdell.  A woodshop machinist by day and bluegrass musician by night, Langdell patented a method of carving the back and sides of an instrument out of a large hunk of Vermont maple.  The traditional form of mandolin making has been the bending and stressing of wood to create the sides of the instrument, and piecing those with the backs, fronts, and necks.  This often left the instrument, over time, cracked and brittle.  Langdell’s carving method not only saved time in assembly, but also created a tone that is brilliant and a strength guaranteed to last.  Chris Thiele and Jimmy Gaudreau of the Country Gentlemen are among the well-known players of Rigel mandolins.

Langdell first started instrument building (in this case rebuilding) at the age of five, when he took a ukulele his uncle gave him and restrung it as a mandolin.  In high school, he took woodshop machinery classes and got a job working at a machine shop.  His skills as a machinist aided him in his fascination with building stringed instruments.  After graduating high school, Langdell tried to balance his day job and being a touring musician with bluegrass bands.  The need to make a steady living won out, so he stopped touring professionally and remained with the machine shop.  He continued to keep his hand in music by experimenting with mandolin building and playing occasional local gigs.  By the late 1980’s, Langdell developed his first prototype of the Rigel mandolin (the name taken from a star in the Orion constellation) and brought it to bluegrass festivals to demonstrate.  Langdell began building his mandolins on a regular basis in 1990, out of a garage workshop next to his home in Jeffersonville, Vermont, working part time at the machine shop.  He received assistance from his wife Margo in marketing his mandolins, building a Web site in 1995.  By 1997, when demand for Rigel mandolins grew, Langdell formed a partnership with Peter Mix.  Rigel Instruments became incorporated in 1999, and they moved their facilities to a larger shop in Hyde Park, Vermont, with a staff of five employees.

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com 

Not only did Rigel turn out its own uniquely designed mandolins, mandolas, guitars, and basses, they produced custom works inspired by classic instruments of the past.  The Vega cylinder-back mandolin and mandola are among the custom designs, since Vega discontinued the cylinder-backs in 1925.  Will Melton, of the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra, plays a custom Rigel cylinder-back mandola that he purchased from the previous owner who commissioned it.  Langdell also repaired and restored vintage instruments in his shop.
The strength, beauty, and desirability of a Rigel instrument pretty much became the downfall of Rigel as a corporation.  Producing well over 200 instruments a year, the economy in the early 2000’s made it impossible to purchase high-end musical instruments, and demand for them slowed.  The incorporated status dissolved in 2006, and Langdell went back to being a one-man shop, making custom instruments with the Rigel name and repairing/restoring instruments.  The demise of Rigel was heartbreaking for mandolinists, not to mention Langdell.  After three years, though, Rigel was revived when Langdell licensed the name to Gold Tone to produce the standard lines of Rigel mandolins.


Pete Langdell bio
http://www.vermontguides.com, May 2002


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