Akira Otsuka talks John Duffey’s mandolins

Akira Otsuka with John Duffey’s F-12 – photo by Michael G. Stewart

American bluegrass audiences became aware of Akira Otsuka during Bluegrass 45’s first U.S. tour in 1971. Bluegrass 45 will celebrate their 50th anniversary by playing the Red Hat Amphitheater stage during Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh (September 30). During that show Akira will be playing a mandolin with plenty of bluegrass history – John Duffey’s Gibson F-12. I asked Akira about his first meeting with John Duffey.

AO: In 1971 I came to the States with Bluegrass 45. The bus we were using broke down so we took a Greyhound from Indianapolis to DC to spend the night at Dick Freeland’s house. Next morning he told us that John and Nancy Duffey were coming over for dinner. I thought he was kidding us because he knew we were big fans of Duffey.

They showed up and we had hamburgers and hotdogs and then started picking. I think we impressed him because we knew every song he had recorded with the Country Gentlemen. He retired from the Country Gentlemen in ’69 and we met him in June of ’71. He started with the Seldom Scene in November of that year.

After that, he really liked me. I knew I liked him as a musician. Tuned out he was a great gentleman and a nice person.

At the end of our ’71 tour I told Dick Freeland, that I would probably have to sell my Gibson A-50 to get money for airfare to come back the following year. Airfare was expensive, like about two grand. I think he took a note about that. When I came back in ’72 I went to see the Seldom Scene at the Red Fox Inn.

KD: And you had sold your mandolin Gibson A-50 to get there?

AO: Yes, I had bought a cheap Japanese mandolin to replace it. I was watching John as he took a big box into the kitchen. Freeland came over and said, “Hey Akira, come with us.” I followed him into the kitchen and John opened the case. It was a Duck. I said, “Wow, there’s another Duck. That’s really cool.” My brother Josh said, “He doesn’t get it.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “It’s for you.” Oh my God! John made me a mandolin. That was really, really cool.

KD: It was a Duck but it had a shorter neck than Duck #1.

Akira Otsuka playing Duck #2, made for him by John Duffey

AO: Yes, because I was playing an A50 with a short neck the previous year, John thought maybe I liked the shorter neck. It was fine with me. Later on I broke the neck on Duck #2 and I had it fixed many times but it just wouldn’t stay. Finally, I took it to my luthier friend, Bill Swank, and asked him to make a new longer neck. I wanted it because it would be easier to get up on the neck. He put the new neck on for me and it’s a wonderful mandolin.

People ask me all the time what Duck #1 sounds like but they already know. When you listen to the Seldom Scene’s Rider, Paradise, Wait a Minute, and Little Georgia Rose, all of those songs were recorded with Duck #1.

KD: What can you tell us about Duffey’s F-12?

AO: Let me go back to the Country Gentlemen days. As John was leaving the Country Gentlemen in ’69, his F-12 mandolin was stolen. When he played his last gig with the Country Gentlemen, he had to borrow one.

That stolen mandolin showed up around ‘74 at the Childe Harold [now defunct DC nightspot at 1610 20th St. NW, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood]. John Starling saw it and thought it looked like Duffey’s mandolin. He went home and called John and Dick Freeland. The next night John and Dick walked in – two big guys – and this mandolin player was pretty skinny.

KD: John probably didn’t have to say much, the guy must have known who it belonged to.

AO: Probably. The guy said, “I guess you want to see this mandolin.” And John said, “Does the truss rod behind the neck bother you?” He had modified the mandolin quite a bit and the truss rod was showing up from the back of the mandolin. The guy said, “I guess this is yours.” John got it back. I believe that was ’74.

So 1971 through 1974, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 and Act 4 and Old Train are all recorded with Duck #1.

KD: All his other albums are recorded with the F-12?

AO: Yes, that is correct – as far as the Scene’s albums go. With the Gents he used a Gibson F-5. I believe it went to Wayne Yates and an F-7 which Dick Smith now owns.

John Duffey's Duck #1 - photo by Akira Otsuka

KD: Duck #1 is such an unusual shape. It does look like a flying duck. Why did he do that other than it’s just John. Were there technical reasons? Does it resonate differently?

AO: As you know, John was a unique person. He was very original about everything. He did everything his way. The way he ate, the way he drank and dressed, the way he played and sang. He had to make a unique mandolin. I don’t know how he came up with that idea, but one thing he knew was the instrument body had to have some narrow parts and some wider parts. The Gibson F model has a scroll. Even though it’s not hollow all the way through, there’s a wider part and a narrow part.

I heard Jimmy Gaudreau and John put sand in one of the pointy parts inside, played it and it didn’t sound right. It just didn’t have the frequency response that it should have. So it does have something to do with the sound.

Also, there was a conversation between John and Martin Guitar that Martin would make those mandolins. It didn’t come true but they were considering getting into the mandolin business. Then they decided maybe they should stick with guitars. One other thing: I think John was the first authorized Martin repair person. I went to see Dick Boak at Martin years ago. I asked him if John was the first authorized repair person. He took me to the Martin library, and he looked though their records. We did find John was on the list in ’71 and or ’72 but couldn’t prove he was the first.

John used to work at a music store in Arlington. He would receive Martin guitars for repair and he would send them to Martin and they would send them back. John said, “You know these are simple repairs and I can do it for you. It’s all guaranteed for Martin anyway. Why don’t you just let me do it and you pay me.” That’s how it started.

KD: So that unusually shaped mandolin was just part and parcel of what he was. When John died, what happened to Duck #1?

AO: That went to a gentleman named Shawn Nycz who lives in Nashville now. He used to drive John to festivals. He was John’s good friend and roadie. He sold their CDs and other merchandise, things like that. Shawn got Duck #1, his Martin guitar D-28 and his Dobro. John gave me Duck #2 in ’72 and then I got the Gibson F-12. Like I said the F-12 came back to John in 1974 and he played it until ’96 when he passed away.

It’s a great mandolin. It’s worn out. It was worn out when I got it. After 20 years I’ve put more dents on it. It’s a wonderful sounding mandolin. A lot of people go through different mandolins over their lifetime, but I’ve found mine.

After I got the F-12, I had my luthier Bill Swank put new frets in and straighten the neck, but then it wouldn’t get in tune. It was so out of tune that I couldn’t play it and it sat at Bill’s shop for 6 months.

One day a customer came in and Bill told him it wouldn’t stay in tune. The customer said, “I can see that. The third fret’s bigger than the first fret.”

Apparently John made the neck himself and eyeballed the fret slots so it was never in tune. It’s kind of funny that John kept it that way all those years. When people think of John’s playing they think about his bending the string. I’m wondering now if John was doing that to hide the bad intonation. Get a little vibrato to get it to sound right.

John Duffey with Bill Monroe, wearing Monroe's hat and playing his F-12 - photo by Ron Petronko

I took it to George Gruhn in Nashville and he thought it was made in the ‘50s. I looked up the serial number on the web and it might be from the ‘30s. I have no idea. As I said the neck isn’t even a Gibson. John used to put all these things together. He modified the neck and added more angles so the bridge is high. He did the same thing to an F-7 he had before. John’s theory was that the higher the bridge, the more pressure it would get put on the top and the louder the sound.

KD: You’ve talked about the technical aspects of these instruments. Can you describe what it means to own a part of bluegrass history? Obviously you feel it’s important to take care of any instrument. What extra responsibility do you feel owning these three?

AO: I do own them but I’m just holding them. If anyone wants to play it, come and talk to me.

KD: Didn’t you take it to Joe Val one year for a workshop?

AO: Yes, I took Duck #2 and the Gibson F-12 and I did a workshop called “John Duffey’s mandolins.” I told stories about these mandolins and let everybody play them.

KD: You just passed them around the room.

AO: Yes. I’m pretty sure everyone loved it. When I go to Japan to visit my friends, I have to take it otherwise they will get mad at me.

KD: So, the responsibility is to share that part of bluegrass history.

AO: I think so. Yes. Also, I used it on my First Tear CD so the sound would be preserved.

KD: Which mandolin will you be playing with Bluegrass 45 on the Red Hat stage in Raleigh in September?

AO: I’ll be playing the Gibson F12. The Duck is neat to show off because it’s unique. But the F-12 has a better sound, and I’ve been used to playing it all these years. It’s much easier to play.

KD: Final thoughts on owning three of your hero/friend’s mandolins?

AO: Many people are looking for a new ax to trade up or add to their collection, but I found mine and don’t need to look any further. It is a great sounding mandolin and it’s filled with memories of John. I’m very happy to have them but I’m sorry that he’s not here playing it.

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About the Author

Katy Daley

Katy Daley had long been a part of the Washington, DC bluegrass and country radio scene, on WAMU's Bluegrass Country and WMZQ-FM. She received DC Bluegrass Union's 2017 Washington Monument Award and was named IBMA's Broadcaster of the Year in 2009 and 2011. She has since retired from radio, but not from bluegrass music.