Should you get out your chequebook for a mandolin that aims to put class before crass? Acoustic finds out…
Words by Alun Lower Images by Richard Ecclestone
Those of you out there who keep up with relatively obscure names in the guitar-making world may well already be aware of Rosta Capek, a luthier based in the Czech Republic that has been enjoying an ever-increasing reputation for banjos and mandolins. Looking at the price tag, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re dealing with a top-of-the-line example in the F5, but in truth this is considered the most basic model in the range! Now, while we’re clearly dealing with a luthier-built instrument here and not a factory-processed clone, the modern guitar market is a damn competitive place, even among more “niche” instruments like mandolins. As such, there are plenty of options available to cash-rich musos looking for their tiny eight-string fix, and there lies the challenge for independent luthiers looking to (quite literally) carve themselves a piece of the market.
If I’m being brutally honest, the F5 didn’t make the best first impression on me. After reviewing the Lewis mandolin last issue – which offers a veritable feast of different tonewoods at less than half the price of the Capek – the F5 seems a little, well, dull. There’s nothing especially good about the finishing for a start (in fact I could argue that the area around the neck was a little scruffy) – yes, it’s nitrocellulose, but once again this is a feature seen on many mandolins much more reasonable in price. The sunburst finish has been applied as well as you would expect but the flamed maple doesn’t possess a strong enough grain to set your world alight, and most of the other adornments are fairly plain – save for the lovely scroll and florentine cutaway(s).
However, what is absolutely wonderful is the quality of the woodwork. A cursory glance reveals a detailed, sculpted construction and a closer inspection makes this even more apparent. The work on the scroll carving is nothing short of magnificent and it’s this kind of detail that makes you realise you’re dealing with something that’s been lovingly crafted rather than simply manufactured. This is undoubtedly a well-made instrument. But on aesthetics and finishing quality alone, I’m not sure it justifies a £2,000-plus price tag.
Partnering the spruce and flamed maple body is a flamed maple neck topped with ebony – well finished for the most part but a little bit messy where it meets the body. Not from a wood carving point of view, but simply a case of the finish leaving some imperfections. The headstock, as with the body, is beautifully carved and features a fetching ebony veneer on either side – an attractive touch. The ivoroid binding is clean and well-applied, and following the strings down to the bridge reveals an ebony bridge and engraved brass tailpiece. It all makes for a very traditional, violin-like vibe, which feels eminently classy if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. However, at this stage I’m not getting a “luthier-built” level of excitement from the build alone, and that’s a little worrying. There’s nothing wrong, exactly – intonation is spot on, fret finishing is good and it’s not an unattractive instrument by any means (in fact, I generally prefer my guitars simple in appearance), but there’s just not any “x-factor” to be had – and when you’re investing this much money, that becomes an issue.
Despite reservations about elements of the F5’s looks, one thing that you simply can’t argue with is the quality of the tones on offer. From the first strum, this mandolin simply shimmers and shines, the notes ringing out with crystal clarity and almost harp-like harmonics, to my ear. Where I would normally like to run out some faster, folky licks when trying out a mandolin for the first time, with the F5 I was much happier to just sit back and slowly ring out a few chords, listening intently to the way the sustain and note decay interacted with each other. I was a little concerned that the spruce and flamed maple combo would sound a little too bright or possibly even brittle for my tastes, but the Capek sounds much more mature and “ready-to-go” than I expected. Having said that, I think that once the tonewods have had time to settle and open up with some earnest playtime, the tone should improve even further and offer up even more depth and detail.
Rosta Capek is clearly a very talented luthier – the quality of the woodwork seen here and the intricate shaping of the body in particular are proof of that, without a doubt. What I – personally – have a bit of an issue with just how basic the package is. I’m not asking for anything ostentatious, but if you’re going to have an instrument made from flamed maple priced at over £2,000 then I would expect a bit more. Simple and stripped back can be extremely classy and desirable when you get it right, but I feel the F5 hasn’t quite nailed it here. In addition, I found the gloss finish to be just ever so slightly untidy in a few places. It’s not a big issue – but even small issues should not be present on an instrument in this price range.
It’s not all doom and gloom through – as I said, the actual design and woodwork of the body is exceptional, and so are the tones. There’s an awful lot of detail and character to the F5’s voice and this will only get better over time. If you have the opportunity to try before you buy then just sit back with a few simple chords and let the mandolin do the talking – it practically sings of its own accord and this kind of quality starts to make the price tag look that much more reasonable. Elsewhere, the intonation, tuning stability and quality of fret finishing is very good indeed and, as such, the F5 feels like an instrument that won’t ever let you down if you play or record professionally.
All in all, the Capek F5 genuinely feels and sounds like a special, handmade instrument when you play and hear it – it’s just a shame it doesn’t quite look the part while it’s doing it. I’m sure there will be plenty of readers out there who think I’m totally off my rocker here and absolutely adore every inch of this mandolin – and if that’s you, then great! There’s a very good chance you’ll love the F5 even more when you actually sit down with one. For anyone else scratching their head and wondering what all the fuss is about, I’d advise taking some extra precaution and testing carefully before making a decision.
Capek F5 Mandolin
Need to Know
Model: Capek F5
Retail Price: £1,242
Body Style: F5
Made In: Czech Republic
Top: Solid spruce
Back and Sides: Solid curly/flamed maple
Tuners: Open back Schaller with white buttons
Onboard Electronics: No
Strings Fitted: High quality USA-made
Gig Bag/Case Included: Deluxe hardshell
Acoustic test results
Pros: The tones on offer with this Capek mandolin are marvellous and for the serious mandolin tone fiend, this is a great instrument.
Cons: I felt conflicted by the untidy gloss in some places and the package lacking that extra bit of “oomph” needed to justify the price tag.
Overall: If you’re looking for great tone from a great luthier, this is for you – just make sure you’re credit card is handy.
Sound Quality: 4
Build Quality: 5
Value for Money: 3
Contact Details: The Music Room