Folk Art

Musicians all over the world play Rigel mandolins. Based on an original design by Peter Langdell, they are manufactured in the Hyde Park factory he runs with his partner, Peter Mix. The partners share a passion for music and lutherie.

by Jason Koornick

Not long after Peter Langdell (right) left professional performing to make mandolins, he had an idea for a new style of instrument with a different shape and clearer tone. The result was the Rigel mandolin, which he built and sold from his garage. His partner, Peter Mix, joined the company in '97, and they opened the Hyde Park factory in the fall of 2000.

The sounds emanating from the Rigel Mandolins factory in Hyde Park are not the harmonies of a typical manufacturing facility. Instead of rumbling table saws and deafening sanders, one enjoys the sweet, high-pitched tones of mandolin strings reverberating in wooden sound chambers. The overtones of the singly Vermont instruments seem to blend with the sweeping vistas that surround the building.

Rigel Mandolins is owned by partners Peter Langdell and Peter Mix, Vermonters who share a passion for acoustic music and lutherie. The cosmic nature of the company name seems to go hand-in-hand with the owners' mission to broaden the scope of the mandolin as an instrument that can be used for many types of music.

Named after the star in the Orion constellation, Rigel mandolins are being heard far and wide in the hands of some of music's most talented and recognized professionals.

Since the company was founded by Langdell in 1990, Rigel mandolins have been used in numerous recording sessions, live concerts and a few high-profile music videos. Millions of viewers are seeing as well as hearing a Rigel in Dolly Parton's recent music video on Country Music Television.

As interest in acoustic and roots music continues to blossom in part fueled by the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou movie soundtrack this company is in a peerless position to grow while making its mark on music history.

Langdell and Mix are as innovative in running their business as they are in designing instruments; they adapt to changing market conditions while realizing a steady rate of controlled growth. The partners are able to balance the efficiency of the company's resources while handling a growing number of orders every year. This year, the five-person operation will manufacture between 220 and 250 instruments that cost $1,250 to $6,500 each. The instruments are sold through a network of 40 dealers around the country.

Now 44, Langdell started building instruments when he was 5. He has been intrigued by stringed instruments ever since.

He was lured to the power and beautiful sound of the mandolin by an uncle who gave him his first instrument a ukulele that Langdell strung like a mandolin. Hearing acoustic country music at the small town "Grand Ole Opry" shows at the Waterville Town Hall when he was a child, he was fascinated by the instruments and their sounds: banjo, fiddle, stand-up bass and, of course, mandolin.

Langdell started to learn acoustic music in his mid-teens when he heard a recording of Bill Monroe, the mandolin player who almost single-handedly created the style of bluegrass. "I had heard bluegrass before, but for some reason I stopped in my tracks when I heard an 8-track of Bill Monroe," he says.

Growing up in a small Vermont town like Cambridge doesn't provide many opportunities for a teen-ager to hear bluegrass music so Langdell had to teach himself the instrument. He also played guitar in rock bands in his teens and 20s.

Although he had built a few instruments previously, when Langdell began working in a machine shop during high school, he gained a new appreciation for the art of lutherie. "Immediately I had more tools and techniques at my disposal. The experience taught me about precision and different ways of doing things," he says.

When Langdell graduated from high school in 1976, he was connecting with other acoustic musicians at bluegrass festivals to which he and others would often travel great distances.

"I realized that there were other people like me from all over the country, and I got to play lots of different mandolins. I began listening to people, about what they like and don't like about the instruments. I was subconsciously storing all this information," he remembers.

For a brief period in the '70s, Langdell tried playing music professionally and was able to find work regionally. He continued to work at the machine shop, but was finding it difficult to reconcile the touring lifestyle with making a living.

"My boss gave me an ultimatum," he says. "I took other people's advice that a man needed to have a job. Sometimes I regret it, but in retrospect I don't think that I had what it took to play music full-time. I was young and surviving on adrenaline."

The life-changing decision gave Langdell an opportunity to think about building instruments as well as playing them. "Building mandolins became my way to be around and part of music."

For the next decade, he played music locally with various groups, worked in the machine shop and thought constantly about building mandolins. In 1987, Langdell was sick with the flu when the concept for the Rigel came to him.

He explains that two main attributes set the instruments apart from other high-end mandolins. First is the shape, which has curves similar to that of an electric guitar. The modern design brings the mandolin out of its traditional context and seems to suggest that many types of music can be coaxed from the instrument.

The second main difference is an innovation that creates the clear but loud Rigel sound. Langdell says that, unlike traditional builders, he and his team are able to temporarily attach the top to the instrument and test the tone, then remove it and make critical adjustments. When the builder is satisfied with the sound, the top is permanently glued. This step takes the guesswork out of finding the instrument's perfect tone.

In traditional mandolin construction, once the builder puts the top on the instrument, no tonal adjustments can be made. "It means gluing the top on and hoping that the preparation met its mark," Langdell says.

"Our construction method gives us a tremendous advantage," Langdell says. "No other company can do what we do with the top. When someone buys a Rigel, they know it will have a particular sound, look and feel."

Langdell constructed two Rigel prototypes in 1987. He showed the instruments to local players and at festivals. He got a lot of feedback, "some good, some really terrible," he says. "I was discouraged a lot of the time, but the positives outweighed the negatives and I really believed in what I was doing so I kept going. I was too stubborn to know when to stop."

Working out of a garage workshop next to his Jeffersonville home after he punched out of the machine shop, Langdell was devoting increasingly more time to his new venture in the late '80s.

He points out that the original Rigel design looks very similar to the instruments that are manufactured today, although there have been considerable acoustical and structural changes.

"Natural light is key to the work we do," says Peter Langdell. Large windows bring plenty of natural light into Rigel Mandolins' factory. The brightness helps Neil Brown keep his eye on the details as he assembles instruments.

In the early '90s, Langdell worked part-time at the machine shop and made 12 to 18 instruments per year from his home. With the help of his wife, Margo Rome, he introduced the mandolins to the group of players he knew best bluegrass pickers at regional and national festivals. He discovered that while the bluegrass scene has the most dedicated players, they are not always the most open-minded about their instruments.

He had to reconcile the modernity of the design with the bluegrass scene's devotion to tradition.

Throughout the '90s, professional and amateur players alike who would normally never touch a new mandolin began to notice the acoustical benefits of the instrument. In a market that doesn't readily embrace innovation, the Rigel has slowly and steadily gained acceptance, thanks in part to the endorsement of a well-known professional mandolinist named Jimmy Gaudreau.

In 1993, Langdell received a phone call from Fairfax, Va., that he thought was a joke. It took him a few minutes to realize he was speaking to one of his mandolin heroes.

Gaudreau has been a fixture on the bluegrass scene since the late 1960s. His work with the groundbreaking group The Country Gentlemen brought his picking and singing abilities to the attention of bluegrass fans around the country. Since then, he has been a member of Spectrum (with Béla Fleck), The Tony Rice Unit and Chesapeake. Most recently, he has been performing with Robin and Linda Williams.

Gaudreau played a Rigel at a Pennsylvania festival and immediately fell in love with the instrument. Attracted to Rigel's original design and sound characteristics, he was looking for an instrument that could be amplified as well. He calls the Rigel "a great acoustic instrument that sounds like a great mandolin in front of a microphone but can be plugged in as well. It has fulfilled everything I need to do and more," he says.

Langdell decided to offer Gaudreau a sponsorship deal. "I actually gave him an instrument, which is a risky deal as a small builder," Langdell says.

The men developed a professional and personal relationship in the following years. Gaudreau has become Rigel's ambassador to the professional music world, helping to further legitimize the mandolins.

Langdell also credits Margo with playing a key role in the company's early days. Besides encouraging Langdell to build the company's first website in 1995 and later offering financial support, she brought "a different perspective" to the venture.

"When you're doing things by yourself, you work so closely that it's hard to see the big picture," he says.

By the mid-1990s, Langdell was feeling the pressure of running a growing business single-handedly. "It got to the point where I couldn't do the marketing and building at the same time," he says. "I started thinking about production in order to survive in this business."

Langdell and Mix met years before in a Johnson music store operated by Mix, and they began their professional relationship in November 1997. According to Langdell, "Peter Mix couldn't have come along at a better time." Mix's background as a music dealer prepared him well for his role as a Rigel partner.

"I had been addicted to the mandolin for years. I particularly loved classical mandolin," Mix says. "The Internet really opened the door for me. When I saw how many players there were out there, I realized the world needed Pete's mandolins."

The partners discussed the possibility of expanding the operation. They would run the business cooperatively, with Langdell focusing on manufacturing and Mix handling administrative and marketing duties.

The new company was officially incorporated in January 1999. The partners drew up a business plan and approached the Vermont Economic Development Council and the Small Business Administration for loans.

Both avenues were successful, and they were able to secure the capital necessary to move into production.

Mix and Langdell learned some hard lessons soon after the company was incorporated. A contractor's delay kept them from moving into the Hyde Park facility for more than a year after the due date.

"The delay alone almost killed the business," Mix says, because the company also had the highest number of employees through the spring of 1999 eight people all working out of Langdell's garage. "We tried to increase production by hiring lots of people. I quickly realized that you can't just throw human bodies to solve a problem," Langdell says.

Relief came in the fall of 2000 when the shop was completed. The back half of a former dairy barn, the factory is surrounded by hills, valleys and the dramatic Green Mountains. Sunlight shines through large windows. "Natural light is key to the work we do. Details are everything," Langdell says.

Since acoustic musicians rely so heavily on their instruments to be heard among their four-, five- and six-string counterparts, volume has always been an important consideration for Rigel builders. The other aspect is the instrument's tone.

"In our instruments, we try to find the balance between the two," Langdell says. "Since we are using organic materials, each instrument is different like a fingerprint. With each mandolin we have to find its own voice."

Bluegrass and folk pioneer John Hartford takes a Rigel mandolin for a test drive.

Rigel mandolins are constructed with as many local materials as possible, Langdell explains. Vermont maple is used for the back, side and neck. The tops are constructed from Vermont spruce. "Vermont woods are some of the most desirable," he says.

An advantage of using area timber is Langdell's ability to grade and inspect every piece of wood the company buys. "Sometimes we use brokers or loggers or we go directly to the sawmill," he says.

The bulk of the production work is done outside of the Rigel factory. The company works with subcontractors for millwork and other production tasks. An advantage of using subcontractors is the assurance that each piece will come in to exact specifications.

"We mostly assemble here," Langdell explains. "It's practically impossible to do all the production work under one roof. We use the human element for its best use, which is putting the instruments together. It's not worth paying someone to do laborious, repetitive work when a machine can do it more accurately, safely and quickly."

The company orders hardware components through the "just-in-time" method. Rather than place an order once or twice a year based on projections, the partners place monthly orders with their suppliers based on their immediate needs and to maintain an even cash flow.

The just-in-time method has disadvantages, too, Langdell says. "If a supplier has a problem, it's our problem. Each piece has to be in on time. It's a balancing act."

These instruments with humble beginnings in central Vermont are being discovered by top country and bluegrass professionals. A list of musicians on the Rigel website reads like a "Who's Who" of today's top mandolin players.

Chris Thile, the virtuoso mandolinist in Nickel Creek, plays a Rigel on some of the biggest concert stages around the world. Country musician Gene Johnson of Diamond Rio is perhaps the most visible Rigel musician. "Between me, Gene and Chris, I am sure that we are contributing to the popularity of the instrument," Gaudreau says.

The business is at the perfect size where Mix and Langdell can continue to satisfy a growing number of orders while keeping expenses down. "We are very comfortable with the level we are at now. How big the company should or could get is a matter of debate," Langdell says. "Every incremental step is a lot more methodical than it used to be."

Langdell says the growth of the company depends on a host of factors that are impossible to predict, such as musical trends. He likes to speculate about how far Rigel can penetrate the mandolin market.

"I am trying to be cautious with optimism. At some level there must be a ceiling where we reach a saturation point, but the way it's looking, we haven't touched the tip of the iceberg," he says.

"Mandolins have come into a popularity that is unparalleled since the turn of the century. Not everybody in bluegrass likes the Rigel concept but there is a new generation of musicians who are coming into the scene," Langdell says.

Originally published in May 2002 Business People-Vermont