My birthday recently passed, and I had initially wanted to pool any gift money into an interesting new instrument purchase. Enter the tiple. The tiple first came to my attention in the current issue of the Fretboard Journal, which features an article written by a man named Ed Askew that is a sort of ode to the instrument. Intrigue sat in, and I set about looking for a tiple.
From the description in the article, a tiple seemed like a rather modest instrument; similar in size and tuning to the ukulele, but with a unique arrangement of strings that yields four sets of courses. I took to the internet to begin looking, and I quickly learned a few things about the tiple. First, the tiple exists in many forms, with one of the more common being the South American instrument most closely related to the guitar family, and another being the American anomaly that had been part of the ukulele craze of the early 20th century. Second, tiples are quite uncommon. Now I was really interested.
A simple search of items available for sale online reveals that the primary tiple in production and available in North America today is one in the South American style, which is made in the famous guitar town of Paracho, Mexico and sold under a handful of brand names. This tiple has four courses, each of which is tripled (for a total of 12 strings), and it is often tuned to the highest four strings of a guitar. This tuning in conjunction with a more guitar-like body shape has long made the tiple a member of the guitar family within traditional South American musical forms. While the Paracho models available appear to be reasonably well made, they seem to more or less occupy a position of novelty in the market, and I was interested in something that might stand as a better investment.
My first thought was that there may be some tiples floating around the vintage market, possibly brought back from travels abroad or sold off as curiousities. When it comes to a world perspective, I knew that Andy's Music in Chicago would be a great first call. Andy's specializes in a dizzying array of instruments that span many cultures and eras, and I was confident that they would at least know what a tiple was. They did, but sadly, they only had a new Paracho model, and an antique Italian piece that wasn't quite what I was looking for or could afford. Not deterred, I continued to make phones calls, and began to learn more about the tiple's strange existence in America.
The American tiple is typified by the instruments produced by Martin beginning in the early part of the 20th century, although a handful of other companies also produced similar models around that time. These tiples feature ukulele-type bodies and scales, as well as a different take on the four courses of strings. On these tiples, the outer two courses are doubled, with the inner two sets tripled for a total of 10 strings, and it is tuned like a ukulele (some instruction books at the time were actually marketed as primers in ukulele and tiple). This is the instrument that most vintage dealers in the country are familiar with, although they don't often have them for sale.
Now confident that my best shot at a tiple would be an American style instrument on the vintage market, I called a few shops in town looking for suggestions. I gathered a short list of names of some of the prominent acoustic instrument dealers around the country, and I put my free long distance to work. My call to Mandolin Brothers was met with a quick "not a one", followed by an offer to contact an individual who may have had a Regal tiple for sale. I gave my contact information, but I had to accept the lack of a response as confirmation of another dead end. The gentleman at Gruhn actually said "good luck", so I knew that was a bad sign. Then, while digging through pages and pages of tiple-related search results online, I came upon the website of Vintage Mandolin, a small vintage instrument business run by a man named Charles Johnson in Virginia. As if I hadn't faced enough roadblocks, my computer wouldn't display the entire page, so I could see in the search result that a tiple was mentioned, but I could see what was included in the inventory. I did however find a phone number, and I wasted no time in calling. I was somewhat surprised when a woman answered, who quickly identified herself as Mr. Johnson's wife, and she happily gave me his cell phone number to reach him while he was out. Another call made, and I had a man on the phone who had not one, but two Martin tiples.
Happy as I was to have finally found some of these instruments, this phonecall was the beginning of the end in my search for a tiple. Vintage Mandolin had one Martin tiple from the 1920s that had seen many years and a fair amount of repair/refinish work, and it was considered a steal at just under a $1000. While that was out of my price range, it was nothing compared to the other tiple for sale, which was a brazilian rosewood Martin from the 1950s, priced at well over $3000. I quickly realized that this would not be the way to go for a decently made, fun little instrument, but I was very thankful for the time Mr. Johnson took in discussing some of the details of the instruments and their history. It reminded me that no amount of sifting through web pages can replace a simple conversation with someone willing to share what they know about a given subject, and while I may not have a tiple, I do have a better understanding of why this is so.