To a professional musician, an instrument is much more than a piece of wood, or a tool. It is something you form a very personal bond with, and upon which your life, livelihood, and creative soul depends. Therefore, I have always believed very strongly in the idea that an advancing musician, who will spend so much time with their instrument that they will know it as intimately as their own body or that of their spouse or partner, can not simply pull a mass-produced instrument off the wall at a local music store and ever hope to form the sort of personal bond with it that enables true creative expression. Coupled with the fact that there are many brilliant independent luthiers all over the world who would jump at the challenge of creating a customized instrument for a musician's personal style, for their physique, and for the venues they play, and you can understand why I favor custom-made, modern instruments.
My acoustic mandolins are made by Brian Dean, an extraordinary luthier from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The first instrument he made for me in 2009 was an 8-string Grand Concert model (pictured above left) I named Pähkinä. She has a walnut top, maple sides and false back, and a resonating interior true back made of Carpathian spruce. Besides her intriguing mix of tonewoods, she also features such unique aspects as an inlaid pickguard, overhanging f-holes (to facilitate some sound projection upwards towards the player's ears), and a zero fret. I loved her so much, I asked Brian to make me a 10-string model just like her in 2011 which I named Kumí (pictured above center). She has a bridge pickup system by Schatten Design, which I use in conjunction with various microphone setups, depending on the venue. Her tone is even darker and more resonant than Pähkinä's due to the overtones put out by the low C string, and this is the acoustic instrument I use most frequently when performing as a classical soloist and with 9 Horses.
In 2016, I knew that the musical direction 9 Horses was headed in would necessitate the building of an electric mandolin, so I turned to Adam Buchwald of Circle Strings, based in Burlington, VT. Adam's shop is one of the finest custom guitar and mandolin family builders in the United States, and for me he built the 5-string electric mandolin instrument I named Perdita (pictured above right). With a curvaceous shape reminiscent of a Fender Jaguar and single-coil and humbucking pickups by Almuse, she plays easy, has a wide sonic flexibility, and her cherry sunburst finish on butternut looks gorgeous. She also features a highly distinctive fanned fretboard design, a concept originated by Ralph Novak of Novax Guitars in the late 1980's and popularized by the jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, which allows for truer intonation due to the differing string scale lengths, and a more ergonomic fretboard interface.
On Pähkinä, I use GHS Silk & Steel strings. On Kumí, I use D'Addario FT74 Flat Tops with a .056" C course. On Perdita, I use a custom Emando 5-string set. I use Blue Chip picks, and custom mandolin straps by Bill Bailey.