What I play
Here is a rundown of the instruments, gear, and tunings that I currently use to make music. The list doesn’t change a lot year to year—when I find an instrument or piece of equipment that inspires me and helps me create the songs I’m imagining, I stick with it. I also like to keep things simple, especially when it comes to electronics. Lots of cool sounds can be achieved with effects and loopers and whatnot, but I prefer to focus on what I can do by hand, in real time, with strings and wood.
The Manzer. This steel-string guitar by Toronto-based luthier Linda Manzer has been my main companion for writing and recording since 1999, and I increasingly play it onstage too. The guitar has a German spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, the Manzer wedge (the body is tapered so it’s thinner and more comfortable under your arm), and custom inlay on the headstock and fingerboard inspired by kolams, a form of Indian folk art. I spent extended time in south India and loved these beautiful symmetrical patterns that many woman make with white rice flour on their doorsteps to welcome in the day (for a related personal story, see “The Christmas Kolam“). I shared with Linda some drawings from a book of traditional kolam patterns that I’d brought home from India, and we came up with an inlay design.
1990 Taylor 712-C. This grand concert size guitar is a good-sounding, balanced, extremely reliable instrument I’ve performed and traveled with extensively. It has the sharp Florentine cutaway that Taylor used in the early days and recently revived on several models.
Strumstick. A cross between a dulcimer and a guitar, the three-stringed Strumstick is such a fun little instrument. I’ve written and recorded several songs on the Super G Strumstick (tuned G D G), including “Humming My Way Back Home” and “Eight Days in January.” I also have a larger D Grand (tuned D A D) on which I’ve written some as-yet-unrecorded music.
I get so many questions about the Strumstick when I bring it onstage that I decided to write a song introducing the instrument—as follows.
D’Addario EJ19 phosphor bronze bluegrass strings, with medium-gauge basses and light trebles. I’ve used D’Addario strings forever, and I first heard about the bluegrass set from Shawn Colvin during an interview. I’ve found them to be a perfect match for my style, especially since I tune my bass strings down so often. They fatten the low end while still giving me the ease of light strings on top.
Shubb standard capo.
Partial capos: Shubb C7b (covers three strings) and D’Addario/Planet Waves NS Drop Tune (covers five strings). See below for examples of songs using partial capos.
Dunlop Ultex 1.14 mm picks.
Couch guitar strap. Vinyl strap made in Los Angeles.
The Manzer had no electronics for nearly 20 years, but it now has a Fishman Rare Earth Mic Blend (magnetic soundhole pickup and internal mic) that required no modification to the guitar aside from adding the endpin jack. I had 1/8-inch connector jacks installed on the wire inside the body so I can easily remove the pickup (see the Fishman FAQ for additional tech info). The jacks are wrapped with Velcro that attaches to the back of the guitar so they won’t knock around.
The Taylor has an old Highlander under-saddle pickup installed many years ago by Rick Turner. For an airier sound, I sometimes temporarily install the Rare Earth Mic Blend (with the wire coming out of the soundhole).
The G Strumstick has a great-sounding pickup installed by Strumstick creator Bob McNally.
Whenever I plug in, I use a Fishman Platinum Pro DI, which has EQ, a boost switch, and a chromatic tuner.
At gigs where I supply sound reinforcement, I use a Fishman SA-220 PA/amplifier; for duo and band shows, we add a second SA-220. I place the amps alongside or, if possible, a bit behind the musicians to serve as monitors. I use these versatile amps in several configurations:
- Solo, with vocal and guitar straight into the amp’s two channels (plus there’s an aux input if needed).
- Duo, with two amps. Each performer plugs into an SA-220 and sends a monitor mix to the other amp (so all instruments/vocals can be heard in both amps, and the performers can adjust their own mix).
- Band. I use the SA-220s essentially as powered speakers. I plug all the inputs into a Mackie ProFX12 mixer and send the mix to the two SA-220s. For larger venues and outdoor gigs, I place the SA-220s behind the musicians for monitoring and add another pair of powered speakers out front that can be cranked up without feedback concerns.
I love performing acoustically with a single microphone, both solo and with my duo, and often use an Audio-Technica 3060 tube condenser (no longer made) for this purpose. Here’s an article I wrote with advice on single miking. I’ve also recorded extensively with the 3060, especially vocals, with great results.
For vocals onstage, I currently use a Shure Beta 87a condenser. I’ve recorded many guitar tracks with a matched pair of Rode NT5 pencil condenser mics and occasionally use one of these as a live instrument mic.
More and more of my repertoire—originals and covers—is in dropped-D tuning (D A D G B E). A few examples from my recorded catalog: “Almost There,” “Somehow,” “Enough About You (What About Me),” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Stella Blue,” “Only the Soul,” and “Here.”
Other tunings used on songs I’ve recorded:
- E G D G B E (“Wasting Time No More“)
- D G D G B E (“Bones“)
- C G D G B E (“My Bad“)
- D A D G A D (“Cassidy”)
Songs using partial capos:
- “What I Never Said.” For the album track, I tuned all the strings down a whole step and then used a partial capo in Esus position—covering strings 5, 4, and 3 at the second fret. I now perform the song as a duet in standard E-to-E tuning with the same partial capo setup.
- “Turn Away.” Dropped-D tuning, with a capo covering the top five strings at the second fret, so the open-string pitches are D B E A C# F#.
- “Fly.” The original album track was in standard tuning. But I later adapted the song with a three-string partial capo covering strings 4, 3, and 2 at the second fret (the capo is essentially holding down an A shape), as in this video.