Updated September 16, 2021
Equipment we use for performing, recording, and teaching
Ryan’s primary acoustic violin is a custom five string violin made by Barry Dudley. The Fiddling Thomsons commissioned Barry to make two violins, right handed for Brennish and left handed for Ryan. It took approximately a year to complete them. Brennish plays his as his primary instrument.
Ryan’s other main fiddle was custom made by Dexter Nieforth in Rhode Island. At one point it was severely damaged while traveling and Ryan asked Dexter to make a new top for it. Following his expert repair, it sounded even better than before.
Ryan has various other left handed fiddles:
1. A violin by Gustav Wunderlich - This is my favorite 4 string acoustic violins, made in Liepsig, Germany, in 1926. I originally restored it to playability from a very poor condition, under the supervision of Carl Roy, at the violin repair workshop at Summer Violin Institute of the University of New Hampshire. When I switched from right handed playing to left I had it modified to left handed in stages by luthiers Todd Goldenberg and Gregory Wylie. Todd built a new bass bar, and Gregory reset the neck. I use it for playing classical music, playing fiddle into a microphone, studio recordings, and for acoustic jam sessions.
2. A left handed violin made in Los Angeles in 1947, by A. Nelson, and two Gliga left handed violins. The Gliga company has been very responsive to the needs of left handed musicians, and I find their quality to be uniformly high for their prices.
My primary electrified acoustic violin is a German made Strad copy, with no maker's label in it. Its probably 80 to 100 years old. I bought it from Bob Smakula Fretted Instruments in West Virginia. It used to belong to fiddler Claudio Buchwald whom I first saw play it.
It was a bit weak on the E string, which is possibly why it had been put up for sale, but I saw potential in it. I had Gregory Wylie reset the neck to get the bridge height up to normal, and now its a fine square dance fiddle with good solid tone. I use an LR Baggs pickup along with a Fishman Pro EQ with good results.
This set up works well for folk gigs, square dances, and moderate volume level country and zydeco gigs. High volume rock will cause it to feedback, however, so in those situations I switch to my Zeta violin.
Zeta Stratos 5 string - This is a custom instrument that I received in an endorsement deal with Zeta and Gibson. I had it built left handed at the Zeta production shop and finished with a bright red color designed to match my accordion. It has a very even and clear tone across the range of the strings. To further fine tune its play ability, I had it set up by luthier Gregory Wylie in Vermont. Its great for jazz, rock, and zydeco gigs.
Since I am now playing violin exclusively left handed, my favorite shoulder rest is a left handed model built by a company located in Slovenia. I wrote to several other shoulder rest companies inquiring about obtaining a left handed rest. My inquiries were largely ignored except for the Slovenia based company Viva La Musical Augustin LTD who got right back to me. I suspect that their right handed models are excellent as well.
The most comfortable right handed shoulder rest I ever owned was a Resonans which I bent into a shape that fitted my body perfectly. I'd play a few days, bend it a little, play a few more days, bend it some more, until it finally fit perfectly. However, the padded fabric top eventually began to wear out since I was playing several hours a day. I patched it as well as I could with duct tape, but it finally gave up after years of use as the foam plastic deteriorated. I still recommend that brand however.
I’ve also had good luck with shoulder rests by Willy Wolf, made in Holland, particularly their Forte Primo and forte Segundo. They are sturdy, comfortable, and very adjustable.
However they not designed to be bent or modified as was my Resonans.
As I switched over to left handed violin playing from right I had new challenges for finding well fitting and effective shoulder rests. Any shoulder rest that is built in symmetrical fashion will work either right or left handed because it can just be switched end for end. A Forte Primo is symmetrical while the Forte Secondo is not.
We both enjoy Coda bows: a Diamond, and a Luma. One sounds and plays best with one of our violins, and the other best with the other. Because they are made of synthetic materials they are perfect to avoid possible legal problems with export/import of ivory. We’ve used them on several international tours.
My favorite bow is wood and was made by Roger Treat in Vermont. Its by far the best bow I have ever played with and is superior to carbon fiber(so far). I should mention that although all of Roger’s bows are of the best quality and could be bought sight unseen, it is useful to try them out in person since certain bows sound better with certain violins. Its possible to match up bows and fiddles for best sound and playability.
I have a Pernambuco bow stamped "Leon Pique." Another bow is stamped "R Weichold A Dresden" on one side, and on the other, "Imitation De Tourte."
I have another nice bow but its a little too light for my taste. Its a finely made Pernambuco stick stamped "L Bausch Liepsig." A 4th bow is an octagonal Pernambuco stick stamped "Nurnberger." It plays quite well.
For Cello I primarily use a Guy Laurent los which I purchased on approval from Star Music. They sent me several bows which were priced at my budget limit of around $500. I chose the Guy Laurent as the best fit for my playing level and ability. I also had another player listen to me as I tried them out. I purposely didn’t look at the prices of the bows as i played them, so as not be influenced by that. I was surprised to find that the Guy Laurent was the lowest price of the lot.
My primary gigging banjo is made by Cedar Mtn. Banjos, Brevard, North Carolina, a Lo Gordon, 5 string open back. I’ve installed a passive piezo pickup from "Pick-up the World." It works without a preamp and can be plugged directly into a sound board in a pinch, but sounds much better when I use a Pro-EQ II Acoustic Preamp between it and a sound board. These preamps have been discontinued, but may be found used on Ebay.
Vega tubaphone banjo mandolin - Many banjo mandolins are almost unplayable because the action is so high or the neck is warped. Mine has a perfectly straight neck and fingerboard. My trick is to use use extremely light gauge strings and carefully adjust the string height as low as possible so that they still don't buzz when whacked with the pick. This is a very loud instrument and can hold its own in a room full of accordions as I discovered while attending the "North East Squeeze In" accordion festival.
George Washburn 5 string, skin head - I believe that this banjo was made in the 1880’s - 90’s. It is my primary recording instrument which I've owned and played over 45 years. Its had a lot of wear and tear, and several different people have done repair work on it over the years. 20 years ago the neck was accidentally broken at a gig that I was playing with Alan Block and I took it to David Colburn at the Vintage Fret Shop in Ashland who did an excellent repair.
When I needed a fifth string peg replaced a few years ago I went to Bob Abrams at Trillium Octave Mandolins who combined an antique celluloid knob with a modern mechanism for a great repair that also looks cosmetically pleasing. More recently I've had major refurbishing done by Jack O'Brien from Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Jack is an exceptionally fine craftsman(and a good fisherman too). For amplification I've installed a Headway Limpet active piezo transducer which I purchased in England from Hob Goblin Music.
George Washburn Tenor 4 string - This instrument closely matches my Washburn 5 string in basic design. Its small and light in weight with fast action. It was built around 1915. I discovered it in an ad from a music store in New Jersey which supplied me with photos. It looked too good to be true in the photos, but I was even more impressed after it was sent to me in the mail. It has very little wear on it, and looks as though it had been played for only 2 or 3 years and then was put carefully away in its hard shell case for 60 or 70 years. The original calf skin head has been replaced with mylar.
Leon Clerc 5 string - I found this old used banjo in Sidmouth, England, at Hob Goblin Music. Its a very unusual design with a six tuner guitar head stock, and a fifth string that disappears into a tube under the fingerboard for the top 5 frets and then comes out to attach to a tuner in the guitar head stock. Because the banjo is a 5 string, one of the tuners in the head stock goes unused. It has a small head and pot. It sounds a bit tinny and doesn't put out much sound, but is very fun to play because the action is extremely fast and the light gauge strings are very responsive to pulls, hammers, and bends. Its a wonderful banjo for just relaxing with in a comfortable chair.
Mike Ramsey fretless 5 string banjo made in Appomattox, Virginia. It is a beautiful instrument that plays well.
Other misc banjos include a modern reproduction of a fretless minstrel banjo, a modern reproduction of a fretless gourd banjo, a new Deering banjo ukulele, and a vintage banjo mandolin.
Our Stradolin is a fine instrument modeled after a Gibson A. It has a solid spruce top.
A 12 string Italian bowl back.
A Kay mandolin with a big sound.
My grandfather’s italian bowl back mandolin
A vintage Washburn bowl back
Copeland keyless wooden Flute - One of my two primary flutes. It was made early in Michael (Mekal) Copeland's career. I bought it from him at a folk festival. There were several assembled flutes standing in a barrel at his booth. I tried each in turn, but this one was the easiest for me to play.
It has a beautiful tone in all registers, with a solid low D. Its made of Maple, and was impregnated with resin in an experimental process at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This treatment has darkened the wood to a greenish black color which most people mistake for a variety of ebony. Its a real pleasure to play and gets rave reviews by everyone who hears it. Stamped into it is the word "MEKAL," and "33."
For amplification I use either a mic on a stand or alternately an Audio Technica 831B lapel mic. I could find no pre made and easy way to attach it to the flute so I came up with two alternate methods: One is to use part of an Electro Voice N/dym microphone cradle which snaps right onto the flute. The other method was to modify an audio cable cinch, originally designed to keep cables running in a neat and orderly way in the studio. The cinch clamps the microphone and attaches to the flute with a rubber band.
My other primary flute was made by Casey Burns in Kingston, Washington. It plays very well for me. One of the best features is that the fingering holes are perfectly matched for the size of my hands. It plays loudly and clearly in both octaves.
Penny whistles, tin whistles - I learned to play whistle on Generation brand penny whistles, particularly the nickle-silver models. They are reliable, easy to play, and produce a clear tone. Later, I discovered Feadog whistles, which are now my favorite of the lower cost variety.
I once attended a tin whistle class with John Skelton in which he played a large variety of whistles in a comparison test. I preferred his Michael Burke whistle to any other brands, so I ordered one from Michael who builds them in Illinois. Michael describes the sound of his whistles as "bird like." For professional use and studio recording, I love my Michael Burke brass whistle. It is easily tunable, with an O-ring lock to set it at concert pitch.
For a medium level whistle priced a bit higher than the generation but much lower than the Burke I keep a Tony Dixon as a spare whistle .
Frontalini 24 bass This accordion was made in 1963 and is a pleasure to play. It's very lightweight and compact but powerful with a nice musette tuning. I play it so much that I periodically need to have it repaired and retuned. I've had very good service from Petosa Accordions in Seattle who retuned the reeds and repaired the mechanism, and Castiglione Accordions in Michigan who, several years later, put in a new set of reeds and repaired the bellows. Arthur Welch from Accordion Connection in New Hampshire has been doing maintenance for me for the last several years.
I've taken this accordion on several flights to the west coast, for a week long gig at Feile Iorrais Festival in Ireland, and for a tour to China. Even with the case it fits into the overhead luggage compartment inside the plane. For amplification I'm using a Microvox microphone and preamp setup which I installed into the accordion. I purchased the Microvox unit from Westfield Musical Instruments in England. It has 4 microphones: three for the treble side, and one for the bass.
Castiglione 48 bass This accordion is one of a batch of 24 that Castiglione had commissioned to be built in Italy. It is a very high quality instrument and has a beautiful sound with hand made reeds. The buttons are very quiet when depressed which makes it very well suited for studio recording. It also looks very classy. I use it in situations where looks and clean sound are important. As a 48 bass, it is much lighter and smaller than a full size 120 bass accordion. For amplification it has a built in Shure microphone system. Its my favorite instrument for strolling and to play in my cajun and zydeco band.
Titano 120 bass. This is a fine instrument with fancy decoration, chrome and black. I don't need 120 basses for much of the music I play, so I will probably put it up for sale or trade.
Hero miniature accordion - I play this sparingly since it is really just a toy, and somewhat fragile, but I get a huge amount of music out of it on folk style tunes and have received many hits playing it on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Kurzweil sp 76 This is my primary instrument for gigging. Its lightweight, only 28 pounds with the AC adapter and has a decent keyboard feel. Its described as "semi weighted" but feels much better to me than most semi weighted keyboards, primarily because its not spongy or rubber band like. It has several good piano sounds. For gigs in very small clubs I use my Galaxy Audio Hot Spot as an amp, and in larger venues I use a Galaxy Audio PA with the 8 inch speaker. I commissioned a custom lightweight padded nylon fabric carrying case from the Mooradian company with two large accessory pockets and backpack straps so that I can carry the piano on my back and the amp and keyboard stand with my free hands, for fewer trips between my vehicle and the stage.
My acoustic piano is a Charles R. Walter upright, a very fine piano.
Guitars, Ukuleles, Bass
Taylor rosewood concert grand - This is a wonderful guitar with a smaller body than a dreadnought. I was looking for a professional level guitar, but couldn't afford the high prices of one of the more popular quality guitar makers. I did some research, decided that this was the no frills model that I needed, and then began looking for one locally. I wanted a rosewood back and quickly discovered that no dealer seemed to have one in rosewood, and that this model was now being made with walnut.
I called the Taylor factory and they located a single guitar with a rose wood back in Baltimore. I drove to Baltimore to try it out. I sat and played it in the shop for a long time. I also played a comparable Martin guitar in the shop. The Martin guitar played and sounded great. The Taylor played and sounded better. I had a Thin Line pickup installed and took it back home to New Hampshire.
We have a couple of Baby Taylors which are a pleasure to play when sitting around comfortably at home.
Our primary ukulele is a modern Martin tenor and my secondary is a vintage 1920’s Martin Soprano. For loud gigs we have a modern Deering Banjo ukulele with a built in pick up system
Our best bass is a 20 gallon galvanized steel washtub with a maple stick, nylon string, and fitted out with a dual pickup passive piezo, output to 1/4 inch.
Amps, mixers, speakers, electronics
For duo and small ensemble gigs we use a Bose L1 Model II loudspeaker system, with bass bin and Tone Match. This is great for indoor gigs, and even works fine for smaller outdoor community concerts with our duo, using acoustic instruments. More inputs can be added by using an external mixer.
For amplifying our fiddles and guitar through a sound system we use and highly recommend equipment from Your Heaven Audio. We’ve used it from Massachusetts to China. We are able to program sound profiles for our various instruments so that they sound completely natural when coming from a sound system.
We use a Carvin XP880 8 channel mixer/amp along with Carvin Speakers on Stands. This system is great for outdoor and larger club gigs with a full band.
Peavey Speakers Model 1210TS PA Column, T3 High Frequency Projector . - These are wonderful sounding speakers coupled with my Carvin amp. They're over 35 years old but going strong. They have a 12 inch, 10 inch, and 3 tweeters in a sturdy column design. They're great for vocals and acoustic instruments. They aren't designed to put on stands however, so must be set up on a sturdy and substantial surface.
Samson Mixpad 9 - This mixer is one of the best audio equipment purchases that I have ever made. There are several similar products on the market but I chose this model because it is physically smaller than its competitors and I wanted an ultra compact mixer that I could pack into a tiny kit bag. I was very pleased to discover how incredibly versatile it is!
I can use it to add extra channels to my main powered PA board, to plug in 4 or 5 instruments plus a mic for my solo gigs, or for many other uses: duo, and trio folk gigs, or as a submixer for all of my instruments when I play an on-stage venue with a main PA system.
It is convenient to just hand the sound man one 1/4 line, rather than having to have separate cables for my flute, fiddle, accordion, banjo, etc. At a recent contra dance gig I had the whole band plugged into my Mixpad9: 1st fiddle; 2nd fiddle; banjo; flute; hammered dulcimer; Octave mandolin; and a microphone for tin whistle. It worked like a charm!
Roland Jazz Chorus 50 - "JC-50 Jazz Chorus 112 Combo"
This is one of my favorite amps for amplifying my violin in country rock type situations. Roland only sold them for a couple of years, but I'm lucky enough to own one which I purchased new in New York in 1981 during a tour with the Baked Apple Band. The true test of this amp's quality occurred in a country rock gig I had in Utica, New York, at the S-Kicker club. For some reason it wasn't possible to put my fiddle through the sound board or to mic it so I had to rely upon just my Roland to compete with the rest of the band which was amplified through a substantial PA system.
The lead guitar player was using a Marshall stack. The sound man warned me that in his opinion my amp wouldn't cut it on its own, but I had no other choice. I cranked the Roland way up to 8 or 9, plugged in my violin and let loose. Our on-stage volume in this band was such that I had to use ear plugs. Our band was being recorded this night from the audience with a remote microphone. Later that night, listening to the taped play back, I was surprised and pleased to hear that my little Roland was easily able to keep up with the PA system, and even with the guitarist's Marshall stack.
This was evident in sections where the guitar player and I traded solos. Not only was my amp loud enough, but my fiddle sounded natural, just like a violin played acoustically, with no distortion. Granted, I was using a high quality violin, with a Barcus Berry pickup which I had very carefully placed for optimal sound. I've had a "line out" jack retrofitted to the amp's back panel, since it didn't come with one.
Galaxy Audio Hot Spot - These are truly amazing little amps. I've been using the 30 watt versions weekly for many years, in pairs as mini PA systems for folk bands, as on stage monitors for my cajun/zydeco band, or as a main amp for my fiddle, flute, banjo, or accordion. They are real workhorses, and produce a clean, clear sound for both vocals and acoustic instruments.
At a recent gig I had one mounted 5 feet in the air on a mic stand in use as a monitor. An intoxicated passerby kicked the stand sending the amp crashing to the wooden floor. I put it back up on the stand and it worked perfectly, with no damage even to the case. Later that evening, it suffered the same abuse a second time! It still worked perfectly, although after this second occurrence I put up chairs as barricades around the mic stand.
Galaxy Audio PA - I use this compact system with its 140 watts and 8 inch speaker to power a whole folk band for a contra dance, small venue band stage performance, or just as a powerful amp for main stage solo folk gigs. It also works great as a main or monitor amp for keyboard. I've used it along with my Samson Mixpad 9, or with a mini XLR combiner from Galaxy, to amplify my Kurzweil keyboard, dance caller, fiddle, and other instruments for barn dances!
Mics - We’re presently using Electro Voice N/dym 257's, and 357's for vocals and instruments, and an SM 57 for instruments.
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