Jarosz’s octave mandolin was built by Fletcher Brock, a one-man operation based in Idaho. “I’ve been seeing Sarah since she was around 12 or 13,” Brock says, “and she ended up buying an octave mandolin I had with me at an IBMA show in Nashville. Kym (Warner) from The Greencards was there and he was playing it and other people were playing it, and I think collectively everyone liked it so that may have helped her decide to get it. When you’re buying something like that it’s always good to get the opinion of another good musician.”
As it turned out, Jarosz had been planning to buy an octave mandolin anyway. “I’d actually been saving up for years to buy one,” she says, “and within five minutes of playing the one Fletcher had I knew I had to have it. I’d heard guys like Mike Marshall play, but I especially heard Tim O’Brien play one and I really grew to love that sound. I thought it would be cool to play something to give me a little more of a fuller sound while I sang than just a regular mandolin.”
Jarosz’s octave mandolin is guitar-shaped, with a carved, x-braced Engelmann spruce top, two f-holes, curly big leaf maple back and sides, a 14 3/8-inch lower bout, and a 21 1/2-inch scale length. It has Gotoh mini tuners and a Monteleone style tailpiece made by Allen Guitars and a bridge and pickguard made of ebony. The neck is red maple and has two carbon fiber rods which flank a Martin style adjustable truss rod. The case is custom made by Cedar Creek Cases. As for strings, Jarosz has her own method of finding the right ones. “For some reason I really don’t like regular octave mandolin strings, they sound kind of tinny to me. So I use medium sets of guitar strings in different combinations to get the right gauges.”
Brock says that, while he builds other instruments, the octave mandolin is in high demand these days, due in part to Jarosz’s playing one. “Close to half of my orders now are for octave mandolins,” he says. “Most conversations start with, ‘I just saw Sarah Jarosz, what was that thing she was playing, I want one.’” –
Jarosz plays a custom six-string banjo built by her old friend Bernard Mollberg in Texas. Mollberg, a piano refinisher by trade, is a founder of the non-profit Austin Friends of Traditional Music, and he and Jarosz have been jamming since she was in grade school.
“I started going to the Friday night jam sessions in Wimberley and met Sarah when she was 11,” Mollberg recalls. “She was already solid on the mandolin. I was probably one of the early clawhammer banjo players she had been around, and partly because of hearing me she became interested in learning the banjo. So I loaned her one so she’d have something to mess around with at home.”
Jarosz eventually decided she wanted a six-string banjo like the one Mollberg had built for himself, with a G for the fifth string that was tuned an octave below the third string G. So from bottom to top is a high G string for the thumb string, with the next five strings – G, D, G, B and D when tuned to standard banjo tuning – reaching to the nut.
“It’s really cool to have that extra string,” Jarosz says. “It’s great to have the option of that lower note to fill things out.”
Mollberg made the neck for Jarosz’s banjo from a piece of wood he was given by a friend who also was into woodworking. “I made the neck from a nice piece of curly mahogany, a beautiful figured piece of wood that I’d had for maybe 15 years,” Mollberg says. “Sarah was really taken with it and we decided to use it.” Other parts for the banjo came from the Stewart-MacDonald Company in Ohio and Canadian banjo maker Bill Rickard.
Mollberg has since built a couple more banjos, with slightly different tones, and Jarosz is in the process of choosing one of them for herself. He said that, while he’s happy to make instruments for such a rising star and longtime friend, he doesn’t consider himself to be someone who’s in the instrument-building business.
“I’m interested in building six-string banjos only, but I don’t ever necessarily see myself doing any kind of mass production,” Mollberg says. “But maybe someday I can leave the pianos behind and do that.”