|History and Buying Guide for the Dulcimer|
© 1994 by Custom Builder and Musician Jerry Rockwell The following article comes straight from the web site of Jerry Rockwell, a master musician and dulcimer maker. I greatly respect his knowledge and work, and you can see it first hand at his site by clicking here. Comments by Tom Yocky appear in Yellow
This American folk instrument has a rather short, uncertain musical history, arising from the southern Appalachians in the late 1700's. It has European ancestors: the Swedish Hummel and Norwegian Langeleik, the French Epinette des Vosges and a close relative, the German Scheitholt (later the Pennsylvania German zither). Variations spread from the Appalachians of southern Pennsylvania into Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but few pre-1850 examples have survived.
The mountain dulcimer is formally classified as a fretted zither. Characteristically, it has a long soundbox supporting a fretted fingerboard that has strings stretched lengthwise along it. Appalachian, fretted, or lap dulcimers are alternate names, the latter because it is usually played while resting on one's lap.
Mountain dulcimer building is a highly individual folk craft. The strings, wood, shape, size, common tunings, and playing methods vary widely, and are subject to change via the living folk process.
The search for an instrument should
include as much listening as possible, either to live or recorded
performances: look into music stores, particularly those that
specialize in acoustic instruments. The players and their music
are as diverse as the instruments: seek out those who have been
involved with the dulcimer for a long period of time, and who
have rich and varied repertoires. The very best dulcimers come
from individual craftsmen who are also accomplished players and
teachers. I know of very few exceptions to this rule.
I fully agree, my dulcimers incorporate design features and ever improving quality of craftsmanship that coincide with my ever advancing skill in playing. As my skill in playing improved, shortcomings in dulcimer design and craftsmanship stood out as issues to be corrected. The dulcimers I am selling today exceed all my needs as a player, and far exceeds all other dulcimers I have personally come into contact with.
Dulcimers are sometimes categorized
as being pre-revival (before 1940) or modern (1940 to present
day). Historically, the instruments were, and the best ones still
are, painstakingly fashioned, set up, signed, and/or dated and
numbered, by the same pair of hands.
I build each dulcimer from start to finish, and each is signed and dated. The signature is a symbolic gesture in which I proclaim to all who see it "I, Tom Yocky, have built this instrument to my utmost, and I find it worthy of bearing my name and reputation."
A handmade dulcimer, pre-revival or modern, is a piece of American folk culture, an irreplaceable, one-and-only gem.
Some very fine dulcimers are being manufactured today using production line techniques and tools. The instruments may be signed by a team member, or perhaps by the craftsperson who does the final set-up. They tend to look and sound exactly alike.
Several factories build quantities of very cheap dulcimers that can be a liability to a beginning player. Some of these are almost impossible to tune, are not set up properly for playing, produce a shrill, distorted tone, or are made of poor quality plywood.
The highest-quality stringed instruments are made of solid wood, which vibrates evenly and predictably, and amplifies the strings' vibration in a sustained, musical fashion. Some plywoods sound surprisingly good--particularly those that are thinner than one-eighth inch--but most of the very-low-priced dulcimers and kits use some form of luan plywood, which is to be avoided at all costs.
High quality solid woods, combined with woodworking skill and appropriate acoustical design, should yield a high-quality dulcimer--regardless of wood species. Nevertheless, this is one of the most subjective areas of dulcimer building. Each builder has her or his favorite woods.
Listen to a few instruments, old and new. American hardwoods native to the Appalachians -- cherry, butternut, walnut, chestnut, sassafras, and poplar -- gave traditional dulcimers their characteristic plaintive sound. In recent times, however, dulcimer players and performers have been asking builders for more volume. This has led many modern dulcimer makers directly to the steel string guitar for ideas and inspiration.
Guitars generally have dense hardwood sides and backs, made of rosewood or maple; and soft, resonant, and loud soundboards made of spruce or cedar. Combinations like these are seen on many contemporary dulcimers, and these woods often do produce more volume, but some are a little too close to the guitar model in tone for my own personal taste: there's something about that simple, plaintive, nasal quality that's hard to beat.
For me, the essence of the mountain
dulcimer is a certain fragile sweetness that is--by its very
nature--subtle and delicate.
My dulcimers are of solid wood construction (except for the sides), using only the highest grade available AAAA. Moreover, the woods I select can be considered exotic. Example, instead of plain maple, I have built many with figured or curly maple (see photos section for more examples). My sides are built using 6 HARDWOOD layers, not luans as Jerry Rockwell mentions a moment ago. Why? Becasue I have found that the laminated hardwood sides are stronger, lighter, and more stable than standard solid wood sides. The function of the sides is not the same as the function of the top and back. The top and back are meant to freely vibrate with srting vibrations, the sides (and the fingerboard) are meant to provide stable and strong support for the vibrating top adn back. Stability is a major concern in an instrument. An unstable instrument will warp over time ruining its playability. My sides are stronger and moer stable than solid wood sides, and because I can make them thinner than solid wood sides, they actually transmit sound better.
Finishes are often a matter of great controversy among dulcimer builders. The type of finish used on a plucked string instrument has a great influence on the tone of the instrument. Finish sort of teams up with the wood to produce the final result: either a bright, crystalline tone with emphasis on the high-end; or a warmer,softer, and often fuzzier tone with more emphasis on the bass, or low-end. Of course, most dulcimers will fall somewhere between these extremes.
Polyurethane and lacquer-type finishes are very hard, and emphasize the high end (treble) response. Provided there aren't 20 coats polished out to a mirror-like gloss--in which case the entire instrument is seriously damped--these finishes add to the clarity of the tone, and they also tend to increase the volume.
Penetrating oil finishes have a
dampening effect; they soak into the wood and alter its basic
vibrating structure. Their strong points are that they give the
wood a deep, rich luster; and they have an earthy, gutsy, and
very woody tone that contrasts sharply with the guitar-like tone
characteristic of lacquer. Oil finishes will give the dulcimer a
softer, warmer, and fuzzier tone.
I use a hand rubbed oil finishing technique. It is the same technique that I learned working as a finisher/cabinet maker in the private jet industry. Private jets owned by huge companies, movie stars, and heads of state both foreign and domestic can cost $40+ million. Of course, all work for these customers is of the absolute highest quality. I put just as much effort if not more into the finish of each of my dulcimers. I tediously (and properly) sand to a level 1000 grit, by the time I am done sanding, the wood looks polished even before I have applied any finish. I then apply the finish in a old time method refereed to as "hand rubbed" which brings out the life and the depth of the wood, protects and seals the wood from the elements, and provides a sense of luster and polish, without "plasticizing" the wood with layers of spray or brush on polyurethane and lacquer. Additionally, an oil finish is easier to maintain, only requiring occasional cleanings with a lemon oil wood treatment product (similar to Pledge, but I recommend not using Pledge because it contains wax, a pure lemon oil product is much better in this application).
You'll probably need to make minute tuning adjustments every time you play the dulcimer; so tuners are a major concern.
Wooden friction pegs are traditional; they are often hand-carved, although standard ebony violin/viola pegs are sometimes used. Aesthetically, wooden pegs are sometimes used. Aesthetically, wooden pegs complement the dulcimer perfectly, but they spell trouble for getting in tune. They make it hard to achieve fine adjustments in pitch (to tighten or loosen the string tension very gradually). Wooden friction pegs are also notorious for slipping out of tune unexpectedly -- unwinding completely so that the strings go completely slack.
Metal friction pegs are a significant improvement over wooden pegs; fine adjustments in pitch can be made more easily. They consist of a 2-piece metal shaft and collar, with a plastic button for turning. Tension is adjusted via a small screw at the tip of the button. they are often used on traditional scroll-type pegheads or to replace problematic wooden pegs.
Geared tuning machines
are far superior to all friction pegs. they are found on all
guitars, and are designed to fit a flat guitar-style peghead.
Geared tuners are set up in ratios; for instance, a 14:1 ratio
means that 14 revolutions of the tuning button give one
revolution of the shaft. This allows for extremely precise
adjustment. Aesthetically speaking, these tuners do not go well
with traditional scrolled heads, but they can be quite beautiful
in a well-thought-out modern design.
I use geared tuners now, but my first dulcimer used wooden friction pegs...they looked nice, but I had such trouble fine tuning my instrument that I never used pegs again.
Sight down the length of the strings. The fingerboard surface must be level. Its playability depends on its action, -- the distance from strings to fingerboard. A high action will make the strings hard to press down; a very low action may create a buzz over certain frets. A dime should just fit between the strings and the 3rd fret. Poor placement of nut or bridge, or badly seated, uneven frets will also cause buzzes and other playing problems.
It is for this reason that I decided to construct the fingerboard out of layers of wood laminated together much like plywood is. This method of construction looks nice and considerably reduces the possibility of warping over time. In addition, each dulcimer is carefully adjusted to the perfect action height, as it is one of the most important aspects of any stringed instrument. The most beautiful instrument in the world isn't worth much to me if it has been set improperly, and sounds or plays terrible as a result.
The number and spacing of strings on the mountain dulcimer has never been regularized. generally speaking there are from three to eight strings arranged in sets (courses), that contain one or two strings each. Double strings are always pressed down together, but of course there will be one tuner per string.
A three-course arrangement of melody,
middle and bass strings seems to be the most common: three single
strings; doubled melody string tuned to the same note (unison),
one middle, and one bass string; or three double courses. A four
course of four equidistant single strings, with this
configuration, it is possible to play four-note chords.
My dulcimers come with 4 strings but the nut and bridge are cut in a way to allow for varying playing styles. I usually prefer to have the 4 strings evenly spaced, allowing four-note chords, but I can easily move the two melody strings to the closer slots in the nut to allow a three course method of playing. See photo.
Dulcimers are available in a variety of string lengths. String length refers to the distance from nut to bridge. String length affects what you hear in several ways.
Long string lengths are those from 28" to 30" or more. Increase in string length means an increase in string tension. If you use the popular tunings, D-A-D or D-A-A, this means more volume and a brighter high end (treble response).
Longer string lengths tend to sound twangy and nasal, and are especially appropriate for the traditional dronal style of playing.
Dulcimers with shorter string
lengths: 25" to 27", have less string tension and do
not speak as loudly or as brightly as their long-stringed
cousins. However, reaching chords along the fingerboard is
easier. If your hands are small, and you plan on playing chords
on the dulcimer, consider one with a shorter string length.
I use a string length of 27 1/2". I find this strikes a happy medium between volume and versatility in chord formation (even with my small hands). I also offer an optional 26 1/4" scale length for no additiona charge. Some players find this shorter scale length easier when forming chords with smaller hands.
Frets are specially shaped lengths of wire seated in the fingerboard at mathematically determined intervals from one another. Frets mark the locations of notes along the musical scale. Traditionally, dulcimers are diatonic instruments: that is, their fret patterns produce a diatonic scale (a major scale similar to the white keys on a piano). Many builders today regularly add an extra fret, # 6 1/2 (or 6+). (Note: The banjo, mandolin and guitar are completely chromatic-- their scale includes all the white and black keys on a piano).
Plucking an open (unfretted) string will sound its lowest note. To go up the scale from the open (0) note, count frets from left to right, pressing firmly just behind (at the left of) each fret with the left index finger.
The dulcimer's overall soundbox size (its open interior) is one significant characteristic that you can actually hear. the larger the area, the more low-end (bass response). The soundbox dimension most affecting low-end is the depth of the sides. The shape of the sound box, hourglass, teardrop, rectangle, ellipse, and so on, doesn't affect the sound of the dulcimer very much, although there is no general agreement on any of these parameters.
Soundhole shapes are highly personal; some builders use them as trademarks. Historic hourglass dulcimers tend to display more hearts; older teardrop and ellipse shapes were more often given circles. Unless a soundhole design removes a majority of the vibrating soundboard, its shape has little audible effect.
The dulcimer is played on one's lap or on a table, with its tuners to one's left and strumming hollow on the right. All you really need are your hands, ears, and a good instrument. Beyond the basics, though, are many playing styles, techniques, and accessories. Picks come in various shapes, sizes, hardnesses, and in varying degrees of flexibility. Strumming styles favor a more flexible pick, whereas some techniques that require the picking of individual strings(flatpicking), favor a harder, less flexible pick.
Finding and buying a
mountain dulcimer is a matter of looking and listening carefully:
ask around, listen to various players. Look for a solid wood
instrument; ask about its finish, request geared tuners, check
its action, and sight down the top of the fingerboard to make
sure its dead flat. When you take your new dulcimer home, don't
ever hang it above a fireplace.
I read this same article before I ever built my first dulcimer, and though I have only been in contact with dulcimers since 1997, I have since become a skilled and talented player, as well as an innovative and detail oriented craftsman. My dulcimers adhere to the standards given in the article above and you can feel confident that a Tom Yocky Dulcimer is among the best...but costs much less.