My latest adventure is in the world of flue flutes. Wood or bamboo can be used; the techniques are a little different in the construction. What I find most extraordinary is the parallels that exist in the making of the dulcimore! When I learned to make a dulcimore I discovered the systematic curve in nearly all the tonal aspects. Well flutes are no different. Each key fall into a realm of dimensions that make or break the tone you are looking for. The key itself is stretching the dimension it lies in. Too much bottom will alter the top and vice versa. Find the balance and you have a wonderful flute.
The craft itself; that is the makers’ insights draw parallels. If you ask six traditional dulcimore makers why they do a specific task, you will get six different answers! The flute is made by the individual, and traits are maker specific to say the least. There may be similarities esthetically, but the tone and playability are very different. I’m still developing my understanding of the flue flute. My initial perspective was quite wrong. The dynamics are twofold. Not unlike the dulcimore VSL the flute keys are bound by the length of the sound wave. And, the diameter of the sound bore? Still figuring this one out.
I’ve not been in this adventure three years. My love of wood working and study of things dulcimore has not weaned. I’ve developed even more resolve in “how things should be in dulcimore”, and I’m unrepentant for it.
I’ve noticed in the vending booths a trend I can’t ignore. Young men maybe just out of college, with that look in their eye when they look to my dulcimores. They will pick them up and ask great questions, curious. I see the early stage of passion, or what might be, we really don’t know till they have one to take home with to play with for a while. I remember that stage in my life where I had more time than money to explore. Three hundred dollars might as well be three thousand dollars when it comes to what could be called extravagant spending. So they take a card with my information on it and wonder off into the sunset.
Last night lying in bed, I realized how many dulcimore in the just the past year I’ve given away and gifted. Why not loaners? Why not some sort of dulcimore mentoring program for young folks. How is the true folk tradition to survive unless we do as our forefathers did and take a hand in the propagation of the culture.
The traditional dulcimore has been made for nearly two hundred years. It did not cease to exist when the modern instrument took center stage. Individual craftsman as hobby have been making dulcimore a few at a time in regional pockets this whole time. Made for family and friends, they were gifted and sold when possible to a few interested. I found this folk tradition on the internet! I would like to share it personally, to yet again, a few interested folks. I very much would like to find young interested people and loan dulcimore for a said amount of time for them to explore. In that time if they excel, they keep their instrument or trade it in for a better or one more suited for their style of play. If they lose interest, they simply return it. If I’m going to gift dulcimore, I’d like to see they are going to folks who will truly play them, and I’m unrepentant for it.
Jean Ritchie is credited with introducing the dulcimer to the world. In New York they were thrilled to share their version of the instrument as well. The west coast being a competitive rival soon followed suit and in spectacular form redesigned it yet again. Soon there are folks from all over the world making and playing this new wonderful instrument invented in the lowly back woods towns of the Appalachia. Or are they? The instrument went by many names 150 or so years ago, none of which was “dulcimer”. It wasn’t until much later when folks from the big city came to study the local folks of the region did they translate the term “dulcimer” from the several dialect pronunciations of the word “dulcimore”. Interestingly enough, the term “folk” to me congers up the way we make things our own. When we meet a new friend George from Guatemala we are somehow compelled to pronounce it by the American George, instead of “horehea”. And so they did change the word to dulcimer and that was just the beginning of all the changes. You see to fully understand the American Dulcimore you must have an appreciation for the “dulcimore”. When folks from the revival made the dulcimer their own, they left very little behind. Even in the classification of the instrument, the original was referred to as “pre revival”, as if it could not have been without the revival instrument. (Isn’t it funny how educated folks like to use pomp and circumstance.) The way it was played was left behind with the exception of a handful of individuals, and about as many to make the traditional dulcimore. The revival instrument is chorded like a guitar, and the noter was abandon as being backward and elementary. Full guitar frets are used to accommodate the chording. The strings are off the shelf guitar strings, bass being wound giving an illusion of sustain as does the dual coarse melody strings. The finish is lacquer which looks wonderful but makes it very susceptible to temperature and moisture changes, so much for the modern dulcimer. We are all likely to imagine our perception of the dulcimore (or dulcimer) is somehow more correct than the next guy. I am no different. The dulcimore is one of three designs from three different regions. First my favorite, the traditional hour glass and tear drop shape. The shape doesn’t make a different instrument. The elliptical can be included with these, but usually is classified with the Galax as it has a different string method and some with a false bottom, and then there is the Tennessee Music Box. All are tuned with either zither pins or wooden friction pegs as they have been for hundreds of years. They use music string from whatever source they can. Fret staples are hand made from broom wire, brass safety pins or fence staples. The wood selected is primarily poplar because of its easy workability and incredible sound, yet other species are used too. Most were not finished and some were highly embellished and the rest somewhere in between.
I’ve been watching several you tube videos about tooth and scrub planes for quite a while now. Knocking the idea back and forth, the tooth plane seems so romantic somehow, but the scrub plane is the most suitable for the task of rough smoothing the panels I make. I was looking to buy a tooth plane iron for a number four I have two of and just smooth with the other. Then considered making a scrub from the Harbor Freight $10 Number 33? Then realized I really don’t need a tooth plane, and I have a spare iron for the number four so why not just grind it down to a scrub? So I did. After a few more videos from masters with highly specialized tools, I hand ground it down on my 5 inch bench grinder. Then proceeded to finish it with my whetstones, and polish with my strop. In less than an hour I have a 3 inch radius on the iron that will shave the hair on my arm! (Customary to individuals who sharpen tool irons and chisels) I still enjoy getting there.
Over the past two years I have experimented with several wood finishes in my dulcimore adventure. Many years ago I had seen on PBS a couple of guys who did wood finishing and showed how to dissolve old phonograph records to make a dark coloring. You see the first mass produced records were shellac based and “melt” in alcohol. Just a few weeks ago I happened across a stack of old jazz records at the Peddlers Mall for just 25 cents apiece and this was just too good a price to pass up for this adventure! I rushed home and broke one into half inch pieces and dropped it in a jar and covered it with alcohol. In the online recipes they called for some more aggressive solvent but I really don’t like that stuff, so alcohol only and in about two weeks, black shellac sludge! Every few days I would agitate the jar for a few minutes to insure a good mix. Once fully dissolved I ran the mixture thru a cheese cloth filter to remove the paper label. I dipped a cotton rag and wiped the poplar sample. Not very impressed the first time, but letting it set for an hour or so and applying a second wipe achieved the black I was looking for. Two more coats of amber shellac then steel wool and paste wax and it is just where I want it, dark but you can still see the wood thru the finish. You know I can’t help but think the 80 year old tunes recorded on these records will play on in this finish…
In the past many folks tuned their dulcimore to what is called 1-5-5. Balis Ritchie would tell you “Bim- bim- BOM”. We have reversed the strings to note the bass string as a “1”. Some continue and everything is described by roots, but I stop at the bass string as “1”. 1-5-5 is in translation to the modern dulcimer DAA. The distant past didn’t tune as we do today, the dulcimore was tuned to itself. A comfortable tension on the bass drone and melody and middle drone was a fifth or octave above. (Around CGG) No need for a tuner, just pull it close by ear. Many instruments had the intonation set for 1-5-5. They were very high actions for noter play and do not sound very good tuned 1-5-8, or Dad. This is the reason many older instruments get a bad review when it is played “modern”. Even the dulcimore with seemingly impossibly high actions are quite easy to “wail” on with a noter and sound quite good once you find the “sweet” spot.
So I’ve once again looked to the past for my next project. My dulcimore have mathematical formulas to set the fret patterns and this works quite well for modern intonations set at or about 1-5-8, but when slacking the melody string down to 5 from 8 it is a little much. The string flexes much easier over the frets and intonation is already out doubling the problem. I made a dulcimore complete without finish and staples. I used a 27 VSL because I hadn’t used that length before to differentiate it from the rest. On the first lay out I got eleven of the fourteen correct. Two were a little sharp, and one was way flat. The latter took me three adjustments to get right, but in the end all are pretty close. I say close because getting them exact only would be for one style tuning and play so I try to come to a happy medium. I’ll let it rest a few more days and double check several tunings and play to see how it fairs. This one may get a few thin clear coats of shellac.
After cleaning up the excess glue from the latest prototype, I remembered the one I glued up backwards. I remember thinking how nice the fret board jig was, then as I admire my handy work I realize the fret board was glued up with the strum hollow on the upper bout. It too was a prototype and wound up in the fire barrel as many have. If it’s early in the process it’s a little easier to swallow, learning by mistake. Each dulcimore is a little easier than the last. I have to be careful not to get too relaxed in my day. I still smile when I’m carving and sanding away the hour, but tragedy is just a moment away.