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.
I.D. Stamper was a dulcimer maker from Letcher County Kentucky. He sold his first dulcimer while working in Louisville at the children’s hospital. Sometime later after moving back to Letcher County he lengthened the dulcimer to “as long as he could get strings for”. He found that long neck banjo strings were just the thing and from there it’s history. He developed a style all his own, and many have tried to duplicate the sound but fall short. I believe I.D. understood the concept of optimizing the variables, as in the length to optimize the slack on the strings to get that wonderful swoosh sound that he created. You see there are builders that believe that simply changing the string size can accommodate the tone change, as in using a shorter VSL to make a baritone dulcimer. I suppose for the modern dulcimer that will suffice, but for the full range of dynamics in the traditional dulcimore, optimizing the string length is critical.
I have enjoyed I.D.’s songs immensely for some time now. I have both his film and sound tract from the seventies at hand and watch and listen to them frequently. The guys in the Hindman Studio have a long Stamper dulcimer on display that they have strung up, and Don Pedi got to play! That was enough inspiration for me to consider making a 36 inch. I did not have stock long enough to do anything that long. My rough cut material is just 36 inches long, so I’d have to buy something for the sound box. The width was a challenge too. I wanted a solid top and bottom for this, and it was going to be wide. I.D. used plywood in some of his dulcimers but I couldn’t see myself doing that. The alternative was store bought kiln dried poplar. Width cut on the table saw and finished with the hand saw. I left it very heavy, about 5/32 inch thick. I was concerned with any flex on a panel that wide. I, for the first time, included two cross braces in the bottom. I had to go to my stock for a 1 inch by 1 inch fret board. There are checks at both ends. I noticed when finishing the peg head there was a check in that as well but decided to go with it after investing that much time in carving and filing.
Once I got it together I gave it six coats of oil. I had several maple pegs lying around and decided to use them here because there would be very little tension on them tuned that low. The nut and bridge are hickory and I got a supply of nickel plated desk pins for string anchors. A set of John Pearse long neck banjo strings are tuned to the sweet spot that falls about F or F#. The action can be best described as a pillow case and a sheet! Now I have to learn to play it…….
I have likened visits to historic Hindman, Kentucky as a kid in a candy store. That is the best description I can muster. Placing a one hundred year old Thomas dulcimore in your lap and strumming it has to be one of the most wonderful experiences possible. As I admire the piece I have fantasies of a young man holding one of my dulcimore in the year 2133 feeling the same way. Teasing other modern dulcimer builders when asked why he prefers traditional dulcimore will respond, “been making them this way for three hundred years, no reason to change now!”
Use of sound post
You pluck a string. The string vibrates. How much more simple can it be than that? Well we have to ask how long is the string, what is the mass of the string, how much tension is on the string, and lastly, how much energy was used to pluck it? Interesting!
And what about the variables my friend, what are the dynamics at work? Is it possible to change the tone we hear by adjusting the resistance between string vibration and the waves in the air? After all, isn’t it those waves that move your ear drums that cause you to determine if it is a sweet sound or not so much?
If we look at the dulcimore in a perspective of dynamics not unlike hydro or aero, we understand the optimal sound quality is that of the path of least resistance. The tone of the instrument is in effect what is not restricted from the path. Very soft wood will dampen the tone making it dull, the upper tones are killed. Very dense wood offers little resistance to the upper tones making it bright. The optimal density wood carries most of the vibrations with little resistance, giving it a full voice. Of course we can alter most of these variations by nut and bridge material and position, as well as string selection.
What am I trying to say? I don’t know. This is something that has been on my mind for a while and writing it down some times helps me to see it a little better.
Way too often I find myself working in circles. I find it hard to concentrate on several items at once, and usually mess something up. I’m not working on anything important so it really doesn’t matter, but it gets me down some times. There are just so many dulcimores, and so little time, or so it would seem. In perspective, I can make one or two dulcimores a week. I just need to decide ahead of time what to work on. One decision I have made is to limit the models. Bobby has the right idea, small, medium and large, and if it gets too demanding, quit. I didn’t like the Cousin Tilly at first, but after discovering the voice, it’s starting to grow on me. We try to get the dulcimore to conform to our idea of what it should sound like instead of listening to the voice of the dulcimore. It is a little like a wild animal, it just wants to do what it wants to do! I feel I have the Betty pretty well down to a science. I may make a more precise jig when I get back from Florida. The Tilly jig will suffice. This will leave the baritone model, and I may just wait till after the Homer get together to worry about that one.
In the book about Homer Ledford, Dulcimer Maker, he talks of not being completely satisfied with the aesthetic aspects of the instrument. He likens the design of the “dulcibro”, and the way it curves all the way around with no tail block to break it. This would have required a total redesign to accomplish because the tail block is an integral part of the dulcimer design. Instruments that do not have the tail block are made in jigs or forms.
I must say that I’ve never seen a “dulcibro”, but my take on a rounded back end is a little different. My idea is more in line with the fiddle back, or even the mandolin. Simply curve or bow the base of the lower bout on the back panel. This works best with the tear drop design because there is only one bout to be dealt with. I suppose there will be testing on the hour glass design as well but so many dulcimore, so little time!
The forms are cut out, routed and sanded. Holes are drilled, t nuts inserted, and cross supports made. Bow form is glued to the cross support and the contact piece sealed with shellac. A panel thinned down to about .100” is placed under hot running water for a few moments and then is placed in the jig. The eight ¼” bolts are slowly tightened all the way down, and the panel is inspected looking for any signs of failure. I really didn’t know if a thin panel could be tortured in this way! But it can, and after drying I pulled it out of the jig and hand sanded the fiddle back pleasantly pleased with the concept in my hand.
I’m sure many will question why a “fiddle back”? “It won’t sit in your lap correctly” I’ve already heard them say. Well, actually it does! The feet can be glued on to make it table top ready, or if you like the fiddle back look without the feet, a opossum board can be used.