If we call a spade a spade, shouldn’t we know what a spade is?

HPIM1442-800 I’ve only been at this “Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore” for a few years. I’m going to guess my insights are different as the result of my being a dulcimore maker. In my first recollection of early pieces there were references to the “play-ability” of many pieces. Some referred to the unplayable pieces as “wall hangers” and the makers were subject to unfavorable review.  What I find problematic with the review is; was the piece original, or had it in fact been “repaired”? Early on I found pieces that the intonation was set a particular way. The early pieces were generally Ionian, tuned a full note lower and played with a noter. The contemporary players tuned them Mixolydian a full note higher and lowered the action, then complained it “wasn’t right”. If you don’t know how a particular maker set his intonation, you can’t fully appreciate the piece.

Now for the next issue… Is it original? Jean Ritchie had two Thomas’ when she passed. They both reside at the University of Kentucky John Jacob Niles Center in Lexington, Kentucky. The problem child was shared at the second Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming. She had stated in an interview (I don’t recall where) that it “didn’t play right”. I played that piece, and the first thing I noticed was the nut and bridge had been reworked. They were bone and the string edge was broke off the center of the nut and bridge, not the inside edge as the originals were. This offset the VSL by as much as 300 thousands! Yes, the intonation was wrong, but not by Thomas’ hand.

Now for the thousand dollar question; should I alter the piece so I can play it? Do you want to play it, or are you saving the piece to sell for a profit later? Very often the concern of “devaluing” the piece is brought up. I don’t know of any individuals who would pay less for a Thomas because the strings had been replaced. Most hundred year old pieces have had the nut and bridge replaced as well, maybe more than once. These pieces were made to be played, and I would say probably in a way they were set up to be played…


“a thing of the past”

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Josiah H. Combs wrote that “the dulcimore is rapidly becoming a thing of the past” in his 1913 magazine article The Kentucky Highlanders.  In the book Folk-Songs of the Southern United States written in 1925, he says “The ‘dulcimore’ (dulcimer) is an instrument formerly much used, but now rapidly falling into decay.” How right he was! If we compare how many traditional dulcimore there were in 1913 to how many there are today, his observation was spot on! In 1925 “all” dulcimore were traditional. Today, possibly less than there were in 1925?



We talk of Mixolydian, Aeolian, Dorian and Ionian scale, but music theory has its hold on us! When setting scale we are actually adjusting the note placements for a string drawn to a specific tension. The Greek scale system has to do with the seven notes and what the string is adjusted to makes no difference. What I’m saying is; we can play all the modes on one string! So long as the note placement is correct for the tension of the string it doesn’t matter what mode we play. When we add another string is when it starts to change as the additional string gives us a reference point.

When we play Diatonic, we can experience a multitude of possibilities in tunings. The same tune played in a reversed mode has a new dynamic to it. When we say a scale is Ionian, what we really mean is the string has been noted at or about an A 220 hertz and the Mixolydian at or about D 293.7 hertz. If we stray from the contemporary tunings and just let the strings ring, we can find additional sweet spots. By adjusting the tunings around what the melody string is noted for, we have all the possible scales at our fingertips. By raising the melody string by one note or lowering it by one note we can seriously change the dynamics of a tune. (For the better) Not being slave to the electronic tuner, but listening to the way the strings harmonize with one another is key. When experimenting with tunings, a string may actually be sharp or flat by the electronic tuner, but ring nicely by ear! Adjusting a string sharp or flat may work in one tune and not another, being slave to the tuner will exacerbate the effect where as listening to the way the strings are working together will minimize it. Changing the tunings of the strings will change the tension on the fret board ever so slightly and this in turn will change the tuning ever so slightly. Again we can find new sweet spots!



The Makers Mark

We don’t know why J. Edward Thomas used the design he did. It could possibly be his twist on another instrument he studied at a younger age. We know it changed very little over the years; I suppose if it aint broke don’t fix it. His work was only inconsistent in about a pencil width for the most part. It has been said he was always carving on something he could readily pull from his pocket and was an incredible carver. Peg heads are the dulcimore makers play ground and one example is the dog head peg head he carved for Josiah Combs graduation gift.

The peg head has been a maker’s mark for several makers. Homer started changing his peg head early on. He tapered the end and in doing so created the design that he would be known for. Thomas didn’t need to change anything, when you are first in the field your work is all original. His peg head was small and simple, and he could probably carve one out in minutes with little or no lay out! Others tried various scrolls not unlike a violin peg head, or simplified versions of the scroll.

The sound holes have been another maker’s mark for some. Early on the inverted heart shape was almost tradition; this and of course the round hole that was no more than a simple drilled hole. As for makers’ identification, Doug Birch has used this wonderful reversed comet streak, and only on one side! You can identify one of his instruments from across the room. David McKinney has this design with six holes circling a center hole. Again a design that is very simple but very distinctively original and recognizable. Homer Ledford used the diamond shape in his early years. I believe the fact that so many makers will “give you what you want” has limited the originality of the sound holes design.

There are only so many changes that you can make to a sound box, few that mark the maker other than the nontraditional shapes. Peg heads have given way to machine heads on the contemporary dulcimer; I have not studied the modern pieces enough to comment on that so I will stay with peg heads. Homer Ledford tapered the sides of the simplistic scroll and it was a decision that marked his design indefinitely. Many spend hours carving wonderful violin scrolls, but there is very little to differentiate one from another. The makers can tell the difference from one an others work, but I believe the public just see a wonderful carving. I wrestled with the peg head design for quite some time and I Googled images of them for weeks. What I came up with to differentiate mine was the carved ball. It holds a leather lanyard very well for hanging and eliminates wrapping the lanyard around the pegs.  Others had tapered the scroll beyond the side but none had rounded the peg head.  Now I had a simple original design that was easily recognizable from across the room!

After a few dozen peg heads, I decided to make a really finely finished one. Most peg head have some sort of tooling marks on them and most have rough tool marks inside the peg hollows bottom. I sat in the chair and carved, sanded, filed, wet out the surface and let it dry and did it all over again. I had a finely finished peg head! Once I oiled and waxed it, it was beautiful! Funny thing though, it wasn’t right. Dulcimore aint’ fine, dulcimore aint’ shiny, dulcimore aint’ finely finished.

So it begins. I have to find out for myself, what to leave in and what to leave out. There was going to be tooling marks left in each piece. Something to differentiate each piece from others manufactured ones. First the tools used to make the dulcimore will determine the markings.  Technology has always been a factor with craftsman. For millennium makers have struggled with new tool inventions. No different from new fasteners like carpenters glue. We still struggle over carpenters or hide glue; each one has benefits and problems in use. The more I look and use the old tools, the more I like them. I refer to the new technology as separating us from the wood. Machines are loud and very quick. In manufacturing, less time is more money and less experience is needed to operate the tools. You must know the wood to properly hand finish a panel. A piece of wood ran through a thickness sander, not so much. Run out of the grain determines the planing process, so the wood tells you how it is to be finished.

The hand tools themselves have changed very little. Rip and crosscut saws kept sharp are quick and relatively effortless. Chisels, knives and plane irons are sharpened a little more than yesteryear. Paul Sellers, a wood working author, did a piece about sharpening up to; 250 grit. I can imagine the old masters having a Norton India stone, or one very similar to it to finish off each tool as needed. We use whet stones up to 5000 or more, then strop with paste to polish the edge! “Overkill?” Yes, sharpening has taken on a specialty craft in its self, but you really don’t need to go that far. Cabinet scrapers have fallen out of favor to sand paper. We know Thomas used sand paper so I see nothing wrong with it. “To each craftsman his own.”

I talk of separation from the wood. The machines don’t have to think about what they are doing. They are in fact indifferent to the wood. They also take away what is wood!  What I mean by this is; you lose what the wood is aesthetically. Wood has grain. It’s not just esthetics; there is a texture to it too. First the surface is made flat, and then the lacquer seals it with a plastic like coating on contemporary pieces. It can be satin or flat finish but to me doesn’t seem to look “warm”. The shellac and wax, or hand rubbed oil doesn’t remove the texture, but enhances it. These finishes are also not as slick as the lacquers. So a few tool marks left enhances the piece aesthetically, and the “warm” traditional finish is perfection with its imperfections!gamba

What Is Traditional ?




There are those who inform me that traditions change. My response to that is; if they change, they are not traditions but fads! I think it is safe to say that if you do something the same for two hundred years it is probably traditional. The lowly dulcimore has been made by hand by a few makers uninterrupted for two centuries.

The contemporary lap dulcimer has developed into quite the formidable item! It has not changed enough to be classified as a new instrument, but enough to easily be differentiated from traditional. There are devout factions within the dulcimer community and most of us heartily spar with one another over what outsiders might consider undeserving. DAd and DAA for starters and tuning is not even a consideration in the Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification system. Dulcimore is a simple chordophone. (Zither) Some modern dulcimers are actually composite chordophone. (Lute)


So what is the “traditional” dulcimore?  As per Hornbostel-Sachs;

  • Chordophone (3)
  • Simple chordophones or zithers (31)
  • Board zithers (314)
  • With resonator box (.122)
  • 314.122


*And the contemporary dulcimer, I’ll let someone else speak to that.


Yes there are differences in the traditional dulcimore, but that is part of being an American Folk instrument. Everyone has their own idea of what it should be and sure enough, how you do it and how Great Granddaddy Ishmael did it may not be the same! It is said if you ask six different makers how to do something, you will get six different answers! I might add a wise old lady once said,” It’s your dulcimore and your lap, play it how you want”. None of these differences however are a factor of the classification. Size, choice of wood, tuning, and shape pretty well sum up personal preferences.


So I’ll ask once more; what is a traditional dulcimore? Hand crafted from indigenous woods. Number 4 and 8 music wire, or the like. Nut and bridge are placed over the tail and the base of the peg head; more specifically, at the ends of the sound box and run the length of the instrument.  Staples are placed in a traditional diatonic scale and set by ear.  In an interview with NEA, Jean Ritchie responded to a question;” In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it’s not quite a dulcimer anymore” speaking of the additional frets. (And staple frets, not guitar frets.) Hand rubbed with oil or wax or both. (Some shellacked or painted)  Feet to set it off the table top for play. Zither pins or wooden friction pegs for tuning. (TMB’s used eye screws) Fasteners and hot hide glue. In short, nothing that wasn’t used two hundred years ago.



But You Said There Was No Perfect…



Intonation is an art in its self!  In order to optimize intonation there are several variables to take into consideration.

  • String mass
  • String deflection
  • String tension
  • String length

String mass is the least variable of these; yet no less important to understand. To optimize string tension for a specific note, the mass and length ratio is important. (We know the mass of the number 4 and 8 music wire, where a string with more mass will vibrate slower than one of less mass) This is also true of the string length. (Set by the VSL) When the optimal parameters are followed, mathematical formulas can be prescribed; hence your modern standardized scale.

String deflection is optimized by minimizing it. A very low action with a properly sized and tensioned string will give you the best tonal quality. The traditional dulcimore has two problems with this. First, the very high action for aggressive play, (increased by the relief) and second a slacked string for Ionian tuning.  With the first, the string will stretch more, closer to the nut and bridge and less in the center; this will draw the string sharp on these notes. Simply adjusting the frets a little will correct this. On the second, a slack string has little or no dynamic reasoning to it! I believe this is the reason setting scale by ear was the preferred method for so many centuries. I still know of no way to accurately set a standardized scale with a number 4 music wire string tuned to “G”. It has to have a high action and/or be an unusually large string to compensate. Setting frets on an individual instrument by hand eliminates most of these problems.

String tension is optimized by length and mass. This is where your “sweet” spot is found. The length will be a rule of thumb. Shorter scales can be tuned higher, where as longer scales much lower. Each one will have an optimal adjustment. The constant here is the mass of the strings. We are following the rule of thumb with number 4 and 8 music wire. So say with a short scale about 26 inches, it will ring tuned about DAd, up to Ebe? Whereas say a 29 inch VSL, down around CGC or even a little lower? There is another variable here; the mass of the dulcimore. Lighter instruments will tend to ring a little higher than those heavier ones. Softer woods tend to be mellower than harder woods that ring a little brighter.

With all this being said, traditional dulcimore is “not” standardized. It is a folk instrument born in America some two hundred years ago still residing quietly. The American instrument, somberly unrushed, hand crafted and earthy. I believe it is the tradition of the craftsman’s process rather than the finished product that makes it so special. This and the fact we know so little of the origin of the American dulcimore that make it so romantic.



Traditional Appalachian Mountain Dulcimore

Seven pieces of hand crafted indigenous wood, glued together with hide glue; not all were finished. Wire staples driven into the fret board and strung with music wire.
Hornbostel and Sachs describe the dulcimore as a simple chordophone (zither). The early European zithers that migrated to the American colonies were no more than boxes with string strung across them. Americans consolidated the zither to a board and mounted that on a sound box. The shape of the sound box is somewhat regional. The Tennesseans nailed together a rectangular box and called it a “music box”. Virginians bent their sides with a single bout and crafted the “tear drop”. In Eastern Kentucky the double bout was favored resembling the “hour glass”.
We don’t know who made the first dulcimore and we don’t know when or where. The oldest accepted piece is dated 1832. I can accept the date but I will add I don’t believe it was the first. There are those who will say they believe the American instrument was developed in more than one place over a span of several years; I am one of them. There are those who believe the instrument is just another “form” of the European zithers. I vehemently disagree; the board zither mounted on the sound box is American.
There was a maker who stated the early masters were innovative and made changes to the instruments. This was his inspiration for experimentation and improving the dulcimer. I’m not sure who he is referring to. No two of James Edward Thomas’ were exactly the same and they changed very little over the sixty years he crafted them by hand. I know of no other master who made as many or made them for so long. Homer Ledford duplicated the longevity and superseded the volume by far but had a shop to do it. He capitulated to customer demand and made changes to the instruments but I will argue that adding machine tuners is in no way an “improvement”. Warren May also has given in to the machine tuners and extra frets, but the “dulcimore” has changed very little! Warren might surprise a few folks with his work to come.
There are a handful of individuals who still craft these dulcimore together by hand one at a time. The lowly dulcimore has been hand crafted by a few individuals on going for nearly two hundred years.