In Search Of The Perfect Ionian

   I put together a  spread sheet using the on line Shelquist calculator. I got tired of pulling up the page and entering the data every time I needed a number so I made up a cheat sheet. It ranges from C3 to e4 for notes and from a number 4 (.013) up to a number 9 (.022) music wire. I was hoping I might find some kind of regularity in the string tensions for specific tunings. Dulcimore have a sweet spot and I was wondering if string tension was a part of the calculation in that warm fuzzy sustain.

    After a few days of documenting the string tensions between several Dulcimore I’ve made and played for a few years, I’m drawn to the conclusion there is no direct correlation to resonance. I was hoping for some sort of ratio or formula that I could use to determine a method for string selection. Strings tuned to a perfect fifth will ring, but what they are mounted to will greatly determine how well they ring together. Taking into account the string mass, vibrating string length and the string tension, it (string tension) only appears to play a small amount in the overall timber of the piece. First and foremost is the resonance of the sound box. Sound box design is quite simply very light thin panels with no bracing. Second is the choice of peg head, staple board and tail piece. Weight is a critical component in the equation, light yet strong enough to hold the strings tension, and lastly is the choice of strings and the tuning.

   The Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore I liken to a wild animal. You can have your preferences to tonal qualities but the piece will ultimately decide its timber! We can take into account all the variables; wood species selection, vibrating string length, sound box volume, sound box shape, string selection, nut and bridge density, and lastly tuning. We can even tweak all of these but the Dulcimore will let us know where the “sweet” spot is.

   There are mysteries to the Dulcimore we may never figure out. Virginia style vs. the Cumberland hourglass are really the same instrument and yet they have  subtle tonal differences. Folks will light to one or the other and not know why, I’m partial to the hourglass.  Folks don’t hear the same, what sounds wonderful to you might sound not quite right to me and vice versa. I believe one of the biggest hindrances to the Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore is playing in keys. A Dulcimore don’t know what it’s tuned to. (…hit aint’ got no notes, ya jes play it!)  If you are forcing the piece to play in a particular key, you are missing where the piece wants to be played. Experimenting with different tunings in different tensions is the only way I know to find the “sweet” spot, and they aint’ no secret to string tension! String tension has as many twist and turns as the Dulcimore has secrets.


Knowing when to say when.

    Many years ago in high school, I was in an advanced art class with a teacher by the name of Margaret Merida.   One of the life lessons learned in this class was the dreaded re-gesso.  For those individuals not familiar with the artist term, more specifically a painters term, it simply means start over.  (Gesso is the primer one uses to seal the material to be painted on.)

   I have a signature on one of the bulletin boards that reads “I have a fire barrel chop full of great ideas”.  My approach to a new task is to just jump in and try it. If first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  The first experience was a learning tool making you better at it the next time.  I do enjoy building on graph paper, but the proof in the pudding is on the real thing.

   One’s ability to resolve issue is pertinent.  The hallmark of craft work is dealing with the inevitable screw ups associated with all the slight variations from one piece to the next.  So when do we say “re-gesso”?  For me it has to do with what I determine to be the value of the piece.  Most of my pieces are meant to be “folk” pieces and are afforded the wonky out of line, or dent here and there.  Just the right amount of tool marks left to make it obvious it is a handmade piece but not  amateur. But sometimes the staple board is glued up backward, or the dastardly power tools use results in the blow out of the delicate wood  associated with instrument making. Re-gesso!

   And then there is the pressure of working on a commission. Expectations of particular aspects of the piece are trying to be maintained. I’ve known of a few makers who can’t deal with the pressure and either quit or turn to limiting their work. The secret here is to not allow yourself to get too far from what you do well. We all experiment with this and that in the wood shop, but don’t do it with customers pieces! Allow yourself to say “no, I don’t do that”…. stay comfortable with what you do.

   I guess what I’m trying to convey here is, don’t get too far from the norm. Don’t set yourself up for failure by experimenting on other folks pieces, do it on your pieces as a learning experience. Feed the fire barrel with a sense of self learning.

   Do what you do best!

It is called a “bridge”!

Once again I’m confronted by folks injecting another area of operations’ nomenclature into a field that has been well established for more than four hundred years.

The same item can have more than one name.

Because you call it by a given name in your area of expertise doesn’t negate another areas nomenclature. It’s not wrong, but different. Names can vary from one area of expertise  to another as well as from one region to another.  I have been informed I “talk funny” by someone with an accent in my belief much harder than mine! I have been “corrected “ for using terms in my region by folks from another region. I’ve been called out by folks for using another term for the same item in another field of expertise. (I wasn’t correcting any one, just simple communicating.)

I guess I’ve yet to understand why folks feel the need to “correct” others…

Vielle a Roue (Wheel Fiddle)

You might know it by the name Hurdy Gurdy, and you might not. The instrument has local names from country to country and we know it by the derogatory name Hurdy Gurdy which is taken from the British Hurly Burly, an old English term for noise or commotion. Most folks never heard of the thing, not unlike the Traditional Dulcimore. I’d been fascinated with the instrument for many years, I made my version of the Wheel Hog Fiddle some time ago and found out why they never took off! (They really don’t work that well for a full scale.) You fret the strings and deflection doesn’t work with a set wheel because it causes that angry cat sound associated with these instruments.

A few months ago I was scrolling through the YouTube videos looking for what not and happened upon a video of a Russian gentleman playing a folk Vielle tuned in a minor modal tuning. WOW, I was hooked. I believed the instrument was too complicated to make. The tangent box has a lot of parts, and the instrument is temperamental at best on a good day. I had made a Wheel Hog Fiddle a few years back and already knew the wheel aspect of the instrument so I decided to look into the tangent box. I downloaded every image I could find and it looked like fun. I like tinkering and there would be a lot of that involved! I looked to make a “simple” minimalistic folk piece.

My first Vielle’s parts  were up cycled to another.  I found you didn’t need three strings for “that sound” like you do in the Traditional Dulcimore diatonic modal play. Two strings create that “bourdonnement” as HUBERT G. SHEARIN, M.A., PhD. describes it in his book, British Ballads in the Cumberland Mountains, and gut strings. You lose a lot of volume but gain a warm timber that the steel strings lack. I tune the drone agin the melody string to set the mode just like I do with the Dulcimore.


Where did it go?

Thousands of years ago the Egyptians built pyramids.  There are those who are dumbfounded by the concept of such primitive people building things so great. How did they do that? Well, they simply stacked stones on top one another until it was complete. The precise method we don’t know, yet another lost technology…… These same folks glued things together with hot hide glue and finished items with shellac. We still use these products today; not lost technology.

I’m dumbfounded by individuals today who assume that people in earlier times didn’t know what we know? Technologies are lost every day. Don’t they actually know more than we?

I see every day individuals who only see things in their perspective. Judging yesterday’s folks and groups of folks by today’s standard, even going so far as to want to remove historical items because they don’t conform to today’s ideology. It has been said those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.

One of the musical methods (Diatonics) was developed in Greece 2500 years ago. The basis of the Diatonic system is still used today, and once again folks feel they must inject their modern chromatic influences; insisting it is only proper.  Diatonics is by definition lacking chromatic influence.

Dulcimore making is a folk craft started in the southern highlands of Appalachia and now practiced by a few individuals scattered across the world. So many of the methods have been lost to the ages so the best we can do is speculate. So many crafts have been lost to the ages.  My time at the Museum of Appalachia showed me many a technology in transition. Imagine my frustration with folks dating things by when a technology was introduced but when so many folks continued to do it their way for many years (some till they died!) giving the date a much larger window if you will. I see it in the transitional period of the contemporary dulcimer! It was introduced to the world by Jean Richie in the 1940’s. Remember, Jean never played contemporary dulcimer, she played traditional dulcimore. Others around her accepted the piece and changed the instrument as well as the style of play. I.D. Stamper never played contemporary dulcimer, but held on to the noter drone traditional style well into the 1970’s. Just saying…..


There were seven “Greek” modes and in no particular order;








We now use the following, (they have also been referred to as the “Church Modes”)

Ionian is the name assigned by Heinrich Glarean in 1547. Ionia was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Dorian is the original Greek name. Dorian was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Phrygian is the original Greek name. Phrygian is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia

Lydian is the original Greek name. Lydian is named after the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia.

Mixolydian is the original Greek name. (Mixo-) is a reference to the half-Lydian mode in ancient Greek music.

Aeolian is the name assigned by Heinrich Glarean in 1547. Aeolian was one of the four ancient Greek tribes.

Locrian got its name sometime after the 18th century. (?) Locrian is named after the ancient Greek regions of Locris.

One of the first things I realized in our descriptions of the Dulcimore’s Diatonic scales was the scales starting with Ionian. Yes the Ionian scale is where the modes start, but the Dulcimore starts with Mixolydian off the nut so;

Mixolydian open

Aeolian first staple

Locrian second staple

Ionian third staple

Dorian fourth staple

Phrygian fifth staple

Lydian sixth staple

Of these seven Diatonic modes we play primarily four. Mixolydian, Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian; Mixolydian and Ionian being the two major modes and Aeolian and Dorian being the two minor modes.

Any of these modes can be played on one string provided the staples are placed in a Diatonic sequence. That is; wide, wide, narrow, wide, wide, wide, narrow. Each mode has five whole notes and two half notes. These are the white piano keys, there are no Pentatonic notes!

To play Diatonic, we add a lower tonic and a perfect fifth accompanying drone. We can refer to the tones by number. The base string lower tonic being (1), the perfect fifth being (5) and the melody note being the upper tonic (8). We must retune to get the placement of the melody string to adhere to the mode, which is to start on the staple we want the mode to start.  Once again,

Mixolydian is off the nut so;

Mixolydian open (1-5-8)

Aeolian first staple (1-5-7)

Locrian second staple (1-5-6)

Ionian third staple (1-5-5)

Dorian fourth staple (1-5-4)

Phrygian fifth staple (1-5-3)

Lydian sixth staple (1-5-2)

These are the straight Diatonic modes. We tune to these to play 1-5-8 on the staple starting our given mode. We play a lower tonic, a perfect fifth (dominant), and an upper tonic. This (1-5-8) is our note of final resolution and is where the scale starts.

What you may have noticed missing is any reference to “keys”. There are no keys in Diatonics. Yes, keys may be assigned to any given mode, but that is folks using Chromatics and music theory to describe how they understand the system. Diatonics by definition is absent “any” Chromatic influence, once you inject Chromatics you are no longer Diatonic. One mustn’t learn music theory in order to then learn Diatonics.


Let Me Muddy The Waters…

About two thousand five hundred years ago the diatonic system was started and explained mathematically by Pythagoras. Some two thousand years later the church picked up the system and renamed a few things. If I remember correctly the upper or eighth note was named in the Greek system and the church called it by the lower tonics name?

Fast forward another five hundred years and the diatonic enthusiasts will tell you how simple the system is! It took me about three years to fully grasp the system and my “ah ha” moment was when I realized the upper tonic was a perfect fifth above the perfect fourth making it possible for reversed tuning’s!  We write our descriptions of how simple the system is and low and behold after about the third or fourth page of a dozen or so pages the readers glaze over……

Now to muddy the waters…

From the start we are combining a Greek system and the Middle Age Church system, and then we are confronted by the modern Music Theory.  The concept of, in the “key” of, can’t be differentiated from the diatonic system in most folk’s minds. Knowing the diatonic system is about the relationship between the strings and not the “key” is paramount!

The lowly Dulcimore is the product of an amalgamation of the settlers of the lower highlands of Appalachia. Cultures combined ideas and their names for things are carried on. And then there are the “dictionary folk” as described by HUBERT G. SHEARIN, M.A., Ph.D in British Ballads in the Cumberland Mountains. I believe folks can’t distinguish between dulcimore and dulcimer. Folks will try to email me and write dulcimerdan instead of dulcimoredan!  I will not get the email…..

Whether you call the name dulcimore a “colloquial name” or not, it is what “they” call it. There is no need to “correct” it! Is it a Coke, pop, or soda? Are any of these incorrect?

And then we describe the seven modes. But wait, they are also called scales, as is the description of the VSL (Vibrating String Length) set up or lay out. I’ve been asked what is it, scale or mode. The answer is “yes”, scale or mode.

Let’s briefly look at the names of the parts of the Dulcimore. Is it a top or belly? Is it a back or bottom? Is it a side or bow? “YES”!

Clear as mud……..


When do embellishments become truth?

  • Conjure up
  • Embellishment
  • Conjecture
  • Accepted truth

I’ve been told if you tell a lie long enough, some folks will begin to believe it. If this is true then the stories laden with embellishments will become history. I can imagine that one who conjures up ideas of stories will at some time or another share these stories. The ones who listen to these stories will have to use conjecture to solidify the meaning. Somewhere between historical accuracy and total scheitholz we find the accepted truth. This at times can be pretty far from the truth but is the best we can hope for I suppose.

I’ve been listening to interviews of prominent dulcimore officiodo’s for years who contradict themselves sometimes in the same interview, and quite often from one interview to the next. I know age has its senior moments and I suppose I must use conjecture to differentiate fact from misspeak or embellishment!  Living in Appalachia now for these few short years I’ve learned firsthand not to correct an individual’s recollection of an event, whether told to him by his elders, or experienced by him. Some folks even have a way of putting themselves into stories and after a short time they apparently believe it themselves! Who am I to object?

I was forewarned years ago about not becoming a #@$% academic in these parts!

Dulcimore Makers Method

In a discussion a few years back the late Mike Slone of the Hindman, Kentucky fame told me he believed if James Edward Thomas had had a CNC machine, he would have used it. I responded probably so but he’d had a time trying to plug it in!  I also recall in one of the many interviews Homer Ledford gave, he insisted the “tools” were simply extensions of his own hands whether powered or not. I agree whole heartily.

In our quest for preserving the Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore we seek to simply define in our own way the definition of the American instrument.  Each instrument made by the gentlemen one off or manufactured so many years ago serves in its own way as examples in the definition. What we look for are broadly used traditions, ones that are used basically by all makers historically. Everyone has their own definition based on regional or makers preferences, but the whole has to be taken into consideration.

Many have argued that using tools or methods not period correct disqualify a piece as being traditional. In my own introduction I use the phrase “In short, nothing that wasn’t used two hundred years ago”, but the reference is to the finished piece, not how it was made! My argument is the finished piece is correct. The methods used to get there will vary from region to region, maker to maker.  Again, most traditional pieces were made one off, or only a few in all. The manufacturers were the exception rather than the rule. One off pieces are a composite of problem solving to finish the piece; they really didn’t know how to make the dulcimore. What finally went into the piece will define it.  The basic design including staple placement, indigenous woods, period correct materials for strings and staples, brads as well as hide glue, and finishes.

When Homer “improved” the traditional piece, he did in fact change it. Arguing why is not relevant. My differentiation is the use of guitar pieces. Not that I have anything against the guitar I don’t I played guitar for over forty years, but I now celebrate the Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore. The guitar is a lute and the dulcimore is a zither. (Pronounced zitter) When a luthier builds a zither they inherently subconsciously build a lute. The disciplines required in lute construction are very different from dulcimore making!  When improving on the dulcimore as Homer states in the book by R. Gerald Alvey, he believes he is working on esthetics.   In fact he succumbs to customers request for a new instrument, the contemporary lap guitar!  (Modern Lap Dulcimer) It has a widened fret board set @ equal temperament with guitar frets so it can be chorded and is no longer diatonic. (Only missing a few frets to be fully chromatic) It has guitar tuners, guitar finish and it even has guitar strings.

The Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore is a zither! (A simple chordophone)  Every maker will follow either regional or previous maker’s influences, and we all experiment but that will not change the elements that make a traditional piece traditional.

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…