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)
*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.
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.
Mrs. Ledford was at the museum and was gracious enough to pose with me!
After an exciting night at the Museum in Winchester, I feel a little incomplete. The more I learn about the early Ledford dulcimers the more I realize I don’t know; and probably never will know. I had the opportunity to measure the staples on the Ivyton, Tennessee piece owned by Bill Johnson. I was sure Homer was using a standardized scale but I was wrong. The Museum piece and mine were not even close to the same measurements. Both are spot on as far as intonation with an Ionian scale tuned about DAA but the staples are laid out independently. Bills’ also has a correction on the first staple from 2 and 15/64th inches to 2 and 35/64th inches.
The quality of the wood in the museum piece is select, mine not so much. Mine has a glued in maker’s mark label where Bill’s and the Kentucky Historical Society maker’s marks are written directly on the wood. I would speculate that because of the quality of the wood and the absence of a paper label Bill’s could very well be the second piece made at the Campbell school in 1946. The lineage of the Kentucky Historical Society’s dulcimer suggests it was one of the pieces shipped to New York and Bills’ Homer more closely reflects these characteristics.
I’ve dated my Ivyton, Tennessee Homer Ledford dulcimer to 1947 and with what I’ve gleaned this week end confirms it. Bills’ Ivyton, I believe could well be one of the first two ever made by Homer Ledford at the John C. Campbell school! As of date there are still only three Ivyton pieces known.
I am not a luthier, Doug Berch, Ben Seymour, Doug Naselroad, they are luthiers. I am a dulcimore maker and a dulcimore is a zither. A lute is a composite chordophone; the zither on the other hand is a simple chordophone. I make zithers and therefore I am a dulcimore maker.
I don’t build instruments I make dulcimore. A builder puts pieces together to complete the instrument. A maker must make the pieces to make the instrument therefore I am a dulcimore maker.
I am not an artist. I am a craftsman who makes the same item over and over again. Yes I use different woods and I make different models but they are still dulcimore. And yes therefore I am a dulcimore maker.
I suppose one could argue that the term luthier was around before Hornbostel-Sachs wrote the classifications for these instruments. But then if I was to call myself a luthier I would lie awake at night fearin’ someone would call me in the morning wanting me to tune their piano! After all the piano is a string instrument! Hmm, the piano is a simple chordophone just the same as the dulcimore! I would just have to tell them I don’t tune pianos, after all I am a dulcimore maker.
Thanks for the kick in the pants Doug B.
Hide glue is great stuff. Originally I figure if Homer use aliphatic glue, it must be right, but after taking the plunge and spending about $35 to set it up a hide glue pot, I love it! You must work quickly. I found somewhere on the web a guy who uses a primer trick to get the most out of a less than optimal joint. The sides are very thin on the dulcimore and the glue didn’t seem to take. First I tried a glue bottle but it wasn’t the way to go. (mess) Then I read the primer method and used a smaller brush and WooHoo!
I got my staple marking tool made. After finishing the latest dulcimore I tried it out. Being able to adjust the note with one hand is the way to go. I have no idea how other guys do it, but I’m really happy with this technique. After marking each staple placement I then went back and double checked them a few times and somehow two were a little sharp. It all worked out great though; it is my best Ionian scale yet!
Before the length was factored in to the equation; now only the width is of any concern. It makes the instrument much easier to make. No more scale formulas, measuring with a magnifying glass, $30 stainless steel rule, and worry if it will even be correct. Make the dulcimore, set the scale, play.
I had been playing with planes, chisels, and knives for some time. I still use power tools for specific task but truly enjoy sharp steel to complete many other jobs. I set up a band saw for resaw, but still go back to the table saw. (Homer style) I cheat on the fiddle edge too. I enjoy knife work but less than a minute with the router? Hey, it’s finished with the knife! Hand-planing the panels and fret board is calming. The plane will get warm in your hand after a few minutes. Finish with a little scraping and you have a wonderfully finished piece of wood. It is not flat like a machined piece. The irregularity makes it special and I love it.
I use the band saw to rough the peg head too. Round over with the router again, and peg hollow and ball is finished with a chisel and knife. Chisel and knife are also used to “fit it” to the body. All the pieces are made and readied, and the glue up begins.
My Homer Ledford Dulcimore
Listed on Everything Dulcimer as “Homer Ledford 3 string dulcimer in good playable condition walnut sides and fret board not sure what the top and back is one side has a crease in it repaired crack on back. Appears to be an early one.” I really didn’t think I could get it; I’ve never been one to “luck” into these kinds of deals. I inquired and sure enough it was still for sale. These items usually go for around $600 or so, it was listed at $400. I asked about the label and he said “No label, written in pencil. Hard to see in the diamond sound hole.” Label says”Made by Homer Ledford, Ivyton Tennessee “I told him I’d take it! Could this be? I had a line on an original “early” Homer? Jiminy Cricket!!!!
I talked to my brother in law who lives an hour or so away from where this guy lives. We arrange for him to pick it up the next Saturday morning. He tells me he is selling it for a friend who is getting out of the dulcimer business due to health. Seems he had taken it in trade years ago. Now I wait …forever.
Saturday comes and my brother in law picks it up and confirms “Ivyton”! Now I have to wait till we meet again, and it looks like my wife will see them Mothers Day. Now I wait …forever!
The day finally comes, my wife is home from Georgia and lying on the washer is a rolled up bath towel. I unroll the dulcimore and with my own eyes see hand printed on a white label “Made by Homer Ledford, Ivyton Tennessee “! Jiminy Cricket!!!! I’ve already wound a number 4 to test the intonation with. The suspense of the first fret is almost more than I can stand. I raise the string up to A and start the tuning app on my phone and the first fret is only 4 cents off. The farthest of the staples is off only 8 cents! Jiminy Cricket!!!!
Next morning I inspect it again. The action is a little low from wear so I fill the grooves with super glue. I make a tuning peg to replace the one that’s missing. I find a nice piece of maple with a little figure, readjust the peg tapering tool for Homer’s pegs, and rub it with amber shellac for a little touch up color. I dust the label and take more pictures. (Ivyton was only 1946 and 1947!) The sides start to pop loose when I’m waxing it so I work them apart and glue them back together to stabilize the dulcimore. There are two cracks in the lower back and one top right I also mend. A light coat of amber shellac for finish dress and she is ready to set over night. It looks really good for being 68 years old, Jiminy Cricket!!!!
In the morning I make up a set of strings using a cut up 3/8 inch rubber hose to increase the diameter of the string hook. This homer has a large string anchor and I’ve never been one to wrap the string back through the hoop when I can make the hoop as large as I want. I stretch the strings and fix vinyl bumper on the bottom for feet and record Blackest Crow. It sounds wonderful! Maybe I’m being a little bias but I don’t think so. Jiminy Cricket!!!!