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.