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.