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.