Traditional Appalachian Mountain Dulcimore

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 Homer Ledford duplicated the longevity and superseded the volume by far but had a shop to do it.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.


Ivyton, Tennessee Homer Ledford Dulcimers

Mrs. Ledford was at the museum and was gracious enough to pose with me!

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 four Ivyton pieces known. The fourth is hanging on the wall at Warren May’s shop in Berea, Kentucky.

I am a dulcimore maker!

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

My Homer Ledford Dulcimore1947 Homer

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!!!!

Homer 1946

What a weekend!

At a small dulcimore festival just outside of Washington, who walks by but none other than the President Abraham Lincoln? Keeping my composure I quickly broke into the tune Dixie which I know to be his favorite. Do you know he actually pats his hands to keep time and at the end winks and nods approval to me! I could barely keep my composure when he approached and actually spoke to me. He said he was on his way to have a picture taken of himself and asks if I mind having my dulcimore in the sitting? Well………


“The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy” -Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Image inspired by work of the one and only Don Pedi.

Episode 6: The Luthiers of Hindman, KY

Episode 6: The Luthiers of Hindman, KY

Worthy read! (And listen!)

Local Transmissions

to start the podcast: click above

I am very excited about this episode because we get to experience a community of passionate artisans, teachers, and musicians who are part of a century old tradition in Knott County,  located in Eastern Kentucky.

MainPhoto From left to right: Mike, Doug, Earl, Joe, and Mark

My friend Mark and I went to Hindman, KY to talk with folks at the Hindman Artisan Center. Hindman and Knott County have played a pivotal role in the design, production, and dissemination of the mountain dulcimer and its evolution into a uniquely American instrument.

All customers are greeted by this friendly sign.
To the left of the entrance.
A work desk.

 The people we interviewed are luthiers — they design, build, and repair string instruments. Anyone can become an apprentice at the center and learn to make instruments of their own. They also provide…

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