Let's talk about VSL and Scale and smaller hands and other wonderful things...

Jim Woods
Jim Woods
@jim-woods
6 years ago
3 posts

Robin's point is absolutely true.  Changing the tuning key on your dulcimer will cause it to have a much different voice.  You may need to change the strings if you go too far.  When you tune higher the strings get tighter and harder to fret so going to a smaller string may be needed.  When you tune lower the strings get more slack and will lose some brightness.  If you like a mellow, sweet voice that might be good but if you go too far the strings get so loose they no longer sound musical.  In that case you need to go to a heavier string.

If you usually play with a group, you probably need to stay with their tuning but if you play alone or with other than dulcimers then another tuning may be a much better option.  Don't be afraid to try that.

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
6 years ago
237 posts

Shorter scale dulcimers will sometimes need heavier strings to keep the pitch at DAd, and this could be where an element of the little loss of sustain mentioned by Joy comes into play.  Personally, I tend to pitch up a little on shorter instruments.  If you are playing mainly by yourself then there's no reason at all not to go to EBe on a 26" and just pretend it is in DAd.  Remember on an acoustic guitar with a 25.5" scale it is common to play a 0.013 as the high 'e' with a medium gauge string set.  So taking a 0.012 to high 'e' on a 26" dulcimer is not an issue.  I was actually playing a 27" in F recently and it sounded lovely (I think that was with 0.010 melody strings).  Every dulcimer behaves a little differently, so if you want a shorter scale, it is certainly worth playing around with string gauges and pitches to find out what sounds best on the instrument.

For some reason we all want to stay in the key of D but in reality we probably spend only a very small proportion of our playing time in situations where we must be in DAd.  So if you do own dulcimers of different scales then I would recommend experimenting with different string gauges and different pitches to find what sound best on each one.

 

DulcimerDad
DulcimerDad
@dulcimerdad
6 years ago
4 posts

Jim Woods is correct. For all intents and purposes the measurement between the nut and the bridge is VSL or scale length, but it varies slightly from instrument to instrument. If you measure from nut to octave fret and from the octave fret fret to bridge and add that together, that's the true VSL or scale length. In 30 years or so of playing bass (both bass guitar and upright) the small differences in measurement between instruments depending on how you measure makes no difference. (I know this sounds like gibberish, but think about it and you'll get it :-).)

robert schuler
robert schuler
@robert-schuler
6 years ago
254 posts

Fret spacing and scale length are fixed amounts. Compensation will add a millimeter more or less but has nothing to do with fingering. Once your string gauge and compensation  is set you can forget it and get on with the fun. I tell people all the time to take advantage off all your fingers. Over time you get the dexterity to play equally well with every finger. Once you get there scale length doesn't matter much... Robert...

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
6 years ago
1,591 posts

Jim, that's a good point. Basically, there is a slightly different VSL for each string.  On some bridges that difference is accounted for not in the angle of the bridge at the bottom where it meets the soundboard, but at the top where slight differences are created for each string.  And some of David Beede's dulcimers, for example, don't actually have a single bridge at all, but three distinct nubs placed in the perfect place for each string.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
Jan Potts
Jan Potts
@jan-potts
6 years ago
408 posts

Jim, that's a good point.  And that's what it means when you see the words "with a compensated bridge" added after the VSL measurement.




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Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
Site Moderator

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
Jim Woods
Jim Woods
@jim-woods
6 years ago
3 posts

OK, we'll provide more information than you'll ever need.  For practical purposes VSL and scale length are the same.  Actually they are not quite identical.  If you measure from the nut (or zero fret) to the octave fret, then double that, you will have the scale length.  If you measure from the nut to the bridge, it will be slightly longer than the scale length.  It won't be much different on a typical dulcimer, usually less than 1/16 inch, but in some cases it is more than that.  The difference is the "bridge compensation".  It is needed because without compensation the strings will play sharp as you move up the fretboard.  The amount of compensation needed depends on lots of things.  If you look at a McSpadden 26 inch scale dulcimer you will see that the bridge is set at an angle so the bass string is noticeably longer than the melody string.  The actual VSL then is not the same for the bass string as it is for the melody string. 

Forgive the excessive technicality but it might be important to somebody.  In the meantime, feel free to use the terms interchangeably and I doubt anyone will have a problem with that.

DulcimerDad
DulcimerDad
@dulcimerdad
6 years ago
4 posts

VSL and Scale are two different ways of saying the same thing. The string only vibrates between the nut and the bridge, hence VSL. I've played bass for years, so I'm used to a 42" scale instrument!

Jan Potts
Jan Potts
@jan-potts
6 years ago
408 posts

By now you know that on FOTMD there are lots of opinions on any given topic nod ...

For me, the day I picked up a 23" VSL McSpadden "Ginger" was a total game changer.  It was January, 2011, and I found it for sale in the vendor area at Kentucky Music Winter Weekend. Maureen Sellers was selling it and there was a box placed next to it for the buyer's check.  I wasn't feeling very well, having gone through 2 grueling operations in the previous 2 months and was sitting out one of my classes that Saturday afternoon.  I had never seen a dulcimer this size, much less held one, and I was instantly enthralled with it.  Everything that I had struggled to do on larger instruments (with longer VSL's) now came easily with the Ginger.  My confidence grew as my fingers easily found the notes for song after song. I played almost  non-stop for 2 1/2 hours, wrote out my check, dropped it in the box and took my new Ginger to my final class of the day. 

The Ginger remained my favorite instrument for several years.  It was set up to be tuned DAd, so I used it in both my private playing and in classes and jams.  Eventually, other instruments caught my interest and as my collection grew I had a variety of sizes and VSL's to choose from. I found that I was now comfortable with VSL's up to, but not exceeding, 28 inches....but I still prefer a VSL around 25-26 inches.

This has been my experience.  As always in the dulcimer world, see what works for you!

Best wishes in your journey!

 

 

Mc Spadden Ginger , 23" VSL  

 

 

McSpadden, Schnaufer model with 29" VSL

 

 




--
Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
Site Moderator

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
D. chitwood
D. chitwood
@d-chitwood
6 years ago
139 posts

This has been a very educating thread for me. I'm still learning all the particulars! Dusty, you make a point I had not thought about. 

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
6 years ago
1,591 posts

The conventional wisdom seems to be that for those who chord a lot and have smaller hands, a shorter VSL around 26" is better than a more standard VSL around 28". And although 2 inches in total VSL might not seem like much, it makes a significant difference in fret spacing.

I would just make two points here to qualify that conventional wisdom.

First, our hands stretch. It might seem at first that playing a 1-2-4 chord on an instrument with a 28" or 29" VSL is a bit of a stretch, but remember that that is probably the hardest chord to finger and also that as you play more your hands will stretch. Even after 40 years of playing the guitar and 6 years on the dulcimer I started doing an exercise last month that was a real stretch for me.  My fingers and the spaces between them were sore from playing it so much. At first I didn't think I'd ever be able to make those stretches cleanly and without pain. But now I can do both.  The muscles in our hands need to stretch and exercise just like the other muscles in our bodies.  Don't jump to a shorter VSL without actually working on your fingering and stretching your hand muscles first. You might surprise yourself.

Second, in addition to the decreased sustain that Joy mentions, a shorter VSL means smaller frets. That may seem like an advantage down low toward the nut, but as you play up the neck, some of those frets will get awfully small, and playing there will be a real challenge.  Most beginners don't find themselves playing up that high, but as we progress and feel more comfortable with the fretboard, we do indeed jump over those hurdles and start fingering the fretboard well into the second octave.  Watch Guy Babusek, for example. He often plays high up the fretboard, and I would bet that he would not be able to do so as successfully on an instrument with a shorter VSL.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
Joy W.
Joy W.
@joy-w
6 years ago
19 posts

I have dulcimers of varying size including three McSpaddens (standard and baritone at 28.5" and one with the shorter 26" VSL).  While I find chording on the 26" is a bit easier in terms of reach I think there is at least a small sacrifice in terms of sustained sound. When I want a fuller-bodied, more resonant sound I still go back to my standard 28.5" McSpadden.

Ken Longfield
Ken Longfield
@ken-longfield
6 years ago
893 posts

With the advent of people playing chords on mountain dulcimers, the VSL shortened. Longer VSLs were common when people played only noter style. Most guitars today (and banjos) have a VSL in the 24 - 26 inch range. Guitarists who play MD may find a shorter VSL more comfortable as they are accustomed to that on the guitar. For chording I either play my Folkcraft or my Blue Lion. The Blue Lion has a shorter VSL. If you can get to a festival and play different instruments you can see how the various VSLs feel.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

 

robert schuler
robert schuler
@robert-schuler
6 years ago
254 posts

I build dulcimers with scales from 24" up to 30". If you measure the separation from the nut to the third fret of finger stretch in chording the distance on 24" vsl is 6 3/16"... 25 vsl is 6 3/8"... 26 vsl is 6 9/16"... 28 vsl is 7" and 30 vsl is 7 5/8"... I like 26" overall for chording and noter playing. Although 25" is incredibility easy to chord on. For only playing in noter style nothing beats 30" for tone. Robert

Dan
Dan
@dan
6 years ago
164 posts

Many contemporary dulcimer are going to the shorter VSL. There are more women players than men it seems and the natural evolution to a shorter scale of around 26 is quite common. It is my belief the shorter scale is better suited for the contemporary tuning of DAd.


updated by @dan: 02/28/16 03:55:31PM
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
6 years ago
1,970 posts

To a guitarist, Scale and VSL (or Vibrating String Length) are the same thing. A guitarist talks about having a 25" Scale instrument, and s/he means the distance between the nut and the bridge.  A dulcimer player talks about VSL and s/he means the same thing -- the distance between the nut and the bridge.

To many (if not most) of us in the dulcimer world, a scale is a series of whole and half steps that make up series of notes into octaves like the Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do scale we learned in grade school (which dulcimer folks call the Ionian Scale or Major Scale).  Other dulcimer scales are the other Modes -- Aeolian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Locrian, Phrygian and Lydian.

Skip
Skip
@skip
6 years ago
340 posts

VSL = nut to bridge, which most folks would understand in the case of the Folk Craft. To me a scale is a specific, defined series of step/half step musical note progressions [think key/mode/chromatic, not song], not the length of a fret board. 


updated by @skip: 02/28/16 03:14:11PM
D. chitwood
D. chitwood
@d-chitwood
6 years ago
139 posts

So my Gallier is 28", my McSpadden is 28.5" and my FolkRoots is 29". I got to play a hickory Folk Craft yesterday with a 27" scale length. When I see the words Scale and vibrating string length, I'm wondering how these differ...or are they the same?

The Folk Craft did seem shorter than what I'm used to and I have to admit I liked...no, I LOVED the ease of the shorter scale/vsl (?). Again, not sure which is the correct term. 

I'm wondering if I should trade in my standard McSpadden for one of their 26" scale models. Can someone school me on these terms and how they interchange. And I'm curious if anyone here started with a standard 28"+ and move down an inch or two after some time. 

Thank you, as always, for your insights and input!


updated by @d-chitwood: 06/08/16 09:24:05PM