Original illustration wanted for dulcimer book cover
General mountain dulcimer or music discussions
these are SUPER neat!
Hello, I have built dulcimers from 21" to 30" VSL and in my experience playing a shorter VSL dulcimer isnt much different at all than just playing further up the fretboard on a high VSL dulcimer. If you like chording there are definitely long stretches that can be made much easier on a shorter VSL dulcimer, but if youre anything like me, you may prefer a little extra space between the frets in the second octave. The difference of an extra 1/8th of an inch can make a really big difference for my fat fingers lol.
Having several dulcimers of the same VSL is definitely a bit more convenient than having them of different VSLs, but I think it's worth it to get your hands well experienced with adapting to different dulcimers.
One more added advantage to choosing a specific VSL and sticking with it is that you'll be able to use the same string packs for all of them, rather than needing different gauges or tunings for each one.
That a really neat piece of culture I wasn't aware of thanks for filling me in
Just wondering if anyone knows. It is a pretty weird name.
Also, is a false bottom considered a possum board, or does the term only apply to the accessory which is not attached to the dulcimer?
Certainly whoever was the builder whether amateur or professional, they knew what they were doing. There are aspects of this dulcimer such as the bridge that connects to the soundboard instead of the fingerboard, and the bizarre hole in the strum hollow that are very neat to me. Thanks for sharing.
By the way its worth noting that the vast majority of string instruments have intonation issues way up the neck. I'm not sure if this is because of how much a small imprecision can affect the tonality, or if it is simply the nature of string instruments that ideal intonation at the top of the fretboard is not the same as at the bottom.
All I know is that most of the guitars, dulcimers, mandolins, and every other string instrument I've ever looked at close with a tuner tends to be less well intonated further up the fretboard.
Hello John, it is more common to see doubled bass strings, but having a thin string there is perfectly fine. It is most likely intended to be tuned an octave up from the bass note, which is the same as the melody note in a 1-5-8 tuning(if you were tuning D a dd, this would be Dd a dd), but if you are playing in a 1-5-5 tuning then perhaps this is different and someone else might know if that is still correct.
I can't recommend any sites specifically for noter playing, however I have found many tabs on dulcimertab.com and everythingdulcimer.com which are suitable for noter style. Really most of the tabs I see for 1-5-5 tunings such as DAA are well suited to noter drone.
Also, if you can read sheet music or are willing to learn, I have noticed that the majority of popular vocal melodies of the last hundred years are diatonic and can be transcribed to dulcimer and are readily available online. This is a fun way to bring contemporary songs into your noter drone playing.
Glad to hear its going well! Clearly you are aware of the nickel and dime technique for setting action, and as others have said having the action a bit high is perfectly fine but may be less comfortable, and too low of action can produce buzzing. Typically setting the action with a nickel will not be low enough to produce buzzing unless either the fingerboard is uneven or some frets are raised. If you have a straight edge which you can use to verify that the fretboard is perfectly consistent, as it should be, then you should feel safe reducing the bridge enough that the string just barely touches the top of a nickel sitting on top of the 7th fret. If it is comfortable to play and well intonated then this is not really necessary, although I will say that I personally really like the action as low as I can get it.
If it sounds good with the VSL starting at the 0 fret, hypothetically the instrument should work fine with just the nails and no 'nut' as a spacer. If you would like the wood nut to be there for aesthetic reasons, you could reduce it's height and make nice deep grooves in the top where each of the strings sit and use it as a spacer. The grooves would serve to hold the melody and bass string in place and keep them from pulling toward the middle of the fretboard due to tension, since the tuning pegs are near to the middle of the headstock, and the strings will want to move in a straight line from the bridge toward their tuning pegs unless something holds them at the edges of the fretboard, the way the nails do, past the zero fret. Alternatively if the nails serve the purpose of spacing the strings well enough, you could even sand the nut so low that it doesnt touch the strings and is simply there for aesthetics if you wanted to.
Well you could potentially put a sliver of wood, folded paper, or something else directly on top of the zero fret to raise it 1/16 of an inch or so but this would only be a temporary fix to the issue of the fret being too low and would lose some sound quality and volume, and would also most likely result in slightly too high of action on the first couple of frets.
With that being said I'm still not sure what to make about the interesting set up with the strings resting on the nut or 'spacer.' I call it a spacer because typically the zero fret would function as the 'nut' or the end of the scale length of the vibrating strings; the small piece of wood between the zero fret and the headstock just serves to hold the strings the correct distance apart. Since this dulcimer also has nails for this purpose and the strings were resting on the nut rather than the zero fret, this instrument is intriguing to me.
I'm really not sure why the spacer was so high or why it was backwards. Were you able to get the strings in solid contact with the zero fret or hesitant to sand that much off?
Also have you checked whether the intonation is correct at the nut or at the zero fret, as skip suggested?
Can't wait to learn more!
Wow this dulcimer leaves me curious about many things. The combination of a zero fret, nut, and nails to space the strings is very bizarre to me since the strings did not touch the zero fret and the nut was not spacing them. It seems like all the nut is really doing is preventing the strings from touching the zero fret. I would think having that big of an inaccuracy at the very beginning of the fretboard would change the vsl and ruin the intonation. Obviously this can be easily fixed by reducing the height of the nut with sanding, but it does make me wonder, did the builder just shim something over the 0 fret like you did the entire time they owned it, or has this instrument been out of tune its whole life?
By the way on the topic of the direction of the nut, I have found that how rounded off the side of the nut facing the headstock is can affect the pressure it puts on the string at its breakpoint. The more rounded it is, the better the pressure of the string is dispersed across it, however when you put the nut in backwards, this can put a lot of pressure on one single point where the string breaks away from the nut toward the headstock, which can affect tuning stability and cause more string breaks at this point.
I don't think it's the biggest deal ever, but when I tested this by putting new strings on a dulcimer and seeing how high I could tune it before the strings broke with different nut shapes, I found that a nut with a squared off side facing the headstock broke at that point at a much lower tension than a rounded off one.
On the topic of defining a trad dulcimer vs a contemporary one, my early experiences with dulcimers long before I started playing or building were those that old timers out in the Ozarks played. These were very folksy instruments made out of all kinds of creative materials. I was led to believe that this followed a tradition of makeshift instruments built by their ancestors out of a necessity for music. All instruments from fiddles to banjos to basses to guitars were built this way. Fence staples or fishing line, broom wire/tie wire, old posts/stakes and recycled boxes or random pots, pans, and cans.
I have definitely noticed that those who follow all sorts of different traditional designs tend to prefer alternate terms to 'dulcimer' which seem to imply that the instrument will have a style that is in some way or another not like a contemporary dulcimer. The oldest dulcimers I have personally seen in the Ozarks are very improvised, which I assumed to be characteristic of early dulcimers.
For what its worth, call it a fretted plucked box zither or a hog fiddle, but Ive always enjoyed the Jerry Rockwell coining of a 'musical possibility box.' Still I'd wonder if the dulcimers I make, which are in the style of my somewhat trashy ancestors who loved up-cycling, would be considered traditional by others. It does follow a very old musical tradition, but perhaps not the one most closely related with dulcimer specifically.
I guess the practicalities do get in the way a bit!
This makes me think of all the articles shared on here about dulcimer building workshops in schools. I have spent a lot of time working on ways to make dulcimers as inexpensively as possible. I have helped a couple of hitchhikers to build cardboard dulcimers which, other than having to buy a can of polyurethane that lasts for several, cost ~7$ to make(3 loose strings 1$ each, three eyehole screws as tuners, 1.50$, 2 foot piece of red oak 2.50$) Id love to get to a point with editing where I can make videos on producing good sounding dulcimers for under 30$. We really are blessed to play an instrument that doesn't necessarily require anything fancy to produce.
I just got back from a camping trip where I brought a dulcimer. Plucked by the lake and the campfire and it was a great time. While out there, a friend remarked that it sounds nice and told me what so many people have told me during conversations about music. "I've never been any good."
Every time I hear this it's like a dopamine rush because I know certainly that if I put a dulcimer in their hands, explain to them the Do-Re-Mi scale as I move up the melody string frets, and then show them that every chord they can play will always be harmonious, they will be enthralled and within 30 seconds their musical confidence will have skyrocketed. Sure enough he was having fun with different rhythms, playing bizarre chords as far as his hands could stretch just to see what they sound like, and once he realized he could barre chords using a lighter as a slide, he was in bliss.
It's an experience I've had many times. I often sling my primitive dulcimers on my back and walk to the river, and along the way people often inquire about it. I really do relish in persuading people who think they lack musical ability to go ahead and try playing. Without fail people who have had really bad experiences with hard to learn instruments get so invested in playing my dulcimer its hard to get it back, and in fact a couple times, they purchased it from me on the spot because the music they made with it spoke to them.
I get a ton of joy from introducing american history enthusiasts, art appreciators, and those who need a boost of musical confidence to my dulcimers. It is so accessible to beginners and is simply gorgeous in the hands of a master.
In my opinion the dulcimer should replace the recorder as the 'student instrument' given that it's so much more likely to spark a love for music. I think if everyone had access to a dulcimer, almost everyone would be a musician :)
Thank you all very much for your advice. First of all let me just say that my sister has TONS of pets and so she keeps her windows open all day every day and lives only about 2 miles from the pacific ocean, so the salty air is ever present there, whereas I am currently inland in southern oregon where the weather is similar, but FAR less humid. It sounds to me like I am overthinking it. With that in mind I'd like your perspectives on a few ideas i think might help.
-silica packs in the dulcimer: I'll be the first to tell you my understanding of the proper application of silica packs is limited to the shoes and jerky I've bought, but I believe it may help to keep the dulcimer intact during travel. If thats the case id like to place the soundhole in such a way that she can retrieve and packs out of it
-coating the inside of the dulcimer in something water protectant: an idea I had earlier that seemed to not be useful in general, but maybe in this context would help it hold up.
-gluing in frets with a strong glue: in general I know that stronger glues tend to make maintenance and repair much more difficult, but if I want to build it to last, maybe I should glue them in with something heavy duty to reduce the chances of them shifting?
It is worth noting that I have traveled down there with dulcimers I have built and always had to pummel some raised frets every time I got there, so this is a primary concern for me
I'd love more input! Stay well y'all
Hello all. My sister loves string instruments but has never been able to learn any and when I let her play my dulcimer she had a ton of fun, even pulling it out several times to show friends the couple of beginner songs I showed her. I'd really like to build her one, however she lives in northern California right next to the ocean, so I am very worried about two things:
1 Sending it to her and frets raising making it unplayable when it gets to her
2 It degrading and warping extra fast due to the salty ocean air where she lives.
I would love any and all advice that might help with either or both of these issues.
Thanks y'all for all the help over time
I definitely do a very poor job at this when asked. A big factor in explaining it is the level of knowledge the person you are talking to has about musical instruments. I've found that double melody strings are especially hard for non musical people to grasp even when you show them visually how the strings play the same note and are fretted together. I think at the end of the day if people are really interested and you don't have one to show them you should encourage them to look into it, because every time I've ever shown one to someone they are always very surprised when they hear it. The disarmingly simple design of so few strings and so few frets leaves people blown away by the ease at which you can produce beautiful melodies. It really defies most people's expectations and talking about it really doesn't do it justice.
By the way, if you were not aware, the word dulcimer is a portmanteau of the latin word 'dulce' for sweet and the greek word 'melos' for song
Super cool how many of y'all have other instruments aside from dulcimers!
While 95% of what I play is a dulcimer I also pick up my other instruments on occasion:
-a few acoustic guitars
-2 electric guitars
-a dozen or so harmonicas
-a D tin whistle
-a 10 string lyre harp
-an electric keyboard
-a few cigar box guitars
and some folksey stuff like a jaw harp, washboard, washtub bass, tambourine shoe, kazoos and a couple more I'm sure I'm forgetting
Hello all. I go through a lot of dulcimer strings, and because my apartment is very prone to package theives I cannot order them online, so I am limited to what is locally available.
For a while, I would always just buy packs of Mandolin strings, since they only cost a couple dollars more than a pack of dulcimer strings, and come with spares since there are two of each. They come with two 11s, 15s, and 26s. The only issue is due to the construction of some on my newer dulcimers they are not long enough.
Packs of dulcimer strings are very frustrating, and always seem to be insanely light gauge. A pack of martin dulcimer strings marketed for Dadd provide a 12 for the A string! Even if i tune the whole thing up to Ebee, the B string is still insanely wimpy, and tuned to Cgcc it's basically inaudible. My dulcimers are 26"-26.5" VSL, which i believe is fairly standard. I have looked at string calculators which suggest 12-20 pounds on each string of tension but this seems insanely low to me. THis is far lower than extra light guitar strings for example.
At this point, what I have been doing is buying guitar strings, and using only the D,B, and E strings, which leaves me with extra strings every time, but gives me far better tone than any dulcimer strings Ive found. Do others have this same issue and what do y'all do about it?
Quick side question, my dulcimers have floating bridges so its not a big deal to move them, is this necessary or valuable to adjust them for different string gauges?
Depending on how taken apart or incomplete of a dulcimer i can count, I have between 3 and 10. Five of them are playable
A cardboard dulcimer
A rectangular dulcimer made from an old crate
A Baritone dulcimer
A bundt pan "resonator" dulcimer and
A dulcimer with a frying pan for a bridge
Hello all I have been wanting to try putting nylon strings on my dulcimer just to see how it sounds. What I am wondering is whether nylon strings need different intonation and bridge placement than steel strings. Can I simply leave the bridge in the same place, or will I need to adjust it? Will I need a different action height? Are there other complications that I should be wary of? Thanks for any input :)
sgarrity, i think a lot of the desire to encourage new players is due to how easy it is to teach someone the absolute basics. As a beginner mandolin player, my fingertips are always in pain and i struggle with anything past the most basic chord shapes. Practice is brutal and I've often been told it's considered to be a relatively difficult instrument, I'm only learning due to a strong desire to eventually have it in my repertoire.
It is a great feeling to speak to someone who is sure they just don't have the skill or talent to make music and just by sliding one finger around get them having fun making beautiful music on the dulcimer. So many times I've shown it to a friend or family member, got them messing around with it, and next thing I know every time I see them they are wanting to mess with it, until I eventually just give them one.
Nate, I believe Randy has built, at least, an instrument or two with wooden frets.
A closely related concept I am also curious about is the idea of using a different nut and bridge material for the drone strings than the melody string for an instrument intended to be played drone style so as to make the sound of the melody string more distinctive from the drones. For example, softwood for the drones and bone/metal for the melody, or vice versa.
Hello all, I am wondering if there is information on differences in tone between metal frets vs alternative materials and if there is any precedent for trading off the durability of metal frets for different tonal characteristics? I built 2 dulcimers using 80 lb test fishing line tied on as frets and both had a very soft tone. I am not sure if this is due to the very soft woods I used for them or if the fretwire played a major role.
I've noticed in fretless dulcimer videos by Randy Adams the tone seems to be softer than fretted ones, but this also may be due to other factors of construction.
I have also seen cigar box ukuleles with wooden toothpicks for frets but, again, I do not know if the soft tone was instead due to other aspects of the construction or the nylon strings.
I am aware that very hard woods or bone are the preferred material for nut and bridge, and have read that metal frets offer better projection than the gut frets of historical instruments.
The reason this came to mind is I built a dulcimer with a 0 fret but without noticing used a lower fretwire than the rest of the frets. I was about to pull it and replace it, but out of curiosity I folded up a piece of paper and placed it on top of the 0 fret under the strings and to my ear it sounded much more pleasant.
The difference between the folded paper and the first fret was that the 0 fret was noticeably softer, like a more subtle version of the difference between using a fingertip vs a pick. Since the strings dont bend or rub very much on the 0 fret I am planning to just leave it this way and see how long it lasts, however if i tried the same on any other frets it would most likely wear through very quickly.
This all makes me very curious about the idea of wooden frets, tied on gut or mono-filament frets, maybe even paper topped frets where some type of stiff paper is frequently replaced. It seems like the important thing would be making sure that the fret material can be easily replaced when it wears through.
Would love to hear some thoughts on this! Hope everyone is well
I am no professional luthier so take this with a grain of salt, but I find it to be very important that the two melody strings played together have the same action as one another. In my experience the quality of intonation and the comfort of playing can be messed up quite a bit by the action at the nut or the bridge being too high. It is hard to get a sense of just how big the difference is but I know that if it is great enough this can cause the strings to have slightly different VSLs and therefore if the open strings are tuned exactly the same, *fretted* notes will not have the same intonation. In my experience having a string too high up will cause fretted notes to be a bit sharp, which can be compensated for with the bridge placement, but that becomes much trickier when the two strings are not equally high, as you would have to place the bridge in a way that compensates for the height of either one string or the other. I agree that the easiest solution would be to take a triangular file and simply bring the new slot to the same depth as the outer melody string, or to ask a luthier to do it if you are not comfortable doing it.
Moreover as others have said, the difference may be too small to matter, again, it is hard to get a sense of scale from the photo.
I do wonder how the middle strings tuned to open D guitar tuning or DADF#AD would sound as a backing drone. (added benefit of replacing strings with no hassle or fuss since you can buy em all in a single pack from any music shop, just make sure the guitar strings are light gauge with that long of a VSL) I would imagine very nice but I really have no clue. Thanks for sharing!
Hey guys I have been trying to practice writing my own tab and I wrote out tab by ear for an old folk song called sally wheatley. Because I did it by ear, and I'm still just beginning to learn music theory, I didnt really know what key I was in. because I didnt use any half frets my first thought was that I was in the key of D, but I noticed the key of D has a C sharp, and my arrangement has a C natural, so I think this means it is in the key of G? This seems weird to me because I assumed that since the dulcimer is diatonic, that the non half frets would be the diatonic scale, but if C# is in the scale of D, why is it the 6 1/2 fret? whereas C natural is the 6 fret. Would love some help this stuff is not very intuitive to me !
A random thought occurred to me, how's your hearing? Hearing aids or not? Audio preferences? I quit messing with penny whistles and harmonicas because their sound is unpleasant to my wife's ears, too shrills. I have poor hearing so almost all MD's sound very similar to me, no nuances. And there's always the 'ego' factor.
Given the same craftmanship, what do you hear is the difference in particular woods. Of the three I'm considering one has a poplar body with a paulownia top. The 2nd ones has a figured walnut body with a spruce top. The 3rd has a cherry body with a California redwood top.
WOW. That is seriously cool. That slide dulcimer has mountain banjo vibes as well as lap steel! Thanks for sharing I have a new rabbit hole to fall down!
This is super cool.
I think it would be additionally fun to make a little folded paper origami boat to float in the 'canal' while playing it.
Keep in mind being a 'luthier' can be a hobby or a business. If a hobby, the luthier can do what (s)he wants and can afford, In business, money and customer satisfaction is king.
Hello all! With lockdown finally dialing back I have been offered a gig at an antique mall, a barber shop, and a juice bar. Given that I build my own dulcimers I have been faced with the decision of how to amplify my sound so that it can span these venues.
It would be ideal to be able to street perform and make a living off dulcimer in the future, so I'd like to build one that has a beautiful tone that translates well when amplified with a speaker.
For starters a pickup seems to not be affected very much by the tone of the dulcimer itself, as electric dulcimers have much less dynamic tonality than acoustic dulcimers I have heard.
I have been told that the only difference among magnetic pickup dulcimers comes from the pickup chosen (I would appreciate input on which pickups are good for dulcimers) and how much the 'soundboard that the pickup is anchored to' is vibrating matters very little.
I have been told that piezos limit the fidelity of the audio and will leave the instrument sounding duller than if it were an acoustic performance
I have noticed that the vast majority of stage performances with a dulcimer rely on electric pickups to convey the sound, whereas coffee shop performances with a physical microphone pointed at the dulcimer seem to provide much more expression of the instrument itself.
How does it all fit together? For gigging at small venues what is ideal?
In guitar communities, cigar box guitar forums I participate in, as well as dulcimer forums there seems to be a lot of status attached to some types of wood, for example koa or basswood, in California it's redwood, or in Arkansas, pignut hickory.
I started off using craftboard for my dulcimers when i was first beginning to learn. Due to the reliable access I switched to red oak, and noticed right away the sound was consistently much brighter and twangier. Eventually I built the one in my profile picture which has a soundboard made from softwood teaboxes coated in poly for some extra durability. I got a couple of huge pieces of 1/8th inch plywood which i have built several dulcimers out of. They all sounded great.
This begs the question, how much does any of it really matter? Since joining a local dulcimer group several people have asked me after hearing my instrument what type of wood it is, only to be totally shocked when I say plywood with veneer. It seems that they have an expectation that plywood should not be able to sound good, but where does this idea come from? Is it just the knowledge that plywood is dirtcheap that makes them assume it should "sound cheap?"
Is it a matter of the best luthiers choosing the woods that make the subtly best differences, thereby choice of wood could imply a level of craftsmanship?
Maybe my ears are too unrefined to be able to tell the difference but others can?
I'm sure there will be opinions all over the place, given that some woods seem to be EXTREMELY common, whereas National champ Grant Olson played for so long (maybe still does) on a styrofoam dulcimer, so I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.
Is it accurate to say that you can make generalizations about an instruments tone based on materials, depth, and bridge placement?
For example it has always been my experience that a harder wood without any large knots will sound brighter than a softer wood of the same thickness which also does not have any large knots.
Also, dulcimers with taller sides seem to give more bass response than shallower ones.
Finally a bridge placed near the very edge of the soundbox to me sounds twangier than a bridge that is more centered over the box.
These generalizations have seemed consistently accurate to me. What do you guys think?
I have noticed that every dulcimer has a different tone and you never really know for sure what it will sound like til you hear it, but maybe at the very least one can identify characteristics that will ensure their dulcimer's tone is not too terribly far from what one desires.
I'd love input from others as I am still very much a beginner!
A topic I have heard several times among both players and builders is the pros and cons of various temperaments, with no consensus ever being reached. It does occur to me that a fretless instrument such as a violin avoids this problem entirely since the fretting hand determines how flat or sharp the note is by it's placement. Are there dulcimers made fretless, in order to achieve any microtonality the player might desire? Obviously it would be MUCH harder to play and also take a lot of knowledge to use correctly, but if it gives a sweeter sound, why not?
I like very low and narrow mandolin frets because i think they make less noise when i slide across them. My dulcimer is chromatic so the 'thumping' of the frets is something I try to mitigate. I have heard it said that pressing too hard on strings makes them bend and stretch inconsistently and can affect tone, so I would imagine taller frets do this even more? Definitely gonna try them on my next dulcimer to see how they feel.