Dulcimer tuning problem
Instruments- discuss specific features, luthiers, instrument problems & questions
Is Your Dulcimer Just-Tempered or Equal-Tempered?
Another possibility is the type of scale. Back in 1973 many dulcimer builders were still making dulcimers with a just-tempered scale. In just-tempered scales the frets are placed to get the best fit with the bass and middle drones. The idea is to get a sweet blending of the melody, which is changing in pitch as you fret at different locations, and the drones which remain constant in pitch.
Most modern dulcimers have equal-tempered scales. In equal-tempered scales the frets are placed to get the sweetest harmonies when playing chords. The difference between the two is slight, but it is noticeable.
Traditionally, dulcimers were fretted by ear to get the melody string to blend well with the drones. Dulcimer players weren't playing chords back in the old days. They used the traditional just-tempered scale. Some builders, such as Leonard and Clifford Glenn, continued to fret their dulcimers in this manner throughout the 20th century.
However, many modern builders adopted a guitar-like approach, which adjusted the frets slightly from the just-tempered scale to get purer sounding chords. They used an equal-tempered scale. Most modern dulcimers use this scale.
If you have a good ear you will be able to tell the difference. Chords won't sound quite right with a just-tempered scale. And the blending of melody and drones won't sound quite right with an equal-tempered scale.
Did your bridge move?
All that being said, if there is evidence that your bridge has moved, it is an easy fix. It may take some patience as you may need to move the bridge several times to find the best location. When you do, I'd mark the location of the bridge to make sure you can relocate the bridge if it moves again. If your bridge has moved, it is not attached to the fingerboard, and it should slide easily when the strings are loosened.
Were the frets misplaced when the dulcimer was built?
Unfortunately, a large number of dulcimers were built with inaccurate fretting. If that is the case there is not much you can do short of having the instrument refretted by a professional. Remember, the ear develops over time and becomes more sensitive to slight differences in pitch. When I first began playing I relied totally on an electronic tuner. As the years passed, I discovered the strings still needed a slight adjustment (fine-tuning if you will) after the first run-through with the electric tuner. I can now easily tune by ear. When you purchased the dulcimer in 1973, it sounded fine and the scale seemed accurate. Now, your ear is more sensitive to slight differences. It could be due to the type of scale (just or equal-tempered) or it could be that the instrument wasn't fretted correctly in the first place and your ear didn't hear the difference at that point in your musical development.