Rest in peace, Maddie MacNeil
OFF TOPIC discussions
Sad news. Maddie was a treasure.
At the top of the Home Page click on "Groups". Then scroll down to the "Dulcimer Making" group and click on that. You can join that group by clicking the "Join" button. Once you are a member of the group, you can post your questions to other members of the dulcimer making group for discussion by clicking on the "+ sign" in the upper right-hand corner and creating a topic for discussion.
If you want to discuss deceased dulcimer makers, you can join the "Dulcimer History" group in the same manner and post your questions there.
A couple of questions for those up north and in the Midwest who keep their instruments out all the time. Don't you have a problem with the instruments drying out and cracking when the furnace is running and the air in the house dries out? Isn't that why a lot of musicians keep humidifiers in their instrument cases?
KenL - Keith Young used to put the fine tuners on his dulcimers. They went on the string between the bridge and the tail-end. Slide the tuner toward the tail-end to increase the pitch ever so slightly, Slide the tuner back toward the bridge to lower the pitch. The fine-tuner is basically a wedge, with a hole for the string to pass through, that is wedged between the string and the fingerboard. They work like a charm. I still own one of Keith Young's teardrop dulcimers with hand-carved wooden pegs and his homemade fine-tuners. Tuning is no problem at all.
Congratulations on the Christmas gift from your mother-In-Law and wife. It's always good to see a dulcimer going to a good home. The best part is you only have to give it some attention on a regular basis to fully enjoy it. No feeding, watering, daily walks, or cleaning of the litter box is necessary.
Playing chords is really no mystery. The vast majority of chords you will need are triads (three-note chords). If the three required notes are available on three different strings (so they can be played simultaneously) and within reach of the thumb and fingers, then the chord can be played on the mountain dulcimer. If a complete triad is not playable on the mountain dulcimer, it is normally because one or more notes of the triad cannot be played due to an unreachable finger stretch or due to that particular note's unavailability in the chosen tuning.
Since the mountain dulcimer is not usually chromatically fretted, it is often necessary to retune the dulcimer to make certain notes accessible. Both D-A-A tuning and D-A-d tuning (with a 6 1/2 fret) optimize the availability of notes required to play in the key of "D" major. In D-A-d tuning, the added 6 1/2 fret enables the musician to play the C# note that otherwise would not be available on the melody or middle string.
Not sure if it's been mentioned yet, but a dulcimer capo placed on top of the fretboard and the strings down near the tail end of the dulcimer can hold the strings in place on the tail pins (and keep them from coming off the tail end pins) while you wind the other end around your wooden friction pegs. Kind of like having a third hand keeping everything in position until things are tightened up.
The good news is that the Key of "D" major and its various chords are the same regardless of which tuning you choose as your primary tuning. If you play from tablature, the fret numbers will be different, but the musical notes won't be different. Two people, one tuned D-A-d and the other tuned D-A-A, can play together rather easily. However, if you play from tablature or chord diagrams, you are better off sticking to one tuning in your early stages of learning.
If you decide to play without tablature or chord diagrams, you won't even have to change your tuning to match those with whom you play. As long as you both are playing in the same key, you will sound just fine. After all, guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, etc. can and do play together without being tuned exactly the same. In each case, the musician is using his/her knowledge of their instrument to play in the specified key.
Just sit back and enjoy the tuning you have chosen. If you decide to explore different tunings at some point in the future, your skills will easily transfer.
www.TheGreatCourses.com has issued a twelve lesson DVD course on the musical heritage of America. Although it does not appear to deal with the Appalachian dulcimer, it may be of interest to some on this forum. The instructor is Anthony Seeger, curator and Director Emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The description lists the following twelve lectures/lessons:
1. Inheriting America's Musical Instruments
2. American Revolutionary and Wartime Music
3. European Empires and American Music
4. Minstrel Shows and Variety shows
5. Music of American Movement and Dance
6. Hymns, Spirituals, and Chants in America
7. Brass Bands, Powwows, and Folk Festivals
8. American Music of Politics and Protest
9. the Banjo: An African Gift to American Music
10. The Roots of Country Music in America
11. American Piano, Ragtime, and Early Jazz
12. The Musical Gumbo of New Orleans
In essence the DVD course is an overview of America's music, and as such, it may be of interest to some on the forum even though it doesn't deal directly (as far as I can tell) with the Appalachian dulcimer.
Priced at $199.95 retail, it is currently on sale for just $39.95 for the complete 12 DVD course. Enjoy!
From your picture, it looks like you have traditional diatonic fretting on your dulcimer. In practical terms, that pretty much eliminates D-A-d tuning for playing a "D" major scale. To play a major scale in D-A-d tuning, you would need a 6 1/2 fret (an extra fret not available on your dulcimer). If you had that fret and tuned to D-A-d, the "D" major scale would begin on the melody string at the nut and go up the fretboard one fret at a time skipping the 6th fret and using the 6 1/2 fret instead.
Your diatonic fretboard will work best with D-A-A tuning. In D-A-A tuning the "D" major scale would begin on the melody string at the 3rd fret and proceed up the fretboard to the 10th fret. No extra frets are needed in this tuning.
D-A-d tuning could be used on your dulcimer to play in the Mixolydian mode, but as a beginner you are better off staying away from modes until you can play several tunes on the dulcimer that you have. Modes can be somewhat confusing for beginners. When you are ready to try out D-A-d and other alternative tunings, you can have a luthier install a 6 1/2 fret on your dulcimer, if you like.
The strings will depend quite a bit on the tuning you intend to use. Most dulcimer players play in the Key of "D". The two most common tunings used are D-A-A and D-A-d. For D-A-A tuning you will need a bass string with a gauge somewhere between .020 and .024, a middle string with a gauge of approximately .012 to .016, and a melody string with a gauge of approximately .012 to .014. There are several brands of dulcimer strings that are sold in sets in these standard gauges.
I tune in D-A-A for most of my playing and prefer .022, .012, and .012 gauge strings. If I were going to tune in D-A-d tuning, I'd probably go with a .010 or .011 for the melody string, but the .012 will work fine on most dulcimers.
Before buying your strings, take a look at how they attach to the tail-end of the dulcimer. Some dulcimers require ball-end strings. Other dulcimers require loop-end strings. And just to complicate things, some dulcimers can use either ball-end or loop-end strings. If you aren't sure take your dulcimer with you when you go to the music store to buy your strings. If you are buying your strings online or through the mail, just be sure to order the strings that attach to the dulcimer in the same way as those currently on the dulcimer.
Other than that, welcome to our friendly forum. You will find many helpful and friendly people ready to assist you. When you have a question, someone will normally have the answer for you.
Depending on how the string slots have been cut and whether or not you can get the nut and bridge out cleanly without damage, you may be able to reuse the same nut and bridge by simply reversing them 180 degrees. This will reverse the position of all the string slots, positioning the widest string slot farthest away from you and the narrowest string slot closest to you.
Of course, if the string slots have been modified for better intonation in one specific tuning (as is the case with most McSpadden dulcimers), it may not be possible to rotate the nut and bridge 180 degrees successfully.
Happy Birthday, John. I can't imagine a better birthday for you than building something you love to build. That sure looks like the makings of another very nice Thomas reproduction.
.011, .011, .014, .024 will probably work just fine, but if you want to get the recommended gauges I suggest you contact juststrings.com They sell single strings of just about any gauge you could ever need, and their prices are very reasonable.
Remember, strings of the same gauge are interchangeable. You may not find strings of your desired gauge listed as "dulcimer strings", but a .010 gauge string (or .014 or .023) can be used on any instrument requiring that gauge. Just be sure you order loop-end or ball-end strings to match the way the strings are anchored on your McSpadden.
If you intend to sell it at an estate sale, you can expect to sell it at a price below the $250-$300 range. This forum will bring your dulcimer to the attention of multiple dulcimer players of all levels. These potential buyers will know that McSpadden sells their new dulcimers for about $500, and an offering price of $250-$300 would be a good price for an instrument in near mint condition.
At an estate sale you are not likely to find a dulcimer player looking for a new instrument. It gets back to the law of supply and demand. An estate sale will be unlikely to bring the instrument to the attention of a knowledgeable person looking for a dulcimer. For those buyers, it will be more of a curiosity than a musical instrument, thus decreasing its value in their eyes. .
However, if you decide on the estate sale and it doesn't sell, you can always list it here with some pictures and pertinent information regarding its condition. McSpadden dulcimers tend to sell relatively quickly on this forum when offered at a fair price.
Used McSpadden dulcimers are not all that rare, but there is a regular market. The obvious answer is that it is worth what someone is willing to pay. I would give it a resale value of $250-$300 if it is in good shape and free of cracks or damage. The case adds little to the value on the resale market.
I'm bringing back this old thread, because I have a similar question regarding the bass and middle drone strings and the D Locrian mode. The fifth note of the D Locrian mode is "Ab", which is a diminished fifth. It is dissonant when used as a drone in D-Ab-Bb tuning. However, if we leave the middle drone as "A" as in the other modal tunings, in this case D-A-Bb tuning, we have a note that is not part of the D Locrian mode. It, too, is dissonant to the ear.
When I have read about the Locrian mode elsewhere, the consensus (if there is one) is that the D Locrian mode sounds best when only the root drone "D" is used along with the melody. So my question is this "Shouldn't the tuning for the Locrian mode omit the fifth and perhaps be something like D-d-Bb, instead of D-A-Bb or D-Ab-Bb?" By omitting the fifth, the dissonance can be minimized. And since you don't want to remove the middle string to play a single Locrian mode tune, the solution seems to be to tune the middle string drone to an octave of the bass string drone, which results in a D-d-Bb tuning.
Any thoughts on this?
Kendra, thank you for sharing the tab of "Lillie's Lullaby" and for sharing your family's connection to dulcimer history. Most of us came to the dulcimer later in our lives, and it is nice to hear from someone who lived the tradition within their own family. I've printed off your arrangement of "Lillie's Lullaby" and will give it a whirl tomorrow when I'm more awake. All the best.
Each mode consists of notes found in a major scale, but only the Ionian mode is a major scale. Using only the notes of the D major scale for example, you get the D Ionian mode if your start and end your mode with the D. You get an E Dorian mode if your start and end your mode with the E. . .
It is really more complicated to explain in writing than it is in practice. You can play music your whole life without understanding the theory behind the modes. For all practical purposes, you need only learn the corresponding dulcimer tunings. Most tablature indicates the appropriate tuning. The rest is simply a matter of following the numbers.
D-A-A = D Ionian Tuning (The familiar major scale Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti ,Do)
D-A-d = D Mixolydian Tuning (Identical to the Ionian mode with the exception of the 7th note. Frequently used to play a D major scale by adding the 6 1/2 fret.)
D-A-G = D Dorian Tuning
D-A-C = D Aeolian tuning (The familiar minor sale)
Since you've indicated a desire to play the old ballads, you will need to become comfortable with the modal tunings summarized above. There is no need to understand everything about modes. The beauty of the instrument is that the modes are built right into the design of the fretboard. Simply retune the melody string(s) to match one of the modal tunings above and you're ready to go.
The majority of ballads are written in the Ionian mode, so it makes sense to begin there. That's why D-A-A is the preferred base tuning for traditional mountain dulcimer players.
There aren't many mountain dulcimer books written specifically for the Child Ballads. Ralph Lee Smith's books are probably the closest thing to what you are seeking. Smith has written books containing mountain dulcimer tablature for selected ballads from Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Among Smith's books you will find Smoky Mountain Memories, Song Treasures of the Cumberland Mountains, Folk Songs of Old Virginia, Folk Songs of Old Kentucky, and Songs and Tunes of the Wilderness Road. A number of Appalachian versions of the Child Ballads are included in Smith's books.
If you have the five Child Ballad books, you probably have only the words and not any musical arrangements since Child did not include music in his books. If you want some musical arrangements, you will need to get The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads by Bertrand Bronson. It doesn't have any dulcimer tablature, but it does have musical arrangements for many of the Child Ballads. However, be forewarned, Bronson's books do not include any mountain dulcimer tablature. The arrangements will have to be rewritten in tablature or you will need to be able to play from standard notation.
As you explore the ballads further, you will find multiple melodies associated with the same lyrics, so if you are looking for a specific melody to accompany your singing, your best bet is to "figure out" the desired melody on the fretboard a few notes at a time until you have what you want. If you do this I would suggest that you write it down in some fashion, perhaps in dulcimer tablature and keep a notebook or file.
One thing complicating things for a beginner is the fact that many of the old ballads are sung in one of the ancient modes, rather than in a major key. Modes can complicate things. Fortunately, the mountain dulcimer accommodates the modes through a simple retuning of the melody string. If you are trying to figure out a melody and the notes just don't seem to be there, you may have to retune the melody string and try one of the other modes. At that point, it will benefit you to become familiar with modes and how to retune your dulcimer to enable you to play in alternative modes.
Since you appear to be a new mountain dulcimer enthusiast, you will probably benefit most from one or more of Ralph Lee Smith's books. Good luck in your journey, and don't be afraid to return with more questions. There are many dulcimer players on FOTMD ready to assist you.
Geoffrey Johnson worked for the Hughes Dulcimer Company in Colorado. Here's a link to a picture of him and someone else with a dulcimer and another under construction, which I assume may be one he made for the Hughes Dulcimer Company. Hughes Dulcimer Company was owned by Virgil Hughes.
From the picture and caption it appears Johnson sold Hughes dulcimer kits and conducted workshops where the kits were assembled.
Before sanding, you might want to try some Hill Peg Compound, which is a substance used by fiddle players to make the pegs turn more freely. I have used it successfully on a number of occasions to get a smoother and more accurate tuning with wooden tuning pegs. It comes in a tube (like chapstick) and is not expensive considering one tube will probably last you a lifetime. Just rub a little on the tuning peg where it makes contact with the peghead. You can purchase some on E-Bay if your local music store doesn't carry it.
Most of my playing these days is a combination of finger-dancing the melody with my left hand and fingerpicking with my right hand, although I can, and do, strum chords to accompany my singing or to accompany another dulcimer playing the melody. I've tinkered with the chord-melody style, but I can't say I use it much. I prefer finger-dancing with my left hand or using a noter held in my left hand (thumb on top if the fretboard is high enough) for lining out the melody and fingerpicking or strumming with the right hand to get the strings to ring out and establish rhythm.
Since most of my repertoire is old ballads of Appalachia and the British Isles, I play mostly in 1-5-5 tuning (Ionian) and 1-5-7 tuning (Aeolian). The actual tuning varies with the instrument I'm using at the time. My 1-5-5 tunings include D-A-A, C-G-G, G-D-D, and A-E-E. My 1-5-7 tunings include D-A-C, C-G-Bb, and B-F#-A. Since most of my playing these days is done at home for my own satisfaction, the actual tuning is what I perceive as the best tuning for that particular instrument.
Although I have played in 1-5-8 (D-A-d) tuning on occasion, I seldom use it these days. I've found that the vast majority of melodies written for D-A-d tuning (which is a traditional Mixolydian mode tuning) are actually Ionian melodies more suited to 1-5-5 tunings, such as D-A-A. Although D-A-d tuning is the predominant tuning these days, I find it more suited to the chord-melody style. Since I prefer to play in a melody-drone style, the various 1-5-5 tunings are more useful to me.
The tuning and style you choose to use is a matter of personal preference. There are those who swear by the chord-melody style. I happen to prefer a melody-drone style. All styles are valid, and I make no value judgements concerning which style is better. The only thing that really matters is which style brings you the most satisfaction.
I second Dusty's advice regarding the quick release straps. As he stated Folkcraft makes a quick-release strap specifically for the dulcimer. With this strap a short section of the strap (2-3 inches or so) remains attached to the strap buttons when not in use. When you are ready to use it just snap the longer section of the strap into place and you're ready to go. They can be purchased for less than $20.00 directly from Folkcraft or on E-Bay.
Here's a link to the 1-inch wide brown quick-release strap: https://www.folkcraft.com/collections/accessories/products/brown-one-inch-strap-2310435
If you own more than one dulcimer, you can purchase multiple straps so you won't have to continually struggle with getting the strap onto the strap button. Just leave the short end-section attached. The long section of the strap can be stored in the case until needed. The beauty of the Folkcraft strap is how quickly and easily it can be attached or disconnected. It's well-worth the cost.
Playing with a strap enables the dulcimer player to position the dulcimer further away from his or her body allowing easier access to the fretboard.
I have no idea who might have made your dulcimer, but the signature looks like it could either be "N. Mills" or "Neville". Are there any dulcimer makers who fit either of those interpretations of the signature? None come to mind.
Two possibilities given your new information.
1. (Less Likely) This would have been early in Warren May's dulcimer building career. He may have been in the early stages of getting proper intonation, something he improved with more time and experience. In other words, he may have misplaced the frets enough to be noticable.
2. (More Likely) Warren does make dulcimers with just intonation. Since you said the chords didn't sound right, that sounds like the dulcimer may have been built with just intonation. Just intonation is going to sound really good with the drones, but not so good if you are trying to make chords. The frets have been positioned to blend with the drones, not for making chords. Traditionally, dulcimers were built with just intonation out of necessity since the frets extended only under the melody string(s), you couldn't play chords. When builders made the switch to full-width frets, chords became possible and some builders adjusted their fret placement to accommodate chord playing.
And I wouldn't worry about the felt or foam on the tail end. It's there to protect the tail end of the dulcimer and to prevent the strings from digging into the wood. As long as its not under the vibrating section of the string it shouldn't cause a problem. Many dulcimer builders put some felt, leather, etc. between the strings and the tail end of the dulcimer. You can remove it if it annoys you, but it probably has nothing to do with your intonation problems.
Silverstrings, I'm glad I could be of help. I and everyone else on this forum was once at the same place you are at in learning the dulcimer.
Continue to ask questions when you feel the need. Someone on this forum is ready and willing to help you discover the answers. This forum is home to a great bunch of people. They freely share what they have learned during their own journey with the mountain dulcimer.
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.
The frets haven't moved since they are placed securely in the fretboard. However, the bridge may have moved which would explain some frets being in tune and others out of tune.
Another possibility is that the dulcimer was never fretted accurately when the instrument was made, and you are just beginning to notice it now that you have more experience and are playing it more.
Do you know who made the dulcimer? Many dulcimers were constructed by amateurs unfamiliar with how to correctly place the frets and/or the bridge. The most likely explanation is that the bridge has moved and needs to be placed back in the correct position. Measure the distance from the nut to the 7th fret. The bridge should be approximately twice that distance from the nut. For example, if the 7th fret measures 13 1/2 inches from the nut, the bridge should be roughly 27 inches from the nut.
When plucked, the string will vibrate to produce sound. I'm certainly no expert, but I suspect the buzzing is related to two factors: 1.) the direction in which you are plucking the string and 2.) the space between the string and nearby frets.
If the plucking finger is pulled off "parallel" to the fingerboard you will have less buzzing because the string vibrates from side to side making it less likely to contact nearby frets. If the plucking finger is pulled up in a "perpendicular" direction from the fretboard you may have more buzzing because the string vibrates up and down making it more likely to make contact with nearby frets.
Obviously the space between the string and nearby frets will also play a part. The string is closest to the frets at the peghead end of the fretboard. This may explain why you are experiencing the buzzing only at the 1st and 2nd fret.
Since the string only buzzes when you do pull-offs I suspect it is related to number 1 above, but it may be related to how forcefully you pluck the string.
Like KenH I searched Google Images for pictures of Richard Wilson dulcimers. This is the only link I could find with a close-up of the tail end of the dulcimer showing the bridge. You may have to sift through the pictures of the dulcimer to find the one with the close up of the bridge. Incidentally, the bridge looks movable and appears to be held in place only by the string tension.
I'm not sure if all Wilson dulcimers had similar bridges, but this one looks like it was made from maple. If this one is any indication, Richard probably used whatever hardwood scraps he had left over after making dulcimers.
If you've got the opportunity to purchase a Blue Lion at a good price, don't pass it up. Blue Lion is not currently accepting orders. When they do accept orders, the wait can be 6 months to a year or more due to the high demand for their instruments. Incidentally, their instruments have a full-bodied well-rounded sound, somewhat guitar like. Many dulcimer players love them as the quality is top-notch.
Another DAA instruction book that is very good for someone starting out is Traditional Playing of the Mountain Dulcimer by Lorinda Jones. Although not strictly a noter-drone book it provides four arrangements for each song: 1. Song Played With a Noter, 2. Song Played With a Noter and Rhythm Fill-Ins, 3. Song Played With Fingers and Rhythm Fill-Ins (Finger-Dancing), and 4. Song Played With Chord Melodies and Rhythmic Fill-Ins (Chord-Melody Style). Arrangements 1. and 2. are very suitable to noter-drone playing. The four arrangements for each song illustrate how one can begin by learning the simple melody with a noter (Arrangement 1), add fill-in notes to the simple melody while continuing to play with a noter (Arrangement 2), using the left-hand fingers to replace the noter (Arrangement 3), and finally adding chords to the melody (Arrangement 4). For those wishing to play only in a noter-drone style, the first two arrangements of each song will be sufficient. For those wishing to expand their left-hand techniques, arrangements 3 and 4 will illustrate how it is done.
The book includes a play-along CD, but a DVD is also available to purchase separately. The book, CD, and DVD provide an excellent introduction to traditional mountain dulcimer playing, including two noter-drone arrangements for each song introduced. Twenty-two songs are included with four arrangements for each.
Folk musician, Paul Clayton, was one of the early trailblazers of the dulcimer revival in the 1950s and 1960s. If I have my facts correct and don't have him confused with someone else, he visited the home of dulcimer maker, Edd Presnell, and his wife, Nettie Hicks Presnell in the 1950s to learn traditional dulcimer-playing directly from Nettie.
LisavB. I'm glad you decided to join us. You will find this forum to be warm and friendly. We are united by our love for the dulcimer, and we are glad you decided to join us. If you have any questions or wish to share more of your journey with the dulcimer, we'd love to hear more from you.
I don't think it's so much that it sounds like a guitar. The logic is basically "If you want to play a fully chromatic instrument, why don't you just play an instrument like a guitar (or banjo or mandolin, etc.) that is already chromatic?"
The purists would say that the diatonic fret pattern is a defining feature of the dulcimer. As you begin to change one of the dulcimer's defining characteristics, the instrument is moving away from being a dulcimer and transitioning into a hybrid instrument. Not a guitar exactly, but beginning to look and play more like a guitar and less like a dulcimer.
To get the sound of a guitar, you would need to increase the size of the dulcimer's soundbox, extend the neck/fretboard beyond the soundbox, increase the number of strings, and adjust the gauges of the strings. Each of these changes is a movement in the direction of the guitar and away from the dulcimer.
If the only change made is to fret the dulcimer chromatically instead of diatonically, then the instrument will still sound more like a dulcimer. However, it will have some of the playing features of the guitar.
Some Common Features of Each Instrument:
Dulcimer = Smaller Soundbox, Diatonic Fretboard, Fretboard Does Not Extend Beyond Soundbox, Fewer Strings, Lighter Gauge Strings, Played on Lap with Fretboard Facing Up
Guitar = Larger Soundbox, Chromatic Fretboard, Fretboard/Neck Extends Beyond the Soundbox, More Strings, Heavier Gauge Strings, Played with Hand Reaching Under and Around the Neck
Putting a chromatic fretboard on a dulcimer body without changing any other features results in a chromatic dulcimer. Not exactly a guitar, but a step in that direction.
Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with playing an instrument modified from its traditional form. Likewise, there is also nothing wrong with preferring to keep the instrument in its purest, most traditional form. To each their own. What you play and how you play it are decisions to be made by each individual. Basically, if you enjoy playing it, that's all that's necessary.
I have a CSH Folkcraft Dulcimer with flat peghead and three tuners/three equidistant strings. It measures approximately 39 inches in total length. I also have a McSpadden with the padded case that comes standard with a McSpadden purchase. The Folkcraft CSH is about 3 to 4 inches too long for the McSpadden Case. Folkcraft's case is 41 inches long. McSpadden's case is only 36 inches long.
Bottom line, the standard Folkcraft CSH dulcimer will not fit into the McSpadden Case. It looks like you won't be able to use the McSpadden case for your Folkcraft dulcimer purchase.
The Folkcraft CSH dulcimer does fit into a Craggy Mountain Brown Padded Case (available from Craggy Mountain for about $45.00 plus shipping). The Craggy Mountain Case is a good quality case. Folkcraft Padded Cases may be made in the USA by Folkcraft. The McSpadden Padded Cases are made in Thailand these days, and the Craggy Mountain Case is made in China.
Katie, you've gotten some excellent advice. Don't be overwhelmed by chords. There are a limited number of chords that are used with any frequency. And keep in mind, the same chords are used in many different keys. The D chord for instance occurs in the Key of D Major, the Key of G Major, and the Key of A Major. In each instance, the notes that form the D chord are the same. Their position on the fretboard only changes if you have changed the tuning of the strings.
If you can play a C chord, a D chord, an E chord, an F chord, a G chord, and an A chord, you will be well on your way. As others have suggested start with a single key and learn the three primary chords for that key. Notice that some chords occur over and over again.
Key of C = C, F, G Chords
Key of D = D, G, A chords
Key of A = A, D, E chords
Key of G = G, C, D chords
I did some quick genealogical research and discovered that Ernest Combs was the son of Fred Combs and Vera Alice Johnson. He is listed in the 1940 Federal Census for Beaverdam Township in Watauga County, North Carolina. The families of Frank Proffitt and his father, Wiley Proffitt, were both living in Beaverdam Township in 1940. However, my preliminary search didn't turn up any connections between Ernest Combs and the Proffitts. In the bio to which David Bennett provides a link, Combs credits Albert Hash with getting him started with instrument making. But as David pointed out, he doesn't seem to have been very prolific in building dulcimers.