Just intonation and limitations
I've sold a few JI dulcimers but most folks reject them because they don't include the 6.5 fret...Robert.
Yes, a string and a tuner will work well to set the fret positions.
If you advertise a JI scale dulcimer as "may not play well with others" and an explanation of what JI is, then it should sell readily to folks who appreciate the JI scale but may not be able to build, or who play only for themselves without other instruments around.
If you build Equal Temp, then it will sell to any tom, Dick or Jane who likes the look of your work.
Yes, this is really interesting!
I was thinking of designing, for a JI fingerboard, a sound box to set a blank fret-board on top. I would rig a dulcimer string to stretch over it to mark off the notes using an electronic tuner, and then cut in the fret slots... I wonder if it would work.
So... if I was going to build a dulcimer with the idea that I would offer it for sale, would it be better to have the scale in Equal Temperament or Just Intonation?
WOW, WHAT AN EDUCATION.....and how many master's in Music Education know this cool stuff? thank you for something to really think about. I've found 5 old dulcimers, not by famous makers....and some didn't sound right while playing them after i strung 'em up. NOW I KNOW WHY. However, until I learn another style, I prefer the noter and drone style. thanks everyone for what is written here. aloha, irene
My dulcimers are EQ and pass my ear test, sounds sweet to me!
When this subject comes up and several N/D players start singing the praises of the JI I think it's important for someone, in this case me, to pipe up and say that the JI is far too limited a scale to hold value for me. ....for reasons I've posted before.
Bob - no one but a custom builder would make a you a pre-slotted JI fretboard, certainly not Folkcraft. I had DanC make me a JI fretboard with staple frets for my last build. There's a JI calculator here on FOTMD to create your own JI pattern for any VSL you want.
Bob... somewhere on this site is the formula for making a JI ruler. I'm sure someone will post the link. I made a 27" and 30" ruler from it, and both worked out really well... Robert.
You can certainly play a just intonated dulcimer with other instruments, particularly if they are providing backing such as guitar chords. If you are having problems with things sounding 'off' then it is more than likely the instruments are not tuned correctly to blend. It is true that some specific notes of the scale between the instruments will be slightly different but if you are not both sustaining that particular note in isolation then you are not going to hear the differences. I play old dulcimers all the time with other instruments and JI really is not a problem - however, generally, tuning is an issue when playing any two or more instruments together. And that's where you should spend some time, getting the instruments in tune with each other.
In any bluegrass string band you have some instruments in equal temperament (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and some in just intonation or Pythagorean 5ths (dobro, violin, bass) and then the voices will be in natural intonation for the harmonies. So it really does all work together OK.
The 'problem' with JI on dulcimers is that DAd chording doesn't work for some chords; the 1,0,1 A chord is a particular problem as in DAd the first fret is played as the 2nd of the scale whereas in DAA the first fret is played as the 6th of the scale.
There probably was a couple of ways early builders set the frets using another string as a reference. The first was to have the bass string as the root note as in DAA with the melody string a 5th above - this will lead to the first fret being closer to the nut than it is to the second. The other system could have been to use two strings in unison as the reference as in D,d,d so the frets were set against a 5th drone. This will lead to the 1st fret being positioned a little sharper although still being the 6th of the scale. And, yes, there are in fact two potential positions for the 6th of the scale when set by ear, both of which sound OK. In fact, the classical Indian just intonation diatonic scale give the option of either position for the 6th. So you will see some old dulcimers with what looks like a more 'normal' position for the first fret even though the dulcimer was built for playing the scale from the 3rd fret rather than the nut. In these cases it is likely that the maker used two strings tuned in unison when setting the frets by ear. Now I can't prove any of this as being exactly how early makers set their frets but I can say that if you use these techniques you will end up with fret placements that match a number of old dulcimers!
For the Heritage dulcimer project I used the later Leonard Glen fret pattern. He actually has two different 6ths on his dulcimers. The first fret in slightly sharper than Ptolemy's calculations but the 11th fret is just intonated. This gives a shade more flexibility of tunings and, as you are never going to play those two frets together, having two different notes for the 6th of the scale doesn't matter.
The bottom line is that most folks are not going to hear the difference between equal temperament and just intonation when instruments play together. But you really will notice the sourness if you try to play an older Warren May in DAd. However, playing a Warren May in DAA with other dulcimers in DAd should not be an issue as I can guarantee that any group of dulcimer players will not all be so accurately in tune that you'd be able to specifically hear the very slight difference of the just intonated notes in the general cacophony!!!
( check the first fret and see if the length of the first fret is less than the length of the second fret. The first fret is shorter than the 2nd fret distance and so it is a just intonation)
Wow, is this how we can tell Just intonation on all dulcimers? Is there also a way to tell equal temperament?
Thanks for all the great information I did purchase the warren may, #657 which according to warren it is a 1979 or 1980 with just intonation. He said to check the first fret and see if the length of the first fret is less than the length of the second fret. The first fret is shorter than the 2nd fret distance and so it is a just intonation. It is in perfect condition and a beautiful Birdseye maple dulcimer. It has old strings on it. Extra strings are sized at 22 for bass and 12 for the other strings. I am not sure on the tuning In terms of the octaves of the 155. I think the bass should be the normal D bass as a DAD would be. Is the AA on the middle and melody strings tuned to the normal A which would be on the middle string of DAD tuning or are the middle and melody different octaves? I will post pictures.
I fret all my noter drone specific Dulcimers in JI. Like Robert I have no trouble playing with others . No I wouldn't buy a JI dulcimer if I was a melody chord player, not what it is designed for. But if you are wanting to play noter drone style you can not have a better fret board layout,it just sounds far better than an ET instrument. So It all comes down to what you want to play. I play with groups of players that some are melody /chord , some noter/ drone and we all play well together. I don't look at the differences as limitations ,but, as special qualities that the different instruments have.
I have no problem playing my ji dulcimers with guitar. They sound absolutely great togerter. The important thing is this... Say your playing in D... Tuned Daa...the guitar must be tuned in open D... That is DADF#AD... And tuned to the dulcimers D&a strings. Unfortunately most guitar players cannot play in open D... Shame shame shame.. Their loss... Thanks Anne !!!..... Robert.
I bought a JI dulcimer last summer, beforre I knew any of the above info. Thought it sounded "off" when a guitar player joined me....However, I hafta' say, it has the sweetest sound in the world when played on its own...thank you, Robert Schuler!
Or you might view it as the guitar was what sounded 'off', not your dulcimer.
Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Clark made a great video comparing different scale temperaments. Watch this and all will become clear:
A JI dulcimer is a specialist. Played alone, it sounds terrific in the scale it was built to play -- for Mr. May's instruments, this means the Ionian scale that begins on the 3rd fret. Scales that start on other frets will sound off, some worse than others. This is why you need an Ionian tuning like DAA and not DAD.
No matter what tuning you use, as Ken said, the JI dulcimer will not play well with standard modern dulcimers. Nor will it work with guitars, keyboards, or other instruments that play defined notes. Some of your notes will be flat and sound awful. You can't play chords on it, either. A really skilled player, paying rapt attention, might be able to bend strings to make the pitches blend, but I can't imagine anyone doing this in a dulcimer club.
This does not doom you to play alone: a fretless instrument or a vocalist with a good ear can play along with a JI dulcimer, and there's always percussion :) Still, it's important to understand that a JI dulcimer will impose limitations you wouldn't have with a modern equal-temperament dulcimer.
Just Intonation means, essentially that it's "not gonna play well with others" -- because those others are intonated to play together with all sorts of instruments, but a JI instrument is not. When a JI dulcimer is built, the frets are spaced for one particular tuning -- 1-5-5 say. That means it will sound right with any 1-5-5 tuning -- DAA, CGG, AEE, GDD, etc. BUT it will not sound right in 1-5-8 tunings like DAd, CGc, AEa, GDg, etc. Also, if you play in a group, your JI dulcimer will sound "off" compared to the others.
A capo will probably only make things worse.
JI dulcimers really are intended to only be played in the Noter & Drone or Melody & Drone styles, not Chord-Melody. They are not intnded to be played with other instruments -- dulcimers or anything else.
So -- if you're going to play with a group, take another dulcimer.
If you're going to play solo in Noter & Drone or Melody & Drone for yourself or others (say in a nursing home) -- then that JI Warren May will really shine!
I am buying an older Warren May with just intonation. In my discussion with Warren May, he says you cannot play in DAD. Okay, so if I play in groups that only play DAD, and with capo's , that does that mean I cannot use this dulcimer at all? Or can you only play tunes in A... Sorry for the questions, I just don't understand if you can take a dulcimer in the key of A and capo it to D?
updated by @paula-brawdy: 10/27/19 12:02:25PM