Do dulcimers actually sound better if they are played a lot?

John Henry
John Henry
@john-henry
9 years ago
257 posts

Interesting and informative post Robin. Having made HD's for many years before dropping back to my first love, MD's, I am well familiar with piano wire ( have got miles and miles of it) but have never considered its comparitive merits with 'shop bought' guitar strings ! Any chance of sharing how you 'make up strings' from it for use on a MD, as I am sure there are others here who use both instruments !

John

Robin Clark said:

That's a pretty accurate summary Paul of the guitar/banjo string industry.

There are a few exceptions, Newtone Strings here inthe UK being one. Malcolm Newton who runs the company (and physically makes most of the strings!) worked for a wire rope firm in the Midlands and learnt about wiredrawing, plating, winding etc from there. Malcolm is very particular about the wire he uses, and his strings are always in short supply as he won't make them if the wire is not perfect. I buy about 1200 strings from Malcolm a year for my guitar business but the wait can be frustrating!!! I doubt you'll find them in the US.

Strings do make a differnce to tone.

For my Ed Thomas replica I use German piano wire from Heckscher, who started up in 1883. It seems likely from what I have readthat steelpiano wire was available quite widelyin the US from about the time of the Civil War and it appears as a mail orderitem in the earliest Sears & Roebuck catalogues I have been able to research. I know that John Mawhee used piano wire for his dulcimers made just after the civil war (guage #8 on a 25" scale tuned right up to G,d,d) and on my Ed Thomas Imake up the strings from Gauge #8 wire for the bass (0.020") and gauge #4 for the middle and melody (0.013). Piano wire feels slightly softer than modern guitar strings and so perhaps settles to pitch at a slightly lower tension - though I don't have the ability to measure this. The tone is different - is is a little morebass and top with less mid - like a telecaster twang! A number of my most recent recordings of my Ed Thomas replicahave beenmade using piano wire strings (you can find them in varios posts in the Old Style Drone & Noter section).

Although there has been plenty written about early dulcimer design, woods and building technique unfortunately little focus has been placed on the strings used - and yet they are an element that would have had significant impact on both the tone the instrument produced and the tunings selected. I have only been able to pick up snippets of information from here and there - and I'm always on the search for more if anyone has any!

Paul Certo said:

For the record, it's the music wire that is made by only a few companies. It is used by a lot of companies to make strings, and some of these string makers make strings for other companies to package and market. I doubt if strings sold under an instrument brand name are actually made by those companies. Gibson, Fender, and Martin all sell strings, but I don't think any of them make strings.

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
9 years ago
239 posts

That's a pretty accurate summary Paul of the guitar/banjo string industry.

There are a few exceptions, Newtone Strings here inthe UK being one. Malcolm Newton who runs the company (and physically makes most of the strings!) worked for a wire rope firm in the Midlands and learnt about wiredrawing, plating, winding etc from there. Malcolm is very particular about the wire he uses, and his strings are always in short supply as he won't make them if the wire is not perfect. I buy about 1200 strings from Malcolm a year for my guitar business but the wait can be frustrating!!! I doubt you'll find them in the US.

Strings do make a differnce to tone.

For my Ed Thomas replica I use German piano wire from Heckscher, who started up in 1883. It seems likely from what I have readthat steelpiano wire was available quite widelyin the US from about the time of the Civil War and it appears as a mail orderitem in the earliest Sears & Roebuck catalogues I have been able to research. I know that John Mawhee used piano wire for his dulcimers made just after the civil war (guage #8 on a 25" scale tuned right up to G,d,d) and on my Ed Thomas Imake up the strings from Gauge #8 wire for the bass (0.020") and gauge #4 for the middle and melody (0.013). Piano wire feels slightly softer than modern guitar strings and so perhaps settles to pitch at a slightly lower tension - though I don't have the ability to measure this. The tone is different - is is a little morebass and top with less mid - like a telecaster twang! A number of my most recent recordings of my Ed Thomas replicahave beenmade using piano wire strings (you can find them in varios posts in the Old Style Drone & Noter section).

Although there has been plenty written about early dulcimer design, woods and building technique unfortunately little focus has been placed on the strings used - and yet they are an element that would have had significant impact on both the tone the instrument produced and the tunings selected. I have only been able to pick up snippets of information from here and there - and I'm always on the search for more if anyone has any!

Paul Certo said:

For the record, it's the music wire that is made by only a few companies. It is used by a lot of companies to make strings, and some of these string makers make strings for other companies to package and market. I doubt if strings sold under an instrument brand name are actually made by those companies. Gibson, Fender, and Martin all sell strings, but I don't think any of them make strings.

Paul Certo
Paul Certo
@paul-certo
9 years ago
242 posts

For the record, it's the music wire that is made by only a few companies. It is used by a lot of companies to make strings, and some of these string makers make strings for other companies to package and market. I doubt if strings sold under an instrument brand name are actually made by those companies. Gibson, Fender, and Martin all sell strings, but I don't think any of them make strings.

Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

I just ordered two sets of dulcimer strings from juststrings.com. Now I will have no excuse not to change them if I think a string is starting to sound a little thuddy. Now on to my guitar...

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
9 years ago
1,836 posts

Yeah.... I've seen similar low-priced offers on things from China related to other hobbies I have. I'm just not a fan of sending me credit card info directly to China, plus the stuff usually is really cheaply made... Glad you've gotten some good buys though, Matt.

Matt Berg
Matt Berg
@matt-berg
9 years ago
75 posts

http://mid.auctivacommerce.com/ from Shanghia, China sells extremely low priced musical accessories, including strings. In particular, they sell 12 tuners (6R-6L) for $6.00 (see 12 string guitar tuners.) Also, 10 packs of 10 gauge strings for $1.00. However, unless you plan to buy in bulk and can wait 4-6 weeks for delivery, I can't recommend them. As with any internet order, watch the shipping costs. I haven't been thrilled with their nylon strings (not a problem unless you play ukulele), but the steel strings are good. I always carry extras at festivals. If you bump into me, I am happy to share.

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
9 years ago
1,980 posts

I had a middle string on one of my banjos that has had an annoying 'wolf tone' lately. i tried a few tricks like paper in the bridge slot, and a pad under the tailpiece, but those didn't do a thing. Though the strings aren't that old (6 months?) I changed that one string today and the annoying tone was gone .




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
9 years ago
1,836 posts

I suggest the Just Strings brand generic strings... the SIT strings for $2.09 a set are perfectly good loop-end strings for DAA. I use them all the time. Almost all strings in the world are made by one or two companies and then 'branded' by Martin, D'Addario, D'Arco, etc. So, IMHO it doesn't pay to pay for "brand name" strings.

John C. Knopf
John C. Knopf
@john-c-knopf
9 years ago
266 posts

I'm also guilty of leaving string sets on too long.

Old strings stretch unevenly under stress, theypick upa coating of oxidation, and I'm sure do other undesirable things as well.

It's amazing how much better a dulcimer sounds when I replace its old rusty strings with bright new ones.

Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

I just checked out www.juststrings.com . Great prices! Now I'm confused. There are several brands there but Martin is the only name I recognize. Any recommendations? My dulcimer uses loop end strings .Right now as I am learning, I am tuned DAA, but will want to go lower, eventually, to go with my alto voice.

Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

Thanks for the string website. I'll give it a look and will probably buy a couple sets. I guess I just never realized the sound quality of older strings went down that much even if they look fine. Rest assured I will take this advice and change the strings. Thanks!

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
9 years ago
1,836 posts

Gayle -- there's frugal and then there's cheap. Playing old strings isn't frugal; it's being cheap. A set of strings is only a couple bucks if you order a couple sets at a time from www.juststrings.com , and still only about five bucks a set from a local acoustic music shop. If you do not have at least one spare set of strings on hand you are doing yourself a disservice, and if you don't change your strings at the bare minimum of once a year you're doing your dulcimer, and your audience, a disservice as well.

Matt Berg
Matt Berg
@matt-berg
9 years ago
75 posts

One warning, if you purchase an instrument made with plywood, it will not change in tone. Only real (non-engineered wood) will adjust to the music.

Real wood instruments adjust to the sounds they "hear". The boom box method is fine, but keep in mind it picks up the sound you play. Some people favor "Marleying" their instrument, placing the instrument on a speaker and blasting the bass. This is fine, but your instrument will adjust to the bass.

My instruments are stored in the same room where I practice. That way, the instruments adjust to the type of music that I play.

As always, my thoughts are worth what you paid to get them.

John Henry
John Henry
@john-henry
9 years ago
257 posts

I agree with Robin, most timbers change their characteristics as they age. Oak for example, becomes extremly hard, I have a piece which came from Bristol Cathredral School which I know to be at least 400 yrs old, like iron !, and some spruce which I abandoned during a build because it was'nt working nice, but have just planed up, went like a dream ! As for instruments, I regard them in the same way as I might my favourite walking boots, 'orrible when new, but a delight to wear now that they have settled down and relaxed into doing the business !!!

JohnH

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
9 years ago
239 posts

I agree - as an instrument ages it often improves in tone and volume. New instruments can sound just a little "tight" to my ears. But buy a nice sounding new dulcimer and in years to come it could well become a classic Smile.gif I'm not sure if that has to do with playing or just the aging of the wood - or perhaps a combination? Some older instruments that have been in attics and not played much at all still have that 'aged' tone. Also some new instruments built from aged or reclaimed wood sound wonderful. I had a batch of dulcimers delivered recently from the Hagen family workshop and a couple of them sounded particularly wonderful. I asked Chas about them and he said that the tops on those instruments were from a billet of cherry that had been cut over 50 years ago - so there was my answer!

Mary Z. Cox
Mary Z. Cox
@mary-z-cox
9 years ago
60 posts
Yes this is true-- but you do need to do the upkeep on the instrument too-- have it set up-- keep fresh strings on it and do repairs as needed (refretting etc.)Best wishes,Mary Z Cox
Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
9 years ago
1,455 posts

Gayle, I know a pretty accomplished mandolin player who echos folkfan's advice. He told me to put my instruments near the speakers of my stereo and let the wood vibrate to the music. That way they would be "improving with age" not only when I play, but during all the down time, too. I can't say I've actually done that, though.

Oh, and I am a big believer in changing strings. New strings sound better and are much easier on your fingertips.

In Search of the Wild Dulcimer is both an historical artifact and still a useful guide to the instrumnet. It's nice that its available in digital form, but you can also find hard copies for sale at reasonable prices on Ebay and elsewhere.




--
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
Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

This is very impressive!

Also, I looked up the book online. I like the fact that there are sound files along with it so I can hear what they are talking about (always makes things make more sense). I also like their songbook. It even gives permission to pretty much do anything you like with the songs - performance or copying.

Thanks!

folkfan
@folkfan
9 years ago
367 posts

http://www.acousticguitar.com/gear/advice/vibration.shtml

This will give you some information on the change. I've use a "put it on a boom box" approach for years. I turn my stereo on with a new instrument resting across it, turn it up, and leave the house. Fortunately I have no really close neighbors who have ever complained.

Dan Goad
Dan Goad
@dan-goad
9 years ago
156 posts

Gayle, I agree wholeheartedly with Rob's comments. Here is the url for Robert Force's website. You can download the book, albums and tab book for free.

http://robertforce.com/

Grin.gifGrin.gifGrin.gif

Rob N Lackey
Rob N Lackey
@rob-n-lackey
9 years ago
421 posts

You can download the entire book from www.robertforce.com . I think it's great that he has made it available to all in (I think) pdf format. There is also "The Wild Dulcimer Songbook" on there too for free download. Has a lot of great tunes in it.

I'm not the one to ask about changing strings. I don't change mine nearly as often as I "should" on guitars or dulcimers. If I have a gig then I change them on the guitar(s) or dulcimer(s) I'll be playing. I know I ought to change them a lot more often than I do, but I can hear the difference and most of the time, after about 2 days of fussing, I think I did the right thing.

Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

I borrowed my copy from the local library, but I am enjoying it so much that I might get a copy. It explains a lot of things very clearly.

Another thing they say is to change your strings. I still have the original strings on my dulcimer, but the bass string seems a little thuddy. One of the strings on my guitar is that way. I am so frugal, I hate to throw out what I think is a perfectly good string, but maybe they're right about that too.

Rob N Lackey
Rob N Lackey
@rob-n-lackey
9 years ago
421 posts

Yes, it's true. That's why bluegrass guitarists want Martin guitars from the '40's & '50s and why violinists want an Amati or Stadavarius.

Isn't that a GREAT book? It revolutionized my playing 2 years ago when I finally got a copy! Everyone with a dulcimer should have it.

Gayle Maurer
Gayle Maurer
@gayle-maurer
9 years ago
31 posts

I was just reading in the book "In Search of the Wild Dulcimer" by Robert Force & Albert d'OSSCHE where they say "... there is one definite thing to say about wood: the more you play it, the better it sounds. For this reason older instruments are often more valuable and sought-after than newer ones. When an instrument is played, the constant vibration within the sound chamber alters the physical structure of the wood cells - some shrink and change shape, some elongate - and the sound of the instrument slowly becomes richer."

Have any of you experienced this to be true? Or is it just that the player himself gets better with time and so he thinks it sounds better? Just curious.


updated by @gayle-maurer: 10/27/19 12:02:25PM