Dulcimer tuning problem
Great information! I didn't know until now about just intonation or natural temperament. I read through the linked discussion thread about JI and that describes it perfectly. And yes, the length of the first fret is less than the length of the second so I believe that confirms it. I'm pretty sure when I was first learning to play years ago, I was playing melody/drone style and not chords so I wouldn't have noticed it then. I'll also try tuning to DAA to see if that makes a difference.
Thanks, everyone, for all your help! I learned a lot from this discussion.
Like most instruments made by makers who favour just intonation (aka 'natural temperament') Warren's dulcimers do not really 'like' DAd tuning. If you tune it to DAA I bet it will sound sweet and lovely, particularly in melody/drone style - but simple chords will sound glorious too.
I agree that the green foam is not causeing any problems. But Warren made that dulcimer to be used with "ball-end" strings. If you remove those loop-end-strings and just slide ball-end strings in from the rear, it will surely look a lot nicer.
I would take it to Warren and ASK him about the instrument. He keeps good records and should know whether this was a "just intonation" fret scale or what exactly is going on.
"If the length of the first fret is less than the length of the second it is just intonation"
Start at the bottom of the thread and you will find some helpful information, to be sure.
updated by @salt-springs: 08/08/19 10:41:14PM
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.
Intresting............I have 2 Warren May's of similar construction. I really can't say for sure but it looks like the strings on the bridge are seated on some sort of foam rubber. If I were going to bet on finding the problem I would start by removing that and if I had to,use a piece of felt or better yet, nothing whatsoever.
You could send these pics to Warren and I can all but guarentee that help help you figure it out. I really don't think the cold dorm room did any damage to it, but Warren will surely tell you about that too.
What have you got to lose?
Thanks for all the good advice! Here is more information. This is a Warren May dulcimer. He taught industrial arts at my high school in 1973 and I bought the dulcimer then. I learned to play it a little at the time, then neglected it for many years while I was working. When I retired just recently I decided to get serious about learning to play it, so I had the strings replaced. The intonation issue is pretty noticeable on chords. I didn't notice it when I first got it, which makes me think that it is something that happened over the years. I am embarrassed to say that I left it in a college dorm room over Christmas break when it wasn't heated, and I have wondered if that had anything to do with it. I'm attaching photos.
Thanks, everyone, for your helpful responses!
Well there is a ton of good advice here that will obviously help. One thing I would do is check my tuner and make sure that is accurate or at least reasonably accurate and that it is set to A440. Some folk say that does not make any difference but it seems to do so if it is far enough off. (I use a Korg tuner, those clip on just never worked well for me).
Another thing you might do is make sure the tuning keys are tight and not slipping when you press down on the strings. I had one that after a few years the screw that held them firm had loosened and every time I pressed a string it would loosen just enough to throw the contraption out of whack. This really good to know if the action is a bit to high and the pressure on the string puts enough tension on the string to move the tuner gear. It gets worse the further up the board you go.
I always tune strings when the string is vibrating....it is easier to see where you are at, just make sure that you give it a good solid strum. Wimpy strums will make it impossible to tune accurately.
And last, put some new strings on it if you have not already done so.
The explanation between different temperaments below is primo.........if it is just temperment, the tuner can help but it will be next to impossible to get 100% in tune from the tuner.
And do post a pic of your dulcimer, I would love to see it since old dulcimers are becoming my thing lately.
Beverly, a couple of closeup photos would really help here- one of the bridge with the strings in the slots... and another of the nut and including the first three frets.
Are the strings ancient? Sometimes really old strings can sound a little out of tune when fretted.
Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
I suspect the bridge may have been accidentally moved and not put exactly back in place. As little as 1/16" -- 1/8" would make all the difference.
WHO made you dulcimer? It should say on a label stuck to the inside bottom, if you look through the rear soundholes. Also, a close-up photo of the top and side of the bridge would be a big help. We might be able to see evidence of a move there.
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.
I tune the open strings to DAD, but the rest of the frets don't follow suit. For example, my open melody string will be tuned to D, but the E on the first fret is slightly off pitch. And the F# on the second fret is off pitch even more, etc. I hope that's a clearer explanation of what's happening.
I'm pretty sure it used to be in tune when I first bought it. Whatever has happened seems to have happened over the years. If it is the bridge that is the issue, then that would be repairable?
Thanks for your responses!
What Banjimer said! The frets have not moved. The bridge may have moved. A reasonable close-up photo showing the whole instrument and a close-up of the bridge area would be helpful.
You're tuning to a specific fret? We don't really do that. We tune the dulcimer strings to DAA, DAd or something else, and then press the melody string(s) down at a specific fret (or make chords using all three courses of strings. Sorry if that sounds simplistic, I'm trying to understand.
When you aren't fretting, are the strings staying in tune at DAA, DAd or whatever you are tuned to? You say you "get one fret right but the others are off". Do you mean you are not getting a 'good' do, re, mi, fa... scale as you move up the frets on the melody string or on all three strings?
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.
I got my first dulcimer in 1973. Now the frets seem to be out of alignment because it is impossible to tune--I get one fret right but the others are off. I think it may be because (I'm sad to admit) I didn't take proper care of it, and left it in a dorm room that wasn't temp controlled over the holidays. Is this something that can be repaired?