just vs. equal temperament

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
2 weeks ago
367 posts

tssfulk:

Time to muddy things up even more. Is Warren May's Kentucky Scale true just temperament or a compromise between just and equal?

I have two Warren May instruments: No 876 and No 9781 There are slight differences in the position of the first two frets between the instruments, the later build being close to equal temperament, the earlier instrument JI.  Neither Warren May nor Homer Ledford used JI, intentionally.  Homer did experiment with different fret positions over the years but part of that was due to his use of templates to transfer the fret positions from one dulcimer to the next.  When frets are set by ear they are very likely to end up being in JI, simply because it is easy to set a fret at a point of least dissonance.  You can hear when a fret position is correct for JI by comparing two strings and listening for the dissonance but there is no 'by ear' technique to find equal temperament fret positions.  However, the position of frets set by ear is tied to the string gauges, pitch and action used during the setting process.  Therefore, taking a template from one dulcimer and using it to build another may bring in inaccuracies.  I think that the crucial thing to remember here is that historically dulcimer makers used JI, but were not aware they were doing so - it was simply that JI notes sound best when played against drones and it is easy to hear those perfect blends.

Glenda Hubbard:

 Well this certainly clears things up for me!  So If I go to purchase a used or old dulcimer how can I tell just by looking at the fret board what I'm getting? I've bought several dulcimers that sound odd to me never knew the reason. I know its obvious when there extra frets but had no clue that Warrens  Dulcimer's were ji. My friend just came into possession of a Homer Ledfrod  she was told that it was originally built for Jean Ritchies sister that was almost fifty years ago. She got it for her 16 th birthday and only played if a few times  and put it away. So would I be correct in thinking that Homer used the ji scale? 

Glenda - you can spot JI (or a close to JI scale) by looking at the position of the 5th fret.  It will appear distinctly flatter than equal temperament.  On dulcimers where the maker used a bass string and melody a 5th above (1-5-5 DAA type tuning) the first fret may be closer to the nut than it is to the second fret (the 1st fret being the 6th of the scale).  The same can be said of the spacing between the 7th and 8th frets compared to the 8th to 9th space.  Dulcimers such as Homer Ledfords display this pattern.  However, on dulcimers where the frets were set from a unison tuning the 1st fret may be closer to its contemporary equal temperament setting.  This is because the note blend will sound like the 1st fret is the 2nd of the scale rather than the 6th of the scale.  Dulcimers such as the Glens, Presnell and Melton display this pattern.

Robin 

 

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
2 weeks ago
1,795 posts

Homer also did not use equal temperament either -- for the most part.  Some of his scales were very experimental though.  The thing you can say is that Homer's dulcimers always played well by themselves but not always in a group.    There is a master list of Ledford dulcimers where your friend can search by the instrument number and find what woods Homer used, who it may have built for, etc.  Here:

http://backroombluegrassband.com/hlccbweb/instruments/instruments.htm

Glenda  Hubbard
Glenda Hubbard
@glenda-hubbard
2 weeks ago
22 posts

 Well this certainly clears things up for me!  So If I go to purchase a used or old dulcimer how can I tell just by looking at the fret board what I'm getting? I've bought several dulcimers that sound odd to me never knew the reason. I know its obvious when there extra frets but had no clue that Warrens  Dulcimer's were ji. My friend just came into possession of a Homer Ledfrod  she was told that it was originally built for Jean Ritchies sister that was almost fifty years ago. She got it for her 16 th birthday and only played if a few times  and put it away. So would I be correct in thinking that Homer used the ji scale? 

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
2 weeks ago
1,795 posts

Warren uses just intonation.  "Kentucky Scale" is marketing hype.

tssfulk
@tssfulk
2 weeks ago
8 posts

The dulcimer I'm looking at is from 1999 and has no 6 1/2 fret. The description includes : "Scale is Warren May’s later version which has good intonation and works well with noter playing in 1:5:5 tunings, but is not equal temperament."

tssfulk
@tssfulk
2 weeks ago
8 posts

Time to muddy things up even more. Is Warren May's Kentucky Scale true just temperament or a compromise between just and equal?

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
3 months ago
367 posts

Many thanks Ken and Don,

What I've learnt from all my experimenting is that a dulcimer (fretted zither) is not a guitar - the physics are very different.  So you can't draw inference from guitar making when building a fretted zither.  Playing style and set-up play a big part in how a fretted zither sounds.  Early Appalachian dulcimers worked as instruments because of the string gauges, set-up, tuning pitches and playing styles the early players used.  You don't need a big sound box made from thin and braced tone woods if you are using heavy strings tuned up to a good tension and played with a noter and stiff strummer.  And the instrument will ring out particularly well if the nut and bridge are at the ends.

Don Grundy
Don Grundy
@don-grundy
3 months ago
72 posts
Oh my! This is absolute proof that talent and musicianship....not the expensive instrument are the base for magnificent music! Thank you!
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
1,795 posts

Beautiful playing, as always, Robin.  Best darn fencepost I've heard in decades!!  Sure wish we could get you over here for a time... 

You're certainly right that making a darn good sounding instrument didn't take much effort if you know what you're doing.

Richard -- I don't honestly think selling a JI instrument "down the road" will be much of a problem as long as you mention the JI setup up front and advertise it as an instrument that's perfect for solo players.  

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
3 months ago
367 posts

There are advantages and disadvantages to every temperament - no one is going to be perfect for every situation.

However, I do like to play instruments where the frets are set by ear as I feel they are often the most well tempered (smoothest playing).

As an experiment I built a dulcimer a couple of weeks ago from a 2 3/4" by 2" fence post off-cut from a project I was doing in the garden.  It took me around about 90 minutes including making and setting the staple frets.  The underside has been hollowed out with a drill and chisel.

P1120677.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To set the frets I put on two strings (piano wire) and tuned them to the same note.  Using one as a reference I slid some broom wire under the other string until I found the points of least dissonance, marked the positions and then hammered in the staples.  I have ended up with just intonation.  And the instrument is perfectly in tune, which goes to show just how easy it would have been for old time dulcimer makers to produce perfectly well intonated instruments without any measurements or external tuning references.  Here are 3 tunes I've just recorded with the dulcimer sitting on a coffee table.

http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/xe201d2ico/fence_post_dulcimer_-_29_Aug_18.mp3

Robin

 

robert schuler
robert schuler
@robert-schuler
3 months ago
263 posts

Richard Streib:

I have one dulcimer with JI, one on order.  Had been thinking about maybe ordering a McSpadden as a custom with JI. My question becomes disposition when I no longer need it (age is moving along, faster as I get older). Will a JI instrument be difficult to sell since so many people play equal temperament?

Richard, I've built a number of JI dulcimers for people looking for the more traditional mountain dulcimer. There is a small market for them. Yes they are harder to sell.

My feeling on this is that as people develop their skills and appreciation for the instrument, they will be open to try new things. 

I think some people might be a little apprehensive going to a dulcimer club with a weird dulcimer since the last twenty years the emphasis has been playing a dulcimer like a guitar. I hope this changes someday.

I would disagree with Ken. With certain styles of music like old time fiddle tunes, the dulcimer fits well into the string band setting... Robert

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
1,795 posts

Disposition shouldn't be too difficult as long as you explain that a JI dulcimer is perfect for solo work, but not for playing with other instruments.  

Richard Streib
Richard Streib
@richard-streib
3 months ago
122 posts

I have one dulcimer with JI, one on order.  Had been thinking about maybe ordering a McSpadden as a custom with JI. My question becomes disposition when I no longer need it (age is moving along, faster as I get older). Will a JI instrument be difficult to sell since so many people play equal temperament?

robert schuler
robert schuler
@robert-schuler
3 months ago
263 posts

I've build half a dozen dulcimers with JI. I play in JI most of the time. If your going to Daa tuning now and then it's worth investing in a dedicated instrument. The tonal quality is worth it.

I agree with Robin, there are tweaking possibilities. I like to set the first and eight fret to harmonize with the open D as one example...Robert

tssfulk
@tssfulk
3 months ago
8 posts

Thanks for the link to the previous thread. Great stuff there.

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
1,795 posts

Thanks Robin -- looking forward to your insights.

Don --  Yes I'll post a playing sample and finished photos, probably next week as well.

Robin Clark
Robin Clark
@robin-clark
3 months ago
367 posts

I'll come back in on this thread next week when I have some time - I'm about to leave to go to run dulcimer workshops at a big music festival.

For me, the important aspect of JI in dulcimer history/making/playing is that it is where you end up if you fret a dulcimer by ear with no external references (such as a measured scale, copying another dulcimer or using some sort of tuner/reference notes).  And it is very easy to set fret accurately to JI by ear.  I've done it myself a number of times during dulcimer making workshops and demonstrations.

However it has limitations and there are actually two different 'by ear' just intonation fret positions you can end up with depending on whether you work from 1-5-5 or unison tuning as your base line.

Strumelia has recently pointed towards an old thread where this was discussed

https://fotmd.com/forums/forum/general-mountain-dulcimer-or-music-discussions/22594/just-intonation-and-limitations#r32089

My thinking has moved on a little since this discussion, having had more experience of making and playing alternate temperaments.

Ask any questions you like and I'll aim to come back and answer them early next week when I get back from the festival.

Robin

Don Grundy
Don Grundy
@don-grundy
3 months ago
72 posts
Ken Hulme, when you complete your project will you post pictures and a playing video?
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
1,795 posts

There aren't many builders who use, JI, and then only on request -- Dan Cox, Kevin Messinger, John Knopf and some of the other traditional-style dulcimer builders.  My current project is a mid 1800s fretted zither with JI scale and staple frets -- my first in both those categories.

tssfulk
@tssfulk
3 months ago
8 posts

That's what I was thinking. Maybe down the road I can think of getting an ionian and an aeolian dulcimer with just tuning. 

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
1,795 posts

Technically you would have to have a JI instrument fretted specifically for each Mode.

tssfulk
@tssfulk
3 months ago
8 posts

I haven't tried to analyze in my head too much, but if a dulcimer is in just temperament would it only work well with the melody strings tuned to the 5th of the scale—ionian (i.e., wouldn't the frets need be moved for dorian/myxo/aeolian)?