Bocs Cân Idris – A new traditional instrument!

Robin Clark
10/05/18 08:15:22AM






I'm running a fretted zither making project at present in our village and have around half a dozen local folks designing and building instruments based loosely on the Appalachian mountain dulcimer and/or the European fretted zithers.

As part of the project I have designed and built an instrument myself – and it has been an interesting experience!

The criteria I had from the outset were a little complex and it was a challenge to turn the concepts I had in my head into pragmatic reality; consequently, the instrument evolved as I went through the design and building stages. Although I have little practical experience of making mountain dulcimers/fretted zithers (or woodworking for that matter!) I do have a very good understanding of how and why fretted zithers design features work and a strong knowledge of these instrument's history. Most crucially however, I approached the whole concept from a player's perspective. At the end of the day this was to be a pragmatic instrument for playing Welsh folk music at pub sessions. So here are the design features (in no particular order).

The Music – Welsh folk music has a lot of dance tunes, often played in 3 tune sets that modulate between D and G. So that was the challenge. To build an instrument that could play a set of Welsh dance tunes and would fit into a Welsh twmpath band.

The Name – “Bocs C â n Idris” literally means “Idris's song box” in the Welsh language. Idris was a Welsh prince who won a battle against the Irish on the slopes of Cadair Idris (whish means Idris's seat or stronghold). Cadair Idris is the mountain behind our village so I felt that Bocs C â n Idris was a very suitable name for this new traditional Welsh instrument. Once I had the name I just had to build an instrument to match!

The “Welsh Dresser” Design – I had the idea in mind that the instrument should look at home on a Welsh dresser; a large piece of furniture that you'd find in a local Welsh farmhouse around here – And I thought it should look like an upturned dresser draw! This bought me to having it opened backed like a Hungarian citera and many other European fretted zithers that are built for table top playing. I wasn't sure what the effect would be of not having a back on the instrument. Also I needed pretty thick sides, very thick ends and quite a thick top to give the strength for all those strings. And having two fretboards would perhaps stop anything vibrating well? However, to my surprise (although I had a hunch), the sound is loud and resonant; not just when played on a table but also when the instrument is resting on my lap. In fact, this is a very loud instrument despite it's design going totally against the conventional understanding of dulcimer building. It could be that the iroko (used for African drum making) and sapele (also extensively used for musical instrument making) are punching well above their weight but I think that there's more to it than that. Dulcimer makers take note – if you think we understand how a dulcimer works then think again!!! I'd me more than happy to discuss theories around this if you leave a comment or question.

The Woods – My choice of woods was purely opportunistic. When I first started thinking about the project I had no preference except that the wood needed to be reclaimed, and have some meaningful previous history if possible. A few weeks ago we were helping clear the garden and cut firewood for a close friend whose husband passed away this year. I found in her wood shed an old kitchen work surface that had been removed from the farmhouse more than 15 years ago and was most probably originally installed in the 1960s. It was made from iroko, and whilst it was not in a good state I reckoned that I could use at least some of it. Another friend has a very large industrial band saw, a table saw and a heavy duty thicknesser. He taught me how to use the equipment and I cut the boards I wanted. It was a great afternoon of learning new skills and ending up with high quality instrument making wood boards. The two fretboards are sapele off-cuts from a kitchen fitting he was working on himself at the time that he donated to the project. The little round feet I shaped from a walnut dowel rod that's been lurking in a draw for a good few years.

The Fretboards - My original idea was just to have a single fretboard but I wanted to be able to modulate between the keys of D and G. I could do that by tuning all the strings to D like on a Galax dulcimer but I already have Galax dulcimers (that I have used at Welsh folk tune sessions) and was looking for another solution with a broader overall tone. So I decided on having two fretboards. The next question was how far apart do the fretboards need to be to be playable in noter drone style. The answer was too wide to make a reasonably sized instrument (if I was playing from DAd chord melody the answer would have been different). However, if I turned one of the fretboards on edge so the further one was slightly higher than the closer one I could easily use a noter on both. I decided that I would tune the now thinner and higher fretboard up to G and have a single melody string as the fretboard reminded me of the ones I have on my Mawhee and Ratliff dulcimers both in high G. And I would have a double melody string on the closer and lower fretboard in D. This should give really different responses from the two fretboards – and it has. To make the fretboards more resonant I routed them out. To do so I had to learn how to use a plunge router – so another new skill was gained!

The Frets - A couple of design points here. Firstly, as a noter drone player I tend to wear grooves in nickel guitar frets quite quickly; I find that old style steel staple frets last better. I had some 1.2mm stainless steel wire tucked away in a draw and so decided to use that to make the staple frets. I decided on setting them in just intonation rather than equal temperament because a. I prefer the sound when playing noter drone and b. Having read up on sympathetic drones I discovered they work best when a melody is in just intonation intervals.

The Sympathetic Drones – This was a wild card. I noticed that sometimes I'd play guitar or banjo and one of my dulcimers hanging on the wall would sing back. So I thought I'd try adding sympathetic drones internally within this build. I experimented by resting dulcimers on each other and playing them and noticing which strings resonated sympathetically. I found out that wound strings seemed to pick up the vibrations easier than plain gauge strings and also they gave out more harmonics. I worked out that for the tunings I was using I would get the most harmonic resonance by using sympathetic drones in D, A and G made from wound strings set at as close to their perfect tension as possible (ie a string gauge that would be not too tight or too loose). I decided on 7 drones – 3 in D, 2 in A, and 2 in G. To give them the best possible chance of resonating I set them close to the sound board and used 3mm brass wire strips as the nut and bridge. They seem to work very well and provide the instrument with a bigger voice, particularly by sounding harmonics above the played notes giving a really lush sound. It is very different to having drones that are strummed – sympathetic drones are not loud or dominant. They sound just like adding electronic reverb to your dulcimer playing, which is great for me as I use reverb on my recordings or amp if playing live – these sympathetic drones do exactly the same job acoustically.

The Tuners – Zither pins were pretty much the only way to go and keep the basic box shape.

The Pick-ups – I've not fitted the pick-ups yet but have a couple of Schatten piezo bars to stick on the underside of the soundboard and have drilled and threaded a hole for the jack. I'm not sure when I'll use the pick-ups as I think the instrument will mic' really well for live gigs, and predominantly it will be played acoustically at sessions.

The Set-Up – I'm still playing around with the string gauges and general set-up. As you can see from the pictures I have build the lower fretboard to take a melody string pair but I am leaning more towards just running just a single melody string on both fretboards because it is slightly easier to play at speed and provides a more precise sound (suiting my playing style). My string gauges are quite high compared to the average DAd player's set-up. The melody strings are 0.016 on the DAA fretboard and 0.014 on the Gdd fretboard. These fire a lot of energy into the body of the instrument.

The Little Details – The edge of the fretboards beyond the bridges are protected with inserts of dear horn that a friend found – the nuts are bone but, now I have the right sizing, I may make some out of the deer horn I have left. The bridges are iroko – I went for a hard wood rather than bone to take some 'edge' off the tone. The positioning of the three walnut feet give a stable platform for playing the two fretboards – I experimented with positioning to get the best stability I could. The sides are inset into the end blocks to take the compression of the strings. I used Osmo Top Oil in matt as a finish (a mix between waxes and natural oils for kitchen worktops and children's toys!).

The Sound and Playability - It sounds very full and the two fretboards are quite different in tone as well as pitch – it is like playing an organ with different stops pulled for each keyboard. As I said above, the sympathetic drones add reverb behind the melody and main drones. It seems quite subtle until you damp the sympathetic drones when you realise just how much work they are actually doing! With single melody strings and with the instrument set on a table the playability is very straightforward, switching between the fretboard is simple and they do not get in the way of each other at all. Will it work for playing at Welsh tune sessions? Well, I'll just have to learn some tunes and then give it go down at the pub!!!!

Here is a short sound sample of the instrument. The first tune is Bwlch Llanberis played on the DAA fretboard and the second Y Delyn Newydd played on the Gdd fretboard.

Bocs Can Idris Sample