by Steve Eulberg
We are fortunate to live in the midst of a sustained dulcimer revival!
I used to host a list of builders across the North American Continent on my www.owlmountainmusic.com website. John Sackenheim had begun compiling that in the late 1990s. The list grew so large and had so many additions that it eventually became outdated and I let it return to the dust.
Today, not only are there kits available for you to build your own, there are a good number of quality builders who have refined the process and are able to make instruments that are reliably good from instrument to instrument and who stand behind their work.
In addition, there are also a good number craft or artisan builders who focus on building to order or one-of-a-kind instruments.
Finally, there is an active re-selling market from people who are trading up, trading down or simply desirous of others playing the instruments.
Here are the criteria I use and suggest to my students when they ask me what they should look for in purchasing a mountain dulcimer.
1. Beware of DSOs! (Dulcimer-Shaped-Objects)
At the beginning of the dulcimer revival in the late 1960s and 1970s many people began building instruments that were shaped like dulcimers but were ultimately unplayable. How can you be sure you DON’T have one of these?
a. The fretboard is straight and doesn’t wave from side-to-side or up and down.
b. The frets play true. (You can play the major scale from frets 3 to 10 and it sounds in tune.
c. The tuning pegs or tuning gears are not stuck and can actually change the pitches of the strings, so the instrument is tunable.
d. There are no buzzing frets.
If these criteria are met and you have some other issues, they are probably easy and inexpensive fixes. Sometimes you can find an old treasure, but remember that you might have to sift through several that are better used as wall art than as musical instruments to find these.
2. Vibrating String Length (VSL)
This is the length of the string from the nut (near the tuning gears) to the bridge. Different builders tend to prefer different lengths. Some are as long as 28”, some as short are 24-3/16”. The VSL affects the dulcimer’s playing because the placement of the frets is based on mathematical measurements that divide the fretboard. The longer the VSL, the further the low frets (by the nut) are from each other and the greater stretch is required by the players’ fingers. The shorter the VSL, the closer the low frets are to each other. Players with shorter fingers or a shorter reach sometimes prefer the shorter VSL for ease in playing.
3. Soundboard (top) wood choice.
Generally a softer wood (tonewood) is chosen for the soundboard (or top) of the dulcimer when the player desires a warmer tone. spruce or cedar are common choices. Some players prefer a brighter or thinner tone and prefer hardwoods: walnut, maple, or cherry. This is a preference that is different from player to player.
4. The Body of the instrument.
a. Shape: the two most common are hourglass or teardrop shape. Some people describe tonal differences that are the result of the body shape. In my experience, when playing standing up and reaching over the top of the instrument, the teardrop is easier to maneuver. When sitting down, either is just fine.
b. Wood choice for sides and back. There are a great many options here that have less immediate influence on the voice of the dulcimer, but can have effect on the shading or coloring of the instrument’s tone.
c. Depth of Sides. In my experience, instruments with a deeper body can have a deeper tone or voice. The resonating chamber is larger in volume.
d. Placement of the bridge. In older, traditional instruments the bridge is placed at or near the tail of the instrument. Some contemporary builders are moving the bridge away from the tailpiece and directly over the soundboard to create a more articulated, guitar-sound. Some people prefer this option.
e. Ebony overlay on the fretboard. Having a hardwood, like ebony, on the fretboard reduces the friction from the player’s left hand. Some people prefer this option.
I generally counsel people to buy as much dulcimer as you can afford. I have found many more people who spent less money and were dissatisfied with the results than the other way around. This is an investment in your musical journey and self-discovery.
Remember, Looks aren’t everything! Sometimes the instruments that have proven to be the most playable and have the sweetest tone did NOT look like I thought I preferred. There have been other ones that are gorgeous eye-candy, but did not satisfy my tone preference.
Your best bet is to play as many different instruments as you can! If you are fortunate to have a dealer or a store nearby, play everything they have. If you have friends or a club or a festival that you can attend, ask other players what they do and don’t like about their instruments. And ask if you can play their instruments, too. (They are often busting buttons of pride when they get asked this question!)
[Full Disclosure: Having won many of their instruments that I continue to play all the time, I became a McSpadden Dealer, and if would be glad to help you find the right one for your musical adventures! Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org]