What makes a good Dulcimer by Roger Frood, Dove Dulcimers

Roger Frood is a dulcimer maker, running Dove Dulcimers in Somerset. This article first appeared in the Nonsuch Newsletter in 1993.

Over this year's festival season, I have often found myself giving advice to people who have bought dilapidated old dulcimers. The advice usually boils down to "Try to get your money back!". Also, in talking to prospective customers, I keep coming up against the old misconception that it is impossible to make a dulcimer that will stay in tune. The common theme here is that people don't seem to know what to look for in a new dulcimer or what to avoid in an old one. In short, what makes a good dulcimer, old or new.

New instruments usually have a maker's name, and that name will have a reputation, though every maker would agree that individual instruments vary, and so a good reputation is no guarantee of a good instrument. Of course, the expertise of makers grows with time, so I know that I would not now be proud of every instrument I have made in the past though I was doing my best at the time. If you are looking at an old instrument then it may well not have a good known name or anything else to help you judge how good it is. So, old or new, it is best to know how to make up your mind about the quality of the instrument.

Some general points

All dulcimers make a compromise between the conflicting requirements of the strength that is needed to support the tension of the strings and the flexibility wanted to provide response, tone and volume. Exactly where an instrument falls within that compromise represents choices that the maker made:
- always with a degree of guesswork;
- often unconsciously; and
- sometimes with complete reckless ignorance.

For the maker, the problem is that the response, tone and volume tend to improve as string tension rises, and to make a soundbox that will hold a ton of tension (or even two) in permanent equilibrium, you have to know what you are doing.
The problem is not the load of one ton, as such. That could be supported on the end of a block of soft wood half an inch square. The real problem is not stress but deflection, arising from the fact that the strings rise to cross the side bridges, and rise again to cross the main bridges. The rise of the strings pulls upwards on the pinblocks and presses down through the bridges, tending to bend the frame, twist the pinblocks and sheer the joints. The steeper the rise of the strings, the greater all these forces are (think of the difference between an archer's bow at rest, and at full stretch), and a lot of the structural faults in dulcimers can be seen to come from this source.

The next few sections outline a set of questions that you might like to ask when looking at a possible purchase.

Checklist - Structural

Is the frame straight or bowed?
Are the frame joints broken?
Is the soundboard flat?
Are there signs of extra bracing?
Are the bridges excessively high?

To see if the frame joints have moved, look for uneven surface where parts meet, gaps in the joints, signs of extra strengthening such as screws, brackets, plates etc. If the frame joints show any signs of having moved, then it will be difficult if not impossible to tune the instrument, and it will almost certainly not stay in tune.

Checklist - Tunability

Do the tuning pins turn too easily?
On an old dulcimer, are the tuning pins rusted solid?
Is there a tuning key?
Pins should be fairly tight to hold string tension, but should move freely when turned.
Are the bridges continuous?
Better than chessmen.
Are the bridges, especially the treble, in the right place?
Are the strings able to glide smoothly over the bridges during tuning?
Beware of tarnished strings, tall bridges that kink the strings, and narrow brass fretware on the bridges that the strings dig into.
Is it in tune at concert pitch? If not, when was it last kept in concert pitch and for how long?
An instrument that has been allowed to drop a whole tone below concert pitch will have to support 25% more tension when tuned up again.
Has it been tuned and played regularly? If not, why not?
Do the strings on each course run exactly parallel across the instrument?
If the courses, especially the trebles, are further apart at one end than the other, it can be difficult to get the fifths and unisons right.

Checklist - Tuning stability

Most important- Does the instrument have equal string tension?
I am talking about equal string tension within a tolerance of 10%; perfectly equal tension is impossible to obtain because of the steps between the different gauges of wire. Equal string tension means that all the strings move evenly when the temperature changes, so that the instrument will stay in tune with itself. Also, tone, volume, responsiveness and hammer bounce will all be more consistent. If you do not know of the instrument is designed to have equal string tension (all mine are), try to feel it. Press the strings with your fingertips at the bottom, middle and top of the range, you should be able to tell of they feel equally tight or not.
Are the strings neatly coiled on the tuning pins?
Inconstant and untidy stringing means that some strings have more 'give' than others, and tuning stability will suffer.

Checklist - Sounding good

Obviously, this topic involves some subjective judgement and taste, and what suits your needs will depend not only on what pleases your ear, but on the setting you want to play in - solo, pub session, dance band, rock group etc. You might find these questions helpful.
Does the instrument respond cleanly when played quietly?
Does it distort or sound harsh when played loudly?
Do you want an even tone over the whole range of the instrument, or do you want the tone of the treble and bass bridges differentiated?
Try playing single notes, evenly spaced and with a consistent light tap up and down the different scales and bridges. You may be surprised at how much the tone and volume can vary from one string to the next.
Is the tone a pleasant one that you would enjoy hearing when you are practising?

Finally

Finally, inspect the general level of workmanship, the neatness, the finish, and if there is anything that you are uneasy about, say so, and ask questions. To any competent woodworker, the dulcimer looks like an easy instrument to make and I have seen many homemade dulcimers that look reasonably good. However, to make a dulcimer that can support a ton of tension, stay in tune for a good while, and sound good as well, takes a fair amount of analysis, understanding, design refinement and experience. After that, the woodwork is relatively easy.

Copyright Roger Frood, 1993. All Rights reserved.