Almost everyone interested in playing, and owning, a dulcimer has seen that one instrument of their dreams. But, how to describe it, and get one like it can become a difficult matter.
Because of the unlimited choices available, I welcome on-line discussions, and phone calls, to help provide a better understanding of the dulcimer design types and available options.
This post will define the basic design elements, offer suggestions, and provide examples of the primary design types available.
Interested in a no-obligation quote? Try this easy-to-use -FORM- or read on to better understand Dulcimer Designs.
Common Dulcimer Design and performance features:
Shape - HOUR-GLASS has two lobes, smaller upper lobe for high notes, and larger lower lobe for low notes. TEAR-DROP has a tear-drop shaped lobe designed to blend the high and low notes for a softer sound. Eliptical is one lobe with the wide portion in the center. Similar to tear-drop in how it blends the high and low notes. BOX shaped dulcimers can provide a high or low sound depending on the box width and depth.
Wood selection - There are three primary characteristics to look for in wood selection. (1) Appearance - color, figure, strength, (2) Tone - clear, sharp, resilient, (3) Feel - smooth, course, grainy. There are many guides available for choosing the best wood for acoustic instruments, but most luthiers develop their own list based on their own experiences and design styles. It's hard to choose the "perfect" wood, so most instruments are a combination of wood types designed to bring together all the necessary characteristics. Curly Maple is beautifully figured but only average in tonal qualities. Black Walnut has tight, straight grain for great tonal qualities, but not necessarily attractive. Cherry has straight, tight grain, beautiful color, and can contain beautiful figure designs, making it my top all-around wood selection. Basically, wood selection almost always turns into a discussion of preferences.
Sound-holes - Things to consider: size, number, location, and shape. And, of course, all of these play their own part in the different dulcimer design shapes. Sound-holes release sound, and they also blend sound. Larger holes provide more volume, longer holes provide better sound quality. My favorite is the multi-hole design with varying size holes. This gives you volume, and nice tone.
Fret-board - Things to consider: width, height, VSL length, and number of frets. Normal width is 1 3/8" to 1 5/8" determined by the size of your hands, and number of strings installed. Normal height is 5/8" to 1". Chorders tend to prefer the lower 5/8" while noters the higher 3/4". Box dulcimers may use 1" for better reach on table-top play. Vibrating String Length (VSL) measures the distance between the nut and bridge. The two VSL's I offer are the standard 26 1/2", and long 28". One thing to consider is hand size. The longer the VSL, the further separated are the frets. And, the last fret-board item to consider are the number of frets installed. Example, the standard 26 1/2" VSL has 15 frets (includes the 0-fret). That number does not contain any half-frets. Since the 6 1/2 fret has become almost a standard, it is included in bothe of my VSL designs. SO, what are half-frets? I could go on for weeks and never describe half-frets any better that found -HERE- on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer. No matter, when ordering a dulcimer, you will need to consider the possible addition of half-frets. The 6 1/2 will most likely already be included.
Strings - Many music companies sell Dulcimer strings, but guitar and banjo strings also work well, depending on the gauges needed. Lighter gauges; .009. 010. 011 are used for the melody string(s), medium gauges; .012 - .016 are used for the melody and middle strings, and heavier gauge; .022 - .026 used of the bass string. Light gauge for high tone, heavy gauge for low tone. One item to conside for gauge selection is the desired tuning mode and the tension needed for each string. The two most popular tuning modes, DAD, and DAA, can use any of the listed string gauges for the strings specified.
Head Design - Scroll-head vs. flat-head. The scroll-head is more traditional, where the flat-head is guitar-like. The flat-head is prefered for ease of string replacement, but that also depends on the scroll-head design in question. My scroll-head design is see-through allowing for easy string replacement.
Tuners - Four primary types; (1) Open-gear, (2) Closed-face, (3) Friction-peg, and (4) Zither-pin. Prices and quality for the first three vary from the economy verions up to very expensive ornate models. It is possible, however, to find quality tuners at very reasonable prices, and vice-versa. The Open-gear and Closed-face are offset in that the tuning arm is at a 90-degree angle to the tuning knob. This design is the most commonly used for most stringed instruments. Friction-peg is a "straight-through" design depending on arm drag to maintain string tension. These represent a throw-back to the traditional wooden peg designs, and tend to be problematic. Zither-pins are similar to the pins used to tune pianos, but usually a bit smaller. The are popular in the more traditional multi-string instruments such as hammer dulcimers, zithers, hummels (hommels), and scheitholts.