Most musicians I admire understand music theory. They may understand music theory intuitively or they may have formally studied the theory of music but either way they know what is going on. These musicians may or may not be able to articulate what they are doing or thinking musically but they can tell if a note sounds right or wrong, hear underlying rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns, and have the ability to express themselves with a large pallet of musical colors to choose from.
In current dulcimer culture there are a relatively small number of players who embrace the idea that the mountain dulcimer has strings and frets that produce notes; a majority of players think of strings and frets as lines and numbers on the tablature they play from.
Tablature offers quick gratification; you tune the dulcimer, put your fingers where the paper tells you, and music comes out of the dulcimer. This is a valid approach to playing the dulcimer enjoyed by many players.
If a dulcimer player prefers to have a broader understanding of why the tablature tells you to put your fingers in certain places they will need to learn the theory and structure behind the arrangement. Once this structure is understood the dulcimer player can generalize the information and begin to see and hear coherent patterns in other tunes they play. This in turn makes learning to play by ear much simpler; music becomes rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic (harmony, chords) patterns rather than appearing to be a random assemblage of rhythm and pitch.
In 40 years of teaching dulcimer very few students have wanted to take this plunge. When teaching classes on how music theory applies to the dulcimer usually half the people in the room have said they didn’t learn anything. In this context “not learning anything” usually means they didn’t leave the class with tablature and a new song under their belt. About a quarter of the people usually say they got some interesting ideas from the class. The last quarter usually get excited and say they finally understand how the dulcimer works as an instrument and they have ideas on how their playing can grow beyond current limits.
There is no right or wrong way of playing the dulcimer. If you want to play from tablature and feel musically fulfilled then there is no need to go further. If you want a better understanding of how music works, if you want to learn melodies by ear and would like to know what chords will work with a particular melody and want to be able to converse with other musicians about musical ideas then getting a basic grasp on music theory will open many doors for you.
My only formal training in music theory took place during my first year of high school. Compared to many musicians my knowledge of music theory is fairly basic. Still, this knowledge was enough to enable me to learn to play the dulcimer and hammered dulcimer. I was able to learn and understand how dulcimers worked as musical instruments and find my way around them.
There are many books available on basic music theory and I link to one available on line for free to help you get started.
This afternoon I was planing some cherry dulcimer fretboard blanks flat and true. These pieces of cherry had been rough-sawn, squared up and left a little oversized quite some time ago. The wood has had plenty of time to release stresses and further season before becoming part of a dulcimer.
Wood is designed to keep trees alive and trees don’t always think of how they will be used after they die. This can be annoying because sometimes a perfect piece of wood will be difficult to work. “Take that!” says the dead tree.
These cherry fretboards had some interlocking grain. This means there are areas on the board where grain direction is almost irrelevant. These areas are hard to plane smooth without some spots of grain tearing out.
To the rescue comes an old #12 scraper plane.
This tool holds a scraper square and true and allows for fine adjustment of the angle and depth of cut. This scraper plane will take off fine shavings regardless of grain direction and leaves a smooth, flat surface in it’s wake.
Here’s a shot of the setup I use for planing or scraping fretboard and fingerboard stock. The heart of the setup is an oak beam that is planed true and flat. It has a bench stop at one end and clamps to the bench top. This gives me a true surface for planing and also raises the height of the work a few inches to make planing more comfortable.
The air conditioner in my shop died a few days ago.
Aside from keeping the shop from feeling like a literal sweatshop the air conditioner also removes excessive humidity from the Summer air.
Wood is hygroscopic and it is best to make dulcimers in a stable, humidity-controlled environment. The humidity level in my shop is kept at around 45% year round. A dulcimer built at around 45% humidity should remain stable when exposed to higher and lower humidity within reason. Even so, a dulcimer will be happier if it is kept as close to the conditions of the environment in which it was made.
It is important to use a humidifier to keep your dulcimer happy during the dry Winter months when the heat is on or all year round if you live in a desert. A simple instrument humidifier kept in the case is all that is needed. If you like to keep your dulcimers out of their cases then a room humidifier will make both your dulcimers and sinuses happy.
Wood loses moisture much faster than it absorbs moisture and a dulcimer can dry out, crack, warp, and scream for mercy relatively quickly if kept in an overly dry environment. High humidity is usually not as much of an issue on a short term basis but extremes should be avoided.
As a general rule, if you are comfortable then your dulcimer is comfortable.
Last night my wife Cynthia and I bought another air conditioner. When we got home I was too tired to help with installing it. Today Cynthia came home during her lunch break at work to do the heavy lifting of getting the new air conditioner into a window. Cynthia has a good back and I do not. She knew I wanted to get the shop back in working order as soon as possible. Talk about selfless acts of love!
I am a happy and lucky man.
I’ve started work on several dulcimers as the finish cures on another. A finish “drying” and a finish “curing” are two very different things. Many craftspeople learn this difference the hard way at some time in their careers; what seemed to be a dry finish turns out to be dry to the touch but not really hard and permanent. One finds fingerprints in the finish after handling or worse, finish sticks to the inside of a case, rubbing out the finish produces a gummy mess rather than the expected level of sheen, etc. It is one of the initiatory experiences that comes with learning a craft.
In the photograph is a toothing plane on a walnut dulcimer back. Toothing planes have a serrated or “toothed” edge and the blade is set at a very high angle. The toothing plane scrapes and cuts many small shavings and can be pushed with the grain, against the grain, and across the grain without tearing up the wood. Toothing planes make quick work of leveling and flattening wood with tricky grain and figure. They are also very useful when planing thin wood. The serrated lines left on the wood serve as a map showing which areas are flat and which need more attention.
After flattening the surface with the toothing plane I take down the ridges with a smoothing plane or a scraper. On historic instruments traces of a toothing plane having been used can sometimes be seen inside the body of the instrument. This indicates that the outside surface was smoothed and then the thickness was taken down on the inside surface where tool-marks would not be obvious and did not matter.
I do use some common woodworking machines to relieve the drudgery of some tasks and to help prevent wear-and-tear on my body, which is showing signs of wear-and-tear. Still, I do as much as I can by hand because it is how I prefer to work. Sometimes I thickness wood partly by hand and partly by running it through a machine. Sometimes I choose one method or the other. It keeps life interesting.
Zampogna and harp duo
I don’t have a standard pattern for dulcimer back braces. I don’t have a standard pattern for bracing dulcimer soundboards either. The bracing pattern, number of braces, and size of the braces depends on the sound I am after and the wood involved. It would be easier and faster to standardize things but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I also find the results I get from taking the long route make a big difference in the sound of the dulcimer.
In the photograph above you can see the four planes I use to dimension the back braces. The braces are brought to approximate size and then shaped after being glued to the back. This dulcimer back has three spruce cross braces and a Spanish Cedar reinforcement over the center joint.
After getting the braces roughly to shape I do most of the final shaping with a paring chisel. In the photograph below you can see the paring chisel and the cute little shaving it makes. You can also see what a neat and highly organized workbench looks like.
After using the paring chisel the shaping of the braces is complete, though sometimes I will sand the braces as in the completed back shown below; it just depends on what I feel like doing. Sometimes I prefer the crisp, clean lines left by edge tools, other times I go for the smooth and rounded look left by sanding.
Next comes fitting the braces into the side linings and gluing the back to the sides.