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Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please

Charmion 10 Jun 10 - 08:24 AM
Myrtle's cook 10 Jun 10 - 10:37 AM
Geoff the Duck 10 Jun 10 - 11:05 AM
Charmion 10 Jun 10 - 11:46 AM
JohnInKansas 10 Jun 10 - 01:15 PM
JohnInKansas 10 Jun 10 - 01:25 PM
GUEST,Songbob 10 Jun 10 - 01:34 PM
Charmion 10 Jun 10 - 02:33 PM
Bernard 10 Jun 10 - 07:19 PM
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Subject: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Charmion
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 08:24 AM

Edmund and I recently acquired a mountain dulcimer of uncertain age, but recently enough built that it has a clear plastic pick-guard -- not an antique. The vendor assured us that it came from a good maker and it looks nice and sounds good when you strum the open strings. Not knowing a durn thing about dulcimers, we decided to get a book and give it a whirl.

It came with four strings -- a melody course, a single middle string and the bass -- so I bought two sets of four dulcimer strings, telling the apparently expert guy at the music store that I wanted to tune the instrument in D, which somebody told me was a good key for a dulcimer.

We bought Jean Ritchie's book and the "Complete Dulcimer Book" from the ubiquitous Mel Bay. Both have clear instructions on how to string and tune a mountain dulcimer. After 40 years of playing things with strings and frets, I considered myself qualified to do the business.

The first melody string went on fine. Then I began to encounter problems. The second melody string is so taut that I am reluctant to tune it above C, rather limiting our tuning options. Is this instrument not suited to a pair of melody strings?

When I started to tune up the new middle string, using an electronic tuner on the headstock, I found that it tends sharp above about the third fret and by the sixth-and-a-halfth fret is nearly half a tone adrift. If this were a guitar, a banjo or a mandolin, I would suspect a problem with the placement of the bridge.

O Wisdom of Mudcat, what do you think?

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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Myrtle's cook
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 10:37 AM

SOunds like there could be a number of possible solutions, based on a number of possible issues...

- the pattern used for marking out the frets may have been innacurate due to poor copying from a source, or unsuited to actual scale length of the instrument. This seems a little unlikely given that your first melody string went on OK and presumably remains true up and down the fret board.

- you have an unusually long or short scale. I don't think this should make a difference, but I have a shorter scale duclimer that just doesn't work in D-A-D tuning (whatever weight of string used) - nasty sharps all over the place - but tuned in E and F it is fine. It have heard it said that the more usual D-A-D tuning is to high for a man to sing to and too low for a woman's voice. I wonder if my hand made and unlabelled instrument was made for to accompany a higher voice - and perhaps yours?

Hoep this is of some help.

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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Geoff the Duck
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 11:05 AM

Hi Charmion,
As for the question of the bridge positioning, the standard maths for any stringed instrument is that, at the same tension, a string of half the length gives an octave higher note. In other words, for any string, a point exactly half way between the nut and bridge produces a note one octave higher than the open string. You can measure the half way point using a tape measure, and check that the fret, which ought to give an octave, matches the position. You should also be able to produce a harmonic from the string at the same point.
Sometimes if the action of the string is very high, when you press the string down to the fretboard, the string is stretched to a point that the note is sharpened, and out of tune.

As for other questions, the dimensions of the instrument may affect the answers. The scale length is relevant to maximum string tension for tuning, so it may be worth measuring distance from bridge to nut and posting the length here. If the "neck" is over long, you may not be able to tune as high as you would like.


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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Charmion
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 11:46 AM

Geoff, I think you may have identified the problem -- overly high action. I wonder if I should take an Exacto knife to the notches in the bridge, or perhaps engage the services of somebody who actually knows what s/he's doing with an Exacto knife when meddling with the bridge ...

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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 01:15 PM

The highest and lowest strings are most generally tuned an octave apart, with the "melody" string (2-string course) nearest your body being the higher one.

The high "melody" string is usually a double course - two strings tuned the same.

The middle string is tuned to a note within the octave between the other two so it should be lower than the "melody" course strings, but higher than the "drone" (lowest) string farthest from your body.

If you attempt to tune the middle string to the a above the d melody string, the string will be fairly likely to break.

If you have tuned the middle string an "octave high" and it hasn't broken, it may be so near the "yeld point" that it will stretch and permanently lengthen each time you press it against the frets. With the string becoming longer (and thinner) as you play, keeping that string in tune will be impossible.

Using the notation to show which octave each note is in for an ascending scale:

A B C D E F G a b c d e f g a' b' c' d' e' f' g'

the common lap dulcimer tuning is D a d (and not D a' d).

The original description of the second string being at very high tension suggests that you may have tried to tune that string an octave too high.

For D-A-D tuning, on the lowest (D) string, the frets should be at D E F# G a b c (c#) d etc.

(Not all lap dulcimers have the c# fret - called the "six and a half" fret, although most recently made ones probably do. Some have an additional "one and a half" fret at F, but it's unlikely most sellers would fail to point one out if it was on a dulcimer they had for sale.)

The middle string should be tuned to the pitch you get by fingering at the fourth fret on the low string. The "high string" would be an octave above the lowest one.

A "classic" dulcimer - without the 6-1/2 fret - has the frets placed so that you play a minor scale if you start at the open string. To play a major scale you must start with the third fret.

With the 6-1/2 fret you can play a major scale from the open string, using the 6-1/2 fret instead of the 6th fret.

General hint for metal stringed instruments: If turning the knob to increase the pitch doesn't increase the pitch - or increases it less than expected - you're probably an octave too high and the string is about to break.


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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 01:25 PM

DON'T take an Xacto knife to the bridge!

1. There is no "bridge" on a lap dulcimer of the common kinds. There is an upper nut and a lower nut. The sound is transmitted into the body of the dulcer either by the two nuts (for an open string) or through the lower nut and whichever fret is fingered.

2. Most lap dulcimers don't have either nut glued in. Both are held in place by the strings, and if you remove the strings you should be able to gently pry/pull them out. They should be quite tightly fitted, but should not be glued. A very few builders have been known to use glue, but this is just to disguise poor workmanship.

To lower the action you would shave a bit off the bottom of the nut you want to lower. (Sandpaper on a flat surface is the usual method.) This allows you to "undo" when you figure out you didn't really want to maim your instrument - by putting a thin shim under the nut to raise it back up.


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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: GUEST,Songbob
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 01:34 PM

Essentially, if you want to play in D, tune your melody string to the A below that, so that D lies on the third fret. Your middle string should also be A, and the low string D. I use three banjo 1st strings and a banjo 4th in tuning a three-course D dulcimer. There are other ways of tuning, but that's my basic one.

If you tune to D-A-D, as above, you end up with a G dulcimer (3d fret of the melody string is G).

If you use the 6 1/2 fret (if it's there) you can tune D-A-D, and still get a major scale, but you start with "Doe" and have no lower note. Many songs have the Doe note in the middle of the tune's architecture, some notes higher, some lower, so you're limiting yourself if you use that tuning for D.

And by the way, the open scale without the 6 1/2 fret is NOT minor, but the well-known Mixolydian mode (flat 7th note as compared to the major -- Ionian mode -- key).

Hope this helps.


PS How's the mandolin coming? Is the maker going to fix it?

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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Charmion
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 02:33 PM

Hi, Bob:

I tuned the dulcimer D-a-dd because that's what the Mel Bay book says to do. I'll try your way, which sounds like what Jean Ritchie suggests but she's not as clear in her explanation as you are.

As for my mandolin ... The maker agreed that it is severely, possibly terminally, ill. His first proposal was a straight swap for a similarly Gibson-A4-ish instrument built in 2009 with walnut back and sides and a top of Adirondack spruce. A couple of days later he modified the proposal suggesting that he lend me the walnut-and-spruce mando while he repairs my original instrument.

After discussions with a local strings-n-frets genius I decided that Adirondack spruce is more reliable than redwood -- all those fiddle makers can't be wrong -- and opted for the first proposal.

The replacement mando arrived by mail on Monday and we're getting used to each other now. It's actually a bit easier to play, with a more rounded back to the neck so it's easier to brace my thumb for closed chords.

I loved that redwood mandolin and I'm still working on accepting that it doesn't *feel* rejected ...

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Subject: RE: Dulcimer tuning issue? Expertise, please
From: Bernard
Date: 10 Jun 10 - 07:19 PM

I've always tuned my Sobell to dD a aa, as many tunes start 'so - do' as Bob suggests. I've never seen the Mel Bay book, though I would normally expect their tutors to give good advice.

Mine has five strings, and the 'bass' string is doubled to the octave, giving it an unusually rich sound. Pete Coe has one the same as mine, but I've never really taken any notice how he has it strung.

The 'bridge nut' isn't in a slot, but is moveable, rather like on a banjo but made from a flat piece of bone with a raised ridge, to allow for differences in strings, which seems a good idea to me!

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