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Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound

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Steve Parkes 28 Jan 03 - 06:57 AM
JohnInKansas 28 Jan 03 - 05:15 AM
Mark Cohen 28 Jan 03 - 02:49 AM
JohnInKansas 27 Jan 03 - 10:58 PM
Steve Parkes 27 Jan 03 - 12:30 PM
GUEST,leeneia 27 Jan 03 - 12:17 PM
catspaw49 26 Jan 03 - 02:06 PM
Cornflake 26 Jan 03 - 01:46 PM
JohnInKansas 26 Jan 03 - 02:56 AM
Charlie Baum 26 Jan 03 - 01:31 AM
Arkie 26 Jan 03 - 01:06 AM
catspaw49 25 Jan 03 - 11:00 PM
Cornflake 25 Jan 03 - 10:51 PM
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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Steve Parkes
Date: 28 Jan 03 - 06:57 AM

... but not as good as a banjo.

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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 28 Jan 03 - 05:15 AM

And it must be noted that the teardrop shape does make a better canoe paddle.


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Mark Cohen
Date: 28 Jan 03 - 02:49 AM

For the traditionalists, you can combine Cornflake's and 'Spaw's methods with the standard technique, as follows:

1. Place a guitar on the kitchen table. (string side up)
2. While holding the dulcimer firmly on your lap,
3. sit on the guitar.

Note: Although you might be tempted to use an Ovation guitar for this, you do run the risk of a serious neck injury. Yours.


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 27 Jan 03 - 10:58 PM

For those brave enough to perform in public, there is - sort of - a "best of both worlds" between the traditional and the modern world of noise.

Several of the "name" makers will equip a very trad designed lap dulcimer with an inconspicuous internal pickup, so that you can "plug in" when you want to be louder. Just be advised that the pickup can just about double the price on a lower-range instrument.

My own family dulcimist has had trouble being heard at sessions. (Mostly a complaint of others who want to hear what she's doing - she's more inclined toward not wanting them to hear her). I rigged a "clip on" pickup (from somebody's junkbox) so she could plug in - so now the complaint is that she refuses to turn the amp up enough to be heard. At least now she doesn't complain about not being loud enough, since she can choose her own level.

If you're only worried about "participation levels" at small jams, you can actually get at least "fair" results with one of those little clip-on pickups people use with their electronic tuners - plugged into a $39 karaoke box from WallyWorld. The tone won't be the greatest, but the other instruments tend to "cover" the nuances anyhow; and you can "amp-up" just enough so that your accomplicesassociates can tell where you are in the melody. It probably won't make you feel like a "star," but it may make it easier for your buddies to play with you.


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Steve Parkes
Date: 27 Jan 03 - 12:30 PM

Back in the 70s, we found we had a dulcimer player hiding her light under a bushel (Marilyn Fecher, sometime of Rhode Island, I think: I wonder what happened to her?). Her instrument was very quiet when played in a big room full of people, and I suggested a nuymber of modifications to the design to improve the volume. The main one was to use a flying fretboard like a violin fingerboard, which would be attached only at the nut end, so no compressive force to warp it; and have a proper bridge to transmit the sound to the top of the soundbox. You can probably imagine the response I got! I think I'd invented the viol di grembo. I know that traditional dulcimer is meant to be quiet, as it's played indoors; it's more entertaining than watching tv, and won't annoy the neighbours (who are probably joining in anyway).


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 27 Jan 03 - 12:17 PM

Simple techniques:

I made a holder out of dowels and paint-stirrers to keep the dulcimer from being pressed into the softness of my lap and clothing. It helps.

Also, try using a thumbpick, which brings out the melody. I use plastic thumbpicks for this.

Keep the dulcimer truly in tune, using a tuner or tuning fork, as the whole instrument is designed to respond to certain frequencies. I learned this when I got my first guitar tuner and tuned my guitar exactly right. It was suddenly much louder than before.

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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: catspaw49
Date: 26 Jan 03 - 02:06 PM

Corny, you can get an even bigger boost by just laying the thing on the kitchen table! The fretboard as I said, is the critical piece which John goes on to explain.


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Cornflake
Date: 26 Jan 03 - 01:46 PM

Thanks very much for all the responses.

John, your explanation suggests the answer to why I get such a boost in volume from the dulcimer when I place it on a guitar's soundboard rather than on my lap to play. (An impractical arrangement except for experiments.)

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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 26 Jan 03 - 02:56 AM

The mountain or lap dulcimer is a very traditional instrument whose popularity has come from simplicity and - please no immediate howls of rage - low expectations. As usually constructed, it violates just about every rule in the book; and if you try to apply too many "rules" you end up with something not quite a dulcimer - at least to the traditionalists.

The tone you'll get depends quite simply on the internal volume and the total cross-section area of the holes you put in it. The bigger the internal volume, the bigger you can make the holes. The bigger the holes, to some extent, the louder it will be. Unfortunately, if you make the holes bigger to get more volume, it is quite easy to "de-tune" the thing so it sounds more like you're beating on a log than playing music.

Of course, to get sound out of the holes, they have to be "pumped" by flexure of some - preferably large - surface of the box. The traditional method of gluing the fingerboard solidly, along its full length, to the top of the box (we don't call it a soundboard at this point) ties the "best available" pumping surface into a rigid bar.

A traditonal lap dulcimer has no bridge in any conventional sense. The string can transmit vibration into the nut, or into the fret that you press it against. Either of these points is far too rigid to "move" in the conventional construction, so the sound must be transmitted as a "conduction wave" through the wood until it hits something that can bend.

You can make a significantly louder dulcimer - all things else being equal - simply by relieving the bottom of the fingerboard so that it contacts the top of the box at only one, or a few, localized points, thereby actually letting the top of the box move (in flexure) more freely. Moving the nut an inch or two out onto the top of the box, with a small contact directly under it should also help some.

Be aware that gluing the fingerboard down, as in the conventional configuration, contributes a lot more than one might expect to the stiffness of the fingerboard. If you leave it unattached (localized attachemts), you will need to add a lot of thickness to the fingerboard to keep it from warping under string tension. (Because its not uniform in thickness if you relieve much under it, the fingerboard won't just bend - it will assume some obscene and unexpected shape guaranteed to make fingering a torture test. Also makes it difficult to use a truss rod to compensate.)

In a conventional construction, it makes little difference what wood you use in the box, since the attachment of the fingerboard prevents the top board from doing much. If you can come up with a configuration that actually leaves the top board free to move in bending then you can call it a soundboard, and can start thinking about quarter-sawn spruce (which does work quite well - with the above mentioned modifications).

Be aware that what you have, if you proceed as above, won't be a mountain dulcimer to the traditionalists. If you really want loud rather than observing the traditional charm of the instrument - get a banjo.


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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Charlie Baum
Date: 26 Jan 03 - 01:31 AM

I've read somewhere that teardrop dulcimers have a somewhat lower (bass) sound than hourglass dulcimers. The reasoning is that the long grains of the wood in the soundboard encourage lower pitched notes to sound louder, and there are more long grains in the teardrop shape than in the hourglass shape. If this is true, the difference is one of tone rather than one of volume. (Any experienced woodworkers/luthiers out there who can comment on this? I just found this when I built my one and only instrument--a teardrop-shaped dulcimer purchased as a kit from Here, Inc. through an old Prairie Home Companion catalogue. The hints in my assembly instructions also suggested that by having a small space between the soundboard and the bottom side of the dulcimer, the volume might be louder.)

--Charlie Baum

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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Arkie
Date: 26 Jan 03 - 01:06 AM

Because in many cases the soundbox of the teardrop dulcimer is smaller than that of the hourglass shaped instrument the teardrop may not be as loud in some cases but as Spaw has said there are many varibles in determining how loud a dulcimer will be or how it may actually sound. The difference in shape is one of the least considerations. The thickness of the wood used on the top and back is also a factor. If you want a teardrop shaped dulcimer go for it.

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Subject: RE: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: catspaw49
Date: 25 Jan 03 - 11:00 PM

Overall size and the volume within the soundbox have more to do with it as do the wood in the fretboard (the actual sounding board of a lap dulcimer) and then the wood in the box itself. Gauge and type of strings as well as string height....All of these have infinitely more to do with volume of sound than does the shape.


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Subject: Mountain dulcimers: shape and sound
From: Cornflake
Date: 25 Jan 03 - 10:51 PM

I have an hourglass model and was considering making a teardrop-shaped dulcimer. Somewhere I read that teardops are quieter, though, and I wouldn't want a quieter dulcimer. Does anyone know whether and how shape affects volume?

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