A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby strumelia » Mon Mar 07, 2016 10:54 am

Skip wrote:I don't really see any problem. Everybody knows 'guitar' or 'banjo, or 'piano' for that matter, and don't have a problem with details such as how it's used or construction details. So what's so different about 'Mountain Dulcimer', it's just generic name for a beautiful sounding musical instrument. As far as as the original post, that's an opinion, and every one has one, so it doesn't bother me.


I agree with Skip. I don't see a real problem either. Everyone will have a slightly different opinion of what exactly defines a "mountain dulcimer". No amount of discussion is going to change that. I think it's great to have many variations of dulcimers and playing styles, and yes great to have various opinions too.
People having strong opinions about musical instruments doesn't bother me either, Skip. I feel it only becomes a problem when we begin to critique other people's opinions instead of simply talking about what kind of music or instrument features we ourselves like. As I wrote previously, criticizing someone else's opinion usually deteriorates into negative personal attacking, and that's just not a good thing no matter what your thoughts on dulcimers are.
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Ken Bloom » Mon Mar 07, 2016 11:10 am

As I have said before, instruments go through periods of adjustment. The dulcimer has undergone a lot of changes over the last 65 years. These changes have come about because the people who play the instrument wanted something different from what they had from the previous incarnations. That included more volume, more frets, different shapes, amplification, different stringing setups etc. An instrument is a tool for expression and if the tool does not meet the needs of the user, then things change.
There is still an important place for the original tool but instruments are not static. The guitar basically reached it's current state of development in the 20's.
Same for the banjo and the mandolin. Wind instruments mostly settled down in the latter part of the 19th century. The violin family reached it's current state of development in the early 19th century. Once the process starts it usually takes about 100 years or so, sometimes a bit less. Depends on how drastic the changes need to be to keep up with creative demands. I think if we ask the question "what is a dulcimer" thirty five years from now, it won't be such a topic of controversy. Lisa is right. There is plenty of room for every type of instrument and playiing style. In the end, it's the music that matters. Just my 2p.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Mon Mar 07, 2016 5:42 pm

Jono wrote:
KenH wrote:

A chromatic dulcimer might as well be another guitar. There's no challenge for you.

A chromatic dulcimer would be just another funny looking thing to hang on your wall. Not really a dulcimer at all.

Just a funny looking lap guitar.



Comments anyone?


I believe those were comments that Ken directed at me, in another thread. I am not offended.

I understand that people get attached to particular styles of instrument and playing (try asking most classical guitarists to play with a pick...). I gave my reasons for seeking a chromatic instrument, but I have no problem with those who prefer the diatonic version, and I play them myself.
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Mon Mar 07, 2016 5:50 pm

danc9 wrote: IMHO

I believe it is an important piece of American History that needs to be preserved.
DAN

http://www.dulcimore.com

I've no problem with that.

Some people don't feel that electric guitars are "real" guitars, either. I've played, taught, written for, and earned money with both. They are very different isntruments, but they are both variations on the class "guitar".

Some people prefer harpsichord to piano. I enjoy both and play both. I wouldn't want to see either replace the other; neither one could.

I feel the same way about dulcimers or, if you prefer, dulcimore.
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Ken Bloom » Mon Mar 07, 2016 5:56 pm

I think the policy of "live and let play" is a great one to follow. More music, less trolling. I respect anyone's opinion as long as they don't expect me to hold the same opinion. Maybe I will. Maybe I won't. In the end, for me it's all about the music.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Mon Mar 07, 2016 6:40 pm

Acmespaceship wrote:One reason why we started a separate sub-forum for chromatic dulcimer in the first place was so the "get a guitar" crowd could easily ignore the heresy and let us discuss our instruments in peace.


As my primary instrument is guitar -- in all it's formats -- that comment prompts me to present some of my own motives in seeking out chromatic dulcimer -- or any dulcimer, for that matter.

When one chooses an instrument that one would like to master, there are many avenues of approach; I used every one I could think of. So, I took classical lessons; jazz lessons; I played in rock, reggae, country, and blues bands; I accompanied Baroque ensembles. I listened to every kind of music for my instrument that I could lay my hands on (I didn't like all of it, but I listened, nonetheless). I analyzed music and playing styles; I composed for the instrument.

And after a long time, although there are countless guitarists far better than I, I got to be pretty good.

Then one day I saw a band in which the guitarist and the bassist switched instruments for part of a set, and both played impressively well on both instruments. This suggested to me that I had limited my development by spending all my time exclusively on one instrument, so I began branching out to other fretted instruments: bass; banjo; mandolin; all very "guitar-like" when you get right down to it, but each with it's own particular quirks and foibles. Learning the techniques for dealing with those expanded my horizons on guitar and gave me not only new playing techniques, but new musical ideas. I became a better session player, because I understood better what the other players were doing.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself, pretty cocky. Then I saw a guitarist in a jazz-fusion band play a mind-blowing solo, in the middle of which he switched his left hand around to the "wrong" side of the neck for the second half of the solo. :shock:

Well, this was new. It set me on a quest to find a zither, and instrument with a fretted fingerboard played from the "wrong" (from a guitarist's point of view) side. This was a long and frustrating search, and partway through it I suddenly realized that I had much easier access to an instrument with a similarly "reversed" fingerboard -- an Appalachian dulcimer. I date my serious involvement with the dulcimer from that point. But for many years I never even considered whether a dulcimer could, or should be chromatically fretted. The dulcimer wasn't really my focus; just a means to the end of improving my guitar technique. And I was playing a lot of traditional dulcimer music that really didn't demand a chromatic instrument, so I thought of dulcimer as being diatonic, by default.

In the last several years, though, my interest has shifted from learning fretted instrument techniques that could be applied to guitar, to trying to broaden my musical concepts by using other instruments in places where I would normally use a guitar. So I've been learning to solo in various contexts on "exotic" (to me) instruments like charango, tiple, bajo sexto, and a variety of other strange beasts... and there was my dulcimer.

It would be really cool, I thought, to play jazz on this thing. But the diatonic frets were a serious limitation. To play jazz you need blue notes. You can bend strings for solos, but that doesn't work too great for chords. So I began to consider adding frets to make the instrument chromatic. Then I wondered if anyone had maybe already done this . . .

Well, there was the internet, and here I am.

So, while a chromatic dulcimer isn't a guitar, in some sense, to me, every fretted instrument could be considered some kind of guitar. How's that for a weirdly biased perspective? ;)
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Robin the Busker » Wed Mar 09, 2016 8:52 am

I have followed this thread with interest from its shaky start. It is a shame, but things here on ED are not always as they first seem.

However, that aside, I'm heartened by the way contributors have turned this thread into a good debate about the nature of the lap dulcimer. I have the following to add to the discussion:

Of the last 200 or so dulcimers I've sold in the UK/Europe only one has been a chromatic. Around a dozen or so have been instruments that were pure diatonic (I have noted increased interest in dulcimers that are pure diatonic recently). The overwhelming majority have been the contemporary standard mountain dulcimer with 6+ and 13+ frets. So I think the question should be 'why is the chromatic not popular?' Because, if you can answer that then you'd be some way towards defining what it is about the instrument that attracts more than 99% (literally!) of new players to the standard instrument with its diatonic (or rather modified diatonic) fretting. The only difference between a chromatic mountain dulcimer and a standard mountain dulcimer is the number of frets. Yet one has vastly more appeal than the other. Players themselves must view the two instrument forms quite differently to opt for one in overwhelmingly greater number. Or, to put it another way, players themselves albeit consciously or non-consciously see the chromatic as a different instrument. Hence, even ED has a separate area to discuss the instrument (which has less that 1% of the traffic the general mountain dulcimer area gets). To miss quote Bones from Star Trek "It's a dulcimer Jim, but not as we know it". The addition of the 4 extra frets per octave to make the standard instrument chromatic means that players actually use a precursor adjective when they talk about the instrument ie "I play chromatic mountain dulcimer" rather than simply "I play mountain dulcimer". Now, I actually suffer from the same problem because I play dulcimers without the 6+ and 13+ fret - so I have say "I play pure diatonic mountain dulcimer" or sometimes "I play traditional mountain dulcimer". In fact, I'm starting to use the term 'Appalachian dulcimer' more often to define the vintage instruments I play because I'm far from 'traditional' in my musical approach. But whatever, I have to also find a precursor adjective because the instrument I play differs from the standard 'mountain dulcimer' of 2016.

I think it is worth looking at the changes the instrument went through to move from it being the Appalachian dulcimer (made played in the same way for 180 years or more) to the contemporary mountain dulcimer (which now has 40 years or so under its belt!). Again, it was simply the fretting pattern that changed (in terms of the instrument's design) from pure diatonic in just intonation to equal temperament and the addition of the 6+ and 13+ frets. This facilitated a significant shift in playing style from the instrument being a melody drone one to one that played chords. The simple folk instrument (Appalachian dulcimer and its precedents) had always been melody against drone instruments, so the shift to a chord playing version in DAd was significant and has become overwhelmingly popular compared to the earlier fret layouts. At that time (late 60s early 70s), the instrument could well have gone 'chromatic' but it didn't - and, again, it is worth exploring the reasons why - the primary one being playability! The lack of frets may leave you stuck in one key but, boy, does it make that key easy to play!!!!! The shift to the contemporary instrument certainly eased playability and opened up the instrument to the broader 'folk music' being played in the 60s/70s. It was easy to play and sing 'Blowing in the Wind' from DAd on dulcimer if you could strum three simple 2 finger chords - and it sounded 'right'. For those folks who have tried, it is actually far more difficult the play a vintage Appalachian dulcimer tunefully that it is to knock out something sounding reasonable on a contemporary dulcimer in DAd. Evolution tends to happen to make certain things easier, as in this case, but there are gains and losses with each change. The 'gains' to be had from switching to DAd, equal temperament and adding the 6+ were far greater then the losses of altering older fret layouts because you could always continue to play in melody drone on the new instruments if you wanted to (although I think we have shown recently that melody drone on a contemporary dulcimer is a compromise). However, the gains to be had from moving to chromatic do not, for the vast majority of players, outweigh the losses of doing so - therefore I very much doubt that we will see the instrument 'evolve' into one that is chromatic in years to come.

OK so lets get back to that thread title "A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer" Well, of course it is a dulcimer simply because that's what the musicians who play it call it; and within the folk instrument world it is the 'folk' who ultimately decide what something is called. However, on the other side of the coin, I'll leave you with an excerpt from an interview Jean Ritchie gave in 2002 where she is talking about the change from the old Appalachian instrument to the contemporary mountain dulcimer one by adding the 6+ fret:

NEA: In what direction do you think Appalachian dulcimer music is moving?

MS. RITCHIE: You go to a program of dulcimer music nowadays and you'll get old ballads where people sing and play at the same time, you'll get a instrumental music that's a jazz tune or the blues. It's used for every different kind of music. And it sounds good with all of them. It seems that the dulcimer has been taken now beyond its limitations, beyond its diatonic scale. What they've done now is put in another thread (fret) so that they can make it like a regular scale, a regular eight scale. They've put the extra note in. In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it's not quite a dulcimer anymore. But they've done that to make it more flexible and easier to play along with other people.

I think it will keep changing a little more as the years go by but not an awful lot. The sound will still be the same.


So there you go. "They've put the extra note in. In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it's not quite a dulcimer anymore." For Jean, the addition of the 6+ changed the nature of the instrument to move it away from how she wanted to play. From her perspective the change to the fretboard was not 'evolution' but a new species. And that's how the overwhelming majority, that 99% of dulcimer sales, see the chromatic compared to the standard instrument (which Jean said isn't quite a dulcimer anyway :lol: ) - it's a new species. So the chromatic is a dulcimer but it is a different species of dulcimer from today's standard mountain dulcimer, which is also a different species of dulcimer from the original Appalachian dulcimer. Now that's just my opinion, which of course is a valid opinion because it is based on empirical evidence :lol: :lol: :lol:

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby GrantOlson » Wed Mar 09, 2016 9:56 am

Thanks for the information! I liked reading about what Jean Ritchie had to say. I think we should value her word, not as law, but still, she saw the dulcimer before it was played outside of the hills, and she knew how it used to be played.
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby philips » Wed Mar 09, 2016 8:03 pm

Jean Ritchie wrote:

the dulcimer has been taken now beyond its limitations, beyond its diatonic scale.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Robin the Busker » Thu Mar 10, 2016 8:15 am

GrantOlson wrote:Thanks for the information! I liked reading about what Jean Ritchie had to say. I think we should value her word, not as law, but still, she saw the dulcimer before it was played outside of the hills, and she knew how it used to be played.
Grant


The impression I get from her interviews is that Jean never really though of herself as much of a dulcimer player. For her, the instrument was primarily a tool to support her voice. She did play some dulcimer tunes to break up singing gigs but essentially she used the instrument for accompaniment. However, the reality was that Jean had an amazing ability to play counter melodies and counter rhythms to her voice on dulcimer. What she played was 'simple' but definitely NOT easy (just try it!!!). It is a very advanced musical skill to handle the instrument with noter and thumb strum the way Jean could against her voice. The mark of true musical genius is that ability to do the simple things to perfection - and that voice is soooo lush 8). I love her Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952) Electra recordings despite the quality (although they are thoughtfully re-mastered on the CD version). Listen to the tone, rhythms and countermelodies she conjures from a staple fretted Amburgey in this track from the album.


16.Black is the Color.mp3
[ 2.63 MiB | Viewed 2237 times ]


I've not heard anyone else play the dulcimer in this way. In Jean's teaching material she mentions playing countermelody but published a number of tunes as straight melodies (in the Dulcimer Book) that she never actually played. The result has been that many of us over the years have learnt to play Jean Ritchie tunes as 'tunes' on dulcimer, whereas she actually played countermelody and sang the tune. This may seem like a small distinction but it has had a big impact on the development of the instrument. Dulcimer clubs, teaching material, workshops, festivals etc are focused on playing tunes with the instrument being primary. I do the same myself. Yet quite possibly our most well known player, who was responsible for introducing the instrument to so many folks played in a style (noter drone with thumb strum or vertical quill) and application (countermelody to the voice) that is, and always has been, very rare amongst players. I find it quite strange/interesting/amazing that Jean is so revered, and quite rightly so, yet so very few have studied to play in her style? Perhaps how good she really was as a musician has become a little lost on one hand, and is so hard to achieve on the other. I have to say that working with pre-revival Appalachian dulcimers and playing styles can feel the same as someone working with a chromatic dulcimer; we are on the margins of the mainstream. The difference being that no one is saying "A staple fretted Amburgey is not 'really' a dulcimer" :lol: :lol: :lol:

Having written the above this morning, I think I'm going to pull together a workshop on playing in Jean Ritchie's style for the Halsway Manor week 8) I played/sung "The Old Woman and the Pig" in her style on an old Amburgey at the Word Dulcimer Congress last year as part of a tribute to Jean that a number of the tutors were doing. I'm sure there must be a video of that performance floating around somewhere as I noticed a few cameras out in the audience.

And therein lays the rub: We can write about what is and what isn't a dulcimer here until the cows come home but what matters is the music we create.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby strumelia » Thu Mar 10, 2016 12:12 pm

Amazing and very thoughtful post, Robin. Your points ring true and are pretty important when considering the entire subject of dulcimer evolution over time, and how we view that evolution as individuals...what characteristics we each might believe make something we can call a 'dulcimer'.

I too have often pondered about why more people have not attempted to play the dulcimer as Jean did- in harmony, syncopation, and counterpoint to voice. (have you listened to Ken Rice's videos on FOTMD?). I've also seen a parallel in old-time banjo playing over the past couple of decades- leaving the voice behind and playing songs instead as tunes, tabbing mostly the main melody and following that rather than crafting a counterpoint to the song. (there are many exceptions where beautiful arrangements have been created by very talented dulcimer and banjo teachers). In general however, tab books, club/festival environments, and workshops tend to reinforce this laser focus on the melody being played. This holds true for both mountain dulcimer and old-time banjo. Due to the festival/workshop/tab book venues, oldtime banjo has gravitated very strongly towards melody instrumental over the past 20 years as well. Not to mention it's easier for folks to just play the melody rather than have to think also about harmonies or singing...and many folks are not willing to sing, for whatever reason. That said, i am seeing a very pronounced return to singing in oldtime banjo over the last couple of years...and with that I'm seeing a surge in creative banjo accompaniments on banjo...especially in young musicians. (Yay for variety and experimentation!) Is a return to singing with the dulcimer far behind? I guess it all depends on what kinds of music we each like for ourselves. Again, there is room for everyone and every style and taste.

I particularly like what you say here:
What she played was 'simple' but definitely NOT easy (just try it!!!). It is a very advanced musical skill to handle the instrument with noter and thumb strum the way Jean could against her voice. The mark of true musical genius is that ability to do the simple things to perfection ... I love her Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family (1952) Electra recordings despite the quality (although they are thoughtfully re-mastered on the CD version). Listen to the tone, rhythms and countermelodies she conjures from a staple fretted Amburgey in this track from the album.


"The mark of true musical genius is that ability to do the simple things to perfection" ...this is certainly true, though of course there are various ways to express musical genius. Jean's recordings do demonstrate it perfectly. One of the things that make our beloved instrument so special is the fact that one can play a 'simple' tune OR a 'challenging' tune, on a total diatonic, chromatic, or anything in between, and it can sound either dull and lifeless, or exciting and expressive....all depending on the spirit, creativity, and skill of the player. I guess the essence is simply this: A musician can demonstrate great ("advanced") musical skill and creativity in pieces with many or few notes, fast or slow, with or without singing, and on instruments in various tunings, with more, fewer, or no frets, and any number of strings. And this is true for any instrument in the world. :)
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby dholeton » Fri Mar 11, 2016 12:02 am

I've followed this post and observed some wonderful dialog, so I hope I can add something positive to that dialog.

For Lisa's and Robin's comments about Jean singing and playing with the dulcimer with her dulcimer harmonies, I fully agree. It is a skill that one needs to work to achieve as much as playing jazz, blues, rock, pop, or any other type of music with a chromatic or diatonic instrument of any kind. I've dabbled in singing while playing (with a noter) and can only manage changing from one melody string to another to more or less represent a chord for a given phrase in the melody. It is a skill that needs to be explored and if there are others who already have some experience to share with that capability, we can start a new thread with a subject line something like "Singing while playing harmony with a noter". I would enjoy participating in that conversation.

At times I join with the local dulcimer club and songs that have singing with the dulcimer are a minority in most songs sets, which I would also like to improve.

But it all goes back to the sound. Many of us are trying to find a sound. We make a sound that moves us one day, and maybe we can't find that sound the next day. We try a different instrument, we try making changes to our existing instrument. John Jacob Niles had some instruments he called dulcimers that don't look anything like something Jean played. Richard Farina had a 6.5 fret added to his dulcimer. (I am unable to find it now, but I remember a Rainbow Quest video where Pete Seeger seemed a little impatient while Richard needed to retune his dulcimer for the next song). About the same time in the 1960's Mike Pinder was becoming very successful with the mellotron. The Corries developed their own instruments they named the Combolin. There has been some development in fanned fret electric guitars that have offset frets. Robin and John Henry (and probably some others of which I am unaware) have had some success with Just Intonation and Mean Tone Intonation dulcimers. (Just and Mean tone and all of the other tones were probably just as controversial in days gone by as chromatic dulcimers can be today). There are probably too many other examples of instrument development but I think the players or composers or luthiers were all looking for a special sound.

So, in my early days I wasn't so much searching for a special sound as I was searching for a way to have other musicians let me play along with them. Here is my chromatic dulcimer story, which has some embellishments that are intended to bring some humor to the crazy things I did way back when.

I went to church on Saturday. I stood in line to enter the confessional and when my turn to enter finally occurred, I was fully aware of all of my sins (that I wanted to present).
When father slid open the door, it was my turn to confess and I began:

ME: Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been 4 weeks since my last confession and these are my sins.
First, I haven't been to confession for 4 weeks, so my first sin is not coming to confession in the usual 2 week interval.
Second, I used profane words 13 times.
Third, I built a chromatic dulcimer.
These are my sins, for which I am truly sorry, please grant me your absolution.

FATHER: I see, are you truly sorry for not coming to confession in 2 weeks?

ME: Yes Father

FATHER: And are you truly sorry for using profane words 13 times?

ME: Yes Father

FATHER: As for building the chromatic dulcimer, why did you do that?

ME: I wanted to be a member of a local band. They already had 3 guitar players, one of which kinda' played a mandolyn at times. They liked my diatonic dulcimer if I put my Lawrence pickup on it and connected it to their amplifiers. It sounded really cool as long as they were playing and singing songs with chords D, Em, G, F#M, and A7. It had a really great sound. I was totally screwed when they wanted me to play F, Bb, C, Am, and Gm chords for a song.

FATHER: What?

ME: I was so confused when they wanted me to play F, Bb, C, Am, and Gm chords for a song.

FATHER: I see, go on

ME: So, I decided to by a kit dulcimer that was bigger so it would be louder and I put all of the frets on it so I could play all of the major and minor chords. It was going to have 6 strings arranged in 3 courses like a 12 string guitar has 12 strings arranged in 6 courses.

FATHER: And did you make beautiful music with your chromatic dulcimer?

ME: Well, I might have messed up a little on either the fret spacing or the placement of the bridge. The farther up the fingerboard the chords started sounding sharp. But in the first 6 frets or so, I think it sounded really cool and it had more volume but still needed to use a pickup to keep up with the guitar players. But then, we moved 500 miles away and I couldn't try it out with the band anyway. Since then, I found a real cool tuning for it and rearranged the nut and bridge for double melody strings and 4 equa-distant drone strings. It sounds really cool with Ave Maria and Against The Grain (another religious song). I'm thinking of rearranging the fretboard with something closer to a diatonic fretboard with maybe a 6.5 fret because I'm starting to like it more on some of the old traditional tunes.

FATHER: My son, it is not a sin against God to build a chromatic dulcimer. You were only trying to find a way to easily make music with others. Now, it seems you are searching for a good sound. Music can inspire people to be good and it can inspire people to be bad. You're not planning to play your chromatic dulcimer as accompaniment to people who dance around with skimpy clothing while making lewd dance gestures, are you?

ME: No Father. Actually, my dulcimer sounds really good while playing and singing Pass Me Not which is a fantastic gospel song by Fanny Crosby.

FATHER: I see. I'll repeat, it isn't a sin against God to make a chromatic dulcimer. However, your penance for being two weeks late for confession and using profanity 13 times is to say 20 Our Fathers and 20 Hail Marys.

ME: Thank you Father for granting me your absolution. I will try to sin no more.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
All kidding aside, attached are some Richard and Mimi Farina videos. I think the videos show Richard and Mimi were searching for a special sound while also being inclusive with singing along in their music. Richard also sang while playing with a noter but he also needed to retune between some of the songs.

A chromatic dulcimer was bound to happen. Maybe two of the earliest chromatic dulcimers were E44 and E45 on page 104 in L. Allen Smith's book "A Catalog of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimer". Or maybe John Jacob Niles modification of a Singleton dulcimer where extra frets were added after Singleton built it in 1933. Something to talk about after enjoying Richard's and Mimi's videos.

Dave




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