my first dulcimer

Help for new mountain dulcimer players of all ages!

my first dulcimer

Postby Kedge » Tue Apr 03, 2018 9:22 am

Folks, This past weekend I picked up a used dulcimer in a shop in Vermont. I was told it was about 20 years old, had no marking or label but at $125 seemed worth a shot. It is made from laminate woods and has what appears to be an oak fret board. It has a zero fret and the 6 1/2 fret as well. I tuned it up and it sounds quite nice but the notes get very sharp moving up the fret board. The bridge is broken into 2 pieces and the action seems very high. I have ordered a new bridge and nut and when it arrives am going to change them out and attempt to set the action to where it is the thickness of a nickel about the 7th fret (right not it is more than 2 nickels)
I am in hopes that I will be able to get it so that the intonation is better as it really isn't playable at this point, going so sharp on every string above the 5th fret that the sound is irritating and hard to even press effectively.
I have played mandolin for several years so sore fingers isn't an issue but the sharpness makes it unpleasant to listen to.
My intent is/was to try and get the instrument to play moderately well and learn a bit on it and if I find I truly enjoy the experience of playing the dulcimer then purchase a quality instrument.
Question I guess I have at this point, it whether it is worth my time to try to make this instrument playable or should I just put my $125 as a lesson learned and actually pony up the real money for a quality dulcimer rather than possibly be turned away from learning by this particular one?
Thanks!
Kedge
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby kwl » Tue Apr 03, 2018 9:50 am

Hello Kedge, welcome to Everything Dulcimer. It's good to have you aboard. Regarding your new (to you) dulcimer, if you feel confident in making the adjustments, go ahead and try. You are not spending a fortune in replacing a bridge. In lowering the action be careful that you don't go down too close and get fret buzzing. If your frets are not level that can present another problem. You may not be able to bring it all the way down to the ideal (a dime next to the first fret and a nickel on the seventh fret), but close to that will get you started as long as it improves the intonation. Another thing you can do is measure the vibrating string length (VSL) and plug that in to a fret calculator to see if the frets are in the proper position before messing with the bridge replacement. If the turns out to be fret placement as part of the problem, then you may want to just scrap the project and wait to buy a better instrument. Not having the instrument to look at makes it difficult to offer concrete suggestions. This is all speculation on my part.

There are many good dulcimer builders out there. I am partial to Folkcraft, Sweet Woods (Dave Lynch), and Blue Lion. I have heard good things about Ron Gibson's instruments and there is McSpadden as well.

Best wishes as you begin your dulcimer journey.

Ken
"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby asterhunter » Tue Apr 03, 2018 8:35 pm

Kedge, I'd love to see some pictures of this little jewel of yours. :D
Now I'm wondering, how do you have this one tuned? Today's "standard" tuning is DAd, but if the frets are running sharp as you go up, maybe it's designed to be tuned DAA? That's pure speculation on my part, I'd like to hear some others give their more expert opinions.

David Elosser
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby dholeton » Wed Apr 04, 2018 1:02 pm

Kedge
Lowering the action should reduce some of the sharpness of the frets as you go to the higher frets (closer to the bridge) but may not be the entire problem. Like Ken suggested, using a fret calculator will help determine some issues. Here is a fret calculator at StewMac and it has a selector for mountain dulcimer.

https://www.stewmac.com/FretCalculator

If you plug different VSL lengths into the calculator, you may find a bridge location that will work with your existing frets.

Another approach for verifying tuning to frets is to
1. Tune a melody string to a given pitch when played open (A or D)
2. Sound the string at the 7th fret and it should be the same note an octave higher (A or D)
3. If it is too high in pitch, the bridge needs to be moved away from the frets (longer VSL)
4. If it is too low in pitch, the bridge needs to be moved toward the frets (shorter VSL)

So, if you can lower the action and move your current bridge, you can also try to set your bridge so it plays correctly open and at the 7th fret.

If it's okay open and at the 7th fret and the pitch is close on all of the other frets, then bridge location was likely the problem.

If it's okay open and at the 7th fret and tuning problems exist on other frets, then the fret spacing is probably the problem.

I've added a fret to a dulcimer that was already constructed and had all of the other frets, but replacing all of the frets would be difficult. Removing the existing frets and sawing and hammering on new frets will involve making it look nice (old frets are covered or sanded away) without damaging the top of the dulcimer (hammering on the fretboard might crack the top). Depending on the design of your dulcimer, it might be possible to remove the frets and install a thin new fretboard (with frets already installed) on top of the existing fretboard. Installing a new thin fretboard assumes you're reasonably sure the new fretboard will be flat after glued in place and the bridge can be raised for the fretboard.

Best of luck and let us know what you learn

Dave
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby Kedge » Wed Apr 04, 2018 4:00 pm

Thanks for all the input! Played around a little today with a few basic tabs and a few chords. All strings act the same moving up the fretboard with the same degree of sharpness, closed chords (fingering all strings) moving up the board sound good just sharp on all strings. I am quite certain that getting the action dialed in will correct the problem. New bridge is due tomorrow and am anxiously waiting. Unfortunately I'll be out of the country until the first of the week so won't be able to dig in until next week. I'll let you know.
I can already see that learning the dulcimer will be challenge. I have always read notation, and avoided tabs so I will have to acclimate to that until I learn the fretboard. It is not like a mandolin or guitar at all. This is going to be a lot of fun. Thankfully the dulcimer is a quiet instrument so I shouldn't get a lot of complaints while fingering it out!
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby KenH » Wed Apr 04, 2018 10:59 pm

No reason you can't find LOTS of dulcimer music with Standard Music Notation (SMN) in addition to tab numbers. Most of the published dulcimer repertoire books have the SMN with the tb notes in appropriate places...
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby strumelia » Thu Apr 05, 2018 9:10 am

Kedge wrote:I am quite certain that getting the action dialed in will correct the problem.


If the strings are in tune when unfretted, but are more or less equally sharp when fretted on various notes, then I agree that lowering the action can help. When the action is high and the strings are too heavy, then the tension is high and the string will be overly forced to bend when pressed down to the fret... which will make it sharp.
Try not only lowering the action but also putting on all strings just a shade thinner gauge- maybe just one size lighter gauge. Thinner strings will be less stiff and less tight, ...less liable to pull the note sharp when fretted.
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Re: my first dulcimer

Postby Kedge » Mon Apr 09, 2018 4:14 pm

first, very saddened by the news that this wonderful site may soon pass into history, and just as I thought to embark on another journey....
second, my replacement bridge came in today's mail! So attempted to remove the old broken bridge and it didn't go well. I scored along the seams of the bridge with a razor blade and then tried tp tap the pieces out with a small piece of aluminium.....top portion of bridge broke off!
Tried with a very tiny chisel to slide/lift the glued in pieces and a large portion of the fret board came out. I suppose with the proper tools and skills one could dado out that section of the board, fit in another piece of oak and cut a new bridge slot, truthfully, the overall quality of the instrument dictates it is not worth the work. It is now just a wall-hanger and I am saddened by that as well. thanks for all's advise
Kedge
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