McSpadden and small hands

Help for new mountain dulcimer players of all ages!

McSpadden and small hands

Postby ellozz » Thu Mar 31, 2016 11:03 am

I recently bought a McSpadden (not a Ginger), and I love the way it sounds! However, I have small hands and it is naturally hard to reach some of the chords I am coming across. I wonder if I could get input on how others have faired in the same situation, will I adapt perhaps over time? Or should I look for a Blue Lion with a shorter VSL? I am 59 and just beginning, no hand issues at this point, so my fingers are limber just untrained. I can tell a difference after a month of practice, I am quicker at locating chords but some of them are just impossible.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby KenH » Thu Mar 31, 2016 12:41 pm

ellozz wrote:I recently bought a McSpadden (not a Ginger), and I love the way it sounds! However, I have small hands and it is naturally hard to reach some of the chords I am coming across. I wonder if I could get input on how others have faired in the same situation, will I adapt perhaps over time? Or should I look for a Blue Lion with a shorter VSL? I am 59 and just beginning, no hand issues at this point, so my fingers are limber just untrained. I can tell a difference after a month of practice, I am quicker at locating chords but some of them are just impossible.


First, I'll say that I think the whole "small hands" thing is over-rated. New players need to stretch their hands if they insist on playing chord-melody style, and new folks playing other styles have other muscles and things which need "exercising". If you really have the hands of a ten year old, then you have some cause to worry about things, IMHO. You can, and will, stretch out, over time.

Second, there are alternative finger positions for virtually every chord, and using a chord chart to find "less stressful" alternatives for those so-called "impossible" chords is certainly cheaper than a new dulcimer.

Third, there are dozens, if not hundreds of dulcimer builders out there who make quality instruments for much less $$$ than Blue Lion. BL dulcimers are good, don't get me wrong, but there are much less expensive alternatives.

Fourth. You've only been at this a month or so, and I can't in good faith recommend that you spend that kind of money on a second dulcimer before you've even begun to master basic techniques on the first one. "Patience, Grasshopper."
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby asterhunter » Thu Mar 31, 2016 1:40 pm

Yes, your hands will become more flexible with time (unless you have a serious medical problem like advanced arthritis). This can happen at any age, although younger hands might certainly get there more quickly than older hands. The important thing is not to push your hands too hard. If they hurt, don't do it. Just take is slow and easy. My wife started playing last year when she was age @#% and she is definately more flexable now than then. I don't know if you have a professional teacher, but that would be the way to go, as a good teacher can introduce you to pieces and some excerises that will help you with flexibility, so that your skill and dexterity will grow with time. An experienced teacher might also give you alternate fingerings or chord possibilities that will do basically the same thing but easier to handle. Now having written all this, you do have to recognize that you, like everyone else, have physical limits that you will reach at some point in time. But you'll never know what those limits are until you set your goals to reach them.

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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby Acmespaceship » Thu Mar 31, 2016 2:10 pm

With practice, your hands will be able to stretch farther. You will also figure out alternative fingerings and learn where you can "cheat" (you didn't really need the middle string on that chord, did you?) A good trick is to use a capo and play farther up the neck, where the frets are closer together.

That said, the standard McSpadden has a 28" scale length, which is longer than average and way too long for a lot of people. That's why McSpadden now offers a 26" scale, in addition to the 23" Ginger. I would love to get my hands on a 26" McS and try it out, but I haven't had the chance. I have played 26" Blue Lions and Folkcrafts, and that scale length is the bee's knees for me. You wouldn't think 2 inches would make such a difference, but depending on your hand size and flexibility and what you want to play, it might make all the difference in the world.

Lots of players love the sound of their big McSpaddens enough that they manage to work with the long scale. Only you can decide if the tradeoffs are worth it for you. Me, I'd sell or trade it for a dulcimer that's easier to handle. An instrument should fit you and make it easy to do the things you want to do.

For reference, I have been playing MD for 30+ years, my hand is flexible with no arthritis (thank god) and I wear a women's size "medium" glove. I consider a full-size McSpadden to be a wonderful instrument... for somebody else. I wouldn't play one if you paid me. If I somehow accidentally acquired one, I would trade it for a Ginger, straight up, even if I lost money on the deal because an MD you do not enjoy playing is worthless to you no matter how nice it sounds.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby ellozz » Thu Mar 31, 2016 2:59 pm

Oh wow, great replies! Thank you so much!

I do have a teacher, and she did assure me my hands will stretch some. She actually has smaller hands than I do, and told me that you can often leave out one of the notes of the chord. I don't read music (yet- it is a personal goal of mine), nor do I have a natural ear, so swapping out one chord for another is very challenging for me at this point, but certainly something I expect I can learn over time.

I just simply want to have the best experience I can with my dulcimer, I have wanted to learn to play an instrument for a very long time, and I don't want to spend my time on one that isn't a good fit. Neither do I want to rush and change, if this McSpadden will work, it is a lovely cherry with ebony fretboad that I found tucked away in a small shop, and everyone that has strummed it looks up and says, "WOW!", even though they have very nice dulcimers also. I am not the collecting type: I imagine one or two dulcimers will do me.

So I don't want to be a grasshopper :D , but neither do I want spend too much time on something that is going to be always difficult.
For reference, I wear a ladies small glove. So I don't have child size hands, just not much in the way of finger length. I mentioned Blue Lion because of their reputation and VSL.

Ya'll have each given me different answers and ideas, and they are greatly appreciated!!! Much food for thought.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby Judy K » Thu Mar 31, 2016 10:34 pm

elloz, I also have fairly small hands. My favorite dulcimers have a 25" to 26" VSL. It is a comfortable reach on almost all chords. The makers of those favorites are David Lynch (Sweet Woods Instruments), Nic Hambas (BlackCreek Strings) and David Hanson. I have to add Ron Ewing who made a baritone dulcimette with a 22" VSL that is great to play. I recently had shoulder surgery that limited my left hand movement. The Ewing dulcimette let me play comfortably even if it was without much grace at first.

While I do agree that your hands will become more flexible, there are limits. At 28.5" VSL for a McSpadden some hands would have a hard time adjusting. My first dulcimer had a VSL of 29.25". Some chords were impossible! I tried for more than 6 months before buying another MD (Sweet Woods) with a 25.5" reach. It was a sweet relief.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby philips » Thu Mar 31, 2016 11:06 pm

Ellozz, Judy's answer really nailed it. If your MsSpadden has a long VSL then all the stretching in the world won't enable you to play many chords (all the practice and exercising and time in the world won't solve it). A 25" to 26" VSL would be perfect for you. The VSL (scale length) is measured by measuring the distance from where the strings come off the nut to where the strings come off the saddle. Some custom builders will build a dulcimer for you with a 24" or so VSL, and a dulcimer like that is an absolute breeze to chord on.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby ellozz » Fri Apr 01, 2016 11:09 pm

Judy and Philips: I do see the limitations, and the awkwardness, which prompted my question. After much practice, I find myself able to form chords quicker, (I am finally to the point I often don't even have to look at the fretboard, which amazes this beginner, LOL. I just love that. But then I get one of those very long reach chords and it gets very awkward. I am intrigued by perhaps being able to form the difficult chords in different ways, but haven't even begun studying that option yet. I appreciate the luthier suggestions, Judy, and will study their dulcimers also. Thank you for ya'lls input!!
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby Judy K » Sat Apr 02, 2016 11:51 pm

elloz, many makers will offer a shorter length, if you ask. Even McSpadden now does a 26" version, as Acmespaceship said. Of the 3 makers I mentioned, David Lynch & Nic Hambas have websites; David Hanson does not. He does sell on ebay and posts (rarely) here on ED as tukanu. I had the extremely good fortune to buy one of his dulcimers used.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby ellozz » Sat Apr 23, 2016 11:44 am

I purchased an used Blue Lion yesterday, and the shorter scale is easier to play, it isn't a gigantic difference, but it does help. The sound is beautiful, I see why Blue Lions are highly thought of. My McSpadden has a lovely deeper sound, but I love the lilt to the Blue Lion, and to me, it has just as much volume as the McSpadden. And I said I wasn't going to be a collector...I now have three.
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby Judy K » Sun Apr 24, 2016 12:39 am

Hope you enjoy the Blue Lion, ellozz, and the easier stretch. :D
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Re: McSpadden and small hands

Postby Ken Bloom » Sun Apr 24, 2016 7:39 am

I recently made an instrument for a lady who had a similar problem. She had been playing for a number of years on a McSpadden. I made her a dulcimer with a 25" string length and a narrower fretboard. Having the strings closer together helped her a lot. The two aspects combined has made it so much easier for her. I also did a bowed dulcimer for another long time bowed dulcimer player with a much narrower fingerboard which also made her life so much better. When considering ease of playability I think you need to consider both of these factors.

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