Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

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Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby bret » Tue Aug 15, 2017 12:37 am

Hello! :D

I'm very new to dulcimers and only found out about them in the past couple months. After trying a couple different instruments over the years, I think the dulcimer is finally the one for me!

My background: I tried teaching myself guitar, but my hand and the chord shapes just don't get along. I can touch type like a champ, but guitar chords turn my hands into knots. I took about a year of violin lessons, and made good progress, but I don't think my ear is good enough for a fretless instrument. The last one I picked up was the Baritone Ukuele. It was more manageable with only 4 strings, and I did teach myself some of the chord shapes and songs, but it still didn't feel natural.

Fast forward to a few months ago and I came across the dulcimer. An instrument you can play a single melody line with drones and it sounds good? No wrong notes? Now we're talking :D

I searched a bit online and couldn't get a good picture of what are considered the good quality dulcimer makers. I ended up ordering a Seagull Merlin to get started as it's Canadian made and has good reviews. I would agree the quality on it is excellent. Very easy to play. (I get it's not quite a dulcimer, since it's lacking a 6 fret, but has a 6+ fret, and is played like a guitar).

That said, I've had the most fun playing it of any instrument I've tried. Looking up tablature online and watching a bunch of videos on Youtube, I've tought myself a few songs I can play from memory now (just melody and drone strings). I've started experimenting a bit with rhythm, learned some regular chords, the power chords and cut offs. I love picking it up after dinner for a little bit just to play and have a bit of fun.

But the limitations of only having one octave and lacking a 6 fret are starting to show. I'd like to get a proper dulcimer to continue playing. I'd also like to find some sort of guided lessons so I'm not just trying out random things as I come across them (though it's been a fun journey so far!)

Any suggestions on well made dulcimers / good makers? I've resisted the idea of buying something cheap from Amazon as I've purchased an instrument like that before and the set up and quality were poor. Fighting with an instrument you're trying to learn is no fun at all! Also, any suggestions on learning would be welcome :)
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby BobbaSkywalker » Tue Aug 15, 2017 9:13 am

Congratulations on your progress so far. Like you, I've had trouble getting my fingers to work on a fretted board. I started out on a Strumstick, which is similar in some ways to your Merlin Seagull. The Strumstick has more than one octave, but even with my two "real" dulcimers, I seldom need more than an octave. But maybe that says more about my limited abilities than anything. I'm self-taught, using YouTube videos and some cast-off instructional books.

As for which dulcimer to get, others will be more informed than me. The most well-known "big name" in the dulcimer world is probably McSpadden. But I put "big name" in quotes because the dulcimer world is one of small craft builders and hobbyists.

If you live in or near a metro area, you might find a guitar shop that has some dulcimers you can inspect with your own hands. Or you might find a festival within driving distance. If nothing else, you can enjoy hearing other people play and ask them about their instruments. There might also be some vendors selling dulcimers. You might also find some groups to play with. There's one I've been meaning to visit for about two years now.

The 6.5 fret is, true enough, not part of the traditional dulcimer setup. But it has been around since the early 1970s or so, and it's close to being standard today. In fact, I'd say you should expect to find any dulcimer to have that fret, unless the builder is being intentionally traditional and seeking out customers who are intentionally traditional. In addition to the 6.5 fret, some instruments now have a 1.5 fret. I added one (or rather, paid someone to add it) to my one dulcimer that did not have one. I haven't used it much, but it's good for playing C chords at a lower range.

Over the weekend, I took a dulcimer (I have two; one a gift, one, inherited) to a family outing. I sat in the woods and practiced the G chord and some variations on D and A. It started to come together, which was gratifying and pleasing.

Enjoy!
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby strumelia » Tue Aug 15, 2017 9:20 am

Hi there! One question you'll have to decide about first is:
are you open to getting a 'typical' mountain dulcimer that is played on the lap, as opposed to with the Merlin you have that has a neck and is held and played in guitar position? If not, then you'll be focusing on what some people call 'stick dulcimers' or 'walk around dulcimers'. But if you are thinking about a lap dulcimer, then that opens up a lot of choices of mountain dulcimers... the more common and more traditional type of dulcimer.
What are you aiming for as regards to this decision? :)

Just for your info- both stick/walkaround type dulcimers and lap dulcimers can be played either by using the chord/melody method or the single string melody with drones method of playing... so that's not a permanent decision you'll need to make... you can play either method on any of them. (BTW, lap style dulcimers will have the strings 'reversed' so that the low bass string is furthest from your body when held and played in the lap... whereas the stick dulcimers have the bass on the opposite side, because you are playing underhand with hand gripping the neck. But rest assured, for most folks this change is usually pretty quick to adjust their head around. ;) )
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby BobbaSkywalker » Tue Aug 15, 2017 11:06 am

That's a good point about the chord/melody versus single melody/drone playing. There's also fingerpicking (a bit like classical guitar, I suppose), though maybe that fits into the other two categories somehow. I think that's where I'd like to end up, but it's going to take me a while.
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby bret » Tue Aug 15, 2017 7:44 pm

BobbaSkywalker wrote:Congratulations on your progress so far. Like you, I've had trouble getting my fingers to work on a fretted board. I started out on a Strumstick, which is similar in some ways to your Merlin Seagull. The Strumstick has more than one octave, but even with my two "real" dulcimers, I seldom need more than an octave.


Thanks! It's been the most fun I've had with a musical instrument. I don't consider myself musically inclined, and most of my previous attempts have felt like work. This is a much more enjoyable experience and I feel like having fun with it is good motivation to keep going. What did you think of the Strumstick? I've bumped into it a couple times on Youtube and the guy who sells them actually taught me some things I'd always wondered about (cutoffs and snare on a stringed instrument for example). I was thinking to get a more traditional instrument, but I'm not opposed to something more guitar-like.

I don't really have a sense for how much more of the fretboard I need, but I've run into a number of tabs with 8, 9 and 10 in them and they simply don't exist on the Merlin. :lol: The other issue is that it's lacking what's called the 6 fret on a dulcimer. The 6th fret on the Merlin is actually what's called 6+ or 6.5 on the dulcimer, so that's also a lot of things that can't be played directly from dulcimer tabs. (This took me some time to figure out why songs that only had 6 in them sounded off when playing that note). I understand why they did it: they wanted the fret board to be the D major scale. Unfortunately it means the instrument can't take advantage of a lot of dulcimer tabs. So I definitely want to get something with a full fretboard on it, just to open up more tabs.

BobbaSkywalker wrote:As for which dulcimer to get, others will be more informed than me. The most well-known "big name" in the dulcimer world is probably McSpadden. But I put "big name" in quotes because the dulcimer world is one of small craft builders and hobbyists.


That's good to know, I hadn't heard of McSpadden before. The ones I've come across so far are by Mike Clemmer and Folkcraft. I've also found references to Bob Magowan, but I can't find a website for him online. Where do all of these fall on the quality spectrum?

BobbaSkywalker wrote:If you live in or near a metro area, you might find a guitar shop that has some dulcimers you can inspect with your own hands. Or you might find a festival within driving distance. If nothing else, you can enjoy hearing other people play and ask them about their instruments. There might also be some vendors selling dulcimers. You might also find some groups to play with. There's one I've been meaning to visit for about two years now.


I do live in a metro area (not far from DC), but I'm unaware of an dulcimer players near by. I learned about them from a friend who enjoys folk music and also was learning violin around the same time as I did. He mentioned his wife use to play them years ago, but he didn't know anyone locally. I got the impression (right or wrong) that the dulcimer was more popular around Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. It would be great if there was a shop down the road carrying them, but so far the only one I found just sold an Apple Creek Dulcimer which is the kind of thing I'd like to avoid.

BobbaSkywalker wrote:The 6.5 fret is, true enough, not part of the traditional dulcimer setup. But it has been around since the early 1970s or so, and it's close to being standard today. In fact, I'd say you should expect to find any dulcimer to have that fret, unless the builder is being intentionally traditional and seeking out customers who are intentionally traditional. In addition to the 6.5 fret, some instruments now have a 1.5 fret. I added one (or rather, paid someone to add it) to my one dulcimer that did not have one. I haven't used it much, but it's good for playing C chords at a lower range.


I think for where I am in my dulcimer journey that a 6.5 probably wouldn't trip me up (and I've run into a number of tabs with it), but I think 1.5 might be too far for me right now. I really like that it's a diatonic instrument and have no desire to move closer to a chromatic scale any time soon :D I'm really looking for some easy "wins" here to build confidence and just enjoy it :)

BobbaSkywalker wrote:Over the weekend, I took a dulcimer (I have two; one a gift, one, inherited) to a family outing. I sat in the woods and practiced the G chord and some variations on D and A. It started to come together, which was gratifying and pleasing.


That sounds awesome! I will have to try that sometime :-)
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby bret » Tue Aug 15, 2017 8:04 pm

strumelia wrote:Hi there! One question you'll have to decide about first is:
are you open to getting a 'typical' mountain dulcimer that is played on the lap, as opposed to with the Merlin you have that has a neck and is held and played in guitar position? If not, then you'll be focusing on what some people call 'stick dulcimers' or 'walk around dulcimers'. But if you are thinking about a lap dulcimer, then that opens up a lot of choices of mountain dulcimers... the more common and more traditional type of dulcimer.
What are you aiming for as regards to this decision? :)


Thanks for you reply :) I was really looking for a traditional dulcimer, even when I picked up the Merlin. The purchase was mostly motivated by "I want an instrument like this, I want it from a reasonably reputable maker, I want it soon, and I want something reasonably priced because I don't know if I like this."

Now I know that I like it and I would like to get something more traditional, with a two octave fretboard and a 6.5 fret. I mentioned in my post above that I've come across Mike Clemmer, Folkcraft, and Bob Magowan as makers in my searches. BobbaSkywalker mentioned McSpadden. I guess my main question would be where they fall on the spectrum of quality? Is one considered better than the other? I would definitely like to get something that's going to be well crafted, set up properly, and not have a lot of issues. I've dealt with poor quality instruments and I spent more time learning how to fix them than play them :lol:

Also, I've noticed there are A LOT of wood choices. Is there something typical? A violin is normally maple with a spruce top or a Ukulele tends to be considered to have the best sound from Koa or Acacia. Is there some equivalent for dulcimers?

strumelia wrote:Just for your info- both stick/walkaround type dulcimers and lap dulcimers can be played either by using the chord/melody method or the single string melody with drones method of playing... so that's not a permanent decision you'll need to make... you can play either method on any of them. (BTW, lap style dulcimers will have the strings 'reversed' so that the low bass string is furthest from your body when held and played in the lap... whereas the stick dulcimers have the bass on the opposite side, because you are playing underhand with hand gripping the neck. But rest assured, for most folks this change is usually pretty quick to adjust their head around. ;) )


I definitely enjoy this style of music (melody + drones). I could see myself moving on to chords or finger picking at some point in the future, but I'd like to keep it simple for now. I should add I'm not opposed to a "stick" style dulcimer, but I haven't come across them as much compared to the traditional style when I search for them.

I realize this is probably a much older style of playing, but I like the sound and watching his hand it seems like something I could learn :)

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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby kwl » Tue Aug 15, 2017 8:26 pm

Bret, if you are in the DC area you might look in to the mountain dulcimer selection at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland. While they never seem to have a great amount of them, they usually have a few new and used instruments in stock. You can check the website: https://hmtrad.com/collections/lap-dulcimers. You can also take lessons at HMT. There are quite a few dulcimer players in the DC area. Best wishes on your dulcimer journey. You came to the right place to ask questions and garner support.

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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby BobbaSkywalker » Tue Aug 15, 2017 9:23 pm

There's a place on this website for clubs. Here's the link for Maryland:

http://www.everythingdulcimer.com/clubs ... p?state=MD
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby Judy K » Tue Aug 15, 2017 11:25 pm

Welcome, Bret. If you want to play noter drone, strumelia is an excellent source of advice.

About a good dulcimer ... avoid Apple Creek, Johnson, and Roosebeck. You can possibly get a fairly good one but you take your chances. These are all foreign imports. McSpadden & Folkcraft are 'factory' made but are very good dulcimers. Some very respected players play these MDs (mountain dulcimers) by choice and preference. Mike Clemmer is an individual builder. His instruments are beautiful and have a distinctive sound, very nice sound. I've been to a couple of dulcimer concerts where a certain sound would catch my ear over and above the others. Once it was a Clemmer dulcimer; the second time it was a Prussia Valley dulcimer. Prussia Valley is made by Gary Sager of Waverly, Ohio. (Another excellent builder.)

Builders I can personally recommend:
David Lynch - Sweet Woods Instruments
Gary Sager- Prussia Valley
Nicholas Hambas - Blackcreek Strings
David Hanson - no website but sells on ebay
Ron Ewing - Ron Ewing Dulcimers

I have or have had dulcimers by all these luthiers. David Lynch has a beginner's dulcimer that he sells for a very low price that is a good dulcimer. He also makes ... well ...just about anything a dulcimer player can want in a dulcimer. My last purchase from Dave was a fully chromatic hourdrop with ribbon mahogany sides & back with a sassafras top, with an internal pickup. Tell him what you want and the sound you want to make and the way you want to play and he will make the dulcimer to match. And Dave's not the only maker that does that. Every one of the five I have listed are great to work with.

There are many more makers out there that are excellent. I list these because I own and have played their dulcimers.
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby Banjimer » Wed Aug 16, 2017 6:18 am

If you've just got to have one now and don't want to wait a few months while one is built, your best bets for a consistent high-quality dulcimer are McSpadden or Folkcraft. They most likely have some ready to ship. Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan usually has several McSpadden's in stock and ready to ship, as well. A McSpadden will run you about 500 dollars and Folkcraft should be about the same.

A few of the independent builders have already been mentioned, Ron Ewing, David Lynch, Gary Sager, Bob and Janita Baker, Carl Gotzmer, and others all make excellent instruments but you can expect to wait for a few months if you want one built. You could try calling them to see if they have any in stock and ready to go.
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby jakstall » Wed Aug 16, 2017 2:21 pm

Bret,

Judy offered several links to builders. Of the ones on her list, I can personally vouch for Dave Lynch, Gary Sager and Ron Ewing as making quality instruments. Others that have been mentioned as good quality instruments and another I can personally vouch for are:
Folkcraft - Folkcraft
McSpadden - McSpadden
Terry McCafferty - Terry McCafferty
Bob MaGowan - I don't have a link for him

Judy K wrote:Builders I can personally recommend:
David Lynch - Sweet Woods Instruments
Gary Sager- Prussia Valley
Nicholas Hambas - Blackcreek Strings
David Hanson - no website but sells on ebay
Ron Ewing - Ron Ewing Dulcimers


I own a McCafferty, two McSpaddens (and gave one to my daughter-in-law a while back) and a custom one made by Dave Lynch (and recently sold another Lynch to a friend and gave one to my son-in-law a couple years ago). I started on a Cripple Creek (no longer available) almost 40 years ago and I still have it. Over the years I have also owned a Folkcraft and have played, but not owned, dulcimers made by Gary Sager, Ron Ewing and Bob MaGowan. I don't think you would go wrong buying a dulcimer made by any of these. The ideal thing would be to find other players or a dealer knowledgable in dulcimers (which rules out most music shops) and play different instruments. If that isn't possible or practical you would be safe going with ones mentioned here, and avoiding the ones Judy said to avoid.

Gary Sager- Prussia Valley not only builds instruments, he also sells some others. He is a McSpadden dealer and usually has some in stock. Gary is a first rate guy and I've dealt with him a good bit over the years. If you want a beginner instrument, Dave Lynch's student model is hard to beat. He sells it for about $140 plus shipping and if you later decide to upgrade to one of his better instruments he'll give you some credit (I think about $100) for the student model he made for you.

Some common woods include cherry, walnut and maple. Sometimes the whole instrument is one wood. Sometimes the soundboard is another wood like western red cedar, spruce or redwood. There are quite a few other wood options as well.

Good luck in your search!
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Re: Where to get a dulcimer & best way to learn?

Postby bret » Sat Aug 19, 2017 11:59 pm

Thanks to everyone for all the replies. This community really is very helpful :)

@Ken - Thank you for the suggestion of House of Musical Traditions. I wasn't aware of them and they're not too far away. I'll definitely have to stop in and see what they have to offer. It looks like they have an instructor there, so maybe that's a good place to do lessons.

@BobbaSkywalker - Thanks for the pointer to club section. Unfortunately it looks like the one near me disbanded in 2004. I was able to pull up their old page from the web archive and they mentioned the club was inactive at that point. The site went off line sometime later in 2004.

@Judy - Thanks for the list of recommendations. I've definitely got a few places to look now. My only conundrum is not being able to hear the instruments. I did notice that the gentleman at Folkcraft posts a video for each individual dulcimer, which is a nice touch. I'm sure it takes some time, but it is nice to hear the instrument even if it's through the computer.

@Banjimmer - I'm definitely looking for something sooner rather than later. After seeing their names a few times now I think my first instrument probably will be a McSpadden or Folkcraft. Thanks for the suggestion on Elderly Instruments. I've purchased other items from them before (mostly strings), but I hadn't thought to check there for a dulcimer.

@jakstall - Thanks for the additional suggestions, particularly in regards to the woods. In watching some of the Folkcraft videos I've noticed having a soft wood on top is a premium on their lower end instruments, but I'm guessing this makes a better sound? I know on a violin the top plate is usually spruce, which is supposedly a good tone wood. I don't know how well that translates to a dulcimer, but I'd like to get something reasonably "standard" if there is such a thing :)
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