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There are no String Police.  Many of us have experimented with a variety of gauges for many years. 

Nylon strings are going to sound very quiet.  They will have trouble generating enough energy to make good sound.   

Heavier gauge or lighter gauge strings --  I use all the time.  What is it you're trying to achieve?    For example I never use 20 ga wound strings for the bass string because I like the sharper sound of an unwound bass string.  I almost always use 19 or 20 ga. plain steel strings.  I often go several gauges heavier than the Strothers String Gauge Calculator suggests -- it is "noticeably light" in its recommendations.  

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I've read a few accounts of trying nylon strings on a dulcimer.  None really worked out well because of the way dulcimers are generally constructed.  The strings are usually attached to tail block and the scroll/peg head. On instruments like a classical guitar or ukulele they're connected to the soundboard and the soundboard vibrates freely.  Or on a violin they cross the bridge that vibrates the top plate directly.

Nylon strings are much lower tension than steel strings and will have lower energy when you strum them.  On a dulcimer you'd get a very weak sound.

Aaron O'Rourke has some videos of a nylon string dulcimer, but it's a prototype specifically constructed for that purpose.

To your other question: Higher gauge strings will increase tension and tend to be louder.  They may also produce a warmer / darker sound than lighter gauge strings.  Due to higher tension they'll require some more pressure to press down. 

Changing string tension can also affect intonation.  With higher tension, it requires more pressure to fret a note.  When a note is fretted that pressure also slightly changes the string tension.  On an instrument like an electric guitar, the saddles on the bridge are adjustable to account for this.  Most dulcimers don't have an adjustable bridge, and if they do it's usually a single piece. 

Unless you change it significantly it's not likely to be a problem, but it's something to be aware of if you change the strings and the intonation is off.

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As our mysterious Admin says, nylon doesn't work well because of the way dulcimers are constructed and make their sound -- not at all like a guitar.  And they have lower string tension which doesn't have as much energy to transmit vibration.


Changing strings is not going to give you a markedly mellower sound. 


If you are not playing with others, one way to get a little more mellow is to change tuning.  Drop down one whole step from DAA or DAd to CGG or CGc.  That lower note is often seen as "more mellow".

 The real way that dulcimers get mellow is by getting bigger -- having more interior volume (more cubic inches inside.  For the player, that means buying a bigger dulcimer -- a dulcimer that is wider, deeper and longer in the body than their current instrument.    A dulcimer which is  8 inches wide rather than 6 or 7; 3-1/2 inches deep rather than 2;  32 inches long rather than 30 -- will have a much more mellow sound.  Notice I did not say anything about changing the VSL on that larger body.   The ultimate mellow dulcimer is a Tennessee Music Box -- they are 12-14" wide, close to 4" deep, and 32" long or thereabouts.

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5 minutes ago, melodyfarrand@gmail.com said:

What is the heaviest guage that you have tried that doesnt change the intonation?

That all depends on your VSL.  It's not something that we can just say "18 gauge".

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Posted (edited)

Box dulcimers may not be the prettiest instruments on the planet, but they can certainly be striking if the builder uses beautiful wood (and can be designed to act as a storage box for your music and accessories as well.  And you don't have to go with just a rectangular instrument.   A Galax style dulcimer is usually a very deep/wide teardrop.  A builder named Dan Cox, noted for his traditional dulcimers, just completed a unique Music Box with the distinctive TMB  fretboard, metal work and tuning keys on a fiddle-shaped body.  

Any of us who build dulcimers can make you a more mellow instrument.  But trying to make a dulcimer significantly more mellow by changing strings or other tweaks just doesn't work very well.

Edited by NoterMan

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If you're using a pick currently, switch to thumb/fingers or a leather pick may work for strumming.

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Bernd Krause makes a very nice nylon string dulcimer. If you scroll through his Facebook page, you will find of video of him playing and talking about the nylon dulcimer.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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As KenWL points out, you certainly can have a nylon strung dulcimer; and Bernd Krause makes a fine one.  But they are a custom instrument, built much lighter and more vibration sensitive then a conventional dulcimer.  You just won't have much luck trying to put nylon strings and a new nut & bridge on a conventional dulcimer 

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I put a nylon D wound string and a nylon A string on an old dulcimer of mine, and it sounded fine. The high d string  was kept as a steel string. The combination of 2 nylon strings and one steel string worked surprisingly well.

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Dulcimer Jim -- you're talking about wound strings.  The OP is talking about solid nylon strings -- like a uke or heavy fishing line.  Not the same thing at all.

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Posted (edited)

Wound strings are like the  large diameter "bass" string.  They have a multi-strand longitudinal nylon wrapping over a thin steel core, and are spiral wrapped (a.k.a. wound) with very fine wire.  They look exactly like a wound metal string but have the spiral winding of metal.  Wound nylon strings are only available in thicker gauges -- .020 or larger.  You cannot buy wound strings in small enough diameters to work for tunings around  DAA/DAd or other dulcimer tunings

You asked originally about Nylon strings, which are like those on a uke -- a poltruded length of "nylon",  like monofilament fishing line or "weed wacker" line.  The top photo shows nylon strings on a uke.  The other photo shows a close up of a nylon wound string.

nylon.jpg

wound nylon.jpg

Edited by NoterMan

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Hi Melody,   on a classical guitar there's 3 wound nylon strings and 3 unwound nylon strings. The thinnest of those wound nylon strings is tuned to the D note, the exact same low note that is used for the  low D note on a DAd or DAA tuned dulcimer.  So if you buy a set of nylon classical guitar strings  you can then  string up any dulcimer with that wound nylon D string plus the 2 thinnest unwound strings. When I did this on my dulcimer I found that the D string and the A string overpowered the high d string, so I put a d steel sting back on the dulcimer and the dulcimer then sounded very balanced.

I have a recording of my dulcimer strung this way, but I can't find it at present, I'll keep looking. However, I do have a recording of my dulcimer tuned dad with the 2 strings on either side of the middle A string  tuned to the same high d note (I replaced the wound D string with the same type of treble string used for the usual high d note.

So, there's the d unwound nylon string that replaced the usual D wound steel string, the middle A unwound nylon string that replaced the usual steel middle string, and I kept the remaining d steel string  in it's usual place, so we have 2 nylon strings and 1 steel string .......... here's a recording I made with the dulcimer strung like this

Jingle Bells Dulcimer with 2 nylon and 1 steel.mp3

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Thank you!!  This is very helpful!! Thank you for taking the extra time to include your recording.  I value the wisdom that I gather at this forum.

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