I don't consider myself a dulcimer builder, but I have built my own dulcimers, from the first to latest, as well as a few for other people at the same time. The fact is, the dulcimer is partially such an ancient and wide-spread instrument because it was easy to build, without special tools, skills, or even very specific plans.My first dulcimer was roughly copied off of Rick Fogel's, who I was hanging out with as we both played on the street in Alexandria, VA, in the late 1970's. I built it one summer, then the summmer of 1980 I tuned it up and taught myself how to play while taking a break and visiting relatives of a friend up in St John, New Brunswick, Canada. I sit by the St. John River and practice every morning and every evening for a least a couple hours, and when I left 6 weeks later, I could play. I had given up performing professionally because I didn't like the music business, and decided to do something else, which at that time meant running a cooperative tree-planting crew, and saving money for land. In 1983, I took off on a mountain bike and I had to chose an instrument to take with me, and I took the dulcimer and left my guitar behind. It had become my primary and only instrument, beyond my voice.It travelled on the back of my mountain bike, sometimes with my wolfdog riding on top. It played for the machine-gunner on the corner in El Salvador. I gave up on having plans and dedicated myself to social action through conciousness raising, alternating between retreats to the wilderness and trying to reach people, wherever I could, mostly playing the role of folksinger. Though I was often in the role of a street performer, really, I was just performing everywhere, for anyone I met.. the street just happened to be where I met a lot of people. It was a role that worked well, and the dulcimer was always with me, hanging on my shoulder, everywhere I went, ready to drop it on the spot and play. It sailed the seas and climbed mountains. It wasn't much to look at, but had a gorgeous sound that I just can't explain, and it drew big crowds and small, everywhere we went. The years passed by quickly, though change was slow, times were bad, and America was a hard place to live if you were a progressive counter-culturist and social activist. So it goes.
The next dulcimers came about in Missoula, Montana. My first dulcimer, after much use and exposure to the elements, was warping into unusability. While staying with a friend, I actually rented space in another friend's instrument building and repair shop late one fall in 1987. Though I knew I needed a new dulcimer, the final impetuous came from a friend in Florida. He wanted a dulcimer for his wife, for her birthday, and to celebrate the birth of their first child, and so he asked me to do it (he knew I wouldn't charge anything more than the cost). In the end, I decided to production line it and built five dulcimer that time, in a couple different sizes. I also built two of the new acoustic dulcimers the extra bass section I'd jury-rigged on the original, one for me and one for a spare, since by now I realized that having a dulcimer was a nescessary part of my life. My original dulci had two litle 3/4 moons for soundholes. As I thought about what to do this time, I thought, "well, this one is for a lady, so I'll do a three moon design." I liked the look of it so much, and it was similiar to my old one, so I used the design for all of them, and still do.
The most important event, though, was that while I had all my dulcimer plans and information out, I drew up plans for the first solid body electric dulcimers.
I kept playing my original dulcimer for a while longer, but eventually it was retired to hang on the wall at my ma's house, with my first guitar. I only sold the last remaining dulcimer of the 5 that I'd built in Missoula a couple years ago, since I'm even less of a dulcimer salesman than I am a builder! When people ask me why I don't build dulcimers, I explain that as a touring musician, I don't have time and energy, and don't have the space and tools, to be a builder or a seller. I only build dulcimers because mine are unique (at least they were) in their wide range, and they are built tough, with 1/4" bolts holding the backs on, so even under the worst abuse on the road, and at festivals, or on trips like the last one to Belize (see the ARCHIVE page); it just can't come apart no matter how hard it tries, unless the back snaps clean in two. And it doesn't cost me much to build them, compared to buying one.
I also did a few tests to see if a electric dulcimer would work, rigging up simple solid-body prototypes with a few strings, adding pickups, and seeing if an electric was even feasable. All the tests worked, so I started thinking about building a full-sized prototype electric dulcimer.Over the last couple years I'd hammered out the design for a solid body electric dulcimer. In the winter of 91-92, I was at the point where I needed to build the first small but complete version prototypes to test out the building process and even more, the actually sound it would make.
During the winter in Florida I was living on my boat and storing my VW in a dirt lot behind the natural food store. I used it as a shore locker, essentially, and pretty often I'd be there tuning up and playing as I got ready to head out for the afternoon or evening. Keni, the parking lot attendant, noticed this, and pretty soon he invited me to tune up and play in his shack there by the store, surrounded by a palm-frond roofed patio (this is all paved over now, by the way). After a while of this, he finally asked if I could build him one. I told him that I wasn't really a builder, though I built my own, but that I did have a deal for him. I told Keni that if he bought the materials and gave me space to work, the prototype electric dulci was his when I was done checking it out. For my purposes, I was through with the prototype after I built it and played it a few times, then I'd go on to a finished full size version. This would allow him to learn to play and see if it really was his path cheaply (I think it cost him $20 or so) before investing in rather expensive regular dulcimer.
After a little hesitancy, he agreed. Later, he told me it was "one of the best decisions of my life." So I built it, the first working prototype, a single stringed 10 course two bridge model, with pins set for double strings for the bass bridge. This 12/13 design would take the name "Dancing Dolphin Dulcimer" and Keni ended up transformed from parking-lot attendant to regular professional performer in Key West for many years, after I had moved on.
At the same time I built several 5 and 6 course models for the local sailboat kids (who loved to play with the dulcimer) on some pieces of board someone donated. They always wanted to play the dulci, so I just built a bunmch of little kid-dulcis for them. Strangely, somewhere very far away from there, in the Pacific NorthWest, I ran into one, and tuned it, for a girl who said she'd picked it up off an island in the Keys, back in the woods, half buried in pine needles. Strange how a life runs.
In the Spring, after I'd left Florida and was playing in Virginia, I haunted the local wood supply yards for the month I was there, till what I wanted finally showed up, single plank of 2" maple, 17.5" wide. I also picked up another plank, not so wide, that I'd calculated would hold a standard set of dulcimer courses in the compressed format that I planned to use on the electric. Over the following months I built the several variations of the basic model: 12/13 courses, with single and double stringed versions so I could compare the sounds. One of these 12/13's eventually would go to Keni when he had to replace his aging prototype. The prototype used a cheaper joined plank, rather than a single solid plank. It eventually started to split under the stress, one reason I stay with solid wood still, rather than joining narrower planks, though the wide planks are proving hard to find. But the prototype step was complete.
For a several years, I was busy with performing, making the first trips to Alaska, and other projects, like two CDs, and totally rebuilding a steel sailboat. Though honestly, the truth is then I had to weather a major disaster that took up a lot of time over several more years, and left me pretty well crippled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These things happen. I survived, and kept moving forward, step by step, but it would be a decade and more before I got the pieces picked up and dusted off. In the case of the dulcimers, this was literal. They were gathering dust in my schoolbus-RV, stored in a lot on Oregon for many years. I'm still in that process, really, and some things.. well, not everything that is broken can be fixed, not everything lost can be found, and what doesn't kill you can still leave you crippled. But life goes on and you do what you can, and what you can do can still be great. It is enough.
During this time, Keni had progressed from parking lot attendant to a full-time musician, "the Mellow Man". Having no connection to traditional dulcimer and no teacher except my initial lessons, he developed his own style, very tremulous and slow, using the great sustain provided by the electric. But his original prototype was beginning to wearing out. Though I had told him anyone could copy my design, he rightly enough wanted one I'd designed and built, and a "final" model, not a copy of the prototype. Maybe he thought there was a chance I wouldn't make it through my troubles, so I promised him I'd make a trip to the bus somehow and get him one of the final 12/13 models, similiar to his prototype.
In the early winter of '97 I got the 12/13 dulcis and wood for the "ultimate" electric as well, though they almost wouldn't let me back on the Greyhound with a pile of wood as luggage! I went to the place of my old pard in Montana. I was an emotional wreck. Strange that I ended up in Missoula again to build dulcimers, or not so strange, it's still my home base out west. As the snows fell outside, I strung up the completed "D.D." standard models, and finally started building the first "ultimate". I only drilled the holes for the pins and glued on the rails, with no bridges yet. I was desperate to begin making some forward progress again in the dreams and plans of my life, the positive energies, everything that had ground to a halt in '94. Both literally and figuratively the electric dulci's represented the great things that had been derailed and delayed so long. The electric dulci's started the watershed stage when I said, "where was I when the first shot was fired?", and began deciding what I needed to do, what pieces to pick up again, as I got my life back on line.
In the Fall of 1998, after I'd finished performing at the State Fairs, I stayed in Alaska an extra 6 weeks. I took up an offer of free woodshop space to build two new accoustic dulcimers for myself, a cleaner looking, slightly improved copy of my present dulci and a "next generation" expanded model that matched the configuration I'd planned for the solid-body electric, and a third for the owner of the woodshop. This one was interesting because I built it using a solid spruce plank for the back. The woodshop owner built saunas and cured his own wood, so he had plenty, and he really wanted an instrument built with local materials as much as possible, so I obliged, though I told him I couldn't guarantee the results of using solid spruce for the back.
On the other hand, there's no reason not to, though it might not be as stable over time as plywood. I believe in the same principle, and I incorporated local woods, or wood with a history, as much as possible. In Alaska, that doesn't give you alot of choices, mostly spuce and birch. But I did use local Birch plywood and locally cut and cured birch for the rails and bridges, and some of his spruce for interior bracing. I thought of trying a new design for the soundholes, but ended up staying with my "three moon" design, maybe I've just gotten used to looking at it after all these years.
I didn't finish the dulcimers, simply because I didn't have a sander (his shop built saunas so fine sanding wasn't part of the setup), and didn't have the time for handsanding. So I boxed them up and shipped them away, and they finally saw light again in the Florida Keys, a whole continent away.
There, once again, I was offered woodshop space, this time by the owners of Woodenhead Art Gallery, after I did a free show for one of their openings. This was a custom cabinet and furniture shop, so finishing was definitely part of their setup. We bacame good friends as well. Over that Winter and the following Spring I finished the dulcimers, and gave them a good start on their history, built at the northwestern corner of the continent, and finished on its southeastern tip. But as soon as I finished them, I packed them away in the car, still wet with linseed oil. I didn't realize it then, but in the end, I would never really use them.
I took off for one last trip with the old dulci, and a trip worthy to complete the wild career of a great instrument. In fact, when I was agreeing to sail this 16 foot trimarran across the Gulf and down to Belize, my only stipulation was that the dulcimer had to fit. I said the dulci was 17" wide, and they replied that the cockpit openning (it's like a kayak) was 18", and it was settled. I went (see the Archives) and the dulci went with me. It was a great trip, and I played everywhere I went, for everyone I met. It really was the first point where I really felt like I got back to my old life for a little while.
In the early summer, when I got back to Florida from Belize, in a forceful effort to do something positive in the face of all the negatives I was still dealing with, I completed the "ultimate" electric dulcimer V.1 in a few frenzied days. I built the bridges, coming up with a new technique, and strung it. I tuned it, loaded it on the wagon and dragged it down to where Keni was playing, and borrowing his amp, played it for the first time for him, his patron, and the public who stopped to stare. In that moment, I confirmed my decision that the electric dulci was one thing I must rescue from the wreckage and bring to fruit, even use to spearhead that whole effort, and become a major thread in my new life. With this in mind, perhaps, I christened this model the "Millennium Dulcimer". It is my vehicle in the next millennium, and a new age in dulcimers. Though right now I've gotten so tired of the millenium hype that I wonder if I'll keep that name, or just choose something similiar, like "21st Century dulcimer" or "dulci 2000".
I left it at that point, though. I headed for Alaska and perform at the fairs and since I was flying, I took my aging acoustic that fit in the overhead. The millenium dulci was also a radical change from the acoustic, and I didn't have time to adapt before I'd be performing for a lot of people. Though it still had dried salt and sand on it from the trip to Belize in Further, it had enough juice left for one more trip north of the Arctic circle. Though after that, it took its place on the wall with my first dulcimer. If dulcimers could talk...
If you'd like to build yourself one, I have recently added a basic set of acoustic dulcimer plans to the website as well as basic information on building and setting it up.
I'd always planned to build a second one and "make it pretty", but I just wanted to play the first one, not worry about the finish. Then I was too busy playing it to finish it, though I also never found time to build a second one. In 2004, while I had the steel boat in the boatyard, I took the opportunity of not performing to strip the strings of the electric and finally sand and varnish it. I also added end-braces to further stabilize the instrument and stop it arching, a problem with using a single plank, though some arch is good, I think. I always told people it was a beautiful piece of wood under the dust and dirt, and I was right. In 2007, while I was in Florida again, I added a couple strips of wood to the top and bottom to extend the plank to the full 18" called for in the design. I could finally add a couple missing strings on the bottom.
Though the other reason I added the strips was to protect the new coil pickups I was now building. They had to extend beyond the strings, which meant beyond the edge of the dulcimer, where they would surely get damaged. So I had to extend the dulcimer body to give them protection. That also indicates where I am at with dulcimer building these days. The direction my duclimer building creative energy is going is to the electric side of the instrument. I build the coil winding machine and am experimenting with pickups, and the rest of the electronics and controls associated with a standard electric guitar. I am pretty well done with the design of the electric physically, all that remains is getting a standard set of options for configuring the electronic side of the instrument.
Though I am planning to build a bunch more full sized electric dulcimers for sale, having a basic standard set-up for the electronics is part of that. I want to be able to have totally finished electric dulcimers I can pass on to other people, who can take them in direction and to places I will never go. I play my type of myusic, I'm just one artist with my own style, and I am only one man. The electric duclimer must have a life of its own, which means betting it into the hands of other artists who will play their own type and style of music on it. As I tell people, I may go to Brazil one day, and I can play a wicked samba, but I'll never play one, or play the dulcimer, like someone who grew up in Rio; or India, or China, or the Middle East, or Africa, or another American artist, since we are all different. It is the artist, not the instrument, that makes the music. So the dulcimer has to leave me behind.
Not only that, while I have built the first electric solid-body hammered dulcimer, that is not to say that my design is the only one. There are many options one could chose, and I have tried to make that clear to anyone who has enquired about electrifying a dulcimer. While I have my design, and it is still really just a form of the traditional design, I don't want people to think that this is the only way you could do it. There is certainly room for more possible designs for an electric hammered dulcimer. To this end I have started a page for electric dulcimer builders , hoping to collect stories from other people engaged in this process. As might be expected, there is now a whole section of the website dedicated to the electric hammered dulcimer, the "edulci". I've included my own story of designing and building the first electric dulcimers, which I have generally covered here as well, of course. There are pages dedicated to building pickups for dulcimers, including the simple coil winding machine I designed and built. Those pages are where this story will continue, since I am not done building dulcimers yet, but I expect that I will be building electrics rather than acoustics.