Happy New Year! Yes, well, it's been 2015 for a few weeks, but I had to do some tax stuff for me and for the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest.
The Forte was once my main instrument. That size and tuning was the most common HD you'd find in the 1980's, when 12/11 instruments became only something to learn on. When Sam Rizzetta and I developed the Compact in the 1990's, the smaller size and lighter weight started to attract more people, and I have been making fewer and fewer Fortes. I've noticed, however, that while there are a number of lightly-strung instruments on the market, and a few very heavily-strung instruments, there was needed something in between; a long-scale instrument with more power and a bigger dynamic range that was not a big challenge to carry up stairs and sensitive enough for light playing. It was time to update the Forte, and I have. The sound is bigger. The string spacing has been shaved a bit, down to the 1 1/16" I use for the newer Extended Range models, so the instrument has dropped from 20" broad to 18 ½", making it a little easier to carry. The profile is now asymmetrical, like the Compact and Extended range. The low bass is now over to the right side of the bass bridge, BUT it can also be put on the left, if you're used to that. The soundboard is western red cedar. The weight has been pared down to 16 lbs. This instrument can be driven pretty hard, and is great for dances.
Pickups For an instrument with such traditional roots, it's fine to avoid electronic enhancement. But pickups are and will continue to be very handy things for performing. The choice for the pickups has been three; the Basic, with no preamp; a low-impedance setup Low Z), with an XLR jack, or a high-impedance setup (High Z), with a ¼" jack. The High Z setup needs a 9 v. battery, the Low Z has needed phantom power. Phantom power is 48 volts, and compared to 9 volts, there's more headroom, a little less noise. But not every sound system – and very few portable amps – have it. I have now configured the Low Impedance setup to have a 9 v. battery auxiliary option, so it is no longer necessary to have phantom power to use it. I have added a notch filter, also, to somewhat attenuate the harsh frequencies that come from steel strings.
Please note that I am perfectly happy to install any other pickup in my instruments. I myself install a piezo sensor in the bridge. But there are other options for pickups. Pickup the World uses a flat piezo tape, that's to be stuck with doublestick tape to the inside of the frame rail. There's also the Barcus Berry Planar Wave pickup, which is a little rectangular block that also is to be stuck to the inside of the instrument with doublestick tape. These each have their own tone colors. A bridge sensor gives a little more low-end response, and I like this because you can blend the signal with that from a decent microphone to give more of a sturdy sound in the main speakers. But I find both the Pickup the World and Barcus Berry sensors to function perfectly well. If you'd like to use one of these, however, you should be able to check the state of the adhesive tape from time to time to make sure the sensor is not peeling loose. Also, often the manufacturers supply the sensor simply wired to a plug, which then is supposed to hang off the instrument. It's much better to have it securely wired to a jack inside the instrument, instead; if you want to use one of these with one of my instruments, I will wire up a jack to it for $30
I am periodically asked about midi hammered dulcimers. Long ago and far away it was once done with a bushel of sensors and PC. Now, there are rumors of it being done with a few Arduino controllers and Raspberry Pie mini-computers. So, it may yet happen! I am also sometimes asked about making auto-tune hammered dulcimers. Surely, 96 servos linked to 96 tiny gearheads run by a decent processor should be able to do it, I am told. I do not doubt that this is possible, but it is not something I plan ever to work on.
I am sometimes asked how often strings should be changed, and other questions of maintenance. I have written a small paper on this. I have also posted a video on YouTube of how to change a string. There should also, soon, be short videos on how to move treble bridge back into tune, and how to locate mysterious buzzes in the instrument. These problems are often simple enough to fix - certainly, simple enough to fix well enough to allow you to do the gig.
Prices have gone up for almost everything I need to have, to make instruments, so I have had to raise mine, a modest 4% above the last increase in 2013. I don't like to do it - I know that for most people, it's already a significant expense to get an instrument from me. If it's any comfort, know that I will only be waving forlornly at the money, as it passes through.
It is now hard to find in the east, unless it's old or recycled, and so now I am using recycled redwood for tops. This means that there can be some marks or discolorations on the soundboards. But these do not affect the sound. The Forte has been re-designed to use a western red cedar soundboard, and it may come to replace redwood in other models as the stocks of recycled redwood grow lower.
This is something Sam Rizzetta pioneered, and I am making CF versions of the Compact and Extended Range. CF has great strength for its weight, and has been very useful in allowing the creation of durable versions of notoriously fragile things like harps and cellos. For hammered dulcimers it has not been quite as handy. For one thing, wood hammered dulcimers are not that fragile - the box has to resist close to 1,000 kilos of the compression load of the strings, after all. For another thing, it's hammered, and it's hard to escape making some elements a little heavy; a hammer is swung against a string course, and so that string course has to be commensurately massive. And the soundboard and braces have to match the strings. And the tuning pins and hitch pins have to sit in a reasonably massive block of wood. So, it has not been possible to use CF to cut the weight and increase the strength of a HD the way the way it's been used for cellos and harps. But as CF does not react to changes in humidity, like wood, CF hammered dulcimers do hold their tuning better than regular wood ones. If you plan to busk on the streets in Athens, Georgia in July, a CF instrument might be worth the expense.
There is an almost universal hope among players that the ideal set of hammers will make up for a lack of practice. While a bad set of hammers will certainly handicap you, once you find some that work pretty well for you, you should just play with them and not worry too much about possible perfection. I make just two kinds, and pad them with calfskin or leave the bare. I'm asked to customize them occasionally, but I don't have time.
I do make light folding stands from time to time, but as I don't make adjustable ones I prefer to make them for people who are ordering instruments, because I can get a better idea of what the stand will be carrying and the size of the person using it. Durable adjustable stands are not hard to come by and can be found in various places, String Fever Music being one.
I live and work at the end of a gravel road near Martinsburg, WV, a pretty easy drive from I81. Instruments are always in process, and so something may not be yet worth looking at, let alone playable, when you want to stop by. But I do have examples of the models I offer. If you would like to visit, drop me an email for directions.
Not in the catalog
For a few years I have been making salterios for friends in Mexico. I've mostly been making the common tenor salterios, but this year also a couple of salterio requintos, which are an octave above the tenor salterio. I also created perhaps the first saltero bajo, a tenor salterio with an extended bass. It's nice to be able to help the revival of this lovely little instrument. The salterio tuning was once the most common 18th century chromatic dulcimer tuning. In 19th century Mexico the salterio was lowered from G down to D, probably to make it more fiddle friendly. The tight string-spacing, finger-pick technique and re-entrant tuning (meaning, you find some lower notes as you go up the bass bridge, not just higher and higher ones) make it a good bit different from a hammered dulcimer, so HD players should be forewarned: this is not like what you're playing. If you think you need one, drop me a line. I may try to talk you out of it.
Similarly, the Tambour de Béarn, AKA txun-txun, tambor, Bearnaise string-drum. A friend posted video of me playing one of these (tuned AAAeee) on YouTube and I still get inquiries about building them. I can; but I should warn you, I have trouble keeping the strings from developing buzzes - you ARE hitting them with a stick, and the heat-shrink tubing I apply to the outside of bronze-wrapped banjo strings is not always enough to keep them from rattling. Recently I have found that US army-surplus field telephone wire sounds pretty good for the E strings. I am still looking for something that will work for the A strings as well.