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2017 Newsletter


  • The Little Light Dulcimer, or LLD. I am not the only builder of HD's who's been asked to make something very, very light. In vain have I pointed out that HD's back in the 60's and earlier used to weigh 25 pounds or more, had 2 ½ octaves or less. The Compact is around 14 pound... and, with the Ashbook tuning, has four octaves, I have whined, why isn't that good enough. But, I have been trying. Past experiments resulted in very light HD's that sounded, well, very poor. By using carbon fiber in thin layers to augment the strength of thinner wood in a 16/15 (the size of a Compact) I got the materials weight down. By springing the back out to cut down the size of the pinblocks while keeping the frame strong (Sam Rizzetta came up with this) I managed to cut some more. The result is quite decent sound, good tuning stability, and the weight is down to a bit over pounds. As almost half of this is strings, pins and bridges that can't be lightened, that is pretty good.

    Sam Rizzetta has also got an arch-back laminate LLD design. We took both to the big Evart MI festival this year, and if I can get the patterns finished his model should be available soon.
  • Pickups: The lightest way to have a HD equipped with a pickup is to mount the preamp on board, and I have been trying a long while to come up with a durable, good-sounding one that (unlike the cheap op-amp based ones out there) can work with phantom power and won't drain batteries fast.

    Some of you have seen me running the mixer and setting mikes at Shepherdstown Music and Dance concerts over the years. After finding myself always adjusting the EQ on steel string instruments the same way in the PA system, I wanted to build that into the preamps I make. So, I asked engineer/fiddler Tom Dawson to add a Twin-T filter, to drop the harsh frequencies in the 7kHz band about 3 dB. Basically, this means the new preamps give a more mellow, less bright sound to the pickup. Tom also re-designed the circuit for better gain and longer battery life, and because of Tom the Dalai Lama setup is back: an on-board preamp with both XLR and ¼" outputs, it can run on batteries or, through the XLR cable, phantom power. In his spare time, Tom works on how to protect sensitive electronic equipment from the Electro Magnetic Pulse it'd get in a nuclear attack, so making something to only survive wedding gigs has been a really simple task for him.
  • TriStanders have been a useful option for a while now, and I have mounted them on instruments when requested. But the legs have not been trouble-free: it's been easy to miss tightening one of the rings at all, or just under-tighten it. And when someone cranked down on the rings, sometimes they split, or locked in place and couldn't be un-tightened. At last Dusty Strings has replaced them with legs that have lever-locks. It's now obvious when the legs are now locked or unlocked, the levers are easy to flip, and there's a set-screw adjustment for tension that's easy to change. They're also the same price as the old legs.

    Prices have been kept the same from last year, but as always are not completely in my control and may be subject to change.


The Forte was once the main instrument coming out of the shop. 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. Then Sam Rizzetta and I developed the Compact in the 1990's. The smaller size and lighter weight started to attract more people, and so 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 upstairs 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 17 lbs. This instrument can be driven pretty hard, and is great for dances.

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.

Redwood, Western Red Cedar

It has been hard to find Redwood in the east, unless it's old or recycled. I have been using recycled redwood for tops. This has given me a few surprises, with instruments returning for repair, and though I have become wiser about how much to throw away and haven't been surprised lately, I am now making instruments with western red cedar tops. The Forte has been re-designed to use a western red cedar soundboard, as well as the Extended Range, and the new Little Light Dulcimer uses it also. Cedar is lighter and livelier than redwood: or, if you like, redwood is heavier and mellower than cedar. Cedar is also lighter in color than redwood. A natural finish on redwood makes a soundboard dark enough to mute string shadows in normal light, but a natural finish on cedar will highlight them, which can make it hard to always see the strings clearly. Unless otherwise directed I will therefore stain a cedar soundboard brown or black.

I do have some redwood left in stock, but unless I stumble across some more of good quality and reasonable price, eventually I will only make soundboards of cedar.

I have made soundboards of various woods. Luan mahogany, butternut, and chestnut have their own distinctive flavors, but require different bracing and the bigger instrument designs are for cedar or redwood.


There is an almost universal hope among all 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 them bare. I'm asked to customize them occasionally, but I don't have time.

The wooden hammers are plat du jour: they are made in batches from whatever hard wood seems right, to be in season, and in stock. They can be rosewood, pernambuco, osage orange... whatever looks good. The last batch I made from some 100yr old maple piano bracing, and I dyed them bright red.

The CF hammers have a flexible shank that some players find extremely useful. I make them with double-sided heads, calfskin on one side, bare wood on the other, typically with goncalo alves handles.


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.