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2012 Newsletter

Yes, hurrah, at last we've updated the website. For the past two years I have been trying to devote as much time to the shop as possible, while also taking on some family duties, and the site has been a low priority. The wait for an instrumentlengthened to about 1½ years. Now that the family business is settled, I hope to bring the wait back down to a year, again. But be patient. Remember, it's just me in the shop. I am subject to the usual human frailties. If you discover a way to make me immune to human frailties, please get in touch. For immunity to human frailty, I will happily trade you for an instrument of your choice.

Things I make are four different hammered dulcimers; the Pico, the Compact, the Forte and the Extended Range.  The Pico is a 16/15 instrument; good for beginning players or people who prize lightness and good sound, and don't need a widerange. The Forte is a longer scale heavier instrument with a wider string spacing. It has bigger dynamic limit, for heavier hammers , and a more traditional, forceful sound. The Extended Range,as the name implies, is a larger instrument with a wide range, having more bass notes. The Compact is a compromise of many things, having a pretty wide range in a pretty small, not too heavy package.

The Shenandoah Valley Scheitholt is an American fretted dulcimer of the late 18th century. The German name (and yes, a lot of this country in the 18th century spoke German)translates as “a piece of wood”, but I confess the instrument sounds better than the name. Traditionally it had cherry or walnut sides and soundboard, and a pine back. It was also played on a table, much like its elegant modern descendant, the concert zither. Only the melody strings, not the drone strings, were fretted, and the frets were simple wire staples set in the soundboard. It has a simple, elegant sound, and is played “noter” style.

Hammered dulcimer hammers: I make regular wooden hammers, and flexible carbon fiber ones, as designed by Sam Rizzetta . Batches are done from time to time; I often but don't always have them in stock

Pedal Dampers: I can make to fit my own instruments. It has been hard to predictsuccess in fitting them to other makers' hammered dulcimers, however.

Integral piezo pickups can be installed on most hammered dulcimers, either with a preamp installed on board the instrument, a phantom-powered preamp built into a 1/4” cable, or no preamp at all, for those who want to use their own. Having tried various things for almost 30 years I'm happy to say that it's been possible to improvethe pickup systems a good deal, and they're now quieter, have more gain, and aremuch more bulletproof.

Playing stands: I make batches of light sitting stands, and light standing stands, from time to time. The sitting stand is also available in a dismountable version, held together with screws. I will also mount the Dusty Strings TriStander, which is the lightest and most secure way to hold a hammered dulcimer if you want the choice to play either sitting or standing.

Things I no longer supply: The Augusta Grande was a great instrument in its day, and has a lovely mellow tone, but now is replaced by the Pico, which is smaller, lighter and has the same range.

Cimbaloms:  I once thought a decent cimbalom could be made lighter than 100 kilos, and made a couple. Having been at the Cimbalom World Congress in Budapest in October 2011, I had a lot of questions answered, including, whether I should build them. The answer for now is, no. The cimbalom in Hungary is no longer hugely popular ( telling random people we were there for the Cimbalom Congress would draw the same kind-but-blank looks you'd get here in the US for telling people you played hammered dulcimer) but there are still some excellent makers and they are not sitting still.Some are making lighter instruments with, for example, hollow legs. Some are using the older Bohak scaling of the earlier 20th century, which is shorter than the Grand Piano-influenced scaling of the later 20th century and ( to my ears) much sweeter. And some very short-scale, small-range instruments are also being made for students that don't sound great, but do the job.  I still have an idea or two about building a cimbalom, but I no longer think that it's possible to make one that sounds right and can be easily picked up.

Cases for hammered dulcimers: In the past I have offered soft cases from Dusty Strings. They were not a perfect fit, but they were good quality and worked. I now send people to Coon Hollow Canvas. They have my patterns on file, so there's a good fit; the quality is excellent, the price is comparable to Dusty Strings', and you can pick your own color. They do need around five weeks notice, to make a case, but if you order when I start building , that will be plenty of time.

A common rule in stringed instrument design; most improvements will be tradeoffs. Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what you'll have to give up, in order to have it. Because of this, the Compact continues to be the most popular size I make, as it has the most compromises to make it the most all-around useful..  The Forte has got more force and punch, the Extended Range has wider range and richer mid- and low-range tone, and the Pico is lighter in weight. None of these are bad- the Forte is bigger, but it's not too difficult to carry and even the Extended Range is better than most electric keyboards, the Pico hasn't a third bridge but a 16/15 can still play a lot of music, and all of them have a good sound and will work for most musical tasks. But the Compact is the best compromise between them all.

Thoughts on 2012. Carbon fiber composites are wonderful things, holding hope for lighter construction in the next generation of cars, just as they are now being used to make lighter aircraft. They grant an amazing stiffness and tensile strength for little weight. Sam Rizzetta has been working with CF hammered dulcimer design for some time now and has become quite good with it (check out his book Canoe and Kayak Building the Light and Easy Way, McGraw-Hill ISBN 978-0-07-15935-7 ) So far, however, there hasn't been a huge savings of weight in the wide-range CF hammered dulcimers; the CF Compacts weigh about the same as wood ones, the CF Extended Range size is lighter by a few pounds. A CF back saves weight, but does not replace pinblocks, frame and bracing, and these have to weigh something.    This all may change, but at present I think the main reason to use a CF instrument is stability.  When sealed inside with epoxy, they become much less subject to changes in humidity than the wood ones.

Soundboards: There is quite a lot of variety in hammered dulcimer soundboards- some people are devoted to African mahogany, some to spruce. Redwood is what I've used for soundboards for most of my instruments. It is useful; not as bright as softwoods like spruce, more responsive in the bass than harder woods like mahogany. I used to offer recycled redwood as an option. Recycled redwood timber can be good, if you're willing to cut away parts that are bad, and bad parts are typically around 20-30% of each plank. Recycled redwood is no longer only an option for the instruments, though; it is now quite likely, as new redwood timber it is no longer available in the eastern US.  The price increases this year reflect that number. If at some point redwood of good enough quality is simply not available, I'll change the recipe to switch to western red cedar, but for now I am supplied. Note that I can use other woods for the soundboard; mahogany doesn't have as good bass response, but it is somewhat sweeter in the treble than redwood.