Standard Dulcimers Vs Baritone Dulcimers Vs Bass Dulcimers Vs MaxDAD® Dulcimers
There are three broad classes of dulcimers - standards, baritones, and basses. Each of these three classes stands alone, but we do make a "hybrid" standard/bass dulcimer called the Folkcraft MaxDAD - this is a combination standard/bass dulcimer, with a greatly extended range.
Dulcimers exist outside these three classes (like tiny soprano/octave dulcimers!), but "standard, baritone, and bass" covers the vast majority, so that's the focus in this article.
Standard dulcimers are most commonly tuned DAD (or DADD if you have double melody strings). When we sell, or you buy, a "dulcimer", that's what we're talking about. Most clubs have everyone playing a standard dulcimer. Every once in a while, I hear someone calling it an "alto" dulcimer, which is probably correct, but the most commonly-used word is "standard". A standard dulcimer is usually DAD (or DADD) tuned, but can also be CGC, DAA, and other variations. We're talking about the overall range of the instrument - it isn't particularly low, and isn't the highest.
Baritone dulcimers are most commonly tuned AEA, four notes lower than a standard DAD dulcimer. Sometimes we see a baritone that's tuned ADA, which is nice for easy transposition of music written for the standard, but makes it trickier for solo work, since the tuning is no longer 151, but is now 141 tuning.
The body and construction of the baritone dulcimer is exactly the same as a standard dulcimer, but a larger, California-style body helps with the tone. The strings are a lot heavier than on a standard, but the string tension (the "pull", across the top of the instrument) is about the same as a standard. At Folkcraft Instruments, we can string any of our instruments as standard, baritone, or bass. The instrument is the same. (the nut and bridge might be different - I'll get into that at the end of this article)
Bass dulcimers are most commonly tuned DAD, one octave (8 notes, from the "oct" prefix of octave) lower than a standard dulcimer. Much heavier strings, but once again, about the same string tension. You can switch your Folkcraft and FolkRoots dulcimers around from standard, baritone, and bass with impunity. You won't hurt your instrument. Basses are amazing additions to ensembles and orchestras and jams and clubs. I'm not impressed with bass dulcimers as solo instruments, though. I'm used to the clear, resonant, ringing tone of a standard or baritone dulcimer, and a bass dulcimer tends to not have as much sustain or clarity.
Why not the sustain and clarity? Because of the body size. Even our California bodies are too small to easily reproduce the lower frequencies generated by the heavy (large diameter) strings. But... Bass dulcimers sound AWESOME with a pickup. Why? Because (unlike the top or body of your dulcimer) a speaker can easily reproduce the lower frequencies of a bass dulcimer. So when a player orders a bass dulcimer, I generally encourage having a pickup installed, so that the instrument can sound awesome when played through an amplifier.
Folkcraft MaxDAD® dulcimers are tuned DADAD. The top three strings are a standard dulcimer in DAD, the bottom three strings are a bass dulcimer in DAD. There are only five strings on a MaxDAD, since the middle string is shared (same note!) between the standard and bass dulcimers. A strum across all five strings of a MaxDAD is very guitar-like, with an extended range not commonly found on a mountain dulcimer.
Nuts And Bridges: Earlier on in this article, I mentioned nuts and bridges. Nuts and bridges set the string's height (that one's obvious!), but they also provide for micro-adjustments to the overall string length. I accomplish this when setting up a new instrument by adjusting the "high points" of the slot that holds each string. The high point is where the string is free to vibrate. I have 1/8" thick nuts and bridges, and can move the high point back and forth either direction (towards the strum hollow, or towards the tail of the instrument) to make it play perfectly in tune. Our nuts generally have the high point all the way towards the fretboard, and there's not much need to make adjustments there.
Compensation But our bridges? Check out your bridge next time you take your strings off to replace them. The high points are moved from one side of the bridge to the center or to the other side. It depends on the string gauge and tuning. What does this mean to someone that wants to switch from standard to baritone, or even to bass? You'll be able to switch with no issues, but to get the intonation perfect, you'll need a new bridge. Adjusted (compensated, to use the fancy luthier word) to accommodate the string and tuning you're using. Your VSL might be a advertised as 27", but in reality, it will be somewhere between 26 7/8" and 27 1/8", depending on the micro adjustments made for intonation perfection.
The intonation will be pretty close with no compensation, but picky ears will hear that things aren't quite right. So feel free to switch back and forth, but be prepared to make a new bridge (the nut will be fine without adjustments, generally, on a Folkcraft or FolkRoots dulcimer) to get the most out of your new setup.
We can convert any of our in stock instruments, before shipping, from/to standard to baritone, or bass - just let us know when you order what your preferred setup is, and we'll make it happen for you.