Standard to Bass, To Baritone
October 14, 2022
Today I'm going to talk about baritone dulcimers. We'll start with a few dulcimer definitions, then focus on the baritone dulcimer.
We have three broad classes of dulcimers: standards, baritones, and basses. There are dulcimers outside these three groups (like tiny soprano/octave dulcimers!), but "standard, baritone, and bass" covers the vast majority, so that's the focus in this article.
A standard dulcimer is most commonly tuned DAD. 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.
A baritone dulcimer is 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 1-5-1, but is now 1-4-1. (we'll get into that some day, too - just know that for now, AEA is the most common 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, 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)
A bass dulcimer is most commonly tuned DAD, one octave (8 notes, from the "oct" prefix of octave) lower than a standard dulcimer. Much heavier strings, bue 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.
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.
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 accommodate the string and tuning you're using. Your VSL might be a nominal 27", but in reality, it will be somewhere between 27" and 27 1/8", depending on the micro adjustments made for intonation perfection.
It'll be really 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 on a Folkcraft® or FolkRoots® dulcimer) to get the most out of your new setup.
So happy playing, whether you're playing a standard, baritone, or bass!
Thanks for reading.
PS: Now that you know we can convert any of our standards to baritones, or back, next time you browse our in stock instruments at Folkcraft.com, you know you can call and have us ship as whatever range instrument you choose, regardless of the current setup.