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What affects dulcimer tone?

Dulcimer Tone

Good Morning, Y'all!

I get the following question (in bold type below) all the time, and there's no easy answer. So, take everything I say today with a grain (maybe a whole bag?) of salt...
Imagine this: a player is designing her next dulcimer. She and I are talking about the options, and she asks the inevitable question: "What's the best sounding dulcimer?" Ouch.
The answer is always "it depends." Are you a strummer, fingerpicker, flat-picker, or some mix of all three? Do you want a lot of warmth, or great clarity? There are so many great choices, and they often depend on the individual player. So, I usually narrow things down to the three biggest factors which influence the sound of an instrument:
1) Body size. Larger bodies (our California body) have more warmth, power, and sustain than smaller (our Kentucky body) bodied instruments do. If you want to play like Jean Ritchie, with lots and lots of light strums, you don't want a lot of sustain, so I'll recommend one of our Kentucky-body dulcimers for you. The vast majority of us want a bolder, more contemporary sound, so I usually recommend our California body size.

body size california
Example of our California-style body

2) Scale length. There's a broad consensus that "a longer VSL (Vibrating String Length) sounds better than a shorter VSL." And I generally agree with that consensus. So I recommend having us make you an instrument with the longest possible (for your comfort and playing style) scale length your hands can manage easily. You get more sustain, power, and warmth with a longer VSL. But, choose your VSL based on hand size, mostly, unless you're playing strictly noter style. (And then we might be looking at a Kentucky body anyway, to knock back some of the sustain from the repetitive strumming...)

fret location calculation
Each fret is a certain percentage of the distance from the nut to the bridge, regardless of the scale length. Which means that on a shorter scale fretboard, the frets are closer together than they are on a longer scale instrument.

3) Woods used. This is only one of the "Big Three" options, but it is vitally important. The woods we use should depend on your playing style, sound preferences (warm, loud, etc.), body size (dulcimer size, not your size!), visual preference (I love the look of a dark piece of walnut, but some players really like the lighter color of cherry, for example), and budget (rosewood is awesome, but is getting pretty expensive). We'll usually choose the body wood (back and sides) first, and then pair it with an appropriate, both tonally and visually, top (soundboard) wood. There's a lot of nuance involved when choosing appropriate woods for a custom dulcimer.

red oak folkcraft dulcimer

A red oak (body) plus Sitka spruce (top) +
padauk fretboard veneer and head

The whole process can easily take an hour, as we go through all the permutations, and discuss the pros and cons. I've put together a series of articles talking about many of the design choices (in excruciating detail, sometimes, sorry!). CLICK HERE to access the articles I have created (so far).

Maybe they'll be helpful as you work on designing your next dulcimer? Hopefully! Anyway...

Thanks for reading - Have a great weekend!

Richard Ash - Luthier-who's-calculated-billions-of-possible-dulcimer-combinations-we-can-build-for-you