THE ELECTRIC DULCIMER
Though it is hard to remember when I first thought about a solid-body electric dulcimer, it seems to me I did almost from the time it became my primary instrument. Though perhaps it was because I was trying to take the instrument out of it's traditional niche in playing celtic and appalachian fiddle-tunes and use it like a regular instrument for all music, just as a guitar isn't relegated to certain styles or traditions of music. Though I like fiddle tunes, I am a singer. While I like traditonal songs, I like modern ones,, too, and I refuse to be limited to any time, style, or genre. I was rebelling against a certain mindset, perhaps, though I can appreciate traditionalists who seek to perserve music just like it was played, preserving a time or place or person's style. I am just not one of those. I was always seeking to evolve and change, while maintaining and appreciating my roots. Because I saw the instrument both with an open mind, and because I was intending to play modern music on it as well as traditional styles, the idea of creating an electric version of the instrument would have certainly crossed my mind.
In 1990 I rented space in a luthier friend's shop in Missoula, Montana, to build a new set of acoustic dulcimers. My present dulcimer was wearing out (it was the second I had built). This third dulcimer design would expand the range even further. I also built four other dulcimers. It was obvious at this point that the dulcimer was now integral part of my life and music, and unlike playing guitar, I couldn't just find one if mine was broken or stolen, especially since mine had a unique design different from traditional dulcimers. I had to have a spare. I built a couple more smaller ones, both because a friend had asked me to build one for him to give to his wife, and to see if selling dulcimers like mine, truly rough and tough dulcimers, might be a useful effort. While I had my plans and all the design paperwork out for the task, I went ahead and drew up a several sets of plans for solid-body electric duclimers, from simpler versions reflecting the range and bridge placement of my earlier acoustic dulcimers, to an "ulitimate" dulcimer that included every note I wanted, the full range of notes in five octaves.
During the winter in Florida I was living on my boat and storing my
VW in a dirt lot behind the natural food store. I used it as a shore locker, essentially, and pretty often I'd be there tuning up and playing as I got ready to head out for the afternoon or evening. Keni, the parking lot attendant, noticed this, and pretty soon he invited me to tune up and play in his shack there by the store, surrounded by a palm frond roofed patio (this is all paved over now, by the way). After a while of this, he finally asked if I could build him one. I told him that I wasn't really a builder, though I built my own, but that I did have a deal for him.
Over the last two years I'd hammered out the design for a solid body electric dulcimer, building partial prototypes to develop construction details. I'd actually finished the plans in 1990 while building a set of acoustic dulcimers in Missoula, MT (the one I kept to play I retired in the fall of 99). In the winter of 91-92, I was at the point where I needed to build small but complete version prototypes to test out the building process and even more, the actually sound it would make. I told Keni that if he bought the materials and gave me space to work, it was his when I was done checking it out. For my purposes, I was through with the prototype after I built it and played it a few times, then I'd go on to a finished full size version. This would allow him to learn to play and see if it really was his path cheaply
before investing in rather expensive regular dulcimer.
After a little hesitancy, he agreed. He later told me it was "one of the best decisions of my life."
So I built it, the first working prototype, a single stringed 10 course two bridge model, with pins set for double strings for the bass bridge.
At the same time I built several 5 and 6 course models for the local
sailboat kids (who loved to play with the dulcimer) on some pieces of board someone donated. Strangely, somewhere very far away from there, on the west coast, I ran into one, and tuned it, for a girl who said she'd picked it up off an island in the Keys, back in the woods, half buried in pine needles. Strange how a life runs.
In the Spring, after I'd left Florida and was playing in Virginia, I haunted the local wood supply yards for the month I was there, till what I wanted finally showed up. A single plank of 2" maple, 17.5" wide. I also picked up another plank, not so wide, that I'd calculated would hold a standard set of dulcimer courses in the compressed format that the electric was able to attain.
Over the following months I built the several variations of the basic model: 12/13 courses, with single and double stringed versions so I could compare the sounds. I was busy with performing, making our first trips to Alaska, and other projects; but the next step was complete. Later, this 12/13 design would take the name "Dancing Dolphin Dulcimer" in honor of Keni and what he named his prototype, and wished to call this version when it replaced his now aging prototype.
I had pondered over various plans for my "ultimate" electric dulcimer. I was taking advantage of the strength and flexibility in using a solid wood body. By placing the strings closer together, I had a greater range of courses for the same reach. I had the ability to drop pins and bridges anywhere without regards for positioning pinblocks and and supports, or maintaining both resonance in the box and structural integrity. i was driven by the fact that I was not a traditional dulcimer music player, and needed an instrument to play thestyles of music I wanted to play, make the sounds I wanted to hear. I intended to have every note I wanted, and overcome the limitations I had in the standard dulcimer, even the custom acoustic I had built (model 2 at this point). It supported all the keys I wanted to play in. Both E and A for Blues and Rock, and also C and F for Folk and Jazz. My present dulcimer had 4.5 octaves of range in the center key, D, but quickly ran out of both range and pitch as it reached the outer modal ranges of F at one end B at the other. I might have 6 "D"s but only 2 "F"s and one B flat. I also only had one plank, enough for two dulcimers I figured, so I didn't want to make a mistake. I cut the plank in half and prepared to build the first full size model, pencilling out the pattern on the wood.
I do not wish to detail my personal grief. Things don't always work out the way you plan, and no matter what you do and how well you do it, you are still connected to other people, and connected to the actions of others. It is enough to say that very bad things happened next, and that, as simply as possible, explains why the first electric dulcimers gathered dust in the back of my bus, which was also gathering dust stored in a lot in Oregon. I had to pretty much drop everything for a while, and it was a long time before I started sorting through the pieces. The two pieces of wood for the first "ultimate" electric dulcimers remained just that, one in the bus and one in the bottom of my sailboat in Florida. When I finally did return to get the wood and the prototype dulcimers, before I gave the bus away, I found a pencil laying there under the dust on the piece of wood for the big electric, just where I had left it four years before.
In the early winter of 97 I did, and got the wood for the "ultimate" as well, though they almost wouldn't let me back on the Greyhound with a pile of wood as luggage! I went to the place of an old pard in Montana, where I've spent a lot of time over the years. I was an emotional wreck. Strange that I ended up in Missoula again to build dulcimers. As the snows fell outside, I strung up the completed "D.D." models, and finally built the first "ultimate". I only drilled the pattern for the pins and glued up the rails, with no bridges yet. I was desperate to begin making some forward progress again, in the dreams and plans of my life, the positive energies, everything that had ground to a halt in 94 and 95. Both literally and figuratively the electric dulci's represented the great things that had been derailed and delayed so long. The Electric dulci's started the watershed stage when I said, "where was I when the first shot was fired?", and began deciding what I needed to do, what pieces to pick up again, as I got my life back on line.
I took Keni his new dulcimer. It was still a final prototype really, of the electrics based on standard traditional dulcimer arrangement. Nothing fancy, and Keni was definitely happy.
I left it at that point, though. I headed for Alaska and perform at the fairs and since I was flying, I took my aging acoustic that fit in the overhead. The millenium dulci was also a radical change from the acoustic, and I didn't have time to adapt before I'd be playing for a lot of people. Perhaps I could have tried it, but I didn't. I was still in no shape to do much of anything, really. Even Alaska was a fluke, I decided I'd go if they still wanted me to come, even at that late date. They did and I went, and ended up staying into the winter. The electric spent the time sitting in my stored car, gathering dust again.
I took it with me back south, but once again, circumstances kept me from doing much with it. Frankly, sometimes just coping and trying to move ahead again at all is all I can manage, and I still do an awful lot, it seems, so "good enough". In fact, though, I was hardly playing at all, acoustic or electric. When I had time, I pulled out the electric and learned the new set up. I did do my first public performance with the electric as well. Some of the time went to finishing the two new acoustic dulcimers I'd built in Alaska the previous fall, and I was tempted to build the second electric as well. But there was literally no time. I was building a couple small boats, doing maintainence on two more, and welding roof trusses for a shop, all in preparation to start the trip on the foiler "Further" as soon as possible, before the weather deteriorated. I intended to be back in a month and a half, to begin with festivals in VA and continue on to Alaska, this time with the electric.
However, I didn't get back to the States till the beginning of September. I'd played the acoustic all summer on the way down through Mexico. That story is told in the Captain's log and more in the "Further" section of the Archives.
When I did, I hung my old acoustic on the wall at my ma's house, and took up the electric as my main instrument. The two new acoustics still haven't been fully strung, but I've been satisfied with the electric and haven't even bothered with them. Maybe I never will. I might want a smaller accoustic just to carry around easier, sometimes. There will still be situations where I can't have the electric, even with a battery powered amp. I have actually experimented with adding an acoustic resonator to the electric, so I can use it as an acoustic, but it hasn't happened yet. I've also fond I can get a pretty good acoustic response by setting the dulci on a good surface, like a wooden table.
At the same time, the idea of the electric dulcimer is an instrument that, like the electric guitar, won't have a resonating acoustic body for an amplifier, an amplifier that wants to feed-back when used on modern stages with their intense electric amplification systems. Its also the elctric version of an instrument, which opens up a whole new range of possibilities for tone and playing styles, not just amplification. The electric dulcimer has lived up to and even surpassed my expectations, and certainly has impressed people. In fact, I am adding this page to my website to do what I should have done years ago, come out in public with what I have created.
I built it in 1990's, but the electric dulcimer is really finally beginning its life in the year 2000. Though it certainly would have begun years ago if fate had been kinder. But it has begun appropriately at least. I'd hoped to be well on the way at this point, but at least I am on my way again.
I still have one of the original planks for a second one, allowing me to make a few improvements if I want, though I don't see much change. I guess I'll sand it at least. Actually, the second one will be just that, a nicely finished instrument. But till that happens I'll be playing #1.
There is still a lot of experimentation to do, though. The basic design is near settled, but the possibilities and potential ofbeing an electric instrument are just beginning. I have various pickups, and can make more. I want to experiment with different patterns and types and mixes of pickups. Just like an electric guitar, I can use switching and control knobs to create different sounds by varying the effects of different pickups. Then of course there are outboard effects. I have my old effects amps, and an old Marley Wah. I used them with the acoustic dulci many years ago, and with guitars before that. I learned how to get distortion acoustically as well, like the old bluesmen rasping their acoustic guitars. For many years I left behind my amps and equipment for the sheer simplicity and spontaneity of acoustic music. The trip I made in Further is a perfect example of that life in action.
I'm starting a new chapter though, I have a new PA, and I also have a new digitech pedalboard. I have the digital audio recording workstation. I'll start recording the electric dulcimer for the first time. I wanted to be able to come out in public with the electric dulcimer with a shiny finished model and a CD ready to go, but you can't have everything. The cat is out of the bag. Really, its been out of the bag for years since I gave the prototype to Keni to play after I was done and building finished versions back in the early 90's. Luckily, maybe nobody noticed. As well, it will be the first CD release of me playing the folkrock and blues that I'm known for. A long wait from the tapes I did in the 80's. It is fitting to have the first release in the new mellinium, though truth to tell, I'm be playing the same music I was playing over 20 years ago.
I'd like to tour the dulcimer and music festivals with it for the first time. I guess I have something to show them. Though I still wonder if its worth it. I'd like to see if there's any interest in having me build more for other people. I have several friends with wood shops who've offered to help me produce these if I want to. I figure I have to. The other side of building the first, is to be the first builder as well, for whatever demand there might be. Though I haven't ever considered myself a builder, but a player, I suppose it took me years to accept that I was a player, too. So even if Dusty Strings makes a mint building them (I can't see how there could be much of a market myself, except in other countries who would probably just churnout their own cheap knock-offs anyway!) at least I did it first, and a copy is always just a copy.
I have sort of put off publicizing the Millennium Dulcimer because I wanted to be the first, to be way ahead of imitators. But Keni has had the prototype out in public now for years, and I've had the finished original as well, much to my unease. If I hadn't been too upset over other things to notice, really, just another minor pain and insignificant at the time. I can't patent the thing I'm afraid. In the world of dulcimers, the fact is I figure everything has been done before somewhere in some country over the last few thousand years of dulcimer building and playing. If I have improved on the American version, maybe I having the hundred (well a few more) strings connects to the ancient middle-eastern name, "santur", from the word for "100". I can't see that I've done something so original in adapting the principles of an electric guitar to the dulcimer, or putting electric pickups on one. My brother has had wound pickups on his acoustic for years. If anything is really unique, it is the type of music I have been playing for the past 20 years on the dulcimer, adapting it to use with modern vocal music, from blues and rock to jazz and folk. More specifically, I can't afford a patent. I can't afford anything really, and struggle just to make tiny steps ahead off the money I make playing the street. It was always enough and more, before I started this great effort to record my life and music, to get that out to people, and to build more electric duclimers. Gone are the days when I wandered in my simple gypsy folksinger way, striving to reach people with my songs of peace, love, freedom, and justice, with just the simple beauty of the music, making a better world. I wasn't making history, just making beautiful, magic moments in people's lives, drawing them into deeper waters of the mind, the heart and soul.
I add a little bit more to the story. I am still trying to build more dulcimers, but haven't managed it yet. Life is just a bit too much of a struggle on my limited resources to do it all, that is just the facts of life when you are a poor folksinger and all the money goes to the corporate machine, and you play for tips on the street. But hey! I am dedicated, so I do what I can with the way things are. The way things are really isn't something that is my responsibility. As long as people lavish fame and fortune on the few corporate artists and deny the rest, that is the way it will be, that most of the talent available in the world will never get a chance to be heard. So it goes. I keep hoping the internet will do something for the indie scene and people like me, though it hasn't done as much as I'd hoped, I still keep up with it, with this websitye, and tryng to get my music out there through the channels available, though I often am not even able to get on the internet for months at a time. I'm on the road, and on the street, not somewhere with time to spend at a computer. What time I have for the computer I focus on production mostly, or making some small progress in my internet presence, and updating this website.
Enough of that, I'm just frustrated. I have managed to put out the first CD with the electric duclimer, recorded on my own equipment, all done on my own. Though I am just starting out, so the things that came easiest have come first, songs in simple arrangements and acoustic sounds. The true electric dulcimer music will have to wait. In fact, I can't say when. I keep trying but it is not happening, maybe next year. I am trying to build more electrics, but I am having trouble even getting the wood, I have trouble even getting mills to answer. Electric dulcimer builders are just not a priority customer compared to gunstocks and furniture makers. I am mostly focused on the purely electric side of the dulcimer, making my own wound pick-ups and experimenting with all the possibilities in the electric components of the dulcimer. I couple years back I finally removed all the strings and pins, added some side braces, then sanded and varnished my electric.. something I had never done. I'd always intended to just build another one and make it "pretty". Well, that hasn't happened, so I finally made the effort to show the beauty in the wood I always said was there beneath the rough surface and the dust and dirt. I haven't given up, I keep pushing ahead inch by inch, wherever and whenever I can. Often I just struggle to keep moving, to survive, but that is the nature of the life. I feel it is success just to keep playing and not give up in the face of the hard road I have to follow.
After a few years hiatus from making much progress I am moving forward again. I added a small extension to the present dulcimer so I could add two courses on the bottom I didn't have room for originally, but I called for in my plans. Though I always intended to build another, I am still having problems finding the wood, or finding a lumbermill to take me seriously and save some wide planks for me. And though adding an extension isn't the sonically or structurally best option, I'll have the strings. I worry about developing the habit of not using them since they are not there, obviously enough, and I know how hard it is to alter my style once I have established it. It was a major change to start playing the full size electric and I still don't take advantage of all the strings or or keys I have available to me now, still influenced by the habits I developed on my early acoustic dulcimers. I have also finally started producing custom wound pickups for the dulcimer, though they are still in the experimental stage. After one failed attempt in 2007, I finally made the effort again and built a coil winding machine so I can turn out coils pretty quickly and easily, a nescessity if I am both to experiment with various configurations and to produce lots of pickups for building more dulcimers (when I finally get the wood!). Now I can really move into the present stage of electric dulcimer development, which is the electronic side. Building various pickups, experimenting with their specifications and configuration, and their placement on the dulcimer. Experimenting with how to switch, mix, control, and finally output the signals from the pickups, even where to place the controls and jacks. It is suprising how many years this has all been delayed, but when you are well poor and on your own and dealing with emergency after emergency, even the things important to you have to slide, compared to responsibilities and survival. so it goes.
So keep an eye and an ear on me and I'll see what I can bring to you, and post on the net, and record and release on CD. The BB/NEWS page now has a "works in progress" section devoted just to updated reports on specific projects, and that is the place to get the rest of this story.
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