CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > 'British' dulcimers 1800-1945

A chromatic dulcimer for the amateur to make


Shortly after these notes and queries were aired there came a more detailed reply, in the form of an article. 'The Dulcimer: How to Make it', by one Charles Gray, published in Amateur Work Illustrated in 1883 (11). Much of the detail will be of interest to those who are regularly involved in building dulcimers, so the whole piece is reproduced here.

Charles Gray, 'The Dulcimer: How to Make it'

Even in this more general discussion a number of points are of interest.

The bridging shown seems at first sight to be a normal long treble and long bass arrangement, but a closer look shows that this is not the case: the right-hand bridge does not have a bass function, but is intended to provide the 'black notes' missing from the normal diatonic-fifths tuning. As a result. its courses are in alternate groups of three and two, although starting with one on its own, since the lowest note is a' : another consequence is that these strings do not need the whole length of the soundboard, but only some two-thirds, about the same as the 'white notes' to which they are adjacent, and this shortening is achieved by an iron bridge or staple just beside the wooden treble bridge. The elevation of this arrangement is shown here.

In this particular form it was unique among examples discovered in the present study, but the basic idea of using the two bridges to provide white and black netes is not, for a similar system was arrived at independently by Julius Derschmidt of Wels, Austria, and is discussed in Chapter 5.

To give the instrument a type number, we may consider first that it has two treble bridges and no bass: it should therefore be 20.2. However this indicates the arrangement of Rembrantz van Nierop, in which the two bridges passed under all the strings, and the latter did not cross each other, and clearly this is significantly different from an arrangement where the strings cross. Such crossing strings could well be represented by a cross, but 'x' already indicates linked chessmen bridges; so the symbol '+' will be used alongside the digit indicating the bridges whose strings cross, viz. 2+.2.

Another feature of which this seems to be the first example is that of sloping bridges. Gray does not explain their purpose, nor are they otherwise known except in the instruments made by Howie Mitchell in the United States, and those who work from his ideas; the point here is that if the bridge is of constant height, then as the string lengths get shorter, so the angle at which the string rises from the saddle gets wider, as shown in fig.109. Howie himself does not explain why this is undesirable, simply that "I like to make my treble bridge slanted, so that the strings rise at a more-or-less constant angle", but Dale Johnson, who made his dulcimer after Howie's design, said that it evened-out tensions over the bridge (12). There is no suggestion in Howie's book that he had come across Gray's article.

The decoration in the bridges is rather attractive, a feature unusual except in China, where it is normal. Gray also mentions making the holes in the soundboard 'f-shaped', like on a violin, although no examples on instruments were seen in this study.

The stringing is 14 III + 9 II, and piano wire of gauges 9, 11 and 13 is mentioned.

The suggestion that the blacksmith is an indispensable auxiliary to the dulcimer-builder is interesting, as is the use of cork and leather for the hammers.

The unusual feature of "holes in the back to let the sound out" is retracted in a later issue of the magazine: their actual function was for the legs of the iron saddle to pass through (13).