CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in Scotland

The second generation - John Chapman

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John Chapman started his working life as a pattern-maker in Glasgow, but having lived in Coventry for a while, he worked for 27 years with the Metropolitan Water Board, from whose employ he retired in 1976, the year I met him. He is full of ideas for improving dulcimers, but does not "have so much energy to do it any more"; one idea was to amplify it very loudly and produce the sound just by rubbing the strings, which would certainly be most effective: the vocal equivalent is the basis of the re-formed Swingle Singers, Swingle II.

He says, "I wish I had been put to music, I might have could have done better at it... " Unfortunately, the Chapman household is another where the dulcimers normally live under the bed in the interests of marital harmony.

His first interest was unusually, as a maker: a cousin brought him a dulcimer to see when he was young, and he was so fascinated by the construction that he decided to have a go himself. Since then he has made eight or nine, in the garden shed, including one for his near neighbour, Mrs. Ruby Tanner; he always uses beech for the blocks, and white pine ("some call it spruce") for the soundboard. When he had made a new one, he "used to bash it with spoons to get it to settle".

The instrument shown in fig.163 is finely built; beaded to conceal the joints and finished off with black-stained button polish. The oblong shape was only incidental: he had a piano wrest-block, complete, and rather than take all the pins out and have all the trouble of putting them in a new block, he thought he would leave them as they were; however, the angle of each row of pins was perpendicular to the edge of the block, so the external shape had to be oblong. The saddles nevertheless form the usual trapezoid, of course, and to keep the tension on the portion of the strings between the saddles and the pins, he has fixed a heavy metal batten immediately behind each saddle, under which the strings pass.

The hitch-pins are polished nails, and the addition of what David Williams calls "Do-it-Yourself Legs" is a nice refinement, as are the alloy plates which finish off the lengths of wire which pass over the bridges. The bridges are long, like those of James Rodgers' instrument, and he said they were "always the same".

The stringing is 12III + 11III, using rather thick wire, though the treble courses are thinner; they used to be No. 10 and 12, but he now has problems getting hold of music wire, and has used 31 lengths from a hobby shop. His tuning is the pure diatonic system of the Birmingham players, from F to Ab, apart from one extra half-note on the highest course.

Mr. Chapman said that hammers were usually of cane, although some were of wood, but his own pair are a masterpiece of perspex sculpture, with wooden handles spliced and whipped into the shafts.

When he was a lad he used to play for parties with violin, accordion and piano, and he still does at times: "if there's a party I can play along with someone singing", although the only songs he would play to me were Beautiful Dreamer and Springtime in the Rockies, complete with harmonies. He uses his fingernails mostly - he had never tried plectrums - but he also plays with hammers: "I used to could bounce them more in those days..."