11/D. My Fourth Dulcimer
The Double-Sided Dulcimer
The next stage in the dulcimer-playing progression that has been recounted in the previous pages is marked by the arrival of my specially-made 13/13 double-sided dulcimer in October 2015.
Every musical instrument has its limitations, but it is only after playing for some while that you realise what these are. For me, the beauty of the percussive and bell-like quality of the tone of the dulcimer, has to be balanced against portability and the difficulties of playing in certain keys.
D and G are the most accessible keys on most dulcimers and are also the most useful for playing English traditional dance tunes. However, these are not always the best keys for song accompaniment. I realised this many years ago in my melodeon-playing days and used to carry two melodeons about: D/G to use for tunes and C/F for songs. Carrying two dulcimers about is not so convenient, though I did read somewhere that some dulcimer players use to do this in days gone by to make it simpler to move between sharp and flat keys.
I pondered upon this problem for some time and wondered whether anyone had ever made a capo for a dulcimer to enable changes in tuning or tried using the kind of tuners that are found on harps to adjust the tuning. This line of enquiry did not lead to any productive conclusions.
The revelation for me came when watching a Youtube video clip of an Iranian santur player, Parisa Rabii, who played a two sided instrument which was placed in a stand which enabled it to rotate through a half circle allowing easy movement between the two sides, which were tuned in different keys. Please take a look at the Youtube video clip where, at 35 seconds and at 6 minutes into the film the dulcimer is rotated, in the latter case to allow a change of key. Magic!
Realising the Idea of the Double Sided Dulcimer
A double-sided dulcimer, with strings on both sides of the soundbox, seemed the perfect answer to my needs. However, after much investigation, I was unable to find anyone who had any knowledge of such a thing and I did not know whether it would be possible to find anyone willing to work on such an ‘experimental’ project. After some discussion, I managed to persuade Alec Anness of Ely to take on the task, though even he recognised that the seriously 'experimental' character of the project made it a challenge, not least the engineering issues in finding a mechanism to facilitate the rotation.
After quite a long time in gestation, the dulcimer was ready for collection in October 2015. I am pleased with the way that it has turned out. The tone is rich and resonant at the bottom end and has the kind of volume that I find useful in pub sessions when I sometimes find myself sitting next to quite loud melodeon players. Most importantly, for me, it is joy to be able to play along with some of my favourite songs in the keys in which they really need to be pitched to match my vocal range.
There is always a downside, of course, and this is that the stand that has been built to allow the rotation is fairly large and does not fold up conveniently, which is a problem when setting up in a small space in a crowded pub. It is possible to place the dulcimer on an ordinary scissors stand, but this means that the dulcimer has to be turned over manually to change sides and prevents the strings on the underside of the dulcimer from resonating. Because the double-sided dulcimer has more metalwork than usual (tuning pins etc.) it is heavier than a single-sided dulcimer, even though it has slightly less strings on each side, compared to my previous 16/15 dulcimer.
Overall the project has been a success and I am pleased with the new flexibility that it has provided. I use this dulcimer most of the time and particularly for making recordings.
The photos below show the different features of the dulcimer.
This shows the dulcimer placed in the stand ready for playing sitting down. The stand is adjustable and can be raised to the level that is needed when the dulcimer player is standing.
This shows the dulcimer rotated through a quarter turn to illustrate the bridges and strings on both sides of the soundbox. The two pieces of wood that are pointing towards the camera can be pushed forward to hold the dulcimer in a horizontal position and tightened by screws that are underneath.
This is a close up of the dulcimer in its rotated position showing the axle on which the dulcimer rotates with the ends of this slotted into the stand.
This shows the stand. The dulcimer slots into the two black plates in the middle of the stand and there are stops under the horizontal bar on the left to secure the dulcimer in position.
This shows the receiving plate that the dulcimer is slotted into.
This is a close up of the dulcimer slotted into place in the stand.
This shows an alternative stand for the double-sided dulcimer that I designed and had constructed by an expert carpenter from Eastry, Barry Feldman. The advantage of this stand is the hinges, which allow the stand to be folded flat for transportation. The disadvantage that I found is that the robust construction makes it heavier than the original.