About my instruments
I play a Grande Concertmaster built by Jerry Read Smith of Song of the Wood. The extended range of this chromatic dulcimer spans four and a half octaves from the D two octaves below middle C to the A three octaves above. The mahogany back and soundboard are framed by walnut rails and maple pin blocks. The double-arched, custom-stained soundboard is decorated with bubinga corner scrolls and two soundhole rosettes of ebony, paduak, and bubinga. Five bridges — scalloped and tapered ebony with maple markers and delrin caps — support the steel and wound brass strings. To hear some clips of this instrument, visit the Recordings page.
Hammered dulcimers vary pretty widely from builder to builder. In general, they all have a hollow wooden body with at least one bridge supporting the strings. The most typical instruments have two bridges, a range of two and a half to three octaves, and two strings per course. Other options include extra range and additional bridges like on my dulcimer, and some builders also offer dampers (long levers on each side that allow the performer to stop notes from ringing), more strings per course, different spacing of courses, and even different tuning schemes.
The most common tuning scheme is polydiatonic. That is, notes are arranged in overlapping scale boxes, as shown in the diagram. The lower half of the diagram is a D scale. Beginning with the lowest D on the right, it goes up through E, F#, and G. Then it crosses to A at the bottom left and continues up through B, C#, and D. Notice that there is a bridge mark at the beginning and end of the scale. Above the D scale is a G scale with the same pattern: four notes (G, A, B, C) on the right, and four (D, E, F#, G) on the left. The two scales overlap because they share all the same notes except one — the G scale has a C natural but the D scale has a C# (sharp). This polydiatonic tuning scheme is well-suited to traditional music, which is less chromatic than classical or jazz. It’s still possible to play some chromatic music; it just involves more complex hammering patterns to reach the extra notes. Larger dulcimers with extended range and extra bridges make playing chromatic music easier.
For No Loose Threads, I borrowed a lovely Unicorn Strings psaltery.
In November 2002, I purchased a Song of the Wood psaltery, which not only sounds beautiful but looks great with my Song of the Wood dulcimer. This 33-string model has a range of over two and a half octaves, from C to A. It has a mahogany soundboard on what looks like a maple frame, with walnut trim and a walnut and paduak soundhole rosette.
Bowed psalteries are easy to play; one hand holds the instrument while the other works the bow. Notes on the right side are all natural, like the white keys of a piano, while the sharps and flats are on the left. Every string stretches from one of the pins at the base of the instrument to one of the pins along the sides; each note is played by bowing the string just before its side pin. To play faster or more complicated pieces, some people have developed a technique using one bow in each hand while the psaltery rests on their lap or a stand.
A bowed psaltery sounds a little like a fiddle, but edgier, wonderfully wild and haunting.
I got interested in the recorder because it has a flute-like sound but is end-blown — a little easier to manage than the side-blown flute. My recorders are a Yamaha plastic soprano and alto with a simulated rosewood finish; both come apart in three pieces so they’re tuneable. Even though they’re plastic, they sound great — it might actually be better to get a really good plastic recorder than a cheap wooden one. (And plastic recorders never need oiling.)
My parents bought this Fender acoustic steel-string guitar for my high school graduation. I had a few lessons at a music store, but I learned most of what I know in college playing for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meetings. Every week, the people who were going to play for the meeting would get together and practice. Then they’d invite us beginners to join them as they went through all the pieces again, demonstrating any new chords and strum patterns. I’m a very limited guitarist; I mostly play first position chords and some simple fingerpicking. Still, I’ve taught myself a few cool things to do on the CDs, like a bit of melody on “Big Meadows Twilight” or some trickier picking on “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”
I think the first time I really heard an autoharp was at the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest in the spring of 2001. A fellow joined an afternoon jam session with a custom ‘harp that had a beautiful clear and sweet tone that immediately caught my interest. For the Czech worship song, “Rad Te Mam,” on No Loose Threads, I borrowed an Oscar Schmidt ‘harp. This one had thirty-six strings with the notes arranged chromatically, and twenty-one chord bars. Custom builders offer a wider variety of models, with different construction details, tuning schemes, and chord bar configurations. On any ‘harp, when you press one of the chord bars, pieces of felt attached underneath damp all the notes that do not belong in that chord. Playing can be as simple as strumming with one hand while the other works the chord bars or as sophisticated as picking out a melody with chordal accompaniment.