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There are several ways to amplify the sound of a stringed instrument. But the general principle is always the same. A string is plucked causing it to vibrate. For instance, an A note vibrates at 440 Hz or cycles per second. A device (a transducer or "pickup") senses the string's vibrations and converts these vibrations into a small alternating electric current of the same frequency. This small current is sent to an amplifier. The amplifier increases or "amplifies" the current to a level that will drive a speaker. The speaker reverses the process by vibrating at the same frequency as the current and creating sound waves.
Solid body instruments, including electric guitars and the solid body electric dulcimers that have appeared lately, use magnetic pickups where magnets are wrapped with copper wire to create a coil. When the metal string vibrates across the coil, a small alternating current is induced in the pickup and the signal is sent to an amplifier. Many things affect the tone produced by a magnetic pickup - the number of windings in the coil, the type of magnet, the diameter of the wire, etc. Most magnetic pickups are tailored to respond to a certain range of frequencies and therefore to reproduce a predetermined tone (for instance, with electric guitars - the thin sound of a Fender Telecaster or the fat sound of a Gibson Les Paul). In many cases, the pickup's inherent characteristics become more important to the dulcimer's tone than the instrument itself. Another drawback of solid body instruments is that they have to be played with an amplifier to be heard.
A peizo pickup uses a different approach to instrument amplification, although the general principle of converting a string's vibrations into an electric current is the same. A peizo pickup senses pressure and converts the pressure into the corresponding frequency. A peizo pickup has no inherent tonal characteristics and reproduces all frequencies equally. It is attached to the underside of the instrument's top, or in some cases, inserted under the bridge. When the string is plucked, it causes the top to vibrate at the same frequency as the string. The vibrating top produces sound waves which are "amplified" by the dulcimer's wooden soundbox and this is the sound we hear when playing the dulcimer. Since the peizo pickup "picks up" the vibrations from the wood of the instrument instead of the metal strings, it reproduces the true tone of the instrument with no added coloration.
From my experience, a peizo pickup is the best all around solution to dulcimer amplification. My peizo pickups are permanently affixed to the underside of the dulcimer soundboard and the signal is routed to a combination output jack and strap button. Not only is the the sound exceptional, since it accurately reproduces the actual tone of the dulcimer, but it doesn't detract from the beauty of the instrument or affect the tonal characteristics of the dulcimer when played without amplification. In fact, no one will ever know you are playing an "electric" dulcimer !!!!!
Copyrightę 2012 R. Gibson