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One of the benefits of working directly with a dulcimer builder instead of buying an “off the shelf” instrument is the ability to customize a dulcimer to your own preferences. The various combinations of wood alone offer a wide array of customization options. Then add available soundhole choices along with the ability to design your own soundholes and the possibilities are endless. You instantly switch from being a dulcimer buyer – to a dulcimer designer!
Of course the first choice is the dulcimer’s shape. I routinely build large hourglass, teardrop, and smaller traditional “Thomas” style hourglass dulcimers along with Tennessee Music Box style dulcimers. You can pick any of these or even offer your own design. While unique body shapes may take a little longer to construct, I am very open to evaluating unique shapes – who knows, maybe your design will be the standard ten years from now! The most common consideration is choice of wood. Some people love the dark, earthy tones of Black Walnut, while others prefer the golden, orange-brown antique look of aged Cherry. It is all a matter of personal preference. But with the customization option you choose which woods are used in your dulcimer. Although it is hard to tailor an instrument to have a specific sound, some tonal characteristics can be greatly influenced by the type of wood used in a dulcimer’s construction. For instance an all Walnut dulcimer definitely has a darker tone and is not as bright sounding as a Maple dulcimer. The combination of Cedar and Maple has a characteristic clarity and balance that is disguisable even with your eyes closed. But if you like a specific species of wood, I always advise people to pick the wood combinations that are most appealing and I guarantee the dulcimer will sound good.
On many dulcimers, soundholes are the first thing to catch the eye. They range from simple holes to intricate and ornate designs. For a custom dulcimer you have the option to pick from the soundhole patterns I use most often or find or design the soundholes to make a dulcimer uniquely yours. The possibilities are only limited by imagination and a need to maintain the structural integrity of the wood. If you have an idea or a drawing I am always happy to evaluate if it will work for a dulcimer soundhole. The only soundhole I will not use is one copied from another dulcimer builder unless it is a traditional pattern or in common use on several dulcimer brands.
Another option open to dulcimer customization is fretboard layout. You have the choice of a one piece, layered or overlay style fretboard of any wood combination available (although I normally resist using rainforest woods like Ebony and Rosewood). Another choice is the number of frets or addition of extra frets. For instance, a 1½ fret is becoming increasingly more common but is still not the standard on any dulcimers to my knowledge. Also, you have the option to make the dulcimer fully chromatic (meaning it is fretted like a guitar with all the notes of the chromatic scale).
Although 4-string dulcimers are still the most popular, it is common to see three, five and six string dulcimers. Maybe you love the looks of a dulcimer in stock but were hoping for a six string – no problem. Just call or email and you can have an exact replica with the setup you prefer.
Other options to consider are whether you would want to amplify your dulcimer. In this case, an internal pickup is the most convenient way to go. Some people use a strap to hold the dulcimer and some find no need. If you require strap buttons they can easily be added to any dulcimer whether custom or already in stock.
One last option to consider is tuners. Some like the plain nickel silver variety while others prefer the look of gold.
Unless specifically requested, I only use Grover sta-tite tuners with a 14:1 gear ratio. I have used these tuners for
about fifteen years and have yet to encounter a single instance of tuner failure. In fact, Grover tuners have a lifetime
manufacturer’s warranty. Also, I find the 14:1 gear ratio to be optimum for precise tuning adjustments and fast string changes.
Let me finish by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a dulcimer already constructed, in stock and ready to ship. In fact, you have the benefit of seeing and hearing the finished dulcimer before making a purchase decision. But with the vast array of dulcimer configurations available it is impossible for me to have every combination in stock. So if you don’t see the exact dulcimer you want, feel free to contact me about a custom dulcimer. There is no extra charge outside the normal charges for items like an internal pickup and it is typically finished and ready to ship within 3 to 4 weeks of confirming an order. Of course, I am readily available to answer any questions or offer my opinion and guidance based on over 36 years of dulcimer building. And if you don’t like the dulcimer for any reason, simply return it no questions asked for a full refund. So there is no risk – but there is an opportunity of a lifetime of reward in playing a dulcimer you helped to design!
© 2016 Ron Gibson
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