Why a Hammered Dulcimer?

I heard the sound of the dulcimer on Morris On, played by Sue Harris and loved the sound.  I had never seen one but was determined to get one.

So began the long journey of finding no-one made them in the UK, not off the shelf anyway.  I found  some plans for one in a children s book on homemade musical instruments and made one.  It was terrible, it went out of tune faster than I could tune it.  It did however list the Smithsonian Institute in the USA as a source of Hammered Dulcimer information, so I wrote to them and eventually got some pamphlets and information via the mail.  This was long before the internet and took weeks of patience, sending letters, arranging payment from my bank in dollars for the fee.

The plans I got from them were for a monster dulcimer which I duly built.  It really was a big dulcimer and I did not feel strong enough to actually take it anywhere but it stayed at home and I amused myself by playing a few slow tunes.

In the interim I had got a copy of David Kettlewell’s book on the hammered dulcimer which had some plans and also Howie Mitchell’s book on building hammered dulcimers.  No-one had a definitive “this is what you do” so I took what I thought was the best from them and set about reusing the wood, and most importantly the wrest pins, from number 2.

It was around this time the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” had just been release.My dulcimer building experience seemed similar to castle swamp, the first one fell in the swamp, so we rebuilt it, the send one one burnt down then fell in the swamp, so we rebuilt that, the third one…and so on.

So I borrowed a table saw and ripped the 4 inch deep pin blocks into 2 inch pinblocks and made it a lot thinner and lighter.  The frame had 3 cross members and was all held together by screws, nails and lots of glue.  So phoenix like, out of the ashes of number 2 came number 3!

Number 3 in her glory

Number 3, nails and all!

Quite rought joints really, but it worked.

To give a sense of time, while I was stringing number 3, I heard on the new John Lennon had been shot and killed.  I can still remember the shock of such a lovely, harmless, peace loving man killed for nothing,  Such a great loss to the world.  I wonder what fantastic music the world is missing because of this tragedy.

However despite me feeling sad at the loss of such a great musician, number 3 sounded really nice, stayed in tune for longer than 1 tune, and did not catch fire and fall in the swamp!  I had cracked it!  However, it was not pretty, Sorry Steve Winter, the now owner of number 3, its built like a brick outbuilding, it has stood for over 30 years, but from a woodworking perspective, pretty she aint!

I then went to a little folk festival in Iron Acton and picked up the buzz, there was an American hammered dulcimer player at the festival and he was brilliant!  So I went to a little concert he was playing, about 10 of us were treated to an hour of music and song from Jim Couza.  I think this must have been about 1982.

With the remaining wood I built number 4, for Steve Winter.  However, disaster, we were back to Castle Swamp, the dulcimer resembled a banana and went out of tune every time you moved it.  I had just had some luck I feared.

I was now hopelessly in love with the instrument and desperate to learn to actually play it so contacted Jim and started lessons with him.  He lived in Frome in Somerset and I lived in Hadlow, in Kent.  So it was a 300 mile round trip, once a month, for a 2 hour lesson.  It was worth every mile.  I managed to keep this up for about a year and learned a great deal from the man.

I carried on building dulcimers during this time and had a few successes.  In 1985 I moved to Pewsey in Wiltshire.  This was a bit of a watershed for me in terms of playing and making dulcimers as I moved away from the people I used to play with, also work took over my life.

I made my last dulcimer in 1987 and stopped playing in about 1990.

So, in 2015 it seems like the right time to start again, after a good rest!


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