Frequently Asked Questions
When the soundboard is attached permanently to the sides and endrails, this is called a glued-down soundboard. The soundboard becomes part of the structure of the instrument. The main advantage to this design is that the instrument can be made a lighter weight because of less internal bracing. The main disadvantage is it does not allow as much dynamic range of the instrument because the soundboard does not vibrate as well.
A hammer dulcimer that has a soundboard that is not attached to the frame at any point is called a floating soundboard. The main advantage of a floating soundboard is the dynamic range that it gives the instrument because the soundboard is allowed to vibrate more freely. The main disadvantage is the heavier weight due to more internal bracing required.
Walt Michael says:
I far prefer a floating soundboard to a glued-down soundboard. Dulcimers with glued down soundboards typically have a longer sustain and a smaller dynamic range, making it more difficult to play expressively. The floating soundboard is among the factors in instrument design that shortens the sustain and renders a more "open" sound, more piano-like. It also aids in producing a larger dynamic range. When a dulcimer has a large dynamic range, the instrument becomes potentially (depending on the skill and ear of the player) much more expressive.
Walt Michael says:
Players prefer a variety of soundboard woods. I have long preferred birch plywood. I have switched-out my birch plywood soundboard with a spruce soundboard, and didn't like the results. I am not a sound expert in the scientific sense, but I tend to think that the dulcimer has a LOT of sound going on, and that the spruce delivers too much sound. David's various choices of western red cedar, redwood, and sitka spruce are excellent however, and I am very happy with the sound of my Bill Spence Edition. David built my instrument to order with a wester red cedar top.
Cathy Barton & Dave Para say:
Overall, spruce is probably the best wood for a soundboard because of its hardness and durability. It usually brings a brighter sound to an instrument that the softer redwood or cedar tops. Cathy chose a dulcimer with a redwood top, however, because of the warmer sound it gave her instrument. The overall effect depends on what goes into the rest of the instrument, the materials and how it is designed, such as bridges and bracing. You just have to judge the individual instrument.
Linda Thomas says:
The wood used in the soundboard can make a slight difference in the sound of the instrument; personally, I've always liked a "warm" sound and have selected redwood for the soundboard on all my dulcimers. Listen and compare if you can. Also, remember your choice of hammers will greatly affect the sound of the instrument.
Bill Troxler's reply:
The sound quality of a hammer dulcimer is dependent upon five factors: the wood of the soundboard, the design of the instrument, the quality of the builder’s art, the striking surface of the hammers, and the performance style of the player. The soundboard wood establishes the essence of the sound signature. Tonewoods used for dulcimer soundboards include spruce, mahogany, western red cedar, redwood and birch.
Spruces are among the most used type of soundboard wood and the most commonly found species is Sitka spruce. This wood is tough, stable and produces a clear, loud, bright tone. Other spruce varieties can be found in guitar tops; but, because of their expense and difficulty to find in the size needed for dulcimers, these are not common: bear claw Sitka spruce, red spruce, sometimes called Adirondack spruce, white spruce, sometimes called Engelmann spruce. Red and white spruce tops are particularly prized and often found as the soundboards on high-end guitars. All spruces have great dynamic range, clarity and produce strong acoustic volumes. Spruce soundboards tend to require several years to settle in and attain their mature voices. Quarter-sawn Sitka spruce soundboards are standard in all Steinway pianos.
Western red cedar is the most widely used of the cedars for dulcimer soundboards. The wood is softer and lighter than spruce but is less affected by changes in humidity. The sound properties of western red cedar are notable for very clear highs, excellent balance throughout the tonal range and a warm tone. Western red cedar tends to have a little more volume than spruce and to be less strident and brittle sounding than spruce in the highest range of the instrument. A remarkable characteristic of western red cedar soundboards is that their settle-in period is very short. A western red cedar soundboard attains its mature voice almost immediately.
Redwood soundboards tend to have excellent balance and crispness. Their hallmark is a full, round, almost piano-like, bass response. Redwood tends to be the most responsive soundboard material for players with light touches.
Mahogany soundboards on instruments did not come into use until the 1920’s and then the wood appeared only on low-end guitars. Mahogany does not have the volume or projection capabilities of western red cedar or spruce. Mahogany tends to have a volume emphasis in the midrange. Overall the voice of mahogany is quiet and crisp. Generally, the dynamic range of mahogany is not large. Mahogany is a tropical wood grown in many countries. The source of the wood will affect the tonal quality of the wood.
Birch soundboards tend to have roughly the same sound qualities as mahogany tops. The wood is less expensive than mahogany. Its use is usually confined to entry-level instruments. The birch voice is somewhat louder than mahogany.
Linda Thomas says:
While the diatonic instrument is tuned to include sharps (#) and flats (b) designated by the scales/key signatures, a chromatic is designed to offer additional sharps and flats on additional bridges; therefore, the chromatic makes available all notes in all keys.
Take into consideration the kind/s of music you plan to play when choosing between the diatonic and chromatic; certain styles, notably jazz and classical, are written to include many accidentals (added sharps and flats). However, during the years I've played a wide variety of occasions and styles of music and have never felt inhibited by using the diatonic instrument - I've always been able to vary the written arrangement to make an interesting variation to fit my instrument.
Bill Troxler says:
The diatonic scale is the familiar eight-tone, octave scale of do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. A diatonic dulcimer uses only the tones of this scale. A chromatic dulcimer is based upon the twelve tones of the chromatic octave scale. A chromatic dulcimer has the same tones as the portion of the piano keyboard that covers the range of the dulcimer. Which style of instrument is better depends upon the type of music it will play.
Dulcimer music is overwhelmingly diatonic music. Fiddle tunes, Celtic tunes, folk music, a large number of popular melodies, many rags, most waltzes; all these genera employ mostly diatonic melodies. So, a diatonic dulcimer will serve the needs of the majority of players. If, however, jazz or classical music is at the center of a player’s style, a chromatic instrument may be in order.
Several points need to be considered about chromatic instruments. First, many chromatic instruments have large tonal ranges. They rarely have all of the chromatic tones over their entire range. Second, since the chromatic scale has four additional tones per octave than the diatonic scale, a chromatic instrument will be larger than a diatonic instrument to cover the same range. Third, the chromatic tones are not always in places convenient to reach. Builders place small bridges around the sound board to create the chromatic tones. These oddly placed tones can be hard to reach. It can also be difficult for the builder to balance the tone of these small bridges with the rest of the instrument. Finally because it must be larger, a chromatic instrument will be heavier than the diatonic version of the same design.
A good compromise between these two styles of instruments can be made by adding a small number of chromatic tones to the standard 15/16 layout. These almost-chromatic dulcimers are not larger and not perceptibly heavier than their purely diatonic versions.
I play both chromatic and diatonic dulcimers. But easily ninety percent of my playing is done on a diatonic dulcimer. My David Lindsey Concert Grand is a 15/16 instrument with seven chromatic bridges in the very high and very low ranges. With these additional bridges I can play D, F# and Bb in the low range, C# and D# in the very high range. G# and Bb are available in the high mid-range. I tune the designed high D on the bass bridge to D#. I drop the designed low D on the added bridge to a low C. With these tuning alterations and the extra bridges, my dulcimer easily handles music that includes fiddle tunes, Celtic music, rock and roll, a bit of jazz, Broadway and Bach.Bill Troxler has a wonderful website with much more information on the hammered dulcimer. Find out more about Bill by going to www.billtroxler.com
Walt Michael says:
I believe that ALL the wood makes a difference in the sound of the instrument. Many years ago I had two identical dulcimers built by a friend (before meeting David) and the difference in their sound was astounding. The one built from koa wood was alive, rich and brilliant, and the one built from cherry was dead sounding and had indistinctive tone. I asked David to build me a Spence with koa wood endrails and sides. The results were wonderful. I think it is important to build an instrument for sound reasons, not sight reasons, and wood choice is part of the key.
The main thing that really makes David's Dulcimers stand out from most other hammer dulcimers is that his dulcimers have a much greater dynamic range. They will play loud and soft. The louder you thit them, the louder they will play, or you can play softly and it will respond. David's dulcimers are very responsive to your touch. This is the dynamics that I prefer my instrument to have. I want an instrument that I can control at will. It allows the musician to express themself much better. You can use this type of instrument as an accompaniament while singing much better since it can be made to play softly, below the soloist's voice or other quieter instruments such as the mountain dulcimer.
Coincidently, David's instruments also ring on less than others-in other words they have less sustain. If you play with other musicians it doesn't get in the way of the other instruments. Both of these aspects will be important if you are interested in playing with other musicians, as opposed to playing alone.
How does David achieve this? David's Concert Grands and Spence Editions have the floating soundboard, side bridges and internal bracing which gives it more power. It'ssimply the best darn band instrument being made.
Bill Troxler says:
The easiest task a dulcimer builder has is to make an instrument with nearly unending sustain. The hard job is to control the sustain of a dulcimer and thereby create an instrument that will produce excellent performances on fiddle tunes as well as hymns. David Lindsey has four decades of design and building experience that addresses this difficult problem. With thoughtful design of bridges and the interior support system, David Lindsey has found the right balance point between too much sustain and no life in a dulcimer. Performers will find his instruments able to produce the sustain required in an Irish air as well as the space demanded by a hot dance tune.
Walt Michael says:
I always recommend to my students that they purchase the very best instrument that they can afford. There are several reasons. First and foremost, in most cases, the more expensive the instrument, the better the sound. All dulcimers sound lovely, but as your playing progresses, you will eventually want the best instrument possible. The better an instrument sounds, the more you will want to play it. As well, the better an instrument sounds, the better you will play; a good sounding instrument encourages the player. In general, all dulcimers are pleasing to the ear, and a student model is capable of producing good music. If your budget is a determining factor, a student model is a fine choice. If possible, I always suggest that dulcimer shoppers test drive a number of instruments. David has great instruments to choose from. Come see him at Common Ground on the Hill and test drive his dulcimers. www.commongroundonthehill.org
Linda Thomas says:
Ideally, you will be able to listen and compare the sounds of different models/sizes and let your ear be your guide; also you may want to consider long-range plans you have for playing hammered dulcimer. However, if budget - or lack thereof - is a priority in selection, don't let the size stop you from buying an instrument. I've heard many great sounding Spinets and would be happy to play one! After playing the "Baby Grand" for several years, I now play the "Bill Spence" model and find the volume, balance and quality to meet my needs and expectations.
Linda Thomas says:
Size does play into the overall sound of the instrument - not only the volume but also "mass" and "richness" - compare sounds if you can to help you make a selection.
I've played The Spinet, The Bill Spence and The Grand - each offers a uniquely "different" sound from other builders - you won't go wrong with any of them~
Good Luck with your new instrument!
Bill Troxler says:
The size of an instrument is often directly related the volume of the instrument’s voice. Given identical soundboards and designs, larger usually means louder. Size plays a role in sound quality too. The high-range tones will be in better balance on a larger soundboard. Their string lengths are short and impart much less energy into the soundboard than the long, low strings. That can make the low courses sound louder than the high courses. Low tones also need a larger surface area on the soundboard to ensure good projection and faithful reproduction of their sound quality. Sound quality seems to be enhanced if the bridges of a dulcimer are set back a little distance from the edge of the instrument. This set back gives the soundboard more freedom to vibrate. All of these factors provide strong arguments that a larger instrument will produce a louder, more pleasing sound with greater dynamic range. Think of this answer in terms of pianos. The soundboard on a spinet piano is usually between 35 and 37 inches long. The soundboard on a concert grand piano will be 9 feet or more. Which instrument has the louder, fuller, more desirable sound? It works the same way in hammer dulcimers.