Building a Box Dulcimer
The mountain dulcimer was born in the Southern Appalachians as a folk instrument in it's purest form. Local communities would get together for events such as a barn raising after which instruments would be bought out and festivities begin. Many instruments such as banjos and fiddles were home made, as shop bought was expensive, but they required time and a high degree of skill to produce. However, the dulcimer was a simple and effective instrument, suitable in volume and timbre for dances or chapel.
Our community in Wales is building a village shed at present. So one Sunday when we had a lot of folks around to raise the main beams we turned the event into a bit of a celebration, and a couple of us set to building a dulcimer out of the scrap wood from the shed, which had to be ready to play to the workers by lunchtime.
We started by nailing together a box.
Then drilled some sound holes in it and screwed on a fretboard.
And added left over bolts as the nut and bridge and some strings from No 8 piano wire. The frets were made from broom wire bent into staples and placed by ear under the melody string. The tuners were 3 x eye screws for the one melody and two drone strings.
By lunchtime we had a dulcimer for our string band! The 3 strings on the box dulcimer were all tuned to an E note, which meant it could be played in the key of A with the fiddle.
And here is our box dulcimer with a clothes peg to 'note' the melody and a seagull quill to strum the strings.
Here's how is sounded on its own
And here's how it sounded with guitar backing
Not perfect, but not bad for an instrument made in about an hour from scrap wood. Everything we used to build it (except using the electric drill for the sound holes - we could have used a hand awl) would have been available to mid 1800s Appalachian communities - including the piano wire. Nothing was measured and the tuning and frets were set by ear. So as well as being a fun project it actually had a historical purpose in showing just how simple, effective and accessible the dulcimer was as a true folk instrument of the people. Just as it is today!