Darcyhorse hourglass dulcimerPrice:
$75, new from makerDelivered:
March 15, 2010VSL:
Terry Pattison, Union City, PA Overview
The Darcyhorse is quite simply the lowest cost solid-wood dulcimer on the market. Prices start at $60. The instrument sells modestly well and has a loyal following among users of EBay, where most of them are presumably sold. The brand name is evocative, memorable and well-suited to the product. The dulcimer has also been repeatedly criticised on this forum as substandard and unworthy of serious attention.
I first came across Darcyhorse in 2008, when I was relatively new to the mountain dulcimer and just toying with the idea of reviewing them for other buyers. Darcyhorse builder Terry Pattison, a former cabinet maker, had been crafting dulcimers for about a year at the time. I corresponded with him and found him kind, articulate and honest about his struggles to make a living as a skilled woodworker in a de-industrialising economy.
The instrument, however, failed to impress. The Chinese-made tuners were too close together. The finish had enough gloss on it to down low-flying aircraft. The panels were way too thick, the design had been more or less lifted from Tom Yocky, and the nut & bridge were made of a soft plastic composite material unequal to the task. The intonation was very poor.
Compared to that instrument, this one shows significant improvements. The wooden tuning pegs are superior to the geared tuners. Nut and bridge are good solid pieces of wood. The fret pattern appears very precisely cut. The design is original. But overall quality remains disappointing:(All categories rated on a scale of 0-5. For detailed review criteria, see below)Set-up and presentation 2.4
Packing was below standard — the instrument was wrapped in a single layer of foam cloth with no other cushioning in the box. Still, the light packing may have been intentional to save costs, as it was to be shipped overseas. Moreover, the dulcimer is clearly sturdier than most.
The dulcimer was coated in a light film of very fine sawdust, easily wiped away. The instrument was strung unacceptably with an unusable plain-wire 0.014 loop-end string on the bass, rather than a properly sized wound string. The offending string was replaced with a 0.024 wound phosphor bronze string so the instrument could be assessed. This buzzed, so I tried a 0.020, but the buzz remained. The simple hand-cut wooden “tuning wrench” included with the purchase is cute and can be used to loosen the pegs, but isn't really a tuning tool.Photo: Headstock shot, showing 0.014" plain-wire string on bass: http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9488.jpgWorkmanship 2.6
Despite an overall rough-hewn appearance, elements of excellence peek through. The wooden tuning pegs are tapered properly and hold well. Most of the joinery work is smooth and straight. The exception is the fretboard member, which is glued unevenly to the soundboard, leaving noticeable, dust collecting gaps in some places and glue droplets in others. The fretboard itself, however, is nicely built (see design). Finish is uneven, with a glossy, sticky appearance in places.
The lutherie, alas, falls short. Both nut and bridge are crudely notched, leaving the bass and middle-string with a pronounced sitar-like twang. The bass string buzzes badly through fret 2. The fret pattern measures out to near-perfect, but erratic seating distorts intonation on the middle string on several frets. Action is stiff, but comfortable enough. Photo -- the fretboard is poorly seated on the soundboard, with gaps and glue-drops in evidence: http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9492.jpgDesign 3.2
The partially etched vine soundholes are pretty and well-executed. The elongated hourglass shape is supple and pleasing. Deep body compensates surprisingly well for the over-thick soundboard. The laminated (composite) fretboard should stand the test of time. The basic headstock, which partially rests on the body, is framed out well. Walnut tail is appropriately sized. Strings eat right through the thin shim on the tail end of the fretboard, stabilising only when they reach the fretboard member. Soundboard, back and sides are simply too thick, reducing the overall design score. The octave position dots are misplaced on the 6 ½ fret. Photo: The soundholes are really quite lovely. Note blackish spalt stains on the wood. http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9487.jpgPhoto: Full soundboard shot. The overall appearance is very pleasing. Position markers on 6 1/2 fret. http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9501.jpgMaterials 3.2
The cherry top is good quality, but the black spalting leaves a dirty-ish appearance and should have been sanded away. Using seven species of wood — Black Oak, White Ash, Maple, Black Cherry, Walnut, Locust, Osage Orange — is novel, but superfluous.Sound 2.4
The building blocks of a fine-sounding instrument are there, but buried under a panoply of needless problems and distractions. Volume is good thanks to the deep (2 1/2") body. Sticking to the melody strings, the instrument sings in pitch, in a rich traditional voice — but only through the first octave. Above the octave the voice thins out rapidly, turning unacceptably tinny by fret 9.
Poor intonation on the middle string yields unacceptable dissonance in chording. Crude notch work results leaves an unpleasant sitar-like twang (correctable with thin specks of rolling paper under the strings in the nut and bridge). Resonance and sustain are weak, due in large part to the inadequately thinned panels. Intonation 2.4
Intonation is very good on the melody strings through fret 13, with a few minor pitch variations that lean flat, enabling the player to compensate with pressure. Bass string also holds its pitch well, with a couple of minor flat spots. But the middle-string intonation borders on the terrible — at the octave (fret 7), it rings nearly 20 cents sharp -- unacceptable by any standard. Authenticity 4.0
Built by an independent craftsman in his own workshop, the instrument is made entirely of local materials, save the strings. Design is novel, yet in keeping with traditional aesthetics. Although the first Darcyhorse dulcimers were essentially copies of Tom Yocky’s instrument, this design appears completely original. Service 3.6
Despite some “take-it-or-leave-it” language on his eBay listings, and a few snarky exchanges on the EBay feedback page, Terry Pattison appears to stand by his instruments, accepting returns and effecting repairs.Value for money 3.4
Despite its musical limitations — many of which can be corrected by an experienced luthier — the Darcyhorse has craft value. It’s worth the $75 paid.
Reviews are based on careful, consistent examination of every instrument handled. Some categories — such as sound — are more subjective than others, and no two individuals are likely to come to precisely the same conclusions. Note that the reviews apply only to the instruments tested, and cannot be expected to apply to every instrument the luthier makes. What the numbers mean
Each category is judged on a five-point scale. Starting with a perfect score of 5.0, points are deducted for any flaws or weaknesses in each category. Scores higher than 4.5 are rare (except in the “authenticity” category, because so many dulcimer makers build in their own homes, often using local materials). Intonation is by far the toughest category, and anything above 4.2 should be considered an excellent score.
3.5 – 5.0 Meets or exceeds the needs of most players.
2.5 – 3.4 Average quality that may suffice for beginners or casual players. Demanding or professional users may be disappointed.
< 2.5 Mediocrity, sloppiness or other significant problems that would detract significantly from the user experience.Set-up and presentation
Packaging, initial appearance, stringing, etc. Workmanship
Assesses craft (such as joinery, planing, bracework and finish) and finished lutherie (action, notching, fretwork etc). Action is literally the height of the strings from the fretboard, but here is assessed by the comfort, responsiveness and consistency of play.Design
The aesthetic appearance (including soundholes), playing comfort, and functionality of the instrument, with extra credit given to design features that enhance overall quality. Materials
The quality and suitability of the materials chosen. With a few exceptions, the use of plywood or plastic parts lowers the score. Experimental materials like carbon fiber are not automatically penalized and are judged on their merits.Sound
A largely subjective measure assessing qualities such as sustain, tone, clarity, balance, articulation and volume. Intonation
Intonation is the precision of pitch. No dulcimer intonates perfectly all the way up the fretboard. No intonation system (including and especially “equal temperament”) is perfect. Intonation is sensitive to temperature, humidity, string gauge and other factors outside the luthier’s control. Simultaneously achieving reliable intonation and a highly playable action is probably the single most difficult task a dulcimer luthier faces. Scores above 4.5 are extremely rare. Authenticity
This category rewards respect for the dulcimer, an appreciation for tradition and innovation for the future. It penalises the use of foreign components or labor solely to reduce costs. Foreign-made dulcimers are not penalised if made in a small shop by independent luthiers. Instruments made in small American factories are not penalised, but instruments made in foreign factories invariably achieve very low scores. If intellectual property theft is suspected, this score is lowered.Service
The responsiveness of the luthier to complaints, the utility of any warrantees, the cost of second-owner servicing and the overall quality of communication between luthier and customer. Value for money
All the above factors balanced against the cost of the instrument.