Robin the Busker wrote:Like Lois said, there seems to be a bit of a revival of the Ed Thomas designs going on. The instrument is very different from the contemporary dulcimers I play and it does need some thought in your approach. I don't think that they are for everyone by any means as they are not that easy to play - but this instrument just has such an incredible old style voice once you figure out how to access it!
Robin, thanks for providing all this wonderful information and the beautiful pictures!
Can you elaborate a little on why you feel some people might not find them 'not that easy to play' ? I'm curious about that aspect.
Firstly tuning is a little awkward with wooden pegs. It if you are used to working with geared guitar machine heads and an electronic tuner then these old style instruments are a lot trickier. I definately find that I need to start with the noter fretted
root note on the melody string not the open string as my referernce note and blend in the drones to that. It takes a while to adjust the pegs as a small peg movement is a big change in pitch - and, of course, the higher the pitch the firmer you have to press the pegs home and the more difficult minor adjustments become - so slightly lower tunings DAA/CGG etc are easier to get into and settle than higher ones EAd DAd etc Unlike a geared tuner where you go below the required note and then fine tune upward, I have found the most stable way to tune is to go a little above the note required and then give the string a light tug to bed it downward just a shade. The instrument is very stable once it is tuned like this.
Staples are not as high as fat modern guitar frets so I need to be a little more accurate with my noter and work close to the frets. I can't get away with lazy mid fret noting like I can on my modern instruments. The fretboard is really too low for a comfortable full thumb-on-top noter grip so it needs a slight side grip or finger-on-top grip, and some folk may not be used to grip switching. Also the freboard is quite narrow so a guided noter grip rather than a free-hand noter grip is useful.
The instrument is very light so I need a slightly wider leg base to balance the instrument so it doesn't rock up at the tail when playing frets 1 or 2 with the noter. I have to be accurate with my quill/pick because if you catch the instrument with a heavy strum it has more of a tendancy to jump on your lap or table than a heavier modern dulcimer. Having said that, the rough painted or often unfinished wood bottoms of old early dulcimers do stick to your legs better than the smooth finish of a Folkcraft or McSpadden, so I have found myself playing without a strap or sticky pads! However, balancing such a small, light instrument is a skill in itself. I think of it a bit like the difference between Alpine and Telemark skiing - rather than being locked down as in Alpine style with Telemark you free the heel and free the spirit
Only it is harder to balance and the consequences of a mistake a little more painful
It is really sweet just to get your dulcimer in balance and play without straps or pads!
This is a bit difficult to explain but I'll try. With a modern dulcimer you can strum your fingers across the strings and it sounds "pretty" - it has a lovey rich balanced sound that is easily accessible. You can place your fingers just about anywhere and get a lovely sound with a gentle strum or finger pick, even as a beginner you can pick out a sweet sounding tune with lots of bass and overtones - and that is a huge attraction of the contemporary instrument. But strum your fingers across a violin, even a Stradivarius, and it doesn't sound pretty at all - the potential for great tone is hidden within the instrument. We don't expect beginners to get great tone from a violin - that takes lots of practice and skill to develop the right touch with fingers and bow. But we do expect beginners to get great tone from a mountain dulcimer off the peg? Well these Ed Thomas designs are more like violins - there is a great tone in there but you have to work to get it out. They do sound sort of pretty when you just strum them but the real potential is more than first perceived. For example: they are quiet when simply strummed (quieter than a contemporary dulcimer) but there is a lot of 'bark' and volume in the instrument when I start to play it with a quill. So you could say that there's more of the player's skill in the sound the instrument creates than perhaps is the case with a contemporary instrument. I have worked hard on developing my noter & drone playing in traditional style with quills, picks and noters - and I'm having to apply a lot of that knowledge to this instrument to really get that old time tone from it. The plus side is that the instrument is paying that effort back in spades - it is just wonderful! It is the same situation with Galax dulcimers - if you want to get any sort of tune out of one at all then you are going to have to work at it! I know I still have a long, long way to go with both my trad noter & drone and Galax playing - it is quite an apprenticeship!!!!!!!
I have often said that playing noter & drone is like playing fiddle - it is very easy to sound bad
and very difficult to sound good!!! But the difference between the two is incredibly subtle and not an obvious teaching progression at all. It does seem that beginners have initial fast progress with noter & drone playing but then quickly reach a plateau that it is very hard to get beyond - and so the style is seen as "limited" compared to chord melody where there are lots of little new skills progressions to be learnt (or taught at Dulcimerville
) With noter and drone playing it is more of a case of refining and sharpening musicality through hours and hours of playing with few descernable "wins" - unless you really know how to define those 'wins' for noter & drone and so can progress.
We know Ed Thomas played his dulcimers with noter and quill. We know he was a good musician who folk enjoyed listing to - and that he played a lot for himself - he had 1000s of playing hours. We know the music repertoire and rhythms he was exposed to in the area he travelled and we know some of the tunes he liked to play himself. We know his dulcimer pattern was very consistant - you can spot an Ed Thomas! So I don't think that the oft quoted "There is no right or wrong way to play a mountain dulcimer" applies to this instrument at all - in the same way the quote does not apply to Galax instruments. To get the full voice from this instrument, as the maker intended, it needs to be played as the maker played it! Albeit that this is a replica of an original Ed Thomas - I don't think that John Knopf could have done any better at getting the instrument as close as possible to an original.
I can't tell you what a delight this instrument is to play Strumelia. It has such a pretty voice with noter and quill - and playing it doesn't feel like a compromise in the way it can when playing noter style on a contemporary instrument. Its voice is just so much better balanced - and louder because of that! I'll definately be taking this instrument out busking just on its own with noter and quills as I'm sure it will pull a crowd, just as it did in Aberdyfi on Sunday.
So I don't think that an Ed Thomas dulcimer will be for everyone. Folk like the idea
that the dulcimer is a traditional instrument but I expect many would be just a little bit stumped when it came to the reality of owning and playing a pre-revival instrument design as there is so little teaching information available to help them along - and Appalachian music from the period is complex and niche.
BTW - With your background in old time music and noter playing you'd love one of these