Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Action speaks louder.....

Patrick 1
Originally uploaded by dreadmon.
Sometimes, it's the smallest things that make the biggest differences. As a dulcimer-player in a rock band, there's been a constant quest for tone and control over whichever instrument I happen to be playing. For the first few years of Mohave's existence, I played an acoustic Folkcraft dulcimer with a very loud voice box and a raised and hollowed fretboard which was ideal for gentle playing, but problematic for rocking out. Using a Dean Markley transducer, I bravely (stupidly?) channeled raw distorted fury from an acoustic instrument and invariably also channeled a sprite that I lovingly refer to as "The Feedback Fairy."

She is not kind, and loves to come in and harass you while you play.

In any case, it was a dream to get a "Bandit", the Bud Ford-designed solidbody critter that I had first laid fingers on back in 1984; it was a prototype owned by my boss at the time, Tim Carnahan. But Bud's been busy manufacturing kits and whole instruments to theme parks and whatnot, so I wasn't able to take delivery. Huge ol' bummer. Finally, I got an idea to banish The Feedback Fairy. I went to Patrick McKinney at Guitar Center in Winter park and approached him about designing a shallowbody electric out of an acoustic kit. He thought briefly and said that it could be done, even though he had never attempted a dulcimer before (he's a well-known and respected luthier as well as repairman.)

Presently, after scraping together enough money, I bought a solid walnut kit from Bud (featuring sound hole designs famously rendered by his wife Donna) and let Patrick lay into it with my specifications. We placed the tone and volume knobs where I could reach them quickly and easily, cut the overall height of the dulcimer by half to reduce the resonating space, but left enough to maintain a warm sound, even when unplugged. I then had him cut extra notches in the bridge and nut so that I could space the four strings out equidistantly for more tuning and playing options.

Well sir, Patrick did a fine job and "Angelique" was delivered not long thereafter.

That annoying chapter of dealing with noisy energy sprites was over and it's been a smooth ride ever since, with just a few wishes on my list. For amplification purposes, we used an under-the-saddle pickup, which was great, but wouldn't represent the full spectrum of sound necessary to get the tone I was looking for. In time, I began to wonder about intonation issues and figured that the tuning pegs that came with the kit were total ca-ca, and planned on having them replaced with Planetary Pegs, which are commonly used on banjos, but work like a dream on dulcimers.

The other thing that I hadn't considered was the action, the distance between the strings and the fretboard as determined by the bridge and nut. While looking at Angelique one day, it came to me that the action was pretty high, causing me to press down harder on the strings, which bent them enough to effect tuning (not to mention making it a bit stressful to play.) Easy solution: I took it down to Patrick and had him file the bridge and nut down.

Oh my God!

It's like playing a new instrument - like buttah, as they say, and it makes a huge world of difference.

I'd like to break it out tonight at rehearsal and see/feel/hear the difference, but I'm going to spring Halcyon on the band first, heh-heh. I think only Bunky knows that I've gotten a new axe!

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