Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Meet the dulcimers

Walter and Cordelia
Originally uploaded by dreadmon.
Last night's rehearsal was incredible; it had been a long time since we had last gotten together. When that happens, there's always a palpable sense of "finally", and we're just happy to be in the same room, let alone making the beautiful music that we do.

Everyone was suitably impressed with Halcyon, who sounded, well, impressive through my Line 6 Spyder amp. Some intonation problems were tracked down to my not being used to such low action and also the light gauge of strings that came with her. Sometime this week, I'll get a selection of strings ranging from .016 - .018 and .027 - .029 - with thicker strings, I won't have as much tendancy to bend them, thus pushing them out of tune. There was also a small incident involving the strap, which connected with the topmost tuner gear and dropped the note from "C" to "Bb" in mid-song. I fixed the problem by moving the strap up a notch. A design issue that I should be aware of in the future - try to get tuner gears on the right side of the head-stock!

Halcyon makes seven dulcimers that I now own, not including my Masterworks 16/15 Hammer Dulcimer, which will get worked into the fabric of Mohave one of these days, as soon as I can learn my way around it! I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce readers of this blog to the members of my dulcimer family because all are special and have a unique story to tell.

I'll start with the two pictured above: Walter and Cordelia. They are named for the founders of Knott's Berry Farm, a charming and quaint little theme park that I worked at for four years before it became a rollercoaster wonderland owned by a big corporation.

In any case, it was while walking through the streets of Ghost Town in 1985 that I first heard the mellow and soothing sounds of the dulcimer wafting off the porch of the Gold Trails Hotel, one of the original buildings that Walter Knott had brought in from silver mining towns around the southwest. There, behind the counter of the dulcimer shop was a lovely young woman named Meta who was playing some tune or another, I can't really recall, so transfixed was I by the sound.

She bet me that I could be playing it in five minutes. I bet her that she was wrong. She won the bet.

I came back that week and bought Walter, the teardrop shaped plywood dulcimer on the left. Walter was a good starter dulcimer for me as I decided whether or not this would be a musical future. A month later, I was working for Cripple Creek Dulcimers, the company founded by legendary dulcimer-maker Bud Ford. I spent that summer, eight hours a day, playing, selling and building dulcimers. My first project, built from a professional kit, was Cordelia, an hourglass dulcimer with a walnut bottom and spruce wood top. Using a coping saw and a wood burning tool, I created soundholes in the shape of arrows and musical notes with little flecks of burned-in effects. I sanded and sanded and sanded until I thought my arms would fall off, but my boss, Tim Carnahan, said it was necessary to get the finish that I desired. Gluing, cutting, placing in the jigsaw, guests would walk by and marvel at seeing an actual luthier at work. I just marveled that I hadn't sliced any digits off.

It took about nine days to complete, and when I finally put the strings on her and played the first notes, it was a magic moment.

Walter and Cordelia hang on the wall now, as my current playing style lends itself to brutalizing my instruments to a certain degree. But every now and again, I'll pull them down, re-string them and relive those precious moments when I first began playing the instrument that would change my life forever.

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