Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So many dulcimers

There's an old joke that's heard in mountain dulcimer circles quite a bit, and it applies to other instruments as well: "how many dulcimers do you need?" The answer: "just one more."

It's like the t-shirts that Roger Zimish is selling "love one woman, many guitars." There's something about certain instruments that inspires the collector in all of us. Now, that's not always the case - some people seem happy with just one really good instrument; it does everything they need it to do (see: Willie Nelson or B.B. King, even though the latter has had a whole host of "Lucille" guitars over the span of his career.) Sometimes, multiple instruments are absolutely necessary, like with harmonicas or Native American Flutes, each one has a different key along with a specific kind of voice. With mountain dulcimers, many players use multiple instruments for different tunings since the diatonic fretboard doesn't easily allow for playing in any key.

Taking this another step - whether you play one or many instruments, there is also the question of brand, such as "who makes your instrument?" Some people will play many different types of instruments while others are brand-loyal, sticking with one particular maker because that manufacturer apparently has hit all the right points necessary to guarantee an instrument that will meet exacting criteria involving tone, playability, functionality, ergonomics, appearance, etc.

For an instrument that's so relatively new on the scene, the mountain dulcimer has an astonishing number of builders who specialize in its construct. From one-man crews to assembly-line, factory-built operations. From the most traditional of methods to state-of-the-art technology, mountain dulcimer builders seem to appear on the scene with increasing regularity, rubbing elbows with established makers and manufacturers, introducing new twists and aiding in the ongoing development of this unique American folk instrument.

Currently, in my own dulcimer collection, I have 18 instruments which can be seen here at the gear page on my website. It's a modest assortment, compared to some veritable museums I've heard about in the homes of avid collectors. While looking at it recently in preparation for the big announcement that I'm about to make in this blog, I realized that these instruments are a reflection of my quest for a dulcimer that simply "be all that it can be." As my playing has evolved over the years, so have my needs, again reflected in the choices of many axes in my collection. There are, of course, my first dulcimers from Cripple Creek Dulcimers and a custom-created shallowbody dulcimer made from a CC kit that was an attempt to electrify without sacrificing pure dulcimer tone. There are electric solid-body dulcimers and dulcitars, cardboard dulcimers and prototypes. Some are hanging on the wall, show-pieces, but not really performance instruments. There are also student dulcimers that I loan out for private lessons and dulcimers that were found in someone's closet or attic that ended up with me, because someone knew they'd go to a good home.

And then there are the dulcimers that I've played the most, which are my Folkcraft/Folkroots models and a Mike Clemmer MC-2 double-fretboard dulcimer.

Sometime last year, in a series of discussions with Butch Ross, Stephen Seifert and Aaron O'Rourke, the subject of finding exactly what we were all looking for in an instrument came to the forefront of our elusive "quest for tone." The possibility was this: that we weren't finding what we were looking for because it didn't exist. Maybe the reason that people had so many different dulcimers from many different makers was because, like the perfect mate, there is no such thing. No one person can be all things to you, just as one instrument couldn't possibly be all things, or could it?

Though I decided to slow down on my acquisition of instruments, there were a couple of builders that I knew were making unique instruments that just had to end up in my collection, both for history's sake and to have the joy of playing them whenever I wanted. David Beede is one of those builders. The other builder is Gary Gallier.

Sure, I wouldn't mind having one of every good dulcimer that I've ever seen, heard or played, but that would be impossible (and desire will just frustrate you in the end), so again, the idea was to narrow my search for "the perfect dulcimer" and it hearkened back to our conversations about what would make such an instrument. Though Aaron has a number of instruments, like a Dave McKinney Modern Mountain Dulcimer and also a Gallier Starsong, his favorite axe is a Beede prototype that was made to his specifications. Naturally, when you can find a builder who will work with you and has the ability to deliver what it is that you're looking for, it's a dream come true. Combine an already great-sounding instrument with a builder who is always listening to players and plussing the design and you've got magic waiting to happen.

It's Official

Since 1999, when Mohave was formed, I've been looking for an electric mountain dulcimer that could pull off alternately sounding acoustic and ballistic. For years, I used a Folkcraft acoustic dulcimer with a transducer pickup, which worked for quiet applications, but turned into dodgy feedbacky noise whenever the distortion pedal was stomped. Acoustic instruments have a bad history of aping solidbody ones and vice-versa.

Then, I played a Greibhaus solid-body and was blown away by its tone; it had all the warmth of an acoustic dulcimer, yet it could crank out a wall of solid rock crunch with a vengeance. I was pretty broke at the time and couldn't afford to even think about getting one. Lucky for me, the builder, Jerry Cripe, offered me an endorsement deal earlier this year and now I'm cranking out the jams at gigs with a Greibhaus. Jerry is interested in future development of the instrument, so there have been discussions on design elements and this particular model is still in an evolutionary stage, which is really exciting.

Back in 1994, I worked for Folkcraft Instruments at a kiosk located in Walt Disney World. David and Melissa Marks owned the company and had taken over the dulcimer concession from another builder whose name I can't remember, but apparently he was terrible at customer service.

In any case, it was a fun summer, made some decent money and spent most of it right back into the till by purchasing some of the amazing dulcimers that I got to demonstrate for eight hours each day. For years, these dulcimers were making it happen for me, especially my CF-300, which just got beat all to hell during so many Mohave shows. Incredible tone, beautiful intonation, a raised fretboard that allowed the instrument top to resonate with a passion; I simply didn't bother looking anywhere else for another dulcimer: that was it. Many years later, when I did end up picking another axe while on the road, I went with a Folkroots, which was being made in the same factory after Folkcraft bought that particular company.

David and Melissa ended up selling the business and for awhile, many were asking about the new company and would they continue to make the excellent instruments that folks had come to know and love. The question took on extra poignancy after Melissa passed away earlier this year.

It's Official (again)

This summer at NAMM show in Nashville, my good friend Roger Zimish ran into the Folkcraft crew and said they were interested in talking to me. After a few phone calls with them, it became immediately clear that this was one of those matches made in heaven. The new owners are forward-thinking with a dedication towards preserving and presenting traditional folk instruments. Immediately, specs were discussed on a dream dulcimer, one with two fretboards, ebony overlay, L.R. Baggs pickups, built-in Fishman E.Q. and more. Since Folkcraft doesn't make solid-body electrics, I'd still endorse Greibhaus in addition to endorsing Folkcraft. Though it's a non-exclusive deal, I'll still primarily be using Folkcrafts for performing, recording and teaching. In January, I'll travel to Anaheim, California for the Winter NAMM show to demonstrate for the company, much as I did for Suzuki back in 1986 (don't know if I've told that story or not here - it's a trip.)

I'm excited to be working with Folkcraft Instruments again and especially thrilled about the development side of things. Seems like the "quest for tone" just rounded the final curve.

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