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Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr

13 Jan 20 - 11:05 AM (#4028027)
Subject: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation frustrations
From: Nick

I bought a second hand dulcimer some while back and it has never really been played much. So at xmas I thought I'd see if I could get it to work enough so that my ears didn't pack up and leave in protest.

The intonation on it seems really off - BUT IT VARIES AS I PUT IT IN DIFFERENT TUNINGS.

It drives me round the bend.

I have measured the frets and they are pretty much in the right place (figures from a dulcimer/instrument site on the net).

What I have ended up doing is making a sort of temporary nut addition which shortens the middle string a bit. I can now actually do a passable rendition of a scale and chords when I tune to DAD. It sounds close enough (for folk hoho!!)

So then I retuned it to DAA. Now the intonation has a different set of problems. Arggggh!

It maybe it's not a very good dulcimer but I have the bit a little bit between my teeth now.

I can easily post a short video of my problem (and my sort of solution) and stick it on Youtube if that helps and if anyone is interested.

13 Jan 20 - 11:44 AM (#4028046)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Jack Campin

Duff strings?

Retuning from D to A is pretty drastic, it's not likely that any string could cope.

13 Jan 20 - 01:38 PM (#4028070)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: leeneia

Yes, try replacing the strings.

I have had more than one dulcimer, and I've played other people's as well. I think it's common for them to get whiny as you move up the fretboard. I like my dulcie warm and beautiful, so I don't tune it DAD. Me for DAA!

Don't use the high D to tune it, use some lower note. I haven't played for long time (hand problems), so I've forgotten which note I use, but I remember it wasn't a high note.

The beauty of the fretted dulcimer is how easy it is to play harmony on it. Hit lots of strings when you play and let it do its thing.

13 Jan 20 - 01:56 PM (#4028079)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

Thank you both I have several sets of strings and will try. Playing mostly guitar, or bass, or mandolin, or keyboards (!), none of them has the particular oddness.

The string length of the dulcimer is not wildy different to a guitar. They just seem to act rather differently!

I presume it is same set of strings for DAA tuning as DAD tuning as on the packet the 0.30 string is the one for D or A.


I will persevere.

15 Jan 20 - 05:50 PM (#4028528)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,Don Meixner

I have a very old Dennis Darogi dulcimer that I had similar problems with. I messed about with wound a plain strings. Eventually I was able to sort out the intonation but it took awhile. Looking at it now I see one wound string and one plain in the lowest unison and two plains. All banjo strings, the three plains are GHS .o11 and the wrapped string is the lighted gauge wound string I could find.


16 Jan 20 - 01:42 AM (#4028566)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,leeneia

Are you using four strings? Don't. That way madness lies. Use a low D string and two A's.

16 Jan 20 - 04:20 AM (#4028580)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,nickp (cookiesless)

Four SEPARATE strings tends to be called 'Galax' style. I suspect that the four here are in the common 2 single (mainly) drones and a doubled melody.

Don't know about DAA in that sense, not sure whether the D is melody or an A. On a DAD tuning that would be DD melody, A middle and low D.

Using a slightly higher gauge string by a couple of thous of an inch are likely to help. For example using a 17 thou instead of a 15 is unlikely to make a difference with tension but can have a big difference on intonation. It's a bit traila and error though.

16 Jan 20 - 10:37 AM (#4028611)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

I am only using three currently - as one broke - there were 4

The strings that are/were on it are Martin & Co Darco Acoustic (there are electric dulcimers?!!) Dulcimer 4 strings. D4000 Standard Nickel Alloy Wound

In INCH gauges
.012(D) .012(D) .012(A) .022(D)
In MM gauges
.030(D) .030(D) .030(A) .056(D)

16 Jan 20 - 10:40 AM (#4028612)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

>>On a DAD tuning that would be DD melody, A middle and low D.

That's how I was doing it

I may pop a little video somewhere which makes it clearer. It may be the dulcimer itself but even a crap guitar these days is usually playable (I have a 10 chinese spanish guitar from a charity shop I use which is ok)

16 Jan 20 - 10:53 AM (#4028615)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: leeneia

Yep, unless it's really cheap (does it look cheap?) it ought to be able to play do re me fa so la ti do.

Listen, does it have a 6 1/2 fret? Most modern dulcimers do. You aren't hitting the 6 1/2 on your way up the scale, are you? That would really sound odd.

16 Jan 20 - 12:56 PM (#4028635)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

Thanks again. Yes I think it's cheap and (not) cheerful

It does have a 6 1/2 fret but the issue is much lower on the fretboard and my ears and theory are pretty good :)

I have measured the frets against this fret calculator and while it is not spot on it is close enough that it wouldn't be given the difference. Top and bottom strings are ok(ish) the D and the D (whether there are one or two melody strings) it is the middle A string that is horrible!

I may do a little video sometime and you'll see it much clearer. The problem has been there since I bought it and was there after the last string change.

I think I paid 50 or 70 for it second hand so it is very much a beginning thing I think.

On balance I think it is just a piece of crap that isn't worth messing with but I get a bit irked if things that should work don't so I will make the most of it!

I also feel that the action is really high so will address that too

16 Jan 20 - 02:06 PM (#4028646)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,nickp (cookieless)

That middle A is never going to work if it's the same gauge as the D's. Try a .017 inch and see how that goes.

16 Jan 20 - 07:53 PM (#4028694)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr

Hi, Nick, Robin Connaughton. I used to make dulcimers back in the eighties, even wrote a book about them. Love them! Dont, throw it out. Anything can be made to work

What you are describing shouldn't happen, and if I could get a look at the bugger I am sure I could sort it. Maybe the u-tube or a video. (unless you can get it to Canberra?)

Meantime there are a couple of things. Most dulcimers don't need much intonation work. They are pretty tolerant of it. Mine is a seventeen fret one John Day made to my design in 1978. Its a five string (not five different strings,only meaning that there are double strings on the melody string (the one closest to you) and two strings an octave apart on the position furthest from you. So it tunes like a three string, dd A dD, or dd G dD. The octaves and harmonics up to the second octave intonate fine, and the only intonation correction on it is a half millimetre or so on the bridge for the wound string.

A couple of questions. Is it fourteen or seventeen strings? Which strings if any are wound strings? If it has been set up for one wound string and you replace it with an unwound one that can cause problems, but not big ones. If you replace an unwound string with a wound one, the groove in the nut may not be wide enough, and that string will stick while tuning.

Has it got a zero fret, one a couple of mm in front of the nut? This can improve the tone of a dulcimer, but if it is done after the nut was put in, it shorts the whole measurement of the fret positions. You can tune it Ok open, but then every note after the first fret is out. I once made a useful amount of money correcting a whole batch of Korean dulcimers that had a short zero fret placement like this, and you could not tune them correctly without removing the zero fret, shaving off the edge of the nut, then replacing the fret a little further back. Yours isn't a fourteen fret Korean one is it?

Also, if it has a zero fret, make sure that the groove in the nut is deep enough. If it is not deep enough in one groove, the string there will not sit on the zero fret and will have a longer space to the first fret. This particularly possible if you are replacing an unwound string with a wound one.

Its got to be fixable. Make a video.

17 Jan 20 - 12:09 PM (#4028749)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

Thanks for all the input from you all.Some more info that might help unravel things and especially in light of Robin's post.

Robin (and I love the attitude of anything can be made to work!!:) -
Thank you I will indeed do that (in fact have). Canberra is a long way. Though a friend of mine is off to New Zealand soon and could perhaps throw it out the window on the way (not sure if you can open the windows though)

1 It was four strings (and may be again when I change strings) but currently three. Tuned D A D. String gauges 0.22 0.12 0.12
2 It has 15 frets - 8 up to and including the octave and then another 7
3 No zero fret

I don't know where it's from. It has Appalachian on the headstock. The headstock is weird in that the four tuners are in a row and that doesn't help. There is a picture of it here. It wouldn't surprise me if it's made out of a packing case :). But it is what it is and I will get a tuneful sound of it...

The intonation at the octave seems a little out. It's sharp compared to the harmonic. To give an idea how much. If I tune the D string to D 440 and play the harmonic so it is in tune; then when I play the fretted octave it's about 25cents sharp - or I would need to change it to 446Hz to make the D in tune. If that makes sense. And same for A string. If I play the low open D and play the third fret on the A string (which I reckon should be a D) then again the fretted A string is sharp again about 20+ cents; again to make it in tune I would need to change the tuner to 446. The tuner is not fantastic but gives an indication

The action seems high to me - at the octave about 5mm and at the first fret 3mm

At some point in the past I think that I might have turned the nut and bridge the other way round and so may have slightly shortened the strings. But I think I was already having problems - especially playing chords it was/is horrible.

I have put a video up on youtube which may illustrate where I am currently and my current (very heath robinson) exploration into ways of trying to deal with the problem to get it into a playable state
My dulcimer and HR solution

Intention next is to restring it and I may flip the nut and bridge back which I think will slightly increase the string length that may reduce the sharpness a bit. Can't be worse (or can it?). I'll report back. The string sets I have are all the same gauge so it will be as before. Having said that it is what Martin say they are for! And for tuning to D A D. Silverplated steel and Nickel wound

By the way what I have done with the green toothbrush bridge seems diametrically opposite to what I should be doing! As I'm in effect shortening the middle string. Puzzled

Here are the fret distances for sake of completeness (not exact but close to about middle of fret)

Nut to bridge - c671mm


        Calculated        Bridge turn        Actual dulcimer
                        length c675mm        
1        73.2                 73.6                73.5
2        138.4                139.2                139
3        168.3                169.3                169-170
4        223.2                224.5                224
5        272                 273.6                272
6        294.4                296.1                295
7        315.5                317.4                316
8        335                 337.5                337

9        372                 374.3                373.5
10        404                 407.1                406.5
11        419.6                422.1                422
12        447                 449.7                449
13        471.5                474.3                472        
14        482.7                485.5                484        
15        503.25               506               505

If I turned the bridge the other way I think the distance nut to bridge would be 675mm and I popped some figures in but I think I'm guessing and floundering around in the dark a bit!

17 Jan 20 - 01:09 PM (#4028768)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,leeneia

I have a set of dulcimer strings by Martin & Co (the famous guitar people). Their gauges match yours as given on Jan 16th, so that's good.

I watched your video a few times. You are going pretty fast, and I could be wrong, but I think your problem is that when you play the scale on the A (middle) string, you are using the 6th fret rather than the 6 1/2.   The A scale has G# in it, so you have to use the 6 1/2 to get it.

17 Jan 20 - 04:44 PM (#4028789)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

Thank you for listening. It is the the out of tuneless between the strings and that the D scale between the strings is horrendously out. I think I hit the G# on the A string but if I missed it is genuinely the least of the instruments problems. And the difference between the harmonic and the fretted note.

Will get there...

17 Jan 20 - 04:53 PM (#4028790)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: GUEST,leeneia

If, when you say the D scale be between the strings, you are referring to the two high D strings (melody strings), there is a simple answer to that. Take one of them off, tune the one that remains, and play only with that remaining melody string. It will work fine. The woman I learned from taught me that, and I have been playing happily that way for years.

The way I figure it, if you have two top strings, every time you strike them, you hit the one close to you harder than you hit the second one. Pretty soon, the two of them will be out of tune, because the close one has been hit many more times.

As I said before, DAA is mellower and warmer. Also, the fingerings for making chords are simpler. What's to lose?

20 Jan 20 - 04:38 AM (#4029170)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: Nick

I have restrung it (with three strings) but found I had a set of slightly different gauge strings. 0.22 0.14 and 0.12. It perhaps is a little better but chords which include the lowest and middle strings still sound out especially anything including the first fret.

Oh well. Perhaps Ill just stick to other things

20 Jan 20 - 03:29 PM (#4029264)
Subject: RE: Any dulcimer folk help- intonation grrr
From: leeneia

On your video it sounded like a normal dulcimer to me.