After attending the Galax-style old-time string band jam in Virginia in May, I became intrigued with this type of dulcimer and decided to learn more about them. Could I tune one of my own dulcimers to DDDD above middle C to get the same sound? It meant changing strings–several times. Here’s how it turned out.
Galax-style dulcimers originated in the isolated mountains of southwestern Virginia. All the strings are tuned to D above middle C. The large boat-shaped dulcimers typically do not have a strum hollow. The double melody strings are played with a noter with the other strings sounding as drones. These large dulcimers have a loud and unique sound that can easily compete with other instruments.They have a bag-pipe done sound which works well with Irish music, fiddle tunes, hymns, modal songs.
Ben Seymour – Galax-style Dulcimer Builder
Building traditional Galax-style dulcimers continues with luthier Ben Seymour. He has perfected the techniques and crafts beautiful Galax dulcimers for customers. This You-Tube video shows Ben playing a new Phyllis Gaskins/Melton Galax dulcimer. He’s playing “Little Liza Jane” and is using a noter to fret the strings.
Kudzu Patch Galax dulcimers
Ben’s business and WEB site is Kudzo Patch Dulcimers at http://www.kudzupatch.net/. He is located in Tyron, North Carolina. In addition to Galax dulcimers Ben crafts other traditional dulcimers. The Galax dulcimers are made out of a variety of interesting woods including wormy chestnut, cherry, walnut and dogwood. Ben is also an accomplished dulcimer player and I always enjoy listening to You-Tube videos of the latest dulcimer that he has crafted.
Changing Strings on a Dulcimer to Galax-style Tuning
I selected one of my own dulcimers for tuning to the Galax style with all strings tuned to D above middle C. This dulcimer is a large cherry dulcimer with a wormy chestnut top. To change to this tuning, just lowering or raising strings to the D note won’t work as the strings will be either too loose or they will break. So, that means changing strings using strings of different gauges.
I remember long ago when I was a new dulcimer player, changing strings seemed like a daunting and difficult task. With practice it becomes much easier; Helen and I changed all 4 strings on her dulcimer in 10 minutes.
Tips for Changing Strings on a Dulcimer.
To determine what type of strings to use you need to know three things: the vibrating length of the dulcimer, the tuning you want to play in, and the type of strings the dulcimer uses. Then, off you go. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years which make changing strings easier.
- Assemble the tools. I have a “tool box” where I keep all my dulcimer supplies. These supplies include needle nose pliers, regular pliers, a string winder, screw drivers of various gauges, extra picks, noters, a metronome, a pencil. When I need to perform a little maintenance on a dulcimer or change strings, I don’t have to hunt. Everything is together. Now family members go to the “tool box” and use the tools for other tasks, too.
- Learn what type of strings your dulcimer uses. There is no such thing as a “dulcimer string.” They are either banjo strings with loop ends or guitar strings with ball ends. Dulcimer makers craft dulcimers differently; and both types are used on dulcimers. Different string brands or dulcimer makes often package dulcimer strings in kits. This is convenient but make sure the kit contains the gauges and type you need…
- Back when I was teaching LSU Leisure classes and using lots of cardboard kits for the classes, I purchased strings in bulk. You can also purchase individual strings at music stores or via line WEB sties. If the strings are not coiled; they will last for years. Here are some of those bulk strings in plastic sleeves.
- Determine the vibrating length of the dulcimer. Not all dulcimers are created equally and different dulcimers require different string gauges for the same tuning. The vibrating length of the dulcimer–the distance from the nut (or zero fret) to the bridge is the vibrating length and determines the string gauges. Here’s the nut end of my dulcimer.
- Measure to the bridge of the dulcimer.
- This dulcimer has a long vibrating length relative to other dulcimers — 28″. For example, Ben’s Galax dulcimers have a vibrating length of 26-15/16″ and Helen’s dulcimer has a very short vibrating length of 25″. Dulcimers with a longer vibrating length need lighter lighter string gauges.
- Understand string gauges. The lower the number the lighter the gauge of the string. These strings have a ball ending and are light gauges. Lighter strings can be wound tighter. These gauges are the ones I need to use to tune to “D” above middle C on my dulcimer with at 28″ vibrating length. If I use a heavier string gauge — such as 11 or 12 gauge — I’ll have to wind them so tightly to get to the “D” note, the strings will pop.
- So, the higher the number the heavier the string gauge. Strings in the 20’s typically are wound over the core string. Ben uses 11 gauge strings for his Galax dulcimers of 26-15/16″ length and Helen’s dulcimer of 25″ vibrating length could use up to 12 gauge strings.
- Know the tuning you are playing in. You can only tighten or loosen the string several notes. So a DAD tuning needs different strings than a DF”A tuning. DAA and DAD may possibly need different melody strings.
- Baritone dulcimers tuned to AEA and bass dulcimers tuned to low DAD need strings of higher gauges and “Ginger” or soprano dulcimers tuned to GDG need lighter strings.
- When you en you are ready to change strings, change one string at a time. Why? Some dulcimers have “floating” bridges and the bridge can shift if you take off all the strings.
- Place the dulcimer on a flat surface such as a table–not your lap. Remove the string, use the needle nose pliers to help with this task.
- Place the new string on through the holder at the bridge end; hold it down. You don’t need to wind the entire string onto the tuning peg, you just need several turns. So hold the string down along the fretboard, insert into the peg hole and leave about a 2″ string length flopping. Wind this in a clockwise motion. The above photo shows a string winder which is handy for winding strings quicker. And below we are taking a string off Helen’s dulcimer which has a guitar-type head. Much easier to change strings with this configuration. When finished cut off the excess string with the pliers or you can easily poke yourself or someone else.
- Tune the string. Here’s a tuning application on my cell phone which makes this every convenient.
Let’s Get Playing — play in Keys of D or G
What am I playing? I’ve tried several hymn’s: “Happy Land” and “Holy Manna” both in the pentatonic scale. Fiddle tunes are “Folked Deer”, “Julie Ann Johnson” and “Miss McLeod’s Reel.”
When playing in this tuning, there is no fret below the song’s key note. This means that many songs, such as “Forked Deer”, need to be played an octave higher than usual. Get used to the high frets!
In the all-D string tuning, you can play in the key of D (Mixolydian mode) – with the scale going from “0” to “7” frets and the key of G (Ionian mode) with the scale going from “3” to “10” frets. Play the same song in either key!
And thanks to Ben Seymour for giving me permission to post the photos and You-Tube video.