Technology meets tradition through innovation
Stephens Lutherie is the culmination of a lifetime of fine woodworking and over forty years of instrument making. Over those forty years I have produced many types of instruments, from woodwinds to percussion to stringed instruments. Throughout most of that time my interest kept doubling back to the mountain dulcimer. Perhaps because it is an instrument I enjoy playing or maybe because it is one of a very few instruments of American origin. In any case, I have a passion for this unique bit of Americana.
My goal is to advance the state of the art of mountain dulcimers by combining traditional design and construction techniques with the latest strategies in stringed instrument making and computer controlled manufacturing. I strive to make an instrument that meets the needs and desires of the professional musician at the highest level.
Over the years I have observed many dulcimers that had become unplayable because the structure of the instrument was unable to withstand the string tension over time. Wood exhibits “creep” when subjected to even relatively low levels of stress. That is why an instrument can be fine when built, but become a wall hanger as creep slowly bows the fretboard, the body or both. Eventually, the strings are so far above the fretboard, the dulcimer needs repair or even becomes useless as a musical instrument. I have repaired many and passed the last rights over many others.
I attempt to build an instrument you can pass on to future generations. That is why the instruments literally have a carbon fiber reinforced beam that runs the length of the body and the neck has two extremely rigid carbon fiber stiffners that run it’s length. The beam lowers the stress level to a point where the creep will be negligible. In the case of the neck, the stress is carried by the carbon fiber, which is massively over designed for the task.
The Fingerstyle dulcimers I produce are the result of a collaboration with Aaron O’Rourke to forge a new frontier for mountain dulcimers. Aaron is opening up new possibilities for the instrument through his amazing talent and creativity. I met Aaron at Kentucky Music Week when he kindly agreed to provide feedback on my first production steel string dulcimers. Before our meeting ended, Aaron asked if I would be interested in building him a very special instrument that he had been thinking about for a long time. I eagerly took up the challenge and work began on a totally new approach to building a nylon string dulcimer that incorporated the features Aaron had been carefully considering. Check out the Aaron O’Rourke Nylon String Dulcimer page for all of the unique features that resulted from our work together. Key among these features is a fretboard that floats above the top (soundboard) of the instrument to provide improved volume and sound quality. This is only possible because the instrument also uses a structural beam that runs its length and provides support for the neck/fretboard. You can learn all about the features that have combined to make an instrument aimed at fingerstyle playing, with a sound profile that combines the heart of the dulcimer with the sole of the flamenco guitar. Watch Aaron’s website for tutorials and music that will be developed around this exciting new instrument.
The basic concept for the Fingerstyle Dulcimer has proven to have great potential for steel strings as well. Recently, work has focused on several new designs that have bracing for the top that was developed specifically to exploit the nature of steel strings. These instruments also incorporate magnetic pickups that are built into the neck that provide outstanding tone and less feedback issues than the piezo pickups typically found in dulcimers. Since the pickup is built into the neck, which floats above the soundboard, it does not negatively impact the acoustic properties.
Aaron and I have generated a long list of future projects with should keep me busy for many months. Each project adds to the knowledge base and informs future research. I look forward to pushing the boundaries of what we now think of as a mountain dulcimer and empowering talented musicians to push on to new frontiers.