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 make a contribution to the serious dulcimer players of the world. By combining the traditional design and construction of the dulcimer with the latest strategies in classical guitar making and computer controlled manufacturing techniques, I strive to make an instrument that meets the needs and desires of the professional and serious amateur musician.
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.
That is why my instruments literally have a beam that runs the length of the body. The beam is made of aluminum so that it will not permanently deflect or twist over time, thereby keeping the fretboard flat and level.
A side benefit to making a strong, rigid structure is that you can more easily control the source and nature of the vibrations emanating from it. Greg Smallman revolutionized classical guitar building techniques by making an extremely stiff interior structure that drives the string energy into a very light soundboard. In this manner, he achieved more volume and increased clarity of tone, since the bottom and sides of the guitar were not allowed to vibrate significantly and create uncontrollable vibrations. There have been many makers who have copied Greg’s original ideas and many more who have used them as a springboard for their own variations of the basic concepts. My dulcimer design utilizes this principle of a rigid structure that limits vibration from the sides and bottom, letting the top do its job without destructive interference form other elements. When you lift one, you will notice that they are heavier than most dulcimers, but the top is light and free to vibrate. They have a strong, clear tone that projects above most other dulcimers.
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 iit’s length and provides support for the neck/fretboard. These features 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.
My last few years of development have been centered on creating a professional quality dulcimer at a much lower price point as well as one that is more eco-friendly. I have pioneered the 3D printing of dulcimers including building a custom printer capable of printing an entire body in one piece. It was a lengthy and at times frustrating experience, but the results have made it worthwhile. Both Aaron O'Rourke and Butch Ross are now playing my hybrid dulcimers despite the fact that they have access to top quality wood instruments (including many of my own). While the tone of the printed dulcimers is slightly different than my wood ones, it is not necessarily worse. Just different. In blind tests, many have preferred the sound of the printed instruments. They are definitely worth consideration if you are thinking of a new dulcimer. In fact, you could buy a steel string and a nylon string for less than one of my wood dulcimers.
An unintended consequence of the hybrid project was the fact that you can print nearly identical bodies to use in comparison testing. As I tried many different soundboards and bracing schemes, I eventually realized that I had happened upon a design that worked equally well for nylon or steel strings. This has many positive implications for both me and my customers. It greatly simplifies the manufacturing process to have one design. For the customer, it has the benefit of offering a dulcimer that can easily be converted back and forth between nylon and steel strings. The only parts affected are the nut (actually a string separator since I use a zero fret), saddle and strings. The conversion can be done in 15 minutes by a reasonably handy person with an Allen wrench. Pretty close to the Holy Grail from my perspective.