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, some from well known builders whose name you would recognize.
My goal is to build an instrument you can pass on to future generations in perfect playable condition. That is why the instruments literally have an i-beam that runs the length of the body and the neck has two extremely rigid carbon fiber reinforcements that run it’s length. The i-beam, which is made of wood, 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.
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 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 steel string dulcimer design utilizes this principle of a rigid structure that limits vibration from the sides and top. The soundboard, which is hidden inside the instrument, is not limited by aesthetic constraints and can be optimized for the sound it generates. I can easily alter the design of the soundboard to achieve a desired result, as I do when I make baritone dulcimers. This also frees me up to use exterior materials based more on their visual impact, since they have limited contribution to the overall sound. My instruments are not for the player that wants to hide in the crowd. 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 it’s 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.