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Behind the scenes at Stephens Lutherie

The Stephens Lutherie Skunkworks has been making the most of “sheltering in place” and cranking out prototypes for the next generation of instruments. There are now three instruments awaiting evaluation by Aaron O’Rourke and Butch Ross as soon as travel becomes reasonably safe again. The first two are potential new steel string dulcimer designs. They borrow heavily from the Fingerstyle (nylon string) design, but deviate in several significant ways. At the moment, the tops are clamped in place so that additional alterations can be made if testing indicates the need.

One of the prototypes is aimed at Aaron’s vision of a “flatpicking machine”. It has an X-braced top similar to steel string guitars. The fretboard is radiused The strings have a reverse taper, being wider at the nut than the bridge. The narrow spacing reduces the distance the pick has to move between strings, which makes a lot of sense.

The other feature that is introduced on this dulcimer is a magnetic pickup. As can be seen in the photo, the pickup hides in a widened section of the fretboard. Since the fretboard is floating above the top, locating the pickup there does not adversely impact the acoustic properties of the instrument. The pickup is a humbucker, so it resists hum from stray ambient sources. I have been very pleased with the tone achieved by the pickup. When the signal is kept clean, it does a very good job of replicating the natural voice of the dulcimer. So far, it seems less susceptible to feedback than even the under-saddle piezo pickups.

The dulcimer aimed at Butch’s more aggressive strumming style has a parallel braced top of original design. It has a very solid lower end and is capable of some serious volume. The fretboard is more conventional- flat and no taper. This dulcimer also incorporates the magnetic pickup, which should be a great match for the intended use.

Time and testing will tell whether either or both of these new designs ever reach production. It may be that Aaron prefers the parallel bracing or that Butch likes the X-bracing. I suspect that there is enough to work with in these two prototypes that some, if not all of their features will eventually find their way into instruments that are available to all. I remain dedicated to pushing the envelope of instrument design in the hope that others will do the same to the betterment of the mountain dulcimer.

More about the third instrument in the near future. I will offer this teaser- it’s not a dulcimer.

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