Care and Feeding of the Aaron O'Rourke Fingerstyle Dulcimer
Now that the evolution of the Fingerstyle Dulcimer has pretty much stabilized, it seems appropriate to pull all of my thoughts on how to use and care for the instrument into one document. The information presented is in no particular order, so if you own a Fingerstyle, it would be good to skim through all of it. I will break the information into topics with headings so that it is more easily referenced.
Like any acoustic stringed instrument, the Fingerstyle Dulcimer does not like extremes in either temperature or humidity. The more stable the environment the better for the instrument. Leaving your dulcimer in a car is one of the worst things you can do to it. In general, your dulcimer will be comfortable in temperatures and humidity ranges that you are comfortable in. A case or gig bag helps reduce the stress on it when you have to transport it through temperature or humidity extremes. It gives the dulcimer more time to adjust to changes. No need to obsess about climate, but do keep it in mind.
The instrument is finished with nitrocellulose lacquer which is formulated specifically for acoustic instruments. It is the finish that has traditionally been used on fine guitars and other acoustic instruments. It can expand and contract with the dulcimer without cracking. There is no need to add any type of polish or wax to the finish. Just wipe it with a soft cloth to keep the dust off. In tests on the prototypes it was found that too many coats of finish on the top (soundboard) adversely affected the volume and tone. Since the tops are softer woods and have only two coats of lacquer on them they need to be treated with care. The sides and back have a vinyl seal coat plus seven or more coats of lacquer, so they have a bit more protection. Lacquer can be dissolved by alcohol, so keep your drinks away from your dulcimer.
The bridge on the instrument is of my design and it offers two features not often found an a dulcimer. The first is its ability to easily adjust the action (the height of the strings above the frets) to the players preference. In order to change the action you should first slack off the tension of the strings. You don't have to go all the way down. Dropping an octave in pitch will be fine. Then use a 2.5 mm allen wrench in the set screws on either side of the bone saddle to raise or lower the strings. You can have the bass strings slightly higher or lower than the melody string if you prefer. The photo below shows an allen wrench on one of the two screws used to adjust the action.
As delivered, the dulcimer is set up to be high enough for minimal fret buzz and low enough to be easy on the fingers. The elasticity and greater size of the nylon strings makes them very easy to fret. This allows a slightly higher string action to accommodate the greater amplitude of vibration (compared to steel strings).
The other feature of the bridge design is that it has slots where it attaches to the top so that it provides for a limited amount of overall string compensation. This helps me when I am setting up your dulcimer to get to a good starting point to adjust each string's intonation individually. Between the overall adjustment and filing the bone saddle for each string, I can intonate each string to play in tune throughout its entire range. The reason the saddle is so wide is that there is a considerable difference in stiffness between strings and I need the full width to be able to compensate the "A" string fully. Since I have spent considerable time over at least three days achieving the best possible intonation, I would suggest that, under normal circumstances, you do not attempt to adjust the position of the saddle. If you are radically changing the strings (like going to steel strings) it will require a new saddle to optimize the intonation. Contact me if you feel you need a new saddle.
The Fingerstyle dulcimers ship with La Bella 2001 Flamenco Guitar Strings-Hard Tension as standard. They are available from stringsandbeyond.com . Each string in the set is clearly marked and you use the #1, #3 and #4 strings (from melody to bass). The La Bella strings have proven to have very good life and you should get at least six months of use out of them.
Feel free to try other string sets. Changing strings can have a dramatic impact on the tone. If you use classical (or Flamenco) guitar sets, using the #1, #3 and #4 strings should give you reasonable tension without over-stressing the dulcimer. If you are worried about damaging your dulcimer, just run your potential selection past me to double-check it.
After trying a number of methods for knotting the ends of the strings, I now use a simple and foolproof means of putting new strings on. As shown in the photo below, I first slide a small plastic bead onto the string. I then tie a figure-of-eight knot in the end of the string and pull it tight. That's all there is to it. If you need a supply of beads, I can send you some. They are reusable if you don't drop them. Once dropped they are all but impossible to find.
One final note. The string retention pins shown in the photo at the top of the post were more for show than function and are no longer used.
The Fingerstyle Dulcimer uses GOTOH UPTL planetary tuners designed for ukuleles. They have proven to be perfect for the dulcimer as well. Very light, with a 4:1 ratio, they are easy to adjust and hold once set. See the photo below for the adjustment screw on the bottom of the tuners. You can use a phillips screwdriver to increase (clockwise) or reduce the "drag" on the tuner. Don't over-tighten them. Use just enough tension to keep the tuner from slipping. Unlike the ungeared tuners, they stay in adjustment very well once set up.
All Fingerstyle Dulcimers come with a custom JJB dual pickup system adhered to the bridge backing plate. These pickups are very sensitive and do an excellent job on acoustic instruments. If you did not order the optional Artec under-saddle pickup, the JJB's will be wired to the tip of the plug so that they will work with a mono plug or the tip of a stereo plug.
If you ordered the optional Artec pickup, it will be wired to the tip of a stereo plug and the JJB system will be wired to the ring of the plug. With a stereo to mono splitter cable like the Hosa STP-203, you can take whichever pickup output you want into your amp. For a more sophisticated (and more expensive) solution you can plug both mono plugs into a preamp that can blend the two signals in any proportions you wish. I use the Boss AD-10 pedal shown below for testing my instruments prior to shipment.
In general, the JJB system will provide the most faithful replication of the acoustic sound, while the Artec pickup will be less susceptible to feedback.
If you still have questions about your Fingerstyle Dulcimer do not hesitate to contact me. If your questions are of a general nature, I will expand this post so that all can benefit. For now it's back to work on some exciting new instruments. Stay tuned.