The 3-String Dulcijo and Other Diatonically Scaled Banjos with Re-Entrant Tuning

Hi All.

The "dulcijo" is a unique 3-string banjo-like instrument that features diatonically spaced frets, a short re-entrantly tuned third string, and a small drum resonator. It was originally developed in the late 1980s by Michael Fox of Hickory, North Carolina - and you can still buy them from him thru this link. As the story goes, he once saw and played with a strum-stick (aka stick dulcimer) and he decided he liked the concept of a diatonic scale, but he preferred a re-entrantly tuned instrument so he could play claw-hammer style, as how he normally played his banjo. With the banjo and strum-stick in mind, he developed the dulcijo - a cross of the strum-stick (a derivation of the mountain dulcimer) and the banjo.

The original dulcijo (as build by Michael Fox and company) has a 25.5" scale length. But my advice is to find a scale length that you are happy playing with and then build the instrument around that spec. This is especially true for chord players as some of the frets are spaced widely apart. With my rather average sized hands, I prefer a scale length of 50cm (about 20 inches), and so that's why I designed my ducijo to have a short 50 cm scale.

Besides the diatonically spaced frets and the small drum resonator, the really unique thing about the dulcijo is the short third string. This string is about 3/4 the scale length of the other two strings, and terminates at fret number 4. The three strings are tuned A'AD as follows:

String 1: D (a whole step above middle C)
String 2: A (below middle C)
String 3: A' (an octave higher than String 2)

 

Here's how the tuning relates to the notes on the grand staff:

And here is a close up of the fingerboard of a dulcijo with the frets numbers and the notes produced.


The dulcijo also uses three identically sized strings, usually gauge 0.009.  The D-string (string 1) is usually used to play the melody of the song while frailing (claw hammer style) during the "dit" part of the "bum-ditty".  For more information on frailing the dulcijo, check out this link.  For information about melody and chords, check out this link.  And here is the link to the dulcijo pages on ezfolk.com.

Besides clawhammer (aka 'frailing'), another style of playing you can use on the Dulcijo is to play your tune on the second string, and use the first and third strings as drone strings. This style of playing make some songs sound great, and others, not so great. Try it with 'Old Joe Clark', which sounds pretty good played this way.


 

 Note:  The 'Dulcijo' name is sometimes also applied to the "banjo dulcimer", which is a kind of mountain (or Appalachian) dulcimer modified by adding a vibrating membrane to the body of the instrument and operates in the same manner as a banjo. Some builders market these instruments using the same name: "dulcijo". Here's a photo of one. Perhaps we should be calling our kind a "stick-dulcijo" to prevent miscommunication and this one (picture right) could be called "lap-dulcijo " (in the same way mountain dulcimers are sometimes called "lap dulcimers").


 

 To hear the Dulcijo played, check out these videos on Youtube (videos arranged in no special order).

  

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Replies to This Discussion

I was reading about banjos on the Internet yesterday and on one site they mentioned that before the 5-string banjo got its fifth string, it was a 4 string banjo with a short drone string. The new string in the 5-string banjo is the fourth full length string. They also said the banjo has always had the shorter length drone string. Being interested in Dulcijos and thinking of growing it to a 4-stringer by add in a 3rd full length string (in my thinking, a strum stick with a short drone string added), then I'd have the same thing -- an old, old time 4-string banjo with short drone string.

Then I was thinking of how to tune such a beast, and this morning I awoke with the idea of tuning it A'-D-A-D' -- just adding the A' tuning of the Dulcijo's short drone string to the D-A-D tuning of the strum stick. I guess I could do it for G-D-G as well, resulting in D'-G-D-G. Does this make sense? The other thing I might try is reversing the tunings: D'-A-D-A and G'-D-G-G, but less certain how that will turn out. Pretty certain my next dulcijo will have 4 strings (3 long, 1 short), to play with these ideas.

 

-Rand.

Hi All,

I saw a blog posting by Keni Lee Burgess on CBN where he suggests a way of tuning a 4-string banjo. If the three stringer you adapt into being a 4 stringer is tuned G-D-G, then you can tune string 3 down a whole step and string 1 down a half step, giving you A-D-F# tuning. Then, for your short drone string, you can tune it to D', an octave above your second string. So, we would have D'-A-D-F# tuning which is a member of the 8-5-1-3 tuning family. Other forms of this tuning are also possible, so more tunings to play with. Here is a link to Keni's blog entry. Thanks, Keni.

-Rand.


Rand Moore said:

I was reading about banjos on the Internet yesterday and on one site they mentioned that before the 5-string banjo got its fifth string, it was a 4 string banjo with a short drone string. The new string in the 5-string banjo is the fourth full length string. They also said the banjo has always had the shorter length drone string. Being interested in Dulcijos and thinking of growing it to a 4-stringer by add in a 3rd full length string (in my thinking, a strum stick with a short drone string added), then I'd have the same thing -- an old, old time 4-string banjo with short drone string.

Then I was thinking of how to tune such a beast, and this morning I awoke with the idea of tuning it A'-D-A-D' -- just adding the A' tuning of the Dulcijo's short drone string to the D-A-D tuning of the strum stick. I guess I could do it for G-D-G as well, resulting in D'-G-D-G. Does this make sense? The other thing I might try is reversing the tunings: D'-A-D-A and G'-D-G-G, but less certain how that will turn out. Pretty certain my next dulcijo will have 4 strings (3 long, 1 short), to play with these ideas.

 

-Rand.

I like Uncle John's banjo conversion. Here's the photo:

Could do something similar to one of my 3-stringers to form a 4-string banjo with a short drone string.

-Rand.

Hi guys I would love to make a dulcijo, are there any set scale lengths and can the body be made with baltic birch ply wood, naturally a different thicknes for the sound board..Should a back be fitted to the bddy as I beleve the origanal banjo just had a skin streched over a frame Mal {UK)

PS my last stick ducamere has a vey close sound to a banjo

http://img13.imageshack.us/img13/6710/secondstickthree.jpg

 

 

Hi Mal,

There is no set scale length, but the standard tuning is A'AD and common string widths are 0.009", 0.012", 0.009" banjo strings. If you make your scale length too long, you might break your strings when trying to tune up to A'AD. You can opt for thicker strings. You might also want to double check your strings, scale length and tuning with a string gauge calculator like this one.

Baltic birch, if it is anything like American birch, should be plenty strong for both the sound box (or drum hoop) and the neck. Unless you have made drums before, I'd go out and buy a pre-made drum and then attach neck/headstock assembly to it, using some kind of hardwood dowel for the piece of the neck that goes thru the drum. The neck should have a heel into which one end of the hardwood dowel is mounted (drill hole for it and glue it in). The tail end of the dowel should then be connected to the tail end of the drum with at least one fair sized wood screw (pre-drill the hole for the screw). My next dulcijo will be made this way (I have given thought to the project, but not yet built it). If you are planning on using a drum, it only has to have skin on one side. A double sided drum should work as well, but the additional skin may interfere when you assemble the neck to the drum. Covering the bottom of a drum with wood may act as a resonator as with resonator banjos (vs open back banjos) but real banjo resonators have a rounded convex shape which presents a concave (parabolic) shaped surface to the sound waves coming from the drum head, making for a better resonator than would a flat surface of wood. Most banjo resonators are also made of mahogany wood.

I saw your photo of you stick dulcimer. I think that this "paddle box" or "A-style" design would make an ideal dulcijo. The only difference would be the third string which needs to be shortened so it terminates at the 4th fret. I think you could add some wood to the side of the neck above the 4th fret (maybe use a dowel and glue both the wood and the dowel on for strength). This additional wood could then be used to hold the 3rd string's machine tuner. I think this will make it look more banjo like, and is easier to tune that most "disappearing 3rd strings" like I used on my dulcijo. [Once I broke the 3rd string on my dulcijo and had such a hard time restringing it that I ended up cutting a hole inside the side of the neck near the nut so I could fish out the string (coming from the bridge) and route it thru the little hole in the fretboard (so it could go up and over fret 0 and the nut to its tuner). Not so cool. Next time it's a side mounted tuner for my short string.]

Well, good luck with your build.

 

-Rand

 I folks I have  just this minute finished my first dulcijo, but with a thin ply wooden sound board.can you please tell me what gauge strings you guys use .Mal (UK) Picture enclosed
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I have just finished my first one, Iused really thin plywood for the sound board but for the next one I plant to use the head from a tambureen mounted on a cheastnut rim which is been turned for me in the next couple of days.What gauge strings do you guys use please. Mal
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Hi Mal,

 

Congratulations on your first dulcijo! I think you will find it a fun and easy instrument to play.

The original Dulcijo used three .009" diameter strings, but I string mine up with a slightly fatter string for my second string (tuned an octave lower). If you have some banjo strings, then use the string 1, string 2 and string or strings 1, 2 and 3 of the dulcijo, respectively. If all you have are guitar strings, then try two number 1 (e) strings and a number 2 (b) string. Feel free to experiment with different string. If you are going for a lower tuned instrument, then maybe two #2 and one #3 (unwound). If you are okay with wound strings (I don't like them if I'm likely to fret the string), then you can go lower yet.If not tuning to A'-A-D, then try to maintain the same ratios (pattern) in a lower tuning (i.e. 8-1-4) to get the same dulcijo effect in the lower tuning.

I gave my dulcijo to a friend in the States. Back in China now (arrived just this morning). When I get around to building my next dulcijo/banjo -like instrument, I will also use a hand drum and string it up like a stick dulcimer, but then and a 4th short drone string. So, essentially, a 4 string (non-plectrum, non-tenor) banjo. Always experimenting.

 

-Rand.

H
i guys I just finished my second dulcijo yesterday,I used a tunable had drum with a 26 1/2" scale length.I am realy peased with it.Mal
Rand Moore said:

Hi Mal,

 

Congratulations on your first dulcijo! I think you will find it a fun and easy instrument to play.

The original Dulcijo used three .009" diameter strings, but I string mine up with a slightly fatter string for my second string (tuned an octave lower). If you have some banjo strings, then use the string 1, string 2 and string or strings 1, 2 and 3 of the dulcijo, respectively. If all you have are guitar strings, then try two number 1 (e) strings and a number 2 (b) string. Feel free to experiment with different string. If you are going for a lower tuned instrument, then maybe two #2 and one #3 (unwound). If you are okay with wound strings (I don't like them if I'm likely to fret the string), then you can go lower yet.If not tuning to A'-A-D, then try to maintain the same ratios (pattern) in a lower tuning (i.e. 8-1-4) to get the same dulcijo effect in the lower tuning.

I gave my dulcijo to a friend in the States. Back in China now (arrived just this morning). When I get around to building my next dulcijo/banjo -like instrument, I will also use a hand drum and string it up like a stick dulcimer, but then and a 4th short drone string. So, essentially, a 4 string (non-plectrum, non-tenor) banjo. Always experimenting.

 

-Rand.

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Hi Mal,

That's a real handsome looking instrument. That drum looks great.

Your photo was really hi-res, so I lowered the resolution and embedded it here so everyone can easily view it:

Maybe a few more photos would be good. I'd like to see a shot of the reverse side of the drum, focusing on how you attached the neck to the drum, a shot of the tail piece, and a shot of how you attached the 3rd string tuner. I guess the drum you used has tension adjusting hardware so you can adjust the drum head tension depending on weather conditions. I think that's a good feature to have. How do you like playing your Dulcijos? Any observations?

 

-Rand

 

Hi Rand,Im afraid I am no musiction but I m tying to learn claw hammer.I fixed the neck on using the sbg method, but not much of a crafts man.I also have nearly finshed a
resonator ukulele using one of old lowes cones., my next prdject is to make a stick dulcimer, my fourth usinf a 4 1/2"resonator cone,plus I am waiting to recieve delivery of a 6" cone and cover plate from rebublic guiats to make a cigar box ukulele.I am 70 years youne in two weeks and there is no way I am going to turn into a vegitable sat in a corner playing with two piecs of string,we have a saying in yorkshire,if you dont use it loose it and belevce me the only time my brain is going to stop ticking over is when I,m in my box lol  Mal (UK)
Rand Moore said:

Hi Mal,

That's a real handsome looking instrument. That drum looks great.

Your photo was really hi-res, so I lowered the resolution and embedded it here so everyone can easily view it:

Maybe a few more photos would be good. I'd like to see a shot of the reverse side of the drum, focusing on how you attached the neck to the drum, a shot of the tail piece, and a shot of how you attached the 3rd string tuner. I guess the drum you used has tension adjusting hardware so you can adjust the drum head tension depending on weather conditions. I think that's a good feature to have. How do you like playing your Dulcijos? Any observations?

 

-Rand

 

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Hi Mal,

Thanks for the additional photos. Don't sweat the "ugliness" of your detail photos. Many of my closeups also show what amounts to poor workmanship, and it's likely one of the reason so many people don't bother to upload their building detail photos. I do see from looking at them that you used a "neck almost thru design", rather than a using a couple of long, stout dowels for the neck thru. That's fine. I'm thinking of using the dowels on the drum based dulcijo I've been planning in my head.

Your metal tail piece also looks interesting. What was it before you turned it into a tail piece? I have been having problems with my wooden tail pieces as the wire strings either slowly cuts through the wood as you tune and re-tune the instrument, or the tail piece pops-off (if not secured with a couple or three screws), or the tail piece snaps in two. So, my latest tail pieces are made from red oak and are fairly stout. I also have been playing around with bull clips (used to clip together lots of papers). The bull clips I break into 2 pieces, then drill holes on the part that normally would hold the papers together. I'm planning to use a screw through the hole in the handle of the half bull clip to scure it to the tail end of the box. Will likely use it in my next instrument.

The photo of your third (short) string tuner wasn't really clear enough to explain how it was mounted. What type of tuner are you using? Is it a banjo's 5th String tuner, a ukulele friction tuner, or a guitar style geared tuner. Maybe a diagram of how the tuner is mounted into the neck would help explain things. This is one area I need to study before I get around to doing my next dulcijo build. May require more research.

 

Well, thanks again for the photos. I think they help describe your build better.

 

I am not much of a musician either, and so my playing style tends to be playing the melody on string 1 freting up and down the neck rather than across the neck as most banjo or guitar players would, and using the second and third strings as a simple drone. Since I built my mountain dulcimer (which have the strings in the opposite order) I found the drone sounds better and the melody is a bit clearer on the MD as compared to stick dulcimers (strum sticks, strummers, call 'em what you like). So, my conclusion is that as a player, to get the same clarity and sweetness of tone on a stick dulcimer, you have to play with an up-stroke (up-strum) as opposed to a down-stroke (down-strum). You might give that a try on your dulcijo.

 

-Rand.

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