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

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).


Tags: clawhammer, diatonic banjo, dulcijo, frailing

Views: 10253

Replies to This Discussion

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.



Hi rand the tail pice was actallky a manderlin tail piece I bought off e bay but I sometimes us brass picture nangers, the ones used if you have the olds type picture rails that where places just before the freeze high up on walls  Mal (UK) The only trouble with dowel are that they have got to be  drilled level ,which is a majer problem for me as I have a bad tremmer

A reader asked "What scale length is used in the original Dulcijo?", which I didn't know the answer to. So, I did a search and came across a reply that Michael Fox (the Dulcijo inventer) made on a forum discussing the Dulcijo, and in it he said his instruments use a 25.5" scale length, similar to many other dulcimers. My only caution is that the diatonic fretboard has wide fret spacings, so if you are a chord player, you hopefully have a long (and easy) reach with the fingers on your fretting hand. My fingers are rather averaged size, and so I build a shorter instrument, usualy with a 500mm (about 20") scale length. I'd recommend finding a diatonic scale length you are happy playing with, and then build your instrument to that spec.

Happy Building...



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