I just took a commission to build a "CBDulcitar" for a coworker. I want it to be simple to play and sound great. I'm thinking a longer scale length, like 25.5" will help it have a loud and clear voice. Also since it is dulci and will be played mostly in a strum style only fretting the melody string, the fret spacing wont be uncomfortable, even for smaller hands. But, I also know Diane builds a lot of shorter scale dulcis and I'm sure they must sound great too or she would not keep making them. So what do you good folks think, does scale length make a big difference or is it more a matter of using proper string gauges for the scale you are using?
Thank you for your input, Bluesheart
I think you should try. You'll see by yourself how it sound and I would be happy to hear some of your sound. I had never heard a dulci and made one, I was amazed about how good it sounded so I think yours will sound nice.
Since stick dulcimers seem to be my "bread & butter", I can give you some answers from experience.
1) The scale length doesn't have much to do with volume. What it does determine is you tone and key that it will comfortably play. The longer the scale, the lower the general key, or pitch.
2) I highly recommend balancing the string gauge with the scale length and tuning. There is a handy calculator online to help you. As you tune the string, it pulls on the neck. If done haphazardly, you can easily find yourself in a scenario where the bottom string is pulling @ 18 lbs, and the top string is only pulling @ 5 lbs. When this happens, your neck starts to warp towards the ground. Balancing all the strings to roughly equal tension in tune gives your instrument a much longer life span. Also, by keeping the total accumulated tension rather low, you can avoid messing with torsion bars in the neck.
3) My standard Scale Length for my stick dulcimers is 22.5 inches. Any longer than that, and the dulcimer frets begin to get too wide apart for my hand to span the major chords.
4) "short frets" are nice if you want to include non-standard half frets on the melody string, but I highly recommend using full frets across the finger board and all 3 strings, at least with the upper 3 or 4... makes using a capo less of a nighmare.
Here is the link for a handy string gauge/scale length/tuning chart to help you determine the correct setup
To my experience, short scale lengths tend to end up as high pitched instruments, and long scale instruments tend to be a bit more lower pitched -- all other things held constant (string sizes, sound box size). I like the longer scale lengths, but I'm constrained by rather short fingers that makes chordal playing difficult on long scale (a problem you seem to know about). So, most of my instruments are 50cm (20") long, but my best sounding instrument has a longer scale length of 60cm (24") and it had a (very) hardwood neck (harder than cherry or sapelli). They (the Chinese sales folks) call it "red beech" but I couldn't swear to it. So, now all my new instruments have solid hardwood core necks and scales that range from 50 to 60cm (20-24"). Another constraint I have is the length of guitar strings here in China. I built a mountain dulcimer and found I couldn't find long enough strings to cover the 28" scale length. I also have a theory that somehow guitar strings are designed for a particular scale length in mind and "ring" better at those lengths.
As far as using thicker strings on short scaled instruments -- I have not tried it since I don't really like the sound of wound strings when played with sloppy fingering which characterizes my playing style. Theoretically, a short scale used with thicker strings should sound more bass-y. But if string 1 (the melody string) is also a wound string, it won't sound so great, So, if you can find a solid wire guitar string #3 for the melody string, and then wound strings for the two drone strings, then you might get something playable. Restricting the wound string use to drones minimizes the "bad" scratchy sound you might get when your try to finger (stop) the strings as you might do when you play chordallly.
Just my 2 cents worth.
Thank you all for the great input. I've been building my fully fretted CBGs at 24" scale to make it a bit easier to finger chords, but they just do not seem to "sing out" like my longer scale (24 3/4") CBG. I know part of it is the box, that one is on a Punch Chateau box that I love and don't seem to be able to find any more of, but I can't help wondering if it is also the slightly shorter scale. The person I'm making it for is a beginning player and will likely not be doing any chording. So, I think I will go with 25.5" and see how it sounds. If she finds it too hard to play for some reason, I'll just keep it for myself and build her another one! That is one of the things I love about this, you really never know how it will sound until you get it strung up . Then you find out how much magic there is in the combination of materials and design you have chosen. I'll let you know how it turns out.
I`ve made alot over the years my favorite scale lengths are 25", 23 1/2" , 22" and 18". The 25" scale length works great for the 6 stringer in the 3 pair set up. 23 1/2" is an Old Lowe favorite. The 22" and 18" work great for those mando like riffs and short scale lengths for travel dulci`s. Any thing longer then your getting into the more Mountain Dulcimer scale lengths.
When I choose a scale length for dulci-strummers, I consider the piece of wood I am using for the neck/sides. I've made them anywhere from 22 inch on up to this one, a 26" scale baritone using standard strings, tuned GDg.
For all previous ducli's, I made sound hole(s) and installed dual piezos for the electric mojo.
This one I decided to buck the conventional, and omitted the sound hole and installed my own hand wound single coil (under the rosewood plate in front of the bridge.
That is a beautiful thing!! LOve the clean design and how you did the pickup!