Maybe it's just my ear, but since I built my own MD, I have decided that the string placement/order on the MD is superior to that of a stick dulcimer (strum stick, strummer, call it what you like). When you do a "down strum" on the stick dulcimer, the strings are struck in this order: bass, middle, melody, but on a MD, with the equivalent "out strum", the strings are struck in this order: melody, middle, bass. The result is that you can hear the melody a bit better (clearer) because it is sounded first. This also makes the notes of the MD drone sound a bit clearer (and sweater IMHO).

On my McNally strum stick and the stick dulcimers I've built, there always was a problem with the drone strings drowning out the sound of the melody. On my earlier instruments, I tried to fix this problem by adding a second melody string (and then a second middle string for those songs that use the second string for a few more low melody notes - because the transition of 2 string notes to one string notes was too bad sounding; and I finally gave up because all this was doing is leading me down the path of doing a 6 string instrument with all three strings paired (and the melody would be drowned out again). Now, since I've been playing with my MD, I think the problem is basically string order. If the melody string is sounded first, then you can hear it a bit better, rather than having it drowned out by the middle and bass strings.

This could be resolved in two ways: (1) change the string order on stick dulcimers, or (2) instead of playing with down strums, change your playing style to use "up strums" instead. While this second way requires no modification to the instrument, it's pretty hard to break the old down strum habit. But, if you were to change the string order on the stick dulcimer, you would also have to modify your fretting hand style, since the top string (the one closest to your nose) is now the melody string and to play your melody you have to reach over the bass and middle strings (may not be so easy, but it would allow you to continue to play with a down strum using your other hand).


Any thoughts or comments? 


Maybe the answer is to learn how to strum down and up, which fixes the problem half the time and may be why no one has noticed or complained about this problem before.



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Replies to This Discussion

I just try to hit the melody strings harder than the drone bass one.  And I do pick on the up and down, a leftover from my mandolin days.

I got a nice cohiba strummer Jay built me and I finger pick the way Shane shows and I hit the melody string first as it sounds a lot better than if I hit the bass first.


Thanks for the feedback, Diane & Roger.

I think when I attack the strings, the first string hit is the hardest one hit, which is another reason why the out-stroke (strum) on the MD and the up-stroke (strum) on the stick dulcimer sound clearer -- the melody string is the one being struck hardest. So, I guess I need to try to develop a different style of attack on the stick dulcimer where the bass and middle strings are hit lighter and the melody string is hit harder when doing the down strike (strum). I'll have to play around with that. Thanks for that idea, Diane.

I guess with fancier finger picking (and even claw hammer),  this problem can be worked around. I haven't really looked at how Shane does his finger picking, but I can imagine that just by changing the order that the fingers pick the strings, you can make the melody stand out. My problem is that I don't really know how to play, so my style is pretty primitive and focuses on the melody with the drone strings as harmony. I've tried learning to play chords, both on the uke and stick dulcimers (different finger patterns, of course), but I can't really hear the song (I guess because I'm supposed to be singing the song for the melody). I just prefer to play and not sing. Probably not a good habit. Also, integrating the melody and harmony with finger picking hasn't been successful. Probably the next time I'm in the States I should shell out some bucks for a good uke, banjo or stick dulcimer teacher.




You could just string id like a MD with the hi string on top and the bass on bottom.

Problem solved!



Learn to play Lefty!

If you reverse string order & have trouble reaching over the other two, use your thumb on the melody string. Try it & see if it works for you, not too hard to get used to.

You mean the thumb on your fretting hand. I'll have to give that  a try. I had tried playing with my thumb wrapped around the neck before, because that's the way many Balalaika players fret the 3rd string for chords and the like. I found it cumbersome, but maybe I should try it again.


Hi All,

On my latest stick dulcimer, I strung it up like a mountain dulcimer, with the melody string closest to my nose, and the bass string closer to the ground when I hold the instrument like a guitar. It is actually not that hard to play, just need to reach up and over the two drone strings when fretting the melody string. As I sometimes hit the middle string, I increased the inter-string space between the melody and the middle string to minimize that problem. I find I can pick the melodies and it sounds just the same as an instrument with standard stick dulcimer string layout. However, when I "pick and drone" a tune, I notice two things. First the melody stands out (easier to hear) as the melody string is struck first and sounds before the drone string rather than after the drone strings (i.e., the melody is not being drowned out so much my the drone strings). The second thing I notice is that the notes produced by the two drone strings (notes A and D) seem to blend together better, producing more of a single blended sound rather than two distinct notes on a standard strung stick dulcimer (notes D and A). Perhaps its due to the slightly closer spacing of the two drone strings that results in the blending, or maybe it just happens in the mind, I don't know for sure.

The other problem with reversing the first and third strings this way is now the Chord fingerings are reversed as well. Fortunately, I'm not much a chordal music player, so it doesn't affect my playing, but I can see some other people having this as a problem.

For now, I'm leaving the strings on this instrument in its reversed configuration. I think other people should look at reversing the two outer strings and see how it affects their playing and the sound produced by their instruments. Sometimes I like the blended tone of the drone, other times I like the distinct tones of the two drone notes. I also prefer the clearer melody, but the fingering of the melody string is a bit more difficult when you have to bend your fingers over the two drone strings.

My earlier comments on this topic were based on my experience comparing the sound of my home made mountain dulcimer to several of my stick dulcimers. This is the first time I actually got around to changing the strings (at least to my recollection... us old guys get forgetful).


On the stick dulcimer that I strung up "mountain dulcimer style", the neck was fairly thin, just 2.5cm plus a 0.5cm thick fretboard, making it about 3cm thick. I found fretting this instrument rather easy even when fingering the melody string by reaching up and over the two drone strings with my fingers.

However, since then I built a similar instrument, but with a 3cm thick neck (plus 0.5cm for the fretboard). I found that this extra 0.5cm of thickness in the neck made the instrument much harder for me to fret using the mountain dulcimer style of string placement. I find myself tripping over the clone strings more often. So, I guess if you want to try mountain dulcimer string layout on a stick dulcimer, then be sure to pick an instrument with a low profile (low thickness) neck and fretboard.

Just thought I'd update you with my latest findings...


We are on the same wavelength. I tried correcting the same problem... the bass and middle string overwhelm the melody. I tried various tunings, switched out for slightly lighter strings, tried strumming up instead of down, tried playing just the middle and melody string but no luck. Amped I can compensate by turning down the bass and turning up the treble. I imagine the relatively small soundbox is working against us.

Actually after thinking about this morning I realized that in my case, I really have the wrong strings for what I'm trying to do. I used guitar strings (17/26/36) and looking at dulcimer strings, they are much closer together in size (12/14/22). I'm ordering a set and will switch them out and see how that improves the sound.

Let me know how it turns out.



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