by David Bennett August 28, 2020
My good friend Dan Cox, aka Dulcimore Dan, from New Tazewell, Tennessee began making dulcimores in 2012. The dulcimores Dan makes are traditional in that he only uses a diatonic fretboard (no extra frets) and uses the fundamental building techniques and designs of the old masters while still incorporating his own special touches. Dan’s latest dulcimore that he calls Master Mawhee is based on an old-time dulcimer maker from the late 1800s named John Mawhee (1844-1929).
John Mawhee was a Cherokee Indian from the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) who served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a member of the Indian Home Guard. He was an accomplished fiddle player and luthier before the war. It is not known where Mawhee first encountered the dulcimer, but it is said it was while in the Army that he devised the pattern for his dulcimer. He called his dulcimer a “walking cane dulcimer” as did four plus generations after him. The story goes that during the war his horse fell on him breaking his leg which was never set right causing one leg to be shorter than the other. To steady his gait Mawhee incorporated a handle at the top of his instrument and placed a large nail at the bottom, creating a cane. After the war he settled in southern Missouri.
Now back to Dulcimore Dan’s instrument. This particular instrument Dan built, while partiality patterned on John Hawhee’s dulcimore, is not traditional in one small detail, it is over nine feet long!
When asked what led him to build an instrument on such a largescale, Dan told me, “…COVID-19 has everything shut down. In five months I’ve been to the grocery and hardware store. I go to work every day (medical supply) like nothing is going on and this is what I do for excitement! … and I wanted to see if I could even do it….”
Much of the wood Dan used was wood he re-claimed from various sources. Dan began construction with the peg head using pine 1X4s from salvaged pallets that he laminated.
Then he made the tail piece from three laminated pieces of very old heart pine. Said Dan, “I selected the heart pine for strength seeing it would be anchoring a number 18 and two number 8 music wire pulled up as high as they can go.” The string anchors are two one-quarter inch bolts cut off and the ends rounded.
Next is the staple board made from two spruce 1X4X8s that he obtained from the local hardware store.
The side bows are one-eighth inch shipping plywood he salvaged from work.
Dan makes his own dulcimore strings for his instruments and the Master Mawhee were no exception. Dan explained, “I thought I’d have to make up a wire twisting tool but I tried to make a loop end with the tool I have and it worked fine! I made up a string and strung the melody string. I pulled the string to what I thought the tension should be and then made another two strings. I strung them and continued to raise the tension on the bass string until I got to an A1. (It was just a little tense seeing I didn’t know if this thing would hold just under 200 lbs. of tension!) I made a staple placement tool and it worked wonderfully! I marked the staples and quickly played Shady Grove on the upper registry… I pulled the .041 bass string to A1. The melody and middle drone are .020 and tuned to E2.”
This diatonic instrument is 9 feet and one-quarter inch long and weighs 28 pounds. It has an 89-inch VSL and seventeen .090 staples set by ear. The homemade strings are .041 bass and .020 middle drone/melody. The dulcimore is tuned A1, E2 and E2 Ionian. Dan finished the instrument with black alcohol stain and shellac finish.
Dan says clearly building something to this scale requires a lot of thinking, ingenuity, and constant tinkering, “I’m in the process of figuring out the dynamics of the Mawhee set up. Taking a large string (.020) and drawing it up tight (over 50 lbs.) gives it a quick, clear tone. The machine tuners make it possible seeing, the wooden pegs could never draw up that tight.”
When asked what his next project is Dan replied, “What I’m really after is a 33-inch VSL, very light and loud and it’s called Majestic…”
Hear Dan play Simple Gifts on his Master Mawhee at https://youtu.be/7jV3BsiMIR8
You can find more specifics on how Dan crafted this dulcimer on his blog at http://www.dulcimore.com
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David Bennett <><