Tools for Tunining the Hammer Dulcimer
Tuning Wrenches. You cannot – or should not try – to tune a dulcimer without a proper tuning wrench. Leave the Vise-grips in your toolbox. There are two kinds of wrenches to consider and one to avoid. These pictures show the two common types of wrenches: T-handle and gooseneck.
Here are the arguments, pro and con, for the T-handle and the gooseneck. Some builders believe that a T-handle wrench applies the force direction in line with the axis of the tuning pin. That’s good because it doesn’t move the pin sideways and thereby stretch the size of the hole in which the pin sits. The argument is that, over time, the leverage provided by a gooseneck tuning wrench will cause the hole to get just a tiny bit larger and then the pin will not hold tune. The con argument is that the T-handle wrench requires a lot more strength to use and that means it may not be as easy to reach an exact pitch as it is with a gooseneck. The gooseneck wrench takes much less force to use because of its lever effect. Tuning is smoother with a gooseneck because of this. The downside is that, unless you are very careful, the pressure on the pin is not only sideways to move the pin, but downward as well. It’s the downward pressure that may, over time, do some damage to the pin hole.
If you select the gooseneck wrench, there is one important caution. Don’t leave the wrench on a tuning pin when you have finished tuning. That’s the natural thing to do. But, if someone walks by with the gooseneck wrench on a tuning pin and extending beyond the pin block, they might hit the wrench. If that happens, the wrench may tighten or loosen the string – depends on the direction that person was walking. If they lower the pitch of the string, that’s not a problem. But they can just as easily raise the pitch in one dramatic movement. And that just might break a string. So, when you are finished tuning, remove the tuning wrench.
I’m not going to take sides on this. I own and use both tuning wrenches. Give each type a try and see what suits you best.
Tuning Meters. Unless you are a rare individual - gifted with a sense of pitch and aural endurance - you must have a tuning meter. I don’t own stock in a tuning meter company so I don’t give advice on a particular brand (I own three different makes anyway). And besides, manufactures are always releasing new models with new features). But here are some essential features to look for:
1. Readable!!! For some of us that means a meter with a needle. For others it means a flashing light of some sort. Get whatever works for you. Think about tuning in the dark, too. You may have to sometimes. A lighted dial could be a lifesaver. A tuning meter will cost between $15 and $100. Sounds expensive, but it is essential. If you play electric guitar in a band, rack mounted tuners or in-line floor tuners are really great. Rack mounted tuners cost between $150 and $300. Picture of tuning meter
2. Portable and Rugged. Your tuner will live in your instrument case and get bashed around. You will drop it. It will dangle from the pick up wire. It will sit in the hot sun. Puppies may seek to teeth on it. You are buying an important tool, not a trinket. Make sure it’s up to the work ahead.
3. Input Jack OR Stick-On. Be sure the tuner you buy has a jack for a microphone or pickup input. This jack must turn off the internal microphone in the tuner. This is ESSENTIAL. Don’t buy a tuner without this feature. OR, buy a tuner that sticks onto the instrument and reads the vibration of the wood.
4. Buy an Isolating Pickup. If you play electric guitar, you don’t need this feature. But all acoustic instruments will be easier to tune with an isolating pickup. These come in two forms: a contact microphone or a crystal pickup. The contact microphone has a suction cup and sticks on the instrument. A wire leads from the microphone to the tuner. The crystal pickup has an alligator clip that pinches a tuning peg and a wire that goes to the tuner. Some crystal pickups have sticky tape or clay to hold them on the soundboard. The benefit of these devices is that they turn off the microphone pickup built into the tuner and ISOLATE the tuner from noise or music in the room. If you’ve ever been to a jam session with fifteen instruments tuning, you know the problem. Neither you nor your tuner can hear your instrument. Tuning teeters on the edge of impossible and even a fancy electronic tuner is no help. The isolation pickup is essential. They cost between $10 and $20. Consider it an investment in your sanity. My preference is for the crystal pickup because they completely isolate the instrument. If you buy a stick-on tuner, you don’t need an isolating pickup. Many new tuners are built to clip on or stick on an instrument. These generally have the isolating pickup built inside of the units. You don't need an isolating clip for this type of tuner.
5. Try Before You Buy. Ask the store clerk to demonstrate the tuning meter. Different brands respond and display uniquely. Some hold the reading a good while. Others are like jackrabbits and hop around very quickly. Make certain you can read and understand what the tuner is telling you. Ask the clerk to demonstrate the tuner on a hammer dulcimer or at least on a guitar. Look for how quickly the reading shows up on high tones and on low tones. Look for how long the reading stays visible. It’s terrible to pay $100 for a tuner that frustrates you because you can’t read it! Try before you buy.
6. How to Read A Tuning Meter. The face of the tuning meter may have LED’s, lights, or a needle. Some merely show sharp and flat symbols. Others show the frequency of the tone. Many have a scale marked in “cents”. The scale usually ranges between –50 cents and + 50 cents. That translates to a half tone below and a half tone above the proper pitch. If your tuning meter shows that a string is 25 cents below where it should be, the string is a quartertone flat. Some tuning meters are marked in Hertz. But mostly we look for the needle or LED to line up on the center marker of the tuning meter.
7. Concert Pitch. Your tuning meter will likely have an adjustment that allows you to change the reference tone of the scale. KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF THIS ADJUSTMENT. Concert pitch sets the tone A (that’s A above middle C) equal to 440-Hertz (that’s cycles per second or vibrations per second, not rental cars). In days gone by, other values of concert pitch were used. If you run into an old concertina, you will find the reeds tuned to A at 428 Hertz. Contemporary acoustic music uses A at 440Hz as the standard. When you turn on the tuner, check to be certain that it is adjusted to A at 440Hz and leave it alone.
The Sequence of Tuning a Hammer Dulcimer
It's important that you tune with a plan. If you don't, you may overlook some courses and your memory won't get any reinforcement from your efforts. I STRONGLY SUGGEST you do not tune sequentially up or down the bridges. This approach doesn't do you or the instrument any good. Some instruments shift a bit while tuning. If you tune sequentially, you may never get the entire instrument in tune. AND, you won't learn anything.
Try this pattern for tuning: Begin with the A on the right side of the treble bridge - middle A on the instrument. Get this course of strings tuned. Now tune the A' an octave above. Then the A- an octave below. Tune all the remaining A's throughout the instrument. Now tune the Bb's. Then the B's. Then the C's and so forth.
Here's what this does for you. First, it distributes the shifting stresses on the instrument in a uniform way. Those instruments that are finicky about tuning will be grateful. A really solid instrument won't care. Most importantly, this approach teaches you geography of the instrument every time you tune. It is a very useful technique to renew your mind-map of the dulcimer each time you tune. You've got to tune anyway. Why not use this time to get both a sweet sounding instrument and renewed familiarity with the geography of the instrument.
Some players tune in this manner, but, rather than proceeding chromatically, they tune in a circle of 5ths (we’ll cover the circle of 5ths later). For example they might start by tuning all the C's. Next they would tune all the G's. Then the D's. Then the A's and so forth around the circle of fifths until the entire instrument is in tune.
The Actual Motion of Tuning
Most broken strings on the dulcimer come as a result of tuning incorrectly. Usually, the tuning meter is connected and the player is fervently gazing on the needle or light and WHAC!!! There goes the string. What happened was the tuning wrench was cranking up one string and the player was plucking another. Finally, the over-tensioned string snapped.
Here's how to avoid this trouble. Always, always, always, the first motion of the tuning wrench is to loosen the string. Take the string down in pitch about a quartertone. No more than a half tone is necessary. Drop the pitch for two reasons. First, loosening the string ensures you are adjusting the correct string without the potential of over-tightening it and breaking it. If you are plucking away and loosening the string and nothing is happening to the sound, it means that your tuning wrench is on the wrong pin. If you were tightening the string, you could have broken it before you realized the mistake. Second, loosening the string first is a way of equalizing the tension throughout the string. That means, the 5th across the bridge will be more likely to come into tune. It also means that the tension in the string between the side bridges and the tuning peg, or hitch pin, will be released and equalized now - not later. This little gremlin will sometimes show up and knock a tuned instrument out of tune. No string on ANY instrument should be tuned by changing its pitch from sharp to on-pitch. All strings should be tuned going from flat to on-pitch. This allows you to maintain control of how much tension is in the string. If you loosen the string to get it into tune, you cannot know if the entire string is at the same tension. If the string is not uniformly tensioned, ultimately the tension will equalize and draw the string out of tune. So always tune from flat to on-pitch and never from sharp to on-pitch.