Wednesday, January 2, 2019

And speaking of new things ...

There's a new dulcimer in the music room. Isn't THAT a fantastic way to start the year!

It seems that I've come full circle. In October 1995, I bought my first hammered dulcimer through Song of the Wood, Black Mountain, NC. It was a Master Works, 15/14 instrument. It was a great instrument to learn on, but eventually I needed more notes.

In 2004 I contracted with Jerry Read Smith to build a custom 3-1/2 octave instrument for me. This instrument failed in the first year due to a new glue system Jerry was using in production. For a reasonable agreed-upon fee, Jerry replaced / upgraded that instrument to a 2004 model JRS 4-1/2 octave Grand Concertmaster that was on display and for sale at his shop, the Song of the Wood. This was a happy outcome, as I didn't have to wait for a new instrument to be built! Plus, I had chosen the 3-1/2 octave instrument in the first place because I didn't think I wanted to haul around a larger instrument. Jerry allowed me to try the Grand Concertmaster at the Swannanoa Gathering dulcimer week. After schlepping it around the Warren Wilson campus for a week I figured I could manage it. I said, "I'll take it!" and never regretted moving up to the extended range.

The JRS Grand Concertmaster developed some issues over time, including a sinking soundboard (successfully repaired in 2006) and annoying buzzes that would come and go. So, in November 2011, I replaced my original JRS Grand Concertmaster with my current instrument... another JRS Grand Concertmaster built in 2000, almost identical to the first, purchased sight-unseen on eBay from a woman in Georgia. The instrument has served me well. And that brings us to the present time...

On October 4, 2018 I ordered a customized Russell Cook Edition 17/17XR-R from Master Works. It was delivered on December 27th. How's that for good service!

Dampers - the real game changer
Photo from Master Works

How long have I had damper lust? Who can say? I do know that I've been "thinking" about a new instrument for years. I've come very close to purchasing a number of different instruments, but none seemed to be "just right". There was always something that posed an unacceptable issue to me. Gradually, more and more players began using dampers. I was feeling very behind the times!

Then Russell Cook came up with this iteration of his Russell Cook Edition (RCE). With Ruth Smith's input, he developed an extended range RCE with:

  • the treble and bass bridges moved closer together
  • the super-bass bridge on the right side of the instrument
  • a 4-1/2 octave chromatically complete instrument in a compact, lightweight body
  • availability in lower sustain
  • and a slick damper system

I have always liked Master Works instruments ... the quality, the sound ... and have admired Russell Cook's personal integrity and the way he runs his business. But the distance between the bridges at the bottom of his larger instruments was a deal breaker. Splayed out, far away from each other, I could not visually see complete patterns at the bottom of those instruments and valley rolls were made unnecessarily difficult. The re-design took care of that problem. Also, I have a definite preference for the low bass notes to be located on the right side of the instrument. Voilá! Plus, the obvious fact that I'm not getting any younger... in recent years I had decided my next instrument would have to be a smaller one.

More desirable options available in this custom instrument:

  • Pick-up optimized for use with this instrument
  • Internal sealant for more stability in tuning
  • Curly maple pin blocks and contrasting wood bindings
  • Choice of exotic woods (I chose leopard wood for the end rails) with the soundboard and the back custom stained to match

Photo from Master Works

Custom sound hole inserts - why Man in the Maze?
Photo from Master Works

Man in the Maze is an ancient Native American design, originally found on Tohono O'odham baskets. This prehistoric pattern symbolizes one's journey through life. My interest in Native American stories and art began at the age of 13 when my mother and step-father married. He was nearly FBI - full blood Indian - 27/32 to be exact, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. From that time on I spent my summers on the Cherokee Qualla Boundary located in western North Carolina. It is a beautiful place, bordered by the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and I have very fond memories of the people I grew to know there.

A good description of the iconic Man in the Maze symbol can be found on Garland's Indian Jewelry / Navaho Rugs website. I have included a portion of that description here: According to the legend, the man at the top of the maze depicts birth. By following the white pattern as it winds toward the center, the figure goes through the maze encountering many turns and changes, symbolic of life’s choices. As the journey continues, one acquires knowledge, strength and understanding. The labyrinth illustrates the search for balance in the physical, social, mental and spiritual realms while working toward our dreams and goals.

The crew at Master Works did a fine job of creating these custom sound hole inserts, a beautiful addition that makes this instrument truly unique, and reminds me daily that we are all on a spiritual journey.

It was a pleasure to work with Ruth Smith, who advised and guided me through the process of designing my custom, one-of-a-kind instrument, and acted as my contact and go-between with Master Works to get the order just right.

For help creating your own custom instrument, contact Ruth:  828-297-1918

To find out more about the Master Works RCE instrument check out Steve & Ruth Smith's website:

1 comment:

  1. Mine is in the works at present - exotic woods and some spiffy additions. I believe Russell has "cracked the code" with this instrument.