Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Month: March 2013

Practicing Dulcimer And Following My Own Advice

Practicing dulcimer with the aid of a metronome

As a dulcimer player and instructor with decades of experience I often find myself repeating the following advice to students, “If you slow it down enough you will be able to play the part of the tune that is giving you trouble.”

This phrase is often followed by my saying, “Try practicing the tune at a speed no faster than you can play the part that gives you the most trouble.”

It is not uncommon for a student to come to a lesson and tell me they couldn’t play a particular phrase of a tune. I’ll have them play it while I recite the following mantra, “Slower, slower, slower…” Eventually they find a tempo where it is possible to play what moments earlier seemed impossible.

Some students have trouble keeping the timing of a piece even from beginning to end; they speed up and slow down throughout the tune. There are typically two habits that lead to this problem. The first is playing the tune as fast as one can play the easier passages and slowing down when reaching a more challenging part of the melody. The second cause of irregular tempo is often caused by learning the tune a phrase at a time and developing the habit of pausing at each new phrase.

My recommendation is to learn the first phrase, learn the following phrase, and then go back to the beginning and string them together. Each time you learn new phrase start again from the first phrase and play through to the last phrase you learned. Your playing will become more musical even if it takes a little longer to learn the entire melody. You will be playing a melody rather than a collection of phrases.

A metronome is helpful when disciplining yourself to practice at an even tempo. You can set the metronome to the tempo at which you can play the most difficult part of the tune, The metronome will help you avoid speeding up on the easier parts. As you become more comfortable with the tune you can speed up the metronome a notch or two. If all goes well crank up the metronome another notch or two. If you start making more mistakes back off the tempo a little. Lather, rinse, repeat. It really works!

I have had trouble with a tune I am currently learning and needed to remind myself of the advice I have been giving others for many years. I am now practicing the tune only as fast as I can play the passage giving me trouble. It is frustrating because I can play 90% of the tune at full throttle but I know that mastering the remaining 10% will make all the difference.

As an aside, I have found that the mantra, “Slower, slower, slower,” has made other areas of my life easier as well.


Music I’d Like To Hear #50


Music I'd Like To Hear #50

Dulcimers, Pickups, And Microphones

Mabel prepares to hook her dulcimer up to an amplifier but does no know if she should use a pickup or a microphone.


There are commonly two types of pickups used on acoustic mountain dulcimers; a soundboard pickup and a bridge pickup.

A soundboard pickup is a piezoelectric sensor that adheres to the soundboard of the dulcimer. This type of pickup translates the vibrations of the wood into a signal that can be run through an amplifier. These pickups are either temporarily mounted to the outside of the dulcimer or permanently installed inside the dulcimer. These pickups will transmit any sound that resonates through the dulcimer including finger-noise, pick noise, or a shirt button brushing against the instrument. For some styles of playing they work well, for others they can pick up a lot of extraneous noise.

The simplest and least expensive option is a removable, external soundboard pickup. These are applied with a putty or double-stick tape that comes with the pickup and requires no modification to your dulcimer. One does need to be careful when removing the pickup to avoid damaging the finish.

If you like the sound of a soundboard pickup you can also have one permanently installed in your dulcimer and wired to an end pin jack. An end pin jack is a strap button that also receives the cord going from the pickup to the amplifier.

A bridge pickup is piezoelectric sensor that replaces the bridge of the dulcimer; the bridge itself becomes the pickup. A bridge pickup transmits the vibrations of the strings and avoids the extraneous noises that may occur when using soundboard pickups. In my opinion bridge pickups are a better choice if you plan on running your dulcimer through effects pedals.

A bridge pickup must be installed on the dulcimer. Depending on the construction of your dulcimer this procedure may require having a slot cut in your fretboard to receive the bridge pickup. If your dulcimer already has a bridge mounted in a slot the slot may or may not be of the right dimensions so again some modification may be necessary. The bridge pickup will also be wired to an end pin jack.

With either type of piezoelectric pickup the sound can be enhanced by using a preamp. The preamp allows for control of tone and volume and can help give the pickup a more natural sound.

Pickups make it easy to get a lot of volume but I prefer the natural sound achieved by using a microphone. A microphone “listens” to the air set in vibration by the dulcimer in a similar manner to an ear.

When performing solo I simply use a microphone on a stand. When performing in small ensembles I have used a small microphone mounted on the dulcimer near a sound hole and have been happy with the results.

There are many opinions about which pickups, microphones, preamps and combinations of pickups, microphones and preamps work best. What is important is to find what works best for you.


Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers

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