Summary of the Initial Briefing Sessions
Thanks for all the interest you have shown in the Bocs Cân Idris project. Below is a summary of the design concepts we talked about at our initial session in Shed Egryn.
Some sort of home made fretted zither folk instrument can be found all over Europe and Scandinavia and in the New World (having been carried their by settlers from Europe) but not in the British Isles. There are, however, fleeting references to the Welsh Romani using zithers when playing Tympath as they moved from village to village – and the Middle European influence on old Welsh folk music is noticeable. Some Welsh folk instruments such as the crwth and pibgod use drones against the melody. So it is not out of character for our Shed Egryn instrument making group to consider building some sort of fretted zither with drones for the purpose of playing Welsh folk music. Our “Bocs Cân Idris” will certainly be a Welsh folk instrument – and perhaps time will make it a 'traditional' Welsh folk instrument. After all, every tradition was once an innovation!
The simplicity of the Appalachian mountain dulcimer makes it a good place to start when looking at design features for our instruments. The mountain dulcimer is in fact a fretted zither. However, the word 'dulcimer' (sweet song) appears in the bible so I expect there was an element of early political correctness going on in the naming of the Appalachian regional instrument.
In terms of distance between the bridge and nut somewhere around 28 1/2” will give you an instrument based around the key of D and 26” will give an instrument based around the key of G (higher pitched). This is just a rough guide as string gauges will make a difference. But essentially a shorter scale length will generally give a higher pitched, brighter instrument. And conversely a longer scale with give a more mellow instrument.
You will need a close grained hardwood for the fretboard, something that is unlikely to move over time (not oak!). Cherry or maple or poplar (yellow tulip) are good options as is mahogany. You need about 1” to 1 1/2” width and about 1” height. The fretboard can be narrow if you intend to play in the old noter drone style and a little wider if you want room for your fingers to play chords on guitar fretwire. The underside should be hollowed out to increase resonance and the top must be dead flat to take the frets.
The frets can be either bent wire 'staples' set just under the melody string(s) or guitar fret wire going across the whole fretboard width. The fret position can be determined by ear (just intonation) or set using a fret position calculator (equal temperament) or copied from another instrument. For chord playing using a fret calculator is best. For playing against drones then one of the more natural scales either by ear or copied from and old dulcimer is preferable.
You need some way to tune your strings. You could use wooden pegs like on a violin or zither pins or guitar tuners. You will have to design your headstock to take whatever style of tuner you want to use. Instruments using zither pins may not need a separate headstock as the pins can go directly into the side of the sound box.
The body shape you choose (oand to some extent the material it is made from) is not hugely important to the sound, but the size of the body makes a big difference. A larger internal space will tend to give a lower tone. Straight sides are going to be easier to make than curved sides, which may need to be steamed to shape. If the planks you use are thick then you will need more energy from the strings to make them vibrate. So a thick heavy box is more suited to thick strings at a higher pitch. A lighter build of thinner planking with perhaps some braces will resonate easier and with lower pitched/tensioned strings. Modern mountain dulcimers use this principle. They tend to be lightly built and played in chord/melody style with full width guitar frets and lower pitched strings. However, there were many older traditional dulcimers like the Tenessee Music Box that were made from thicker wood and used heavier strings tuned up high - they were played in noter drone style.
There's no real formula for cutting the sound holes in your resonant box. In general, whatever looks the right size and shape usually works!
A three string set-up is the easiest to play and sounds very sweet. You can play in either chord style or noter drone style with just 3 strings.
Where to Start
I would ask yourself the question. Do I want to play in the modern mountain dulcimer style with chords or the older European zither style of noter and drones? This will determine the starting point for your design. Personally, I play mostly noter and drones style. I fret just one string using a small wooden stick to play the melody and have my other two strings as drones. I will be making my own Bocs Cân Idris to play in noter and drone style. So I'm thinking about a narrow, high fretboard and slight thicker planks matched to heavier strings in a higher G tuning. My first thoughts are to make a box shape, like the old Tennessee music boxes, out of reclaimed pine that I'll decorated in the style of an antique Welsh dresser! I will have 3 strings up on the fretboard but I may also have as many as 12 sympathetic drone strings running through the middle of the box. I have no idea how it will sound but it will certainly be a unique Welsh design as I've not seen another fretted zither with sympathetic drone strings inside the sound box from anywhere else on the world!
Remember, there are very few 'rules' to follow. All you will need is some sort of fretboard with a nut at one end a bridge at the other and frets in between; some way of fixing the strings at one end of the fretboard; some way of tuning the strings at the other end of the fretboard; and some kind of box to put the fretboard on to amplify the sound.
The Next Stage
Get some notes down on paper and a few drawings of your design and start looking for the materials you are going to use for the build. You can always come and talk to me about your design if you want to clarify your ideas.
Robin Clark, Bodegryn, 710671