Making Mountain Dulcimers

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on January 20, 2011
Mike Gullett Jim and Betty Woods maintain a 40-year instrument-making tradition at The Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View, Ark.

Music as sweet as birdsong drifts through The Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View, Ark. (pop. 2,876), where McSpadden Mountain Dulcimers have been made and played for nearly 40 years.

“This is truly an American instrument,” says owner Jim Woods, 67, about the icon of Appalachian and Ozark folk music handcrafted by the shop’s artisans.

“The instrument is still evolving,” Woods adds, “but a lot of dulcimers today are patterned after McSpadden designs.”

In 1962, Lynn McSpadden built his first dulcimer as a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C., during the era’s folk music revival. His roommate, Elliott Hancock, played guitar, and McSpadden wanted to strum along on dulcimer. Since he didn’t have $80 to buy an instrument, he used a photograph as a pattern to build his own three-string walnut dulcimer.

“It had two frets in the wrong place,” recalls McSpadden, 73, a native of nearby Bethesda, Ark.

Today, the fretwork is precise on the more than 55,000 McSpadden Mountain Dulcimers that have been made by the nation’s largest dulcimer maker. More than 150 dealers in the United States sell McSpadden dulcimers, which come with lifetime warranties.

McSpadden first sold dulcimers via mail order by placing advertisements in Sing Out!, a folk music magazine. Believing the Ozark Folk Center State Park would spur interest in traditional mountain music, he built The Dulcimer Shoppe a mile from the soon-to-open park in 1972. McSpadden’s brother, Larry, and roommate Hancock were partners in the business venture.

Not much has changed at The Dulcimer Shoppe since Woods and his wife, Betty, 62, bought the business in 2000. Like Lynn McSpadden, Woods had built dulcimers as a hobby and welcomed the opportunity to leave his high-stress electronics job in Dallas, Texas, and head for the Ozark hills.

“I really enjoy making the instruments, but what I like most is helping someone find the music in the instrument,” Woods says.

While he helps a new dulcimer owner pluck the notes to “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” craftsmen build the instruments a few feet away behind a wall of windows. George Looney, 56, and Richard Stoltze, 58, have had a hand in building thousands of McSpadden dulcimers.

“I’ve been using this same hammer for 38 years,” says Looney as he taps metal frets into grooves with his cobbler’s hammer. “Where my index finger touches the metal head, I’ve worn a groove in the hammer.”

He and Stoltze have worked side by side in the shop for 35 years. A 1970s photo shows the shaggy-haired young men in the same spots where they work today, sanding, gluing and clamping fretboards and sound boxes.

Though their handwork hasn’t changed much through the decades, the craftsmen have introduced dozens of instrument styles. Five luthiers, including Woods, build standard and three-quarter-size dulcimers in teardrop and hourglass shapes. Featuring flat or scroll pegheads, the instruments are fashioned from cherry, redwood, spruce, walnut or exotic woods decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays. The Dulcimer Shoppe also produces a dulci-banjo, which is played like a dulcimer and sounds like a banjo.

Dulcimers are beloved, not only for their clear, sweet sound, but because they’re relatively simple to play. Players pluck or strum the strings, typically four, with one hand, while fretting the instrument with the other. Instead of using fingers for fretting, some musicians use a piece of wood, called a noter, to play the melody on ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes.

“It’s a lot easier to be the best dulcimer player in the room than the best guitar player,” Woods says.

Carolyn Shields, 56, of Batesville, Ark. (pop. 9,445), bought a McSpadden Mountain Dulcimer four years ago and taught herself to play during the car ride back home.

“It has such a distinctive sound, so sweet,” says Shields, who shares her love of dulcimers by entertaining at nursing homes. “It’s as if you were sitting in the hills with no traffic and listening to the birds. It blends with nature.

“Playing a mountain dulcimer is the sweetest sound in the world.”