Dusty Strings Hammered Dulcimer #1

Apr 15, 2014

Dusty Strings is celebrating its official 35th birthday this year. In honor of this milestone, here is a story about the true beginnings of the company, dating back even further than 35 years…

The year is 1977. Ray and Sue, who met at a wedding the previous summer, are just out of college and have been dating for several months.

Ray and Sue in 1976

Sue plays a little guitar and sings, and Ray is part of a guitar and vocal wedding duo and enjoys impromptu jam sessions around the house with his roommates.

Ray jamming with his roommates

So here’s the pivotal moment: It’s Memorial Day weekend and Ray and Sue are on a double date with Ray’s roommate Randy and his girlfriend. They are exploring Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival for the first time. There are craft and food booths lining the walkways and people playing all types of folk music on stages scattered around the grounds. At a certain point in their wanderings, fate intervenes, leading the group to turn left instead of right at an intersection of paths, and they come upon a thing they have never seen or heard before. A man is busking on the side of the walkway, surrounded by a crowd of people. He has a strange trapezoid-shaped stringed instrument in front of him and he is hitting it with mallets and making the most mesmerizing sounds they have ever heard. Enchanted, they watch him play for quite a while, but after waiting in vain for the crowd to thin they eventually move on without finding out what the instrument is called.

Fast forward a couple of months: Ray, who graduated with a B.S. the year before but did not get accepted to dental school on his first try, is taking summer classes at the University of Washington in order to fill in a few credits. Walking through the music building one day on his way to a music theory class, he spies an intriguing poster advertising an “Intro to Folk Instruments” presentation. Maybe the presentation will include that trapezoid instrument that has been haunting his dreams!

The presenter is Virgil Hughes, owner of the Hughes Dulcimer Company in Denver, and sure enough, it is from him that Ray finally learns the name of the hammered dulcimer. In addition to the show and tell, Hughes has a catalog and a van packed full of build-your-own-instrument kits to sell. Ray can’t quite afford the hammered dulcimer kit, so he buys the mountain dulcimer kit instead and takes it home to build.

This might be a good time for an overview of Ray’s woodworking background, which consists almost solely of ninth grade woodshop, in which he built a small boat that actually floated. He does have a large amount of tinkering experience, however, including taking apart everything from his toys to his parents’ alarm clock to his jeep, and putting it all back together again (except for the alarm clock). He also has a knack for labor-saving devices, as demonstrated by the pulley mechanism he rigged up in his childhood workshop, which caused the light to come on when the door was opened. (He doesn’t know it yet, but this skill will serve him well when it comes to running his own manufacturing company later!)

He doesn’t have much of a woodshop in his house, but he uses what he can find and manages to build a playable instrument out of the mountain dulcimer kit. Not one to rest on his laurels, he spends the rest of the summer tinkering with the design and building several more improved models. But he still can’t get the hammered dulcimer out of his head, and he eventually hatches a plan.

His roommate Randy has a birthday in the fall, and since Randy has also had the dulcimer on his mind since the Folklife Festival, Ray has an easy time talking Randy’s girlfriend into helping him buy a hammered dulcimer kit for a birthday present. In true roommate spirit, Randy allows Ray to help with the construction.

Unfortunately, certain pieces of the kit don't fit together quite right, so the resourceful roommates start looking around for other materials they can use instead. They acquire some real zither pins to replace the guitar-type tuners included with the kit, and they crudely fashion new pin blocks and rails out of scrounged 2x4s and other scraps of lumber. But with their limited shop capabilities, they just can't cut anything large and thin enough to use for a soundboard.

Let’s give them a hand. Remember this photograph?

Ray jamming with his roommates

What can you find in this picture that might make a good hammered dulcimer soundboard? If you’re thinking, “That classy photo paper paneling glued to the back wall” you are absolutely correct! The room is currently unoccupied and there are plans in the works to build a real woodshop in its place, so Ray and Randy have no qualms about peeling the paneling off and using it to complete their very first hammered dulcimer.

We know you’re dying of curiosity, so Ray has swallowed his pride and graciously allowed us to show you what Dulcimer #1 looks like. Notice the tasteful decision to turn the paneling around and use the reverse side for the soundboard, but to let its true beauty show on the back of the instrument.

hammered dulcimer #1 (front)

hammered dulcimer #1 (back)

And that’s the story, or at least as close as we may ever get to what actually happened all those years ago. One dulcimer led to another, which led to a couple of woodworking classes and a table saw for a wedding present, and Dusty Strings was born. 35,000 instruments later (including harps, which are a story for another time), Dusty Strings has touched countless lives. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment that led to the creation of the company, but it seems safe to say that things would have gone very differently for a lot of people had Ray been accepted to dental school…

Oh, and here’s a photo just to prove that we’ve come a long way in 35 years.

dusty strings D550 hammered dulcimer with abalone inlay

Category: History


Posted by John Steffen on
I have remained completely astonished throughout my life time since 1990 when I left the employment of DS Dulcimer Co. that they actually hired me in the first place. I have never heard this story as Ray was too sly to reveal these humble beginnings to us non-Northwest natives. I did know that his basement was the first incarnation of the Dusty Strings Dulcimer Company, and therefore this blog has filled in the gaps. Best to all of you at DS and may you continue to fill the world with music and love.
Posted by Mike Golch on
super cool,my hammer dulcimer is about 14 years old now.I bought it from wildwoold music in roscoe villiage.
Posted by Paula Brawdy on
I enjoyed hearing about your path in the road to life and how dusty strings was formed. I love my DS 600! Paula
Posted by Lea Masiello on
I have both a DS HD and a harp and love them both, so it is wonderful to read about this history.
Posted by Paul Bailey on
Congratulations to Ray, Sue and Dusty Strings. Yes, you have come a long way and we have all aged just a bit since that photo. I am the one air plucking the banjo and the "second" employee of Dusty Strings. That basement in the Ravenna house saw a few "ground breaking" improvements in instrument manufacturing and some very good times jamming with some great friends. Thanks for the memories and the summer employment of 1979. Photo taken by Sue French Mooers January or February of 1978.
Posted by Bob flory on
I bought my first dusty strings in 1981 from 'the garage'...still have it! Also have a D650 today! Thanks for building quality instruments thru the years!!!
Posted by Rick Hall on
Congrats to Ray and Sue! I have a Model D-25 signed by friends Guy Carawan and John McCutcheon, my first mentors, and also the DS Hammer Dulcimer that Guy and his son Evan used to record their first album together! Great work and great sound!
Posted by Kathy DeAngelo on
What a great story! It's always amazing to me how people get started on life's journeys, starting on a road they think they're going to take, and then seeing some other path that they wander onto and that becomes their main life's journey. I can't wait to read the harp story!
Posted by Debbie Conrad on
Thanks, Ray and Sue, for your commitment to excellence. My hammered dulcimer and two harps are so beautiful and bring me such joy. You guys are the best!
Posted by Diane Priesmeyer on
I own several pairs of Dusty Strings hammers. I use them all of the time! They are lovely! Thank you for making such wonderful hammers.
Posted by Kelley Mooers on
Great story about the start of Dusty Strings. Growing up, I remember Ray mastering the Erector set toy with motors and pulleys and gear ratios. I was fumbling with the Lincoln logs. He was always tinkering with things like taking apart radios and telephones and putting them back together. Our father didn't have many power tools so most woodworking was done by hand. My brother's inquisitive mind and skill in woodworking has helped him excel over the years.
Congratulations, Ray and Sue and your great team at Dusty Strings.
Posted by Candy Albin on
Folk music is really big in Michigan. I used to to go the First Presbyterian Church in Caro and we had an organist there that was very involved in local music and always tried to organize concerts at our small little church. The hammered dulcimer was a very popular instrument in our area and we would have dulcimer concerts on occasion. DeeDee Tibbetts was our local instructor. She is an awesome player. In fact, her whole family is very musical. Her daughter Megan just competed on the new show Rising Star and did very well. Anyway, I always dreamed of on day having my own dulcimer. But times were tough and I just couldn't afford one. So I never got one. Then an opportunity came for my family to move to Alaska. My husband moved to North Pole, AK in May 2009. I stayed in Michigan to finish my paramedic class. 9 months later, in Feb. 2010, I moved to Alaska to join my husband. My "Welcome to Alaska" gift from my husband was a Dusty Strings D10 that was completed on 11/11/82 and signed by all of the craftsmen that had a hand in building my D10. I was instantly in love! I couldn't wait to learn how to play it. I desperately looked for a fellow dulcimer player in the Fairbanks area. Wow. What a disappointment. The dulcimer is not quite the popular instrument in Alaska that it was in Michigan. I did get lucky enough to find one other dulcimist in Fairbanks and she was kind enough to come to my home and give me a couple of lessons but things just didn't work out very well. My dulcimer sat for 4 1/2 years and was never touched. I'm not musically inclined. It was a daunting task for me to even think about trying to learn how to play all by myself. One day, I was sitting at work with nothing to do. I work a 2 week on, 2 week off schedule as a paramedic at work camps around the state of Alaska. I basically get paid to sit there and wait for someone to need me. So I do absolutely nothing. I kept thinking that this would be the perfect place to learn how to play my dulcimer. So I went to work getting a case together for traveling. I bought the foam, spray glue, and velvet. I did all the measuring. I cut out spots for the dulcimer, legs, hammers, and tools that you have to have with you at all times. I ordered a case from a company and gave them very specific instructions on how I wanted it to be made. Of course, they don't deliver to Alaska. Because Alaska doesn't seem to be a part of the United States. Did you know that? When it comes to mailing or shipping, Alaska is the evil step child of the United States. So I had it sent to my mom in Michigan and she mailed it to me from there. Of course, the case did not come the way that I asked it to be made but I made it work. My dulcimer has now been at work with me for the past 4 or 5 months and I'm happy to announce that I've learned how to play 9 songs and I'm getting better at reading music. I'm happily looking forward to the day that I get myself a 15/14! Thanks for making #1 out of paneling! It lead to my D10 being completed on 11/11/82! And it is still in almost perfect condition! I even have the original hammers! I just have one little ding on the top of it but it didn't get through the finish! Candy Albin, Fairbanks, AK
Posted by Kristi Austin on
Wow, this is great! I never knew any of it. John P., did you write it?
I miss Dusty Strings; it and the people are in my heart, even though I only worked for one year (1994-5). Thanks for everything!
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