Help! I can't get both sides of the treble bridge in tune!
Most people who play the hammered dulcimer experience some variation of this problem at one point or another. There are simply too many strings on the darned thing for tuning to be smooth and easy every time, and it can be quite frustrating when you can get one side or the other of the treble bridge in tune, but not both sides at the same time. The good news is that (assuming your hammered dulcimer is structurally sound) you can most likely solve the problem yourself!
There are three common issues that can result in treble bridge tuning frustration, and we’ve laid them out from most to least common, with their corresponding solutions. You can read through them all, or you can use the following criteria to jump to the most likely section for you. We have to insert a word of warning that although these solutions will certainly work for Dusty Strings instruments, we can’t say for sure that they will work on all hammered dulcimers. The dulcimer is an ancient instrument, and not all variations are constructed or tuned the same way!
You’ve probably noticed that for the treble bridge strings, you turn one tuning pin to tune two notes. In a perfect world, the string would slide smoothly across the bridge, so getting one side in tune would automatically mean the other side was in tune as well. In reality, the strings sometimes get held up by friction at the point where they pass over the bridge. If the tension is not equal on both sides, it will result in that perfect fifth being thrown off.
One way of dealing with this is to tune the notes farthest from the tuning pins first. So if your tuning pins are on the right-hand side of your dulcimer, start by tuning the notes on the left-hand side of the treble bridge. After that, check the notes on the closer side. If any of them are a little off, you can probably fine-tune them without affecting the notes on the far side.
Another trick to equalize tension is to use your fingers to lift the strings up off the bridge and set them back down again. You might have to do this a couple of times while tuning if the bridge cap is particularly sticky.
In order for the perfect-fifth interval across the treble bridge to work properly, each string needs to be making solid contact with both side bridges as well as with the treble bridge.
When you don’t change strings very often, it’s easy to forget that the windings on the tuning pin should progress down toward the soundboard, below the hole in the pin. If you forget and wind upwards instead, the string doesn’t make contact with the side bridge. This means that the sounding length of the string is too long on that side, and your fifth-interval will be way off. All you need to do to fix it is unwind the string and put it on again, making sure each new wrap around the tuning pin is beneath the previous one, and the string now has solid contact with the side bridge cap.
It sometimes surprises people that the bridges are not glued down, but they are actually held on with the tension of the strings. This means that it is possible for a bridge to get accidentally knocked out of position, which throws off the intonation between the two sides. This is not very common, but if you have a group of adjacent strings that are all out of tune in the same direction, chances are that the bridge is not in quite the right place. To fix this, you’ll need to tap the section that has moved back into position.
It’s possible for the whole bridge to have moved, or for one end to be in tune while the other end is out of whack, or for just a section in the middle to be off. If you can find part of the bridge that is in tune, it’s helpful to put some bits of masking tape on either side to mark the position. That way, if you end up moving that part while trying to adjust the rest of it, it’ll be easy to put it back. Also, it’s nice to have a straight edge that you can lay along the side of the bridge to determine if it’s straight or not. (Just to be clear, you want it to be straight, not bowed.)
Then you’ll need something you can use to tap on the bridge without damaging it. You can use an unsharpened pencil for this (place the eraser against the side of the bridge and tap on the other end of the pencil lightly with a hammer) or you can try a yardstick (pad the end with something like a sock or a gauze bandage so you don’t dent your bridge, and then slide the yardstick under the strings and tap the bridge from the side). You do not need to loosen the strings; in fact, it will be easier to tell whether you’ve achieved your goal if you leave the strings in tune.
Once you’re all set up, you’ll start gently tapping the misplaced section of the bridge to move it back into alignment. If you’ve tuned the left side and the right side is flat, tap it towards the right. If you’ve tuned the left side and the right side is sharp, tap it towards the left. Be sure to tap near the base of the bridge, close to the soundboard, or you’ll risk breaking off the pedestals. You don’t need a lot of force, and you don’t need to move it very far to make a big difference, so it’s a good idea to start with small increments and test the tuning and straightness frequently. Remember to equalize the tension before you test!