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Dusty Strings Hammered Dulcimer #1

April 15, 2014
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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

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