After almost 100 years Norfolk dulcimers are to be made again in Norfolk.
The East Anglian Traditional Music Trust has kept the tradition of dulcimer playing alive by collecting the music and memories of the dulcimer playing families in the region. In recent times the Norfolk band Rig a Jig Jig has revived and played many lost tunes on vintage instruments. The precious handful of surviving instruments have been treasured by museums and musicians alike- they are robust instruments but the ravages of time have seen soundboards warp and crack, the tension of the stings can split the old wood on re-tuning and slowly the opportunity for new players to play one has diminished.
Following 7 years of playing and repairing local dulcimers Richard Blake has been able to amass sufficient information to reproduce a dulcimer in the key of G which is indisputably a Norfolk pattern instrument.
What makes a Norfolk dulcimer?
2 key characteristics pin the instrument to the region, the unique shape and the tuning. The Norfolk dulcimer is strung with courses of 4 or 5 strings for each note. American ‘hammered’ dulcimers are strung with 2 string courses and tuned very differently. Round ‘chessmen’ bridges, decorated sound holes and table are East Anglian details too. The origin of the local link to this form of dulcimer is thought to be the successful design of the Norwich manufacturer Mark Widdows who produced signed instruments from 1850 to 1889 and this design was adopted across Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. London and Birmingham pattern instruments are known but are tuned differently. It is assumed the design became regionalised some time after the 1850s when key players made a fist of building their own instruments and the steep sided, shallow sound box pattern became known as a Norfolk dulcimer.
Mark Widdows, his mark:
Some details from an 1870s example:
An example of the ‘1907’ pattern:
New parts for old
A reconstruction of a 1907 pattern instrument in G has been prepared for production, the design incorporates all the characteristic East Anglian features and is now at the prototyping stage.
Paul N Hasluck published instructions on building a very close version of a Widdows pattern instrument in 1907: ‘The ornaments for the sound holes may consist of plain rings, or they may be fretwork, inlaid stars or other designs. They must fit the sound hole tightly, and be firmly glued in after the varnishing or polishing is done.’
A number of components are to be remade in the original patterns:
The production drawings are based on a measured example owned and played by Billy Cooper now at Gressenhall museum. New parts are being made, materials sourced and the first instrument will be under manufacture in January 2013. Once the first model is proven a production batch is expected to be on sale in April 2013.
The instrument will be a mix of beech, pine and box woods with detailing faithfully reproduced from period examples.
With fittings including bridges of turned box wood, fine German steel wrest pins, brass nut and hitch pins the Norfolk revival dulcimer is a quality folk instrument set to last for the next 100 years!
These instruments were the heart of backroom ‘sing along’ bands in East Anglia featuring fiddle and mandolin through the 1880s up to the 1930s; they have a bright sparkling tone which fits right in with guitar, melodeon, banjo and my personal favorite the turned down low Telecaster!
The development of the instrument from museum, through CAD to the bench is an adventure, I expect to post the story in words pictures and music as it happens (well almost) here!
More on Rig a Jig Jig here
More on Billy Cooper and his dulcimer here
Seasons greetings to all,