Dulcimer Sessions®
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April 2010 · Bimonthly

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by its inventor, Michael Fox

[Editor's notes: There are several mountain dulcimer/banjo hybrids, including the original "Banjomer" by Doug Thompson of Claremont, CA. Doug was one of the first to implant a small drum head in the body of a teardrop-shaped 3-string mountain dulcimer. Later, various dulcimer builders made their own versions. All have a beautiful banjo sound, but as a clawhammer banjo player I missed the high thumb string sound.

I'd known Michael Fox (inventor of the Dulcijo) as one of the North Carolina Piedmont's most well known old-time fiddle and banjo players. During a jam session at Harper Van Hoy's Fiddlers Grove festival I noticed that Michael was playing what looked like a diatonic clawhammer banjo - and it had the high thumb string sound I'd missed in the other dulcimer/banjo hybrids.

Michael's playing of old-time tunes on the Dulcijo is spectacular, and the authenticity of the Dulcijo's sound is validated by Michael's success using this diatonic instrument in clawhammer banjo playing contests. North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia, where he plays, have strong banjo traditions and clawhammer banjo playing is a developed art there.

Here's the Dulcijo's story in his words…]

About 15 years ago I was sitting around trying to think of a catchy and creative name for this instrument that I had created. Because it had the qualities I liked best of the mountain dulcimer and the banjo I decided to call it the "Dulcijo." If I had it to do over I probably would have called it something different. Every mutant kind of diatonic string instrument out there is now being called a Dulcijo, some have very little in common with a banjo.

I got my first dulcimer kit back in the early 1970's for Christmas. My sister was in college at Appalachian State and she found it in the Boone, NC area. We had a string band in high school and used the mountain dulcimer, but we really didn't know what to do with it and at the time didn't really understand why it had missing frets. I also started playing clawhammer banjo then and fell in love with the banjo. I spent a couple of years building a banjo and worked very hard learning to play it.

Around 1977, I met Harper Van Hoy while camping at the Fiddlers Grove Campground one weekend when the festival wasn't going on. My wife, Donna, and I were the only people camping in the campground. Harper, the producer of the festival and owner of the campground, had his fiddle and we played a bunch of tunes together and started a long friendship. Donna and Wansie, Harper's wife, took turns playing the washtub bass and we played with Harper's band for the next 30 years. I have had the opportunity to play with many great musicians such as Ken Powers, Melvin Slate, Lois Hornbostel, Lauchlin Shaw, Doug and Jim Trantham, Don Pedi, Glenn Bolick, Keith Watts, Willard Gayheart, Jimmy Lowry, and Harper, among others.

In the mid 1980's I was making and selling figurines at crafts shows all over the South when I met a fellow craftsman who had a strumstick. He let me play it and I thought it was a nice instrument, but at the time I played clawhammer banjo and didn't use a pick much. I thought such an instrument would be really nice if I could clawhammer it. I made my first Dulcijo with a three-inch wooden drum with a wooden head in the mid 1980's. I loved the way it played but it didn't have much sound quality or volume. I spent the next several years playing that first Dulcijo and looking for a better drum. I thought a ten or eleven-inch drum would be too large and bulky for such a delicate instrument. Then at a flea market I found an eight-inch uke banjo with a cracked neck and put a Dulcijo neck on it. It sounded great and I loved playing it. I spent the next few years making music on it and eventually I found a way to produce a Dulcijo with an eight-inch drum that I could market.

In the late 1990's I became obsessed with the Dulcijo and about quit playing the 5-string banjo and the fiddle. I have been playing the Dulcijo in string bands ever since - in place of the 5-string clawhammer banjo. I now play a great deal with Possum Hollar Old Time String Band, which includes Randy Miller, Richard and Andrew Shook, Jenny and Sylvia Lowry, Troy Parker, Donna Fox and many others from time to time. Around 2005 my friend Richard Hefner got interested in the Dulcijo and assisted me through his great website, ezfolk, and started to market the Dulcijo around the world. My friend and great craftsman, Richard Shook has joined with me to produce Dulcijos.

I am amazed that over the past few years I have placed in several clawhammer banjo competitions playing the Dulcijo. It is nice to be recognized for my clawhammer skills, but much more rewarding is to see the Dulcijo being accepted in these banjo competitions.

Here is a list of the awards I have placed in while playing the Dulcijo in these banjo competitions:

. Gathering at the Gap fiddlers' convention, Big Stone Gap, VA - 1st place 2008 & 2009.
. Fries Fiddlers Convention, Fries, VA - 1st place 2009
. Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention, Lenoir, NC - 1st place 2009, 2nd place 2007, 3rd place 2008
. Fiddlers Grove fiddlers convention, Union Grove, NC - 2nd runner up 2005
. NC Foothills Fiddlers Convention, Valdese, NC - 1st place 2006, 2007
. Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, Mount Airy, NC - 3rd place 2009
. Coolemee Fiddlers Convention, Mocksville, NC - 4th place 2007
. Hoppin' John Fiddlers Convention, Pittsboro, NC - 3rd place 2007
. Georgia State Fiddlers Convention, Hiawassee, GA - 3rd place 2009
. Hickory Hoedown Fiddlers Convention, Hickory, NC - 3rd place 2009

I have played the five-string banjo at fiddlers' conventions for the past 30 years and only won one award for individual clawhammer banjo prior to the Dulcijo.

How the Dulcijo Sounds

Listen to these videos by Richard Heffner and Michael Fox:

Playing the Dulcijo

Playing the Dulcijo is pretty much clawhammer banjo in the right hand and mountain dulcimer in the left hand.

Right Hand: My style of clawhammer uses the middle and first finger in a down stroke. I commonly hit the first string with my middle finger and the second string with my first finger. Don't get this confused with bluegrass banjo. I keep my fingers clinched together and don't pick, but hit the strings. If you keep your fingers clinched together while you hit down you can develop a clicking or clucking sound by allowing your first finger to follow closely behind your middle finger and dampen the string sound after it is hit.

My technique utilizes much double thumbing that is defined in clawhammer terms as
brush-thumb brush-thumb brush-thumb. Conventional clawhammer is note-brush-thumb note-brush-thumb note-brush-thumb. Sometimes the latter is referred to as bump-dit-ty bump-dit-ty bump-dit-ty. Double thumbing is dit-ty dit-ty dit-ty. In both case the ty of the dit-ty is made with the thumb rolling out from under the third string.

Left Hand: I go up and down the fingerboard with my left hand much like you would on the mountain dulcimer. I mostly use the first string as a melody string and the second string as drone and the third or thumb string as rhythm. I do use double stops, or two strings pressed down at the same time, on occasion for effect. The thing I find most appealing about the Dulcijo is that the set up makes it necessary to play most melodies in the high register. I find most old-time banjo players stay down the neck on the first 7 frets and play most tunes in the low bass range. I find it easier to hear the high range and I think a banjo really sings pretty on the high notes.

My favorite Dulcijo tunings are:

Key of D and A
1st string                         D
2nd string                        A
3rd string (thumb)high      A (octave above 2nd string A)

Key of A
1st string                         E
2nd string                        A
3rd string (thumb) high    A (octave above 2nd string A)

1st string                         A
2nd string                        A
3rd string (thumb) high     A (octave above 2nd string A)

Key of G
1st string                         D
2nd string                        G
3rd string (thumb) high     G (octave above 2nd string G)

Key of C
1st string                         C
2nd string                        G
3rd string (thumb) high     G (octave above 2nd string G)

Close-up of Dulcijo's diatonic fretboard. In the photo the 1st string is at the top;
2nd string in middle; 3rd (thumb) string at bottom of photo.


Here is Michael Fox's Dulcijo arrangement of the fiddle tune "Ebenezer" first in a sound file and below in tablature.

Click to Hear ebenezer111.mp3


Dulcijos can be purchased from Michael Fox through the following website:








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