A stick dulcimer, aka a Strum Stick or Strumstick, is a 3 stringed instrument, based on the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer, but made to be held and played like a guitar, rather than a lap instrument. They come in all different qualities and price ranges, but this was my birthday present to myself, so I went for a luthier-crafted high-end model, costing me 170 quid.
I’ve had a lot of pleasure out of it, and it’s turned into a minor obsession with me. So last week when I noticed a couple of other stick dulcimers on eBay, I decided to float a minimum bid. To my surprise, I got both.
So I am now the owner of 3 stick dulcimers, of varying quality. So I thought it would be a nice idea to compare them. These are the three instruments, from left to right: My birthday dulcimer from HiGuitarUK (£170); Smokey Mountain Dulcimer (£51); Strumstick by D G Clemson (£49).
This is my precious, made in Yorkshire by Robert Hinchliffe. An acoustic stick, it has a nice rounded sound, and is easy to play. It is beautiful to touch and hold, a very tactile object with its curves and smooth edges and satin finish. I believe the woods are american cherry for the top and back, and mahogany for the neck, sides and tail. Top nut and bridge are bone, not plastic, and there is an ebony inset to protect the wood from where the strings are attached.
This is the stick dulcimer from Smokey Mountain Dulcimer Works, Florida USA. An electro-acoustic, it has a fender-type pickup, and volume and tone knobs. I believe this model sells for $150 in the US, but it would normally be more in the UK. I got it for 51 quid.
While not as beautiful as the HiGuitarsUK stick, it is very nicely balanced. The neck looks extremely chunky, but is actually quite comfortable, with a good action. It has a poplar neck and body, with a front of red cedar.
Note how the 6 string pickup makes no attempt to align with the 3 dulcimer strings! Doesn’t affect the sound, though – it has a great tone, both acoustically and amplified.
Finally, this is a stick handmade by D G Clemson, in Staffordshire, UK. Not as pretty as the other two, and made, I think, with laminated wood. It is a bit top-heavy towards the head, and the neck is a bit wide. So not quite as good a deal for the 49 quid I paid for it.
However, it has a couple of interesting features. It actually has 4 strings, with the top “melody string” a pair of strings. It has a piezo pickup fitted, which doesn’t dazzle, but is decent enough. More than anything it is solid, and not a delicate thing. For the money, I am not disappointed; you can certainly knock out a tune on it, and I will not be afraid to lend this to friends, or experiment with it.
Further to my earlier post, it’s a week further on, and I’ve had a chance to play these instruments some more. There are no surprises.
Of my original stick and the Smokey Mountain model (Left and Centre), both play very well, but I am now really appreciating the acoustic sound of my original stick. Not just nicer sounding, but remarkably louder. Proving you get what you pay for.
However, the Smokey Mountain stick does sound excellent amplified, which is exactly why I bought it. Having now fitted it with a strap, this has confirmed it is also very nicely balanced, and hangs exactly where it needs to be.
Which is the problem with the cheap stick on the right. Putting a strap on it shows just how unbalanced it is. It just doesn’t naturally fall into an easy to play position, without an arm or elbow to anchor it. So, awkward to play, and not a particularly good sound – not my best purchase.
But 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.