Mbira dulcimer!

If it's not a guitar or a bass guitar discussion, and it's got strings, put it here.
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Josh Humphrey
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Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

In 2006 I first sketched plans for an idea that intrigued me.

The Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) is laid out with bass and tenor octaves ascending from the center to the left, and a treble octave ascending from the center to the right.

I thought, if this layout could be adapted to a hammered dulcimer configuration, it might open up some interesting compositional and performance opportunities for an experimental musician! So I sketched it a few times over the years:
Sketch 1
Sketch 1
Sketch 2
Sketch 2

Josh Humphrey
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Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

I finally had the opportunity to complete this instrument. It started with the frame, in walnut, and the double soundboards, in doug fir:
Frame
Frame
Soundboards
Soundboards

Josh Humphrey
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Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

This weekend I had the chance to string it up.
Finished!
Finished!
The hitch pins are from 3/16" brass rod I grooved and polished using the drill press as a lathe:
Hitch pins
Hitch pins
DSC_5791.jpg (104.39 KiB) Viewed 4393 times
The rosette(s) are inlaid figured myrtle with a shop-made purfling (BRW/maple/mahog) alternated with woodburning:
Rosette
Rosette

Josh Humphrey
Posts: 55
Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

It sounds great, I will upload a soundfile soon. It is strange to play and time consuming to tune! But the notes are full, rich and sustain for a long while. There a re a few notes where I need different string gauges to get the best sound for the pitch.

Currently I have .011, .014 and .017 piano wire, and .024 and .036 phosphor bronze wound loop end strings on some bass notes.
Front
Front

Jason Rodgers
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Location: Portland, OR

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Jason Rodgers »

Super cool! So, on the bass side, do you play between the bridges?
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.

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Jim McConkey
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Location: Way north of Baltimore, MD

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Jim McConkey »

Very interesting take on the hammered mbira! Two friends who happen to be well-known hammered dulcimer players, Ken Koloder and Bill Troxler, both play hammered mbiras (with bars instead of strings). Theirs sound great, but yours is much more visually appealing. I think Ken's is by Don MacLane (no, not the one who sang "American Pie"!).
MIMForum Staff - Way North of Baltimore

Josh Humphrey
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Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

Jason: yes, on the bass side there are actually three octaves per note. The longer string to the right gets the low note, and one string to the left gets an octave above, and the bridge divides it so that the short portion in front of that is another octave. (3 octaves on 2 strings, if that makes sense).

Jim- super cool! Thanks for the link- evidently someone with similar ideas- it is always neat to discover someone on a similar yet markedly different path. Thanks for sharing.

Nicholas Blanton
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Location: Shepherdstown, WV, USA
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Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Nicholas Blanton »

Very cool instrument, very pretty. It's nice to see something other than the Mbira and the English concertina and bandoneon use a non-linear tuning, you do have to think differently in playing, and that's a good thing..

Most HD builders have found it is hard to get a bridge with wide-interval pitches to make a decent tone- you can make the instrument sound good for two tones around a fifth apart, the normal diatonic tuning, but with an octave it's hard to make both sides work well- that could be part of the tuning issues you say you've got. You might also find that looping the wire once around the hitch pins ( looks like you only have it bent around them) can keep it from slipping; not a great problem for strings gauges above .020" but definitely one for .014.

The McLane Mbira is actually a hammered-dulcimerization of the venerable Jaymar Toy Piano. I've got one, too, and though it is great fun to play it is essentially laid out like a 13/12 diatonic HD.

Josh Humphrey
Posts: 55
Joined: Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:23 pm

Re: Mbira dulcimer!

Post by Josh Humphrey »

Cool, thanks for the info Nicholas.

I like the tone of those mbira/HD instruments- the rod has a great sustain and tone to it. True, it is not laid out like the mbira, which is a very funky layout.

It is staying in tune very well now; I think applying all the tension (and I kept changing strings to mess around with tension) was really affecting it as it settled in.

I will upload a video soon- as with most things, spending time 'practicing' (what does that word mean???!?) has really helped to actually play the thing!

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