The Bowed Psaltery (pronounced s-all-tree or s-all-ter) is a simple, easy to play instrument. It has the beautiful sound of a violin without any of the difficult fingering. It is played with a bow, and the strings are set up similar to a piano keyboard. All of the natural notes (white piano keys) are on the right side while all of the sharps and flats (black piano keys) are on the left side. It is very easy to play any piece of music on this instrument. Tuning is also very easy. I usually begin with the lowest note (longest string) and tune the notes on the right side, then go back to the top of the instrument and tune down the left side. A chromatic tuner is a great help in keeping a Bowed Psaltery in tune.
Our Bowed Psalteries have maple pin blocks and sides and poplar backs. The soundboards are made of cherry, mahogany, Spanish cedar or any other of a variety of woods. (Please check our inventory page for current models.) They have a deep, rich sound and very good sustain. The greatest difference between a Bowed Psaltery and other stringed instruments (such as a guitar, harp, hammered dulcimer, etc.) is that you can draw the bow across the string as long as you want, allowing you to "hold" a note. This is a great help when playing slower songs, and can be used for dramatic effect. As an example: Amazing Grace sounds wonderful on a Bowed Psaltery.
When you see Joe and Carol at a festival take the time to join in a Bowed Psaltery class with Carol, no instrument necessary. We'll cover history, bowing techniques, reading TAB, reading music, playing on both sides of your instrument, care and feeding, tuning and string changing. Extra instruments are always available in case you forgot yours or would like to try one out.
All the information on this page and more can be downloaded in booklet form.
To care for your Bowed Psaltery:
Tune regularly (use the tuning pegs at the lower end of the instrument). Clean/dust only with a lint free cloth (you can use Lemon Pledge on the sides and bottom). Do not get any furniture polish on the strings or tuning pins, this will cause lower sound quality of the strings and will cause your tuning pins to slip, your tuning will not hold! Do not over loosen or over tighten your strings, this will cause weak areas in the strings and may lead to breakage (strings do not need to be replaced unless they break). Put rosin on your bow before you play, or if you are getting excessive squeaking while playing. If you get no sound whatsoever you need to rosin your bow (it didn't have any on it).
Tuning the Bowed Psaltery
Tune using the double row of tuning pegs across the bottom of the instrument. Tune each string according to the note guide. You will only need to make very small adjustments when tuning. It is very easy to turn the tuning peg too far and go right past the pitch you want. You should use a chromatic tuner (not a guitar tuner, which only has certain notes).
Pluck or draw the bow across the desired string and wait for the tuner to register the note. It will tell you if it is ok, too high or too low. Turning the pin to the right will tighten the string (make the pitch higher), and turning the pin to the left will loosen the string (make the pitch lower). Over tightening the strings can cause them to break.
I tune the longest string first then go down both the sides. You should not tune if the instrument is not at room temperature. If the psaltery has been left in the sun, a hot car, a cold car (in winter), etc. give it several hours to get back to room temperature, then tune if needed.
You should hold the Bowed Psaltery with your hand across the back supporting it, the point directed away from your body. It's good to start out sitting down, then you can rest the bottom edge of the Psaltery against your leg. When you're standing you can rest the bottom edge against your hip or stomach.
Hold the bow close to the large end and slide it across a string. The more pressure you use, the louder the note, but too much pressure will dampen the sound. The type of bowing stroke you use will determine the sound you receive. A quick, short stroke works well in fast songs, a longer firm stroke sounds great in slower songs. You should play relatively close to the end of each string for the best sound, this is especially true of the shortest strings.
When you need to go from one side of the Psaltery to the other you should bow "up" on the right side (for right handed people), then the bow is mostly over the left side of the instrument. This then naturally leads into placing the bottom of the bow (area closest to fingers) on the string on the left side and drawing "up" again. A good way to practice this is to start out on the longest string and play up to the shortest string, crossing over the instrument each time to get to the next note (except where the next note is still on the right side). You should try a song in the key of C first to get used to it, then move on to the same song in a different key. This will get you used to using the other side of the Psaltery. Practice each song until you can play it smoothly. Figure out how you can bow the Psaltery so one bowing motion leads smoothly into the next. It will take some practice.
Playing Using TAB
(Mountain Dulcimer TAB)
We now have note guides for TAB. Simply follow the numbers on your TAB music. The numbers correspond to the fret being played by mountain dulcimers. The letters are still one the note guides, so in DAD tuning you can play the melody, harmony or the drone note. The drone is the guitar chord that is written in above each measure.
Changing a Broken String
A string only needs to be replaced if it breaks. First you need to remove the broken string. Make sure you turn the tuning peg (bottom of instrument) to the left (counter clockwise) while drawing the broken string out away from the Psaltery. The tuning pin should now be 1/4 inch higher than all the other tuning pins. Also remove the broken end from the peg at the top of the instrument. Do not turn this peg. It is already positioned where it needs to be.
Take your replacement string (a ball end guitar string) and thread it through the hole in the pin at the top of the instrument. The "ball" should be on the side of the pin facing the bottom of the instrument. Pull the "ball" up tight to the pin and draw the string up the opposite side of the pin and over the top. The string should now line up with the other strings. Pull the new string down to the tuning pin (bottom of instrument) and thread it through the hole. Pull the string tight and measure 4 inches past the tuning pin. Cut the new string off there. Make a small right angle bend in the string and the very end. Pull the string back through the tuning pin until this bend reaches the pin. Now start turning the tuning pin to the right (clockwise), making sure that the string winds on the pin below the hole in the pin. Continue winding until it is pulled tight, and tune.
It may take several tries to do this the first time. Don't be discouraged, it just takes a little patience. Also remember: when you are turning the tuning pins with the tuning wrench keep your thumb on the wrench right at the bend, and turn with a sideways rotating motion. If you pull up or down on the wrench (with any force) while it's on the pin it may break. A broken tuning pin can be replaced, but you will have to mail the Psaltery back to us.
To determine the size (diameter) of string you will need (for regular Bowed Psaltery):
Size .010 ball end guitar string use for the first 11 strings on the right side use for the first 7 strings on the left side
Size .012 ball end guitar string use for the next 4 strings on the right side use for the next 3 strings on the left side
Size .014 ball end guitar string use for the middle 7 strings (the longest one and the three on either side)
Our Baby Bowed Psaltery uses all .010 diameter string.
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