I didn’t know what empirical meant, when someone mentioned that it describes how I have always worked and designed the psalteries I build. I was happy to find out it meant to experiment and observe to arrive at a solution. A name for my madness.
It was interesting to read Richard’s post on String Theory 101 that was posted the other day. It’s great to share knowledge, especially on this great forum, and I do want to learn all that I can. I wanted to add my thoughts and relate how I have worked at building bowed psalteries for the past thirty two years. I thought it best to add a blog about my own methods of working through designing my instruments, instead of trying to dispute how anyone else arrives at their finished product. The only work I can concern myself with, is what I produce and believe in it as being a good product. One that I would want to play, and do so. I encourage all the other builders to share, if they wish, but it won’t serve any good purpose to argue through it all. I won’t play any part in an argument over whose building method is the best, or who is right or wrong, but if I stay quiet, how is anyone to know my thoughts? This will be a long post.
I have been passionate about playing the bowed psaltery as long as I have been building them. I didn’t start off building for anyone else. They were all mine to have, play, and enjoy until I decided to start trying to sell some in the early 90's. I had been tinkering with building and playing bowed psalteries for ten years prior to selling the first one. I had also played around with building a few hammered dulcimers, but the psaltery always had my passion. I remember the first time I heard one, it was George Kelischek’s wife, Rose Marie, playing “Shenandaoh” at a mall craft show in Knoxville. The sound reached out and grabbed me. Thanks goodness I'm still in it's grip. I was even more thrilled when she explained it was like playing a piano with one finger. It immediately made sense to me.
I made my first psaltery soon after that, using a set of plans in Ronald Robert’s book “Musical Instruments Made to be Played”. It was a disaster, the sound board split before I got all the strings on it. It would still play though. I had tried to use strings that were too large for it. I was using some music wire that I had left over from a hammered dulcimer build. I found a point on the right side where I could tune a C scale and made it playable, the left side was out of sync, but I didn’t care. I could play most songs that popped into my head and it was fun.
In the next several years I experimented with several designs and finally settled into one modeled after the Kelischek psaltery I had seen. Back then he was the only builder I had heard of. I then found out about Unicorn Strings and Song of the Wood psalteries on a trip to Asheville. I also met builder Jack Fritts at a Dulcimer and Harp Convention in Cosby, TN around that time. Remember, this was in the days before the internet. I began selling my little 22 string soprano psalteries around 1990 at a small craft show. $25 booth fee and I sold a few that weekend. I kept on building a selling, using the money to buy more supplies and tools to keep going. I got a crazy idea that I wanted to record a music Cd and cassette to sell as a side item at my craft fairs, remember cassettes? That was in 1995 and had a desire to have some lower pitched instruments on the recording, like a viola or cello. I didn’t know anyone that played those, so that put another crazy idea in my head. What about a low voiced psaltery. I made two, one in a tenor/baritone range and another in the bass range. That was the first time I tried wound strings and also bass guitar strings. They turned out well enough to use them on that first recording and started my desire to work through the process of building some low voiced psalteries. I went through a lot of time and money in that process. I was only building those for my own use, and building the little soprano psalteries to sell. It was nice to have a little extra money to buy tools, wood, and even build a workshop. It was still just a hobby/business, but still one I was very passionate about.
I had always used even pin spacing and had never heard of anything that was different. Sometime in the late 90's or early 2000's, I saw Richard’s Omega Strings web site and discovered he was doing things no one else was doing. I didn’t understand about the pin spacing and didn’t know how to find out. I would continue with my same method and design for many years. The old Yahoo bowed psaltery group had some great discussions and I remember Richard sharing some details with us. He even shared with the group a source to a software program created by Joseph Jourdain of Canada for calculating strings sizes for harps -
It kind of made my head spin just reading what Joseph had on his site. I also wondered about how that information would help me if I was already happy with the little soprano psaltery I was building at the time. I still hadn’t built any bigger psalteries to sell. I was just building a few for my own use, so I didn’t order the software.
Here are my thoughts on string sizing for a bowed psaltery and also a couple of the mysteries I'll mention later on. Things I have tried that absolutely didn’t work, and still have me wondering why.
I have found there is quite a range in tension that a string can sound good, on up to the breaking point, and that can sound quite good all through that range. That good sound I’m talking about is referring to a bowed string only, in my case. Bowing a string, using moderate pressure, that does not have enough tension will result in the pitch changing. It will go up slightly in pitch and is very noticeable at the middle of the bow stroke. It just doesn't have enough tension to sound good at all. Raising the tension a little at a time will have you arriving at the low end of the range I am talking about. The high end of that range will end with the string breaking.
Here comes my empirical method of learning about what that range can be for a few different strings sizes and types.
Here’s an experiment I did this morning, this was done on an older tenor psaltery I had laying in my workshop. Those of you that have visited my workshop have seen the old psalteries I have made for prototypes, stacked up on a shelf under my workbench. Nothing mathematical or scientific about it, just my way.
I tuned the G4 string, G above middle C, through the range I’m talking about. It is a .020" phosphor bronze wound string, 12" vibrating string length, F4 sounds pretty good without deflection when bowed. It broke when I tried to tune it, a half step at a time, above a B4, trying for an C5. I put on another string same results, it sounded acceptable starting at F4 and broke when going above a B4. That’s quite a range. I put another string on, same results. It broke between B4 and C5. Depending on the note, VSL, and string size there will be some strings closer to that breaking point and some that are hitting other places in that range. The core diameter is .011" on the GHS .020" wound string I used. I believe the winding adds the mass needed to enable tuning to the lower pitches. I don’t believe the windings have very much impact on the strength. I could be wrong here, just don’t know. More on two mysteries I can’t answer about using wound strings later.
Now that I had a better grasp of that range for that particular string, I thought I would try a few different sizes and a different type of material.
I then put an .009" plain steel string on the same pin, same 12" VSL. It started sounding good, when bowed, at C#5. C would deflect a little and didn’t sound good. I started raising the pitch ½ step at a time. I went from C#5 to A5 before it broke, trying for Bb5.
Would a smaller diameter string for the same VSL would be at a higher pitch when you arrive at it’s breaking point? I believe it would. That difference in pitch when you are at the breaking point, or 100% TSR, is very important to remember here.
I tried a .010" plain steel string to see what happens. I think it will break at a lower pitch, but that’s the fun in this. Remember, empirical method? This is what happened. It started sounding acceptable, when bowed, at C5. It broke going from A5 to Bb5, so yes it broke at a lower pitch.
I moved on to a .011" plain steel string. Sounded acceptable at B4 and made it to G5, it broke at just a slight amount above G5 trying for G#5. Remember in the .020" wound string, .011" core wire, experiment above, I went from F4 to B4.
My last one to try was a .012" string. Acceptable bowed note at Bb4 and it made it to A5. That one surprised me, I was wincing when I got to G5, expecting it to break. Why was I able to tune it higher than the .011" string before it broke?
All of these experiments were done on the same psaltery and same vibrating string length. No, I didn’t try them several times each and average the results. That would have been a little more accurate if I had.
Another factor to consider on a bowed psaltery, you are bowing the string at less than an inch from the end at the hitch pin, with the exception of the large psalteries that can have wider spacing. Most instruments that are plucked or strummed are being played quite a way from the bridge. Folks that play guitar or banjo know that you get a softer quality of tone when you move closer to the fretboard. Picking close to the bridge gives you more of a harsh tone. You can hear this on your psaltery, pluck a string with your fingernail next to the hitch pin. Then pluck the same string about five inches from the bridge. Hear the difference?
Here’s two things I can’t understand about working with wound strings. There may be a simple answer, but I can’t figure it out. I use phosphor bronze wound guitar strings and really like the sound. Many years ago I bought a pretty good size order of flat wound guitar strings to try. It made sense to me that they would be great to use with a psaltery and the perfect match for bowing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I couldn’t make them sound good no matter what I tried. Violins and violas have some flat wound strings on them, why wont they work on a psaltery and give such poor sound. Just doesn’t make sense to me. The other thing is that some instruments have the windings terminate in front of the bridge, so that just the core wire crosses the bridge cap. This is discussed on the Fretless Zithers website. I thought I would try it, it doesn’t work at all on the bowed psaltery. The string wouldn’t vibrate, no matter how I bowed. Would it work if I could bow the string further away from the hitch pin? I don’t know.
I read Richard’s post several days ago, but I was in the middle of finishing up some special orders and also getting some more instruments to add to my web site. I was pretty busy, but still had time to let his post roll around in my head and think it through. I finished most of that work yesterday and had some time to experiment.
I just can’t prove to myself that every string on a bowed psaltery has to have even tension. I feel they can vary slightly with the end result being the overall tension of all the strings as a group. The strings are so close together that this should not be a critical factor. I think this allows for some variation to let even spacing work, but still taking into account the overall sound and playability. The important things being great sound and no to minimal string breakage. Richard’s examples showed the TSR to be just over 50% for each of the three sizes. That’s quite a ways from the 100% breaking point. I think that is where there’s the room for some variation in both tension and pitch, before getting to the trouble point of breaking too many strings.
In building the prototypes of my psalteries, I work through all of this using my empirical method and even will tweak a design as needed. My design on all my small psalteries using plain steel strings have even hitch pin spacing. On all that have wound strings, I modified the spacing a couple of years ago to transition from an even spacing to a wider even spacing on the lower notes. This was more to give a little extra room to bow as far away from the hitch pin as possible. That reduces some of that scratchiness in the lowest notes.
The biggest factor in the way I work, is that I am so passionate about playing. I want my psalteries to sound great, because I want to play them and be very satisfied with the sound goes into my ears and gives me much pleasure. Is that selfish? I feel that pleasure when I am playing or hear someone else play one of my psalteries. If I didn’t feel that way, there would be no passion.
There are always going to be other factors in getting a great sound. I feel like the most important is using proper bowing technique. There are so many small things in your technique that can make a huge difference in the way a psaltery sounds. It is well worth the time and effort to practice technique and pay close attention to the sound.
Like I said earlier, I’m not posting this to get anyone to agree with my method of work, or to change anyone’s way of building. I’m also not saying any method is right or wrong. Remember, no arguing, Donna runs a very civilized site here. I just felt it was important to tell my long winded story.