Lutherie chap book:












The following is a descriptive list of my past instrument projects. I am currently focused on Appalachian instruments, specifically the open back 5-string banjo.

Due to my approach of tailoring each instrument to the player's needs, as well as for the changeable nature of material costs, I have not posted prices on this website.

'Deco' 12-string guitar
Just starting. Se here for my drawing.

Vihuela Project
Still in progress. See here for build log.

Sutton Hoo Lyre
My version of the Dolmetsch Workshop reconstruction. See here.

The DeGive Dulcimer
My name for an instrument made out of salvaged wood from the DeGive House in Atlanta.
I aquired enough wood to make many instruemnts. But the piece with the most interesting defects and straightest grain was made for this first instrument. Complete details of the project are here .

The instrument won "Jury's Pick" in Connexion Gallery's 'Less is More' 2010: Simplicity Leads to Sustainability. Click here for the prospectus.

Slit Drums
A set of rectangular wood 2-tone drums based on Stockhausen's specifications for the instruments required for "Zyklus" and "Kontakte".
Complete details of the project are here .

Stockhausen's Heaven's Door
I received the commission from Stockhausen's percussionist, who lives here in Atlanta, to build the second iteration of an instrument he literally dreamed up for a composition of the same name. It was a mammoth undertaking, if nothing for the shear size of the instrument, but most notable for the fact that I am not a percussion instrument maker! There was much trial and error as we intentionally did not wish to reverse engineer the first iteration. After the instrument's debut I was delighted to be able to write an account of the making of the instrument for publication in the Galpin Society Journal. Following is my abstract:

"In June 2006 the world was introduced to a new musical instrument conceived by the ground-breaking German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen for the performance of his piece entitled Heaven's Door, the forth composition in a series titled KLANG/ - Die 24 Stunde des Tages. The present article concerns the documentation of the instrument created for that performance as well as a second iteration of the instrument, which was constructed by the author. This second instrument was modified aesthetically and in its acoustical mechanics under the guidance of Stockhausen's percussionist, Dr. Stuart Gerber, in perpetration for the North American debut of the piece in Charleston, South Carolina at the Spoleto USA festival in June, 2007. The article explores the challenges of creating the vertically oriented struck plate idiophone (conceived of by the composer in a dream) and the relationships between composer, performer and instrument-maker in the development of a completely new instrument."

Complete details of the project are here .

The Hammack Dulcimer
A copy of Smithsonian accession #65.0175, from my own drawing. The instrument is believed to have been owned by the Confederate cavalryman Charles Hammack, dated between 1848-1885. In walnut with painted black purfling and beveled, overlapping edges as the original. My version deviates only in practical details for the modern player: modern fretwire and fret placement and individual string holders (brad tacks) at the end rather than the single one of the original. The original had a real butterfly pressed into the varnish of the lower back, which I will reproduce on request. UPDATE 06/16/05 - I have completed a version as the original with staple frets lying only under the first two courses. Project log for the construction of this instrument here.

The Boucher Banjo
An instrument based on Esperance Boucher’s pre-Civil War instruments, characterized by a “serpentine” headstock. True to the originals, my version has a laminated rim, friction pegs and s-shaped occipital 5th string detailing. These instruments were originally fretless, but many aquired frets over the years and I myself have added frets to mine. Maple neck, mahogany rim, bound rosewood fretboard, ebony pegs.

Parlor Banjo
Following the success of my Boucher model I made a smaller, more delicately proportioned instrument based on several examples I have seen locally which date from just after the Civil War. It has the common clover-leaf peghead, v-shaped neck profile and finely turned dowel stick with a through-body construction. The tailpiece is held on with gut in the traditional way. My first version of this instrument was made with a body made up of 6 joined pieces turned on the lathe, (a method described in the "Foxfire 3" book by maker Dave Pickett) with a 10" hand-stretched goatskin head. The present model has a 12-ply laminated rim.

A new parlor banjo is complete! This one with a figured maple neck and figured sapele body with boxwood fittings. View details

Tenor cittern after DaSalo
A scaled-up version of the more common 530mm Ashmolean model. See my Cittern page for build logs

Cittern after DaSalo
My most widely researched and oft produced instrument. I fell in love with the sight of it in the Early Music Shop (Bradford, UK) catalogue in the mid 80’s I obtained one of their kits (which deviates considerably from the instrument on which it was based: the Ashmolean model) which I still uses as my primary performance instrument although I have made several others from scratch. One of which is in use by an early music group in Ann Arbor. My instruments vary in detailing but most commonly include a striped, wedge-shaped back, finely turned scrolls and a geometric finial rather than a carved head. Body and neck of maple or sycamore, gothic rosette, scalloped fingerboard to improve intonation, pine or sitka spruce top. UPDATE 09/01/05 - I touched the original! I had the chance on our Scotland/London trip to swing by the Ashmolean in Oxford and actually have a couple of hours of inspection time of the Da Salo. Amazing! Unfortunately time constraints and the bizarre restrictions regarding photography in the map and print room (where study of the instrument collection is conducted) prevented me from doing the documentation I would like. But the one-on-one time with one of my favorite instruments was invaluable. My future citterns will benefit. See dedicated page

Viola d'amore after Amand
A 12-string (6/6 arrangement), scalloped body instrument, my version lies between the one in the Smithsonian collection which has vaulted back and top, and an earlier instrument in a collection in Vienna. The result is an instrument with a curved top and flat-and-angled back reminiscent of the earliest viols but producing a sound faithful to the more typical arched-top-and-back instruments. This was an experiment made early in my career and I look forward to returning to a more faithful reproduction of the Smithsonian instrument. The viola d'amore will certainly become a life-long passion of documentation for me. Between museum and private collections I have already documented 6+ instruments.

Lira da Braccio
Leonardo da Vinci's favorite instrument. Mine is a 5/2 string arrangement based on pictorial evidence. Boat-shaped with an arched (not vaulted) top and striped back, typical of the earliest 15thc representations.

Below are my latest forms, one for a later-date Lira da braccio and a similarly shaped Lyra viol.

Baroque Guitar after Choc. 1602
An instrument I made from a documentation of the original in the book "Geometry and Perportion and the Art of Lutherie", a splendid book which gives in scientific method a study of 20+ excellent specimens of early instruments. The book was not intended for use as a practicum, but the drawings provided were enough for me to produce a reasonable facsimile. I am in the process of my second copy. By chance I came across a copy made by an English maker while at the 1999 Lute Society gathering at Case Western and I noted with bemused interest that his instrument was, in every dimension, a good 10% smaller than my own. One of us is misinformed.

This version showing a non-historic rosette. The original has an inset wood rosette similar to a cittern's instead of the more traditional 'wedding cake' tiered parchment rosette of later baroque instruments. This particular model is my 'ren fest' instrument with a simplified design to lower cost and better survive abuse. I have started a dedicated page to the construction of my third iteration of this instrument here.

Honduran mahogany neck for a flamenco rough cut. And my newly completed (2015) Torres form waxed

Kiddie Baroque
Too silly for a synopsis. Go here and be amused.

A type of early hurdy-gurdy, prevalant in England and the continent by the 13thc. My starting point was a drawing by David Kronberg, which I have modified. See here for my build log.

Flat-back Mandolin
I have made several 'Irish' instruments. The most notable having c-shape soundholes as found on early fiddles and a striped back of mahogany and cherry, reminiscent of citterns and baroque guitars.

Several varieties based on my research of instruments in the Smithsonian and Met collections. I have made faithful reproductions as well as my own interpretations.

The newest scheitholt is a copy of an instrument I documented in the Smithsonian collection. The frets are fence post staples set into the top, in the traditional manner, along with the stringing of only one triple-strung course lying over the frets. View details.

Vielle after Memling
Perhaps the most common model being produced, from the famous painting by Hans Memling. My starting point is the drawing for the EMS kit, however I have made tracings of other maker’s interpretations over the years and combined with my own careful study of the source painting have arrived at my own model.

Vielle by Betsill
After years of research on early fiddles I have schemed to make my own design, taking the most aesthetically pleasing detailing found in the gamut of pictorial representation and the most advanced of construction in the spirit of the day. Features a deeply-waisted body with ebony binding, striped back of ebony and maple, flat spruce soundboard with base bar and soundpost, 5-string arrangement.
Click here to for more details

I have made several 'spade' shaped 3-string instruments having a built-up body. The present project is the turning of the neck/body shape on the lathe, thus producing a stock from which can be sawn two instruments. The body cavity will be hollowed out, a soundboard attached and a bent-back pegbox added. The instrument will resemble instruments depicted in 'Andalusian' sources.

English Guitar
The name is misleading. Not a guitar at all but a latter-day cittern. I have undertaken much research of the Smithsonian instruments, featuring several fine examples by the master himself, James Preston. My instruments have ranged from small 620mm to “arch English guitar” of my own design with diapasons similar to a theorbo.

Two instruments form the Smithsonian collection, dating from the late 18th c.

The second instrument drawn above. My study photos fromt he collection.

The Harton Lute
This is a project not yet undertaken but mentioned for the research I have done on the instrument by Michele Harton in the Folger Library collection. The instrument was obtained from the collection of Arnold Dolmetch, who may have shortened the neck. The only serious documentation of the instrument prior to my visit was started by Robert Lundburg, but never completed. I have photo documentation, a soundboard tracing and the longitudinal profile, but I must return for the lateral sections describing the bowl.

Chikuzen Biwa
This is a 'practice' instrument I made in preparation for a commission. The very first musical instrument I attempted was a Japanese samisen (a banjo-like instrument) for a 7th grade art class performance. I saw a picture in a book and thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen and was compelled to make one. I was able to unearth nothing further than the one frontal picture for my creation and wound up using one of my father's car chamois for the head. It was a crude instrument, but there began my study and a fascination with Japanese culture that has endured these twenty years. So I was in a good position to accept this recent commission, having already documented a fine example here in Atlanta in the collection of Steven Everett, who's Gamelan group I'm in at Emory University. It's a 4-string Chikuzen. My practice instrument is made out of mahogany which is easier to work with and more readily available than the mulberry of tradition. The top, however, is Paulowina, the traditional wood, and I have located a source in California for the mulberry. The present commission is to copy an Edo-period instrument in the ownership of a professional in Colorado. If that instrument is a success it will be sent to Japan for appraisal by players there to the end that I may produce similar instruments to be used by students in Japan that are finding them scarce and highly priced. The biwa-maker is apparently in low quantities in Japan these days.

View process photos. Check out the Drawing.

A Chinese Yuet Chin I documented about the same time as the Biwa.

Venere 6-Course Soprano Lute
Based on Robert Lundberg's documnetation. Below are a few progress photos.

Progress on the Venere lute belly. The rosette is being cut. The design is glued to the underside for piercing out the negative areas. The paper remains after cutting to help strengthen the rosette and will not be seen from the outside.

Venere rosette. Near completion.

Venere model soprano lute. Maple staves with ebony fillets. I started this about 3 years ago and shelved it with only half the bowl complete. I have now completed the bowl up to putting the linen strips on the stave seams (inside) and completed the striped neck and pegbox. I got it out of mothballs to work on in tandem with the biwa project. Lutes from two different sides of the planet. An ammusing exercise.

Organ Restoration.
A new aquisition for restoration. This is a suction-type bellows-action "missionary's organ" possibly dating from the Civil War. The ivory keyboard is in excellent shape, except for some bad springs causing the uneven appearance. The bellows are completely rotted and the lyre-type base is in pieces, I'll be working on this for some time.

See an organ restoration that has actually happened rather than just talked about here.

Baroque Bow
A new baroque bow in cherry with rosewood frog and boxwood finial. I originally made this bow as an early baroque "clip-in" style, but quickly realized why they steered away from this cumbersome method. Wanting to salvage the project, I put a piece of rosewood in the clip notch and made the finial opperable with a modern screw attachement. This bow has a high arch and is suitable for my vielles.


Spike Fiddle.
The following is a journal entry from a weekend project to make an instrument loosly based on my Javanese rabab research, just as a wall-hanger. I have two drawings of excellent instruments in the collection of Steven Everett, the director of the Emory gamelan group, but have not made the time to make faithful reproductions.

What, you may wonder, is this. This is a south-east asian 2-string Rabab spike fiddle in the making. First step: carve out the coconut and make fruit salad.

The spike fiddle in progress. The coconut shell is attached to the turned spindle and the goatskin head is attached. To the side is a peg in the making. My model for this instrument is the Indonesian rabab I documented years ago in the collection of Steven Everett at Emory University. but the coconut I had was too small for that instrument so I am making a more generic instrument which is smaller and shows more middle-eastern influence.

Looks good hanging between my straw plantation hat and pircure of Alfred Percival Maudslay at Chichen Itza.

The instrument that was the inspiration for the above project, In a private collection in Atlanta which I documented. It was played by the (then) leader of the Emory Gamelan Ensamble with which I played.

I have made one of these instruments and endevored to give it a few details bebond the factory, like a more elegant teardrop bodyshape which tapers slightly in rib height from the neck to the end, and a fixed bridge.

Showing the artfully arranged knot hole on the back in figured walnut.


Instrument resurrection. . .

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Kay Kraft is "restored". I'll call this a refurbishment since the aim was not to take it back to factory but celebrate the years of use and make it playable again. I'm still going to replace the missing bits of purfling on the soundhole and horn. Hanging with my Kay Kraft mandolin.

My pickguard is mahogany but ebonized and then rubbed out a bit. Hides the worst of the damage easily.

The frets were so badly indented on the second string 1st and 3rd position that the recrowning didn't help. But this shot shows an experiment filling in the indentation with superglue. Worked pretty good. Sure beats pulling the frets. Looks so natural, only my luthier knows!

New year's resolution: fix this Kay Kraft. I have had this instrument for 20 years. I saw a big ol' picutre of Patterson Hood from Drive-By-Truckers in this month's Garden and Gun sporting a Kay Kraft just like mine. . except his clearly is playable. Looks pretty cool! Wish I had one! Wait, I do have one. I got this for probably about $75 from Lark in the Morning when I was in college just on sight of the tiny black and white picture in their catalog. Never seen a body shape like that before. Had to have it. It was listed in 'fair' condition. What it had was a completely shot fingerboard, a freaking BULLET hole and a hack wood-putty patch job. On top of that the top was worn through TO THE LININGS on about 2 inches of the upper bout. I discovered this only after peeling back about ten layers of dark varnish. Long story short, it went on the wall.

It was missing most of the fretboard binding which I replaced easily enough and am now - 20 years later - trimming. This shot also shows the sorry state of the frets. I think I'm going to leave the finger grooves in the rosewood and just recrown the frets. That wood is so brittle that pulling the frets I might as well replace the entire fingerboard. It's worth trying to keep for the playing history and historic frets.

The body. . .well. . .not attractive. There was a time when I though, my God, how am I going to cut out that damage and patch in a new square? It appears stable though - thanks to all the gloop inside the body - so I think a nice big pick guard is what is needed here. I may even leave the partial stripping look to tell the story. Just need to replace that soundhole binding. Note wing nut and sliding dovetail neck attachment that facilitated easy neck angle adjustment on these instruments.


A Modern Dulcimer.
The following is a journal entry of an instrument I made for my wife. The wide lower bout and wide fingerboard is designed for a beginning player. The asymmetrical body shape and details make this a modern departure from most of my dulcimers which are 19th c. reproductions.

A new dulcimer for Shannon, nearly complete. It's hard to tell from the photo, but the body is asymmetrical. The back is striped with alternating walnut and maple. The instrument is complete save for the varnishing of the back and sides

Detail shot of the "hook" at the peg head. Only the fingerboard and top are varnished at this point. The scrollwork is inspired by renaissance cittern heads which were made to "hang on the walls of barbershops for the amusement of waiting patrons"

Treadle Lathe
It's Alive!! After many months of deliberation over which century I was in, the un-treadle lathe is working. The result is my interpretation of the 'Williamsburg' treadle lathe, documented by Roy Underhill in one of his books, with a 1/2hp washing machine motor mounted on it. About two years ago I built the frame and put a modern ball-bearing/1" dia spindle on it with the hopes of running it with the treadle and, with the treadle wheel disengaged, running with a motor as well. The result was an unhappy marriage of two different centuries. After realizing that opperating a treadle while turning was NOT fun, the motor was added on a permanent basis and the wheel remains as a vestigual reminder of a bygone age

Metal Casting.
My instruments occasionally need metal fittings. I learned lost wax casting in college and recently put that to good use for another reason. Below is a journal entry from mine and my wife's wedding rings.

Mine and Shannon's wedding rings in white gold. Mine has a Unicil lettered motto "perfruere cursum" ("Enjoy the journey"). Her's has four bezel-set cabochon rubies. Both based on 11th c. celtic designs. I had help with the casting from my old professor, Rob Jackson, at the University of Georgia metal lab, where I first learned lost wax casting over 10 years ago.

Detail shot.



I have now been making musical instruments for half my lifetime, as I claim to have made my first accomplished instruments at the age of fifteen.   I refer to a rather unrefined but entirely playable dulcimer and my first cittern, which came from the Early Music Shop kit.   My other activities in the arts - music, painting, architecture - all fall short of the ability of lutherie to give me complete use of my interest.   In lutherie is the splendid marriage of art and science.   Although I cannot at present consider myself a professional (I have sold only a small quantity) I will never loose sight of that goal.

This may seem a strange way to tell the story of my work as a luthier, but I have always taken as much inspiration from the people I meet as the craft I am learning.   One peculiar aspect to my pursuit is the fact that I have never had a person to consider my mentor.   Unlike Stradivarius who had his Amati, there is no one person who I can claim as my mentor to initiate, if not assure, success as a professional luthier.   But on reflection I have not one source, one viewpoint, but a strange assemblage of puzzle pieces that I have made use of in my own way and give me altogether, perhaps, a complete picture.   What follows is a tribute to those who have helped me on my journey.   This rambling is as much a personal diary as it is intended for any use by those actually interested in my work.   Does such a person exist?   Read on.

Jean Crepeau.  
If there was ever a figure that came close to a mentor it was he.   Although Jean considers himself more of a musician than a luthier, I nonetheless attest to his ability to produce some of the finest instruments I have seen.   A French-Canadian who plays a large variety of stringed instruments, I first met Jean at the Georgia Renaissance Festival in 1991, the year I moved to Atlanta to go to school in Athens.   In fact, he was one of the very first acquaintances I met upon moving.   He was actually music director of the Festival at the time.   Meeting him was also my first up-close meeting with a lute.   Jean had a steady occupation with his own furniture restoration business, employing one or two helpers, also French as I recall.   He specialized in finishing and I was privileged to learn French polishing from him.   Over the years I made visits to his house in East Atlanta for advice on my instruments and for conversation about early music.   It wasn't until 1995-6 that I approached him seriously about being his student.   The project would be the construction of a Venere 8-course lute.   It is through Jean I can claim a sort of royal luthier lineage, for he was a student of the famous Robert Lundburg.   So we followed Lundburg's practicum.   Unfortunately I did not finish the instrument with Jean and after 1999 lost touch with him.

Burge Searing.  
I may have spent the most time with Burge, also an early acquaintance.   Burge for years had a shop, "Handcrafted Dulcimers", in Stone Mountain village.   So he was easily found by me when I first moved to Georgia - Stone mountain had long been one of my favorite places, from childhood visits at Christmas.   On weekends home from school I would often divide my time between the Weir's antique shop, "Amaryllis", playing their "faux Steinway", and distracting Burge from his work.   He had a quaint barn-like structure which still stands at the rear of a courtyard back from the Main Street of pre-Civil War store-front buildings.   Most of the place was showroom, about the size of a well-apportioned bedroom, with a narrow workshop space at the rear, visible through plexi-glass windows.   Burge would smoke small black cigars while I rambled on about what I was trying to do with the latest instrument.   He was always encouraging and never seemed to mind taking time off from his work to chat.   He was also generous with his materials, giving me fret wire and strings in the days before I knew where to get these things for myself.   Harps and hammered dulcimers made the bulk of his inventory with a few mountain dulcimers and psalteries, one of which I own and gets played ritually every year at my church's Christmas midnight mass.   Over time, after my school days in Athens, my visits were less frequent.   The Weir's had closed their shop and indeed, most of the "charming" shops in the village had ceased to be.   I would see Burge at the Celtic festival at Oglethorpe and every year at the Yellow Daisy Festival at Stone Mountain.   It was a shocker one day about three years ago when I found he too had closed his doors.   However I would get spotty news of Burge from mutual friends in the Scots circle [at one time Burge had been a piper in a local band] and I am happy to conclude that by a chance meeting we have very recently been reacquainted. ADDENDUM November 2010 -- The previous was written in 2004. Sadly I must add this addendum that Burge passed away in 2008. I have in recent years recieved regular enquires from folks who have one of his instruments and need a repair, or are looking to buy one of his instruments and find me on the internet because of this posting. Please visit the memorial site started by his son, Eric.

Harry vas Dias.  
Certainly the most opportune acquaintance I have made in the instrument making world.   Who would know that a world-renowned, Dutch baroque oboe (of all instruments) maker lived in Decatur , GA.   I met him through Martha Bishop who headed the early music group I played in at the time.   I had little knowledge of or inclination towards playing wind instruments, but through a truly strange course of deductive reasoning in the pursuit of an instrument that possessed portability (as opposed to my piano) and durability (as opposed to my various stringed instruments) as well as volume (as opposed to my dulcimers), virtuosity and a decent repertoire, I rested on the Baroque oboe. (Being an arcane instrument was simply an added bonus for me)   And, what a stroke of luck, there's this maker in Atlanta. I purchased one of Harry's instruments [actually an earlier instrument of his which had returned to him, a copy of the Stainsby Jr. model in the Edinburgh collection] and was flattered when he extended his offer for tutelage in performance and reed making, which I understood was not his custom with uneducated patrons.   After nearly two years of performance study and nagging by me he consented to make an instrument with me.   Although I had no intention of making oboes for a living, I could not pass up the opportunity to study with a true master.   We began a Denner, but alas, our work was interrupted, basically, by my 20-something lifestyle.   Regret!   Perhaps I will have the opportunity again, but I consider myself quite lucky to have had the lessons I have had.

Lou Aull.  
I believe I met Lou through Harry.   He is of that breed of instrument maker who approaches the craft through Engineering.   This makes for very logical procedure and a very clean workshop.    He may have made other instruments, but I had heard of his lute making.   But as it was, he had done more playing of the instrument than making.   I learned that he had made a few tours on the college circuit, even.   All this was a surprise considering his day job had something to do with troubleshooting industrial machines or computer systems or something of the sort.   By the time I met him he was no longer pursuing instruments.   I got the impression that he had "done" lutes and had moved on to another challenge.   Welding, he was doing, at the time I was hanging around, a period of just less than a year.   An interesting connection, he was a student of George Kelicheck.     He had spent some substantial amount of time with the man and his son learning the craft.    He had learned the method of constructing the lute bowl ribs using a "wedge" of the body shape, thus making each rib identical and producing a semi-circular cross section.   When mounted on the wedge, one could put a precise bevel on the rib as that joint changed angle along the longitude of the bowl.   It is a very "engineer" approach to solving the problem of making a difficult shape, and the opposite method of an "artistic" maker such as Jean who thicknessed wood by touch and shaped by eye.   And since Jean was my prevailing master, I found Lou's method to complicated to reproduce.   Through him though I came to appreciate the differences between makers of the two different "camps" of lutherie.   I also got a finishing lesson.   Lou, quite unhistorically, used a spray gun to finish his instruments with lacquer.   I had a compressor but no experience with spray finishing.   He hooked me up with a gun and how to use it and spraying has since become an indispensable part of my woodworking: more for furniture, thought, than for instruments.

George Kelicheck.  
A sort of regional early music patriarch, I knew George by reputation and through stories told by Martha and Lou.   I met him only once, at his compound in Brasstown, N.C., but one day was enough for a lifetime of reflection.     Although trained in Germany as a luthier in the apprentice-journeyman tradition he had a great interest in embracing   technology and modern materials.   He is the man behind the "Susato" trademark, producing pvc whistles and recorders, and, to be sure, the world's only plastic crumhorn.   I'll never forget the giant crate of half-finished brown plastic crumhorns I was introduced to on a tour of his workshops - a great throng of mute, lifeless appendages awaiting windcaps to breathe life into.    There's a funny story of encountering his whistles in Ireland.   I was in central Ireland, visiting Leap castle, the ancestral home of the O'bannons.   The present owner was Sean Ryan, whom I came to understand holds the auspice of being one of the finest whistlers in the country.   Besides having the pleasure of tromping around this old castle, closed to the public,   and that was of my own line, I had the great opportunity   to get a music lesson from it's famous owner.   I had my nice rosewood whistle for which I had paid quite allot of money.   Sean seemed unimpressed after playing it a short while.   "Well I   prefer these Susato whistles.   I believe they come from the States. . .", he said as he pulled one out of his vest.   Imagine my surprise.   I informed him that they were made not two hours drive from where I lived in Georgia.   I had to go to Ireland to find something at my back door.   He preferred them for their crisp, level tone, sharper than a wooden whistle but still warm, unlike a tin one, and well intonated across both octaves.   Well I bought one as soon as I got home and have used them ever since.   But back to George:   I had heard he was an irascible, unpredictable fellow.     Even on the trip up there, having stopped at a dulcimer maker's shop by chance, I heard from this maker who had had an offer from Kelicheck for study but had declined in the end because of his abrasive nature.    I was told I was taking my life into my own hands by taking an instrument for his evaluation and prepared myself   for a trouncing.   I was not disappointed.   Admittedly, the instrument I chose to show was historically confused - an "arch cittern" I called it, though it resembled some Victorian concoction closer to an English guitar with a bass extension.   It had geared tuning machines (I faint at the memory) and over-spun bronze guitar strings for basses.   He had a good time with it.   The most memorable line was (in a thick German accent) "You could pull Mac truck with these strings!"   Well, he was right and I went back to the drawing board.   That day I saw a rebec being carved, a huge bass fiddle in the making, cabinets of gleaming tools, his collection of delicate snakewood viol bows, and what Kelicheck referred to as the most valuable items in the workshop, his cabinet full of instrument forms, which represented a lifetime of manufacture.   From that day I realized the importance of working from an historical model and gave up my artistic interpretations.   I do miss the fun of designing "fantasy instruments" as you could call them, and maybe some day I will return to the idea. UPDATE 09/15/06 - George has started exhibiting at the North Georgia Foothills Dulcimer Assoc. shin dig at Unicoi. I got to tell him my Sean Ryan story and get in an arguement about whether keys belonged on recorders.

Kevin Dunn.  
If you're a maker, it pays to be a good musician as well.   If you are not terribly good, as in my case, then the next best thing is to be friends with a terribly good musician.   I met Kevin the very first evening I sat in with Martha Bishop's group at St. Bart's.   This would have been in 1995, during my first year out of school.   He must have identified me as a fellow kook and perhaps not quite as stuffy as the other patchy-elbows that were in that group.   At any rate, Kevin has been a great test pilot for my instruments.   I even put together his EMS cittern kit.   His performance days go back to the late 60's and he had the greatest notoriety with his group The Fans, which was on the cutting edge of the early 80's post punk scene.   He was running around with the members of R.E.M. before they escaped obscurity and, if I remember correctly, even had a hand in producing the B-52's very first single.   His follow-up group, Kevin Dunn and the Regiment of Women, put out a couple of smashing great albums and we're all waiting for the inevitable revival.   His main instrument is guitar, in every conceivable genre, but like me is undaunted by anything with strings and has had in his collection, saz, charango, mandolin,lute, cittern, and a theorbo that looks an awful lot like a dreadnought with nylon strings.

Robert Cunningham.  
Robert is another Atlanta maker with national, perhaps international, recognition.   He makes Harps principally and was introduced to me by my friend Pam Kohler-Camp, who has one of his instruments. Also of the engineering mind (actually, I believe he was a chemistry professor at Emory University before turning to harps), he has the distinction of having a workshop cleaner than my grandmother's kitchen, which is a hard thing to do.   Bob had a music store in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood in Atlanta for some years in the early 80's (before my days here), and I gather brought a source for ethnic and early instruments at a time when there were few to be had.   Bob uses gut strings for some of his instruments and was a great source for me when I was stringing up my first vielles.   He had the mathematic wherewithal to set my string gauges for me.   I have always thought that getting a peek at a maker‚s workshop was worth a hundred questions about his work.  Bob‚s is one of my favorite to visit: a maze of basement rooms with well ordered tool cabinets and wood storage, opening on to a long-cultivated Japanese garden.   And despite the work that goes on there constantly, I have never found even a shaving of wood on the floor. Recently I have turned to Bob as a resource for the koto, of which I am pursuing a commission.   He has a long history with Japanese instruments and I had the good fortune to document a couple of his specimens.   I admire the fact that he has risen to the top of his field in Harps but has had the industry over the years to produce so many other types of instruments.   He has made early keyboard instruments including spinets and a portative organ, zithers, and many styles of harps besides the ones he has chosen for production.   He is also an inventor, an aspect of making to which I personally aspire.  

Ken Bloom.  
A very recent acquaintance, Ken I have met only once over a weekend at the Dulcimer gathering at Unicoi, but mention him here for that great lesson.    He teaches historical performance up in North Carolina and makes instruments for his use and other "living history" folk.   Also somewhat of an inventor, he had his newly-recorded "bowed dulcimer" (not related in form to the historical instrument).   He also had a fine example of the Norwegian langeleik which I documented.   I asked Ken for his opinion on the scheitholt I had brought, and I had my eyes opened to another instance of my cross pollinating instruments and winding up with something that was not quite what I was calling it.   My "scheitholt" with its raised fingerboard, modern dulcimer-like three string D-A-D tuning arrangement, and zither wrest pins was hardly the simple, twanging instrument of 18 th c. origin.   Of course, I had consciously modified the instruments I had documented in the Smithsonian, but the point was I had an instrument that, although vaguely resembling those instruments, in essence was no longer the same creature.   He likend my creation more to the 19 th c Austrian volkszither, made famous by mad king Ludwig's patronage.   I hate it when I have to learn a lesson twice.   I will continue to make my "improved scheitholt." -   innovation must be a part of any self-respecting craftsman -   but perhaps I will choose the titles for my works a little more carefully. ADDEMDUM 2005 -- I saw Ken again at Mountain Dulcimer Week at Cullowee. Besides getting to spend more jam time with Ken, I got to study with other dulcimer luminaries, some of whom I had met at Unicoi: I got to study with Ralph Lee Smith on dulcimer history and inspect his collection of early dulcimers and scheitholts which were on display at the university museum, I had a ballad class with Betty Smith (no relation) where we dissected Barbra Allen, a great lesson in minute vocal inflections. I had vocal coaching and some great conversation with Flora MacDonald and Don Pedi and I had the history of Galax with Phyllis Gaskins and her husband was kind enough to give me an old-time fiddle lesson after class.

Paul Hamler.  
Paul has nothing to do with music other than to note that Willy Nelson seems to always be playing when I'm at his workshop.   Paul is quite well known in his circle as a machinist and maker of historic handtools in miniature.    Here is the strangest story of six-degrees-of-separation in my meeting him. It begins with Harry vas Dias, who asked me one day if I had ever crossed paths with (now I forget his name), a semi-professional violin and guitar maker living just around the corner in the Emory area.   I went to him to soak up all I could.   I believe it was the subject of my Treadle lathe I was making, or perhaps it was when he found out I lived in Snellville, which edged him to mention did I know of Paul Hamler?   I had never heard of him.   The more I described the geography of my house in Snellville, it became apparent that we were talking about someone who lived in my Very Subdivision, a mere walking distance from my own house.   I had to hang out in Atlanta for 10 years to meet someone who was living on my doorstep in Snellville all that time!   I always pay close attention to those star-crossed moments in life.   Well I have known Paul only about a year now, but he has turned into quite a generous friend in helping me with my various projects that require metal or any mechanical operation.   And it is always a privilege to be able to associate with someone who is truly top in his field.   I am loosing track of the number of books and publications in which I have seen his work.   I like pointing to a coffee-table edition book on antique tools in the Highland Hardware and saying, this guy lives down the street from me.   Cool.

Grant Tomlinson and Andrew Rutherford .  
Mentioned together because I met them both, after years of knowing their work in name only, at the 1999 Lute society gathering at Case Western.   Considered by the lute community to be two of the finest makers,   on this continent at least   [Grant in Vancouver, Andy in NYC], I had a great opportunity to study with Andy for a week and to interview them both about their work and personal history.   It was here at Case Western that my "good enough" philosophy was dispelled and I began a new chapter as a craftsman.   I refer to an idea that aquired, by fair or foul, from Lundberg in his practicum.   Although I'm sure few would dispute Lundberg as one of the finest modern makers of the instrument, he nonetheless had this "good enough" idea that did not, if I may interpret, produce the model of excellence.   He referred to the Masters of the renaissance using local woods that were perhaps not the best tone woods but were "good enough" to make a playable instrument.   He supposed that the bulk of instruments produced in those times were working men's instruments and not the glistening examples we see preserved in museums with their ivory bodies and gilded roses.   The instruments were not meant to last beyond a lifetime.   They were made "good enough".   So in 1999 my attention to detail lacked much to be desired and I drew a skeptical eye from my mentors apparent. Case Western was an eye opener.   I had never before seen so many lutes and like instruments in one place, nor of such great quality, nor players of such great ability.   It was almost too much to take in at once and I felt very much out of my element.   I matured greatly that week, turning from a sort of early music groupie, idolizing the figureheads, to being a student who understood his place in the ladder of the profession.   Depressingly, that rung was a low one and unfortunately I fear the impression I left with my teachers was of the former persona and not of the latter.    But these people were connections nonetheless and I hope to make future use of them.    I also mention Richard Fletcher, who was there and by my impression a sort of father-figure to Grant and Andy.   I knew I was in the presence of greatness when I realized it was he who had done the restoration of the Venere soundboard fragment in the Met collection which I had marveled over just a few years before.   Consorting with and questioning the man behind a restoration that I myself had traveled to study: quite the feeling of being "inside".

Daniel J. Betsill



Bring it HOME.

Baroque guitar

Betsill banjos

tenor cittern


Betsill vielle

Sutton Hoo Lyre

Instruments in progress: Cittern, Baroque Guitar, Mountain Dulcimer, Experimental Dulcimer with bowed back

vielles & dulcimers

Chikuzen Biwa

Minstrel Banjo





Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?

-Shakespere, Much Ado About Nothing


"Now, I have repeatedly remarked that all spiders, when the shrill humming of an insect caught in a web is heard near them, become agitated, like the Pholcus, and will, in the same way, quit their own webs and hurry to the point the sound proceeds from. This fact convinced me many years ago that spiders are attracted by the sound of musical instruments, such as violins, concertinas, guitars, &c., simply because
the sound produces the same effect on them as the shrill buzzing of a captive fly. I have frequently seen spiders come down walls or from ceilings, attracted by the sound of a guitar, softly played; and by
gently touching metal strings, stretched on a piece of wood, I have succeeded in attracting spiders on to the strings, within two or three inches of my fingers."

-William Henry Hudson from The Naturalist in La Plata


The North American musicologist Alan Lomax argued in his book Folk Song Style and Culture that the structure of [a culture's indigenous] music. . . - essentially leaderless ensemble - emanates from and mirrors egalitarian societies. . . I love his theory that music and dance styles are metaphors for the social and sexual mores of the society they emerge from. Some say that the instruments [for this music] were all derived from easily available local materials, and therefore it was convenience (with a sly implication of unsophistiction) that determined the nature of the music. This assessment implies that these instruments and this music were the best this culture could do given the circumstances. But I would argue that the instruments were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored and played to best suite the physical, acoustic, and social situation. The music perfectly fits the place where it is heard, sonically and structurally. It is absolutely ideally suited for this situation - the music, a living thing, evolved to fit the available niche."

-David Byrne from 'How Music Works'