Instrument-makers Lucky and Louise Diamond, of Silver Spring, speak of the dulcimer they produce as if it were almost human. At crafts fairs where they can often be seen demonstrating their modern version of the traditional Appalachian dulcimer, they encourage people, in Lucky's words, "to touch and feel the instrument, have social contact with it."
"It's a very personal instrument," said Lucky, adding, "There's no such thing as good or bad dulcimer playing. You can get immediate satisfaction from playing it."
The ease of playing was one of the main reasons the Diamonds were attracted to the dulcimer when they first saw one being played by singer Jean Ritchie at the 1969 Smithsonian Folk Festival.
Equally appealing was the dulcimer's unusual sound. For Louise it was "uncomplicated, uncluttered." Lucky found it "very soothing. The dronal quality, that continous sound, intrigued me," he recalled.
The dulcimer has been referred to as the string pipes because like the bagpipes, it has a drone, or unchanging, accompaniment.
When the Diamonds decided to buy a dulcimer they discovered that traditionally-made dulcimers had several problems, including a small sound and irregular tuning that made playing with other instruments impossible. They decided to try making their own.
In 1972, guided by the picture in a pocket edition of a Burl Ives song book, Lucky made a dulcimer in one night. Eighteen prototypes followed.
Calling upon Lucky's extensive experience as a woodcarver and cabinet maker and Louise's exceptional, intuitive sound sense, they patiently experimented with materials and shapes. Their goal, said Lucky, was a "full, clear, bright sound, loud enough to play with other instruments."
Seven different woods were tried for the fingerboard before they discovered that aged cherry worked best. Maple, for example, gave a sound that was sweet but too quiet. Walnut yielded a thin, muddy sound.
To eliminate a dead sound in the center of the dulcimer's hourglass shape, Louise suggested widening the waist. The alteration worked. Afterwards they found scientific principles that explained the success of the double elliptical shape Louise had struck upon intuitively.
"Sometimes, of course, we re-invented the wheel," said Lucky. They experimented a year and a half before discovering that an oversized version of tapered wooden friction pegs was best for ease and accuracy of tuning. Later Lucky learned that tapered friction tuning pegs had been used in flamenco guitars for 150 years.
Once the Diamonds could consistently produce the sound they wanted, they turned their attention to the aesthetic side of their dulcimers. Although sound was foremost - Lucky refers scornfully to "wall dulcimers, beautiful but unplayable" - Lucky said he wanted "to make that sound look as nice as I could."
Touch was also important. There ae no sharp edges to the Diamond dulcimer. "I want it to feel as the music sounds," explained Lucky. "This is not a brash instrument."
To market their instrument the Diamonds went out to the public, talking, demonstrating, playing, at crafts fairs and in schools. They taught themselves and their three daughters to play the dulcimer. At one point Louise was studying music and practicing as much as eight hours a day.
They found that people without musical training liked the dulcimer because it was easy to play. "It gives an opportunity for many for the first time to have a musical experience," said Lucky.
Musicians liked the dulcimer because it was a new sound, he explained.
Having sold almost 900 dulcimers, the Diamonds now have customers and friends all over the world.
"The dulcimer for us is an outreach," said Lucky."In his life I guess everybody would like to touch as many people as possible. When we finish a dulcimer, it's just getting started. People will be playing it, hearing it. We start something that doesn't stop."
Lucky guarantees his dulcimers for his lifetime. They range from $225 for a 4-string model up to $350 for a 6-string model and higher for specially designed models. Lucky also plans to begin marketing soon his mandolinbanjo, an instrument that he has been developing for more than a year.