Arlington craftsman keeps alive the sound of the mountain dulcimer

ARLINGTON – When John Ellis of Arlington sits in his back yard on a sunny day strumming, “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his six-string dulcimer, you can almost hear the notes echo off Ebey Mountain nearby.

That’s not surprising, since the dulcimer traces its musical roots back to the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s mountains where the plucky, banjo-like sound of the stringed folk instrument is most at home.

“I can just sit down in the evening, put a dulcimer in my lap and strum away, and it’s just a relaxing, soothing sound,” Ellis said.

When he’s not playing them, he’s making them.

The retired Seattle firefighter and adroit woodworker is keeping alive the tradition of hand-crafting customized dulcimers through his home-based company, Sunny Day Dulcimers. He and wife Teresa moved from Everett two years ago to their new home in the heart of the Stillaguamish Valley and Darrington area, a region renowned for its bluegrass and mountain people with ancestral ties to Appalachia.

When Ellis retired in 2014, he was determined to honor his Scots-Irish heritage and put to the test the woodworking skills that he had honed over most of his life.

While researching the history of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland to North America in the 1800s, he became intrigued that they settled into the hill country of the Appalachian Mountains in the area where Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina are “all just a holler or two away from each other,” he said.

Nine years earlier while a hospital corpsman in the Navy and serving with the Marines, he took a road trip to the Appalachian hill country after a dark period when he lost close friends and family to cancer and fatal accidents. The landscape took his breath away.

Combining his love for the history and traditions of the Appalachian hills with the folk music that helps define it, he decided to build affordable, custom-designed, handcrafted quality mountain dulcimers.

The mountain dulcimer is a string instrument associated with the Zither family. It is usually about two to three feet in length and is played on the lap. The right hand can either strum or pick the strings while the left hand presses the strings against “frets” to create either a simple melody or a series of chords along with the melody.

Appalachian dulcimers and the five-stringed banjo are believed to be the only stringed instruments that originated in North America, Ellis said.

After studying plans and researching how to build a dulcimer, Ellis set out to build his first prototype.

When he merrily strummed the strings for the first time, he said, “It didn’t look so hot, but it sounded good and I thought, ‘I didn’t do too bad with this.’”

Seven dulcimers later, the native of Sedro-Woolley – a town that has its own share of “tarheels” in the nearby Skagit County hills – had his craft down to a successful pattern visually and musically that would make Appalachians proud.

“My main goal is promote these traditions and music by getting instruments into the hands of people with similar interests and do it at a reasonable cost,” he said.

Dulcimers are said to be the easiest and most forgiving string instrument to learn to play. The diatonic free spacing between frets mirrors the white keys on a piano and the two lower strings can be left “open” and strummed as “drones,” eliciting the low tones familiar in bagpipe music.

Ellis is the first to admit he isn’t musical. He has tried to play guitar, banjo and piano, to no avail.

“I am just not musically inclined,” said Ellis, “but I can literally make what I consider to be a good sound come out of the dulcimer.”

The Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimer was first built and used by Scots-Irish immigrants to the region and is believed to have been patterned after a number of European instruments, including the German “Scheitholt,” Swedish “Hummel,” Norwegian “Langeleik” and the French “Epinettes des vosges.”

His base price for just a simple box-shape dulcimer with locally available types of wood runs $210.

What Ellis enjoys most is crafting customized dulcimers, consulting with buyers on the body shape they want; sound holes that have ranged from the shapes of treble clefs to horse heads, songbirds and penguins; tuning pegs; and types of wood they prefer for the body, fretboard and other parts. The choices influence the price.

He has also built dulcimers using cigar boxes, which was commonplace decades ago in the poverty-stricken coal-miner communities of the Appalachian hills.

Ellis finishes his dulcimers with a lacquer coating, which he found works best in allowing the wood to expand and contract with the stretching of the strings and temperature in the air. Since switching to mechanical tuning pegs, the dulcimers stay in tune well, too.

It takes Ellis an average 60 hours to build one of his customized dulcimers. In terms of real delivery time, he said a dulcimer is ready to ship four to six weeks after he starts it.

Since Ellis is in it for the love of woodworking rather than profit, he is happy if he can cover the cost of materials.

By comparison, Bear Meadow, McFadding, Stonecraft and Stony End, all nationally known dulcimer-makers back East, charge $541 on average; instruments using Rosewood or Ebony can run as high as $700 or more, if you can fine the rare wood.

“I’m not doing it to make a living,” he said. “I want to pay for my materials and a little bit extra to buy some more sandpaper.”

His workshop is a woodworker’s paradise, with an array of table saws and tools, some handmade by him to manage the intricate details of dulcimer-making.

“He has friends who just want to come into the shop and smell the air,” Teresa said.

He selects wood that’s just right for making musical instruments, and tries to source locally when possible. There are no screws or nails used in his dulcimers. No plywood, either.

Ellis especially likes working with Ash because it bends well. He steam-bends a lot of the curved sides for his dulcimers, and some woods like poplar and Tennessee cedar don’t do well in the process. He either scavenges or relies on castoff pieces from local lumber yards to compile a variety of different kinds of soft and hardwoods.

A major find happened while selling his dulcimers at a festival in North Bend, where he met the son of a man who made his early fortune manufacturing Connelly water skis. The skis were later made of fiberglas in the 1950s, but the son had inherited a warehouse of Honduran mahogany for the original wooden skis that he had no use for, so he cut Ellis a great deal. Today, the wood is endangered and cannot be imported to the U.S., but “grandfathered” in for use if it is already here.

While he prefers to build customized instruments, Ellis keeps several pre-made dulcimers for sale “off the shelf” at the same prices, which he displayed at his booth during the Arlington Street Fair in July. He also stocks numerous music books, audio and video learning aids and other dulcimer accessories.

To date, Ellis has built 52 customized dulcimers for customers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and British Columbia.

Ellis mostly sells his dulcimers by attending bluegrass festivals and art and crafts fairs, as well as online.

Last year, Kris Lee in Salida, Colo. commissioned Ellis to branch out and try building a langeleik to honor her Norwegian heritage. Ellis went to work.

When the finished product arrived, it took her breath away, Lee said.

“The langeleik so far surpassed any expectations I may have had that I actually got a little choked up opening it,” she said. “The way you combined the light and dark wood, especially the striped peg head, is just spectacular and makes it really a one-of-a-kind.”

“It truly will become a family heirloom, and I only wish my Norwegian grandparents were still alive to hear it played,” she said.

A Whidbey Island couple bought customized dulcimers to relax and play outside their Freeland home where they enjoy whale-watching. Ellis added a whale-tail to each of the instruments.

Ellis once donated a dulcimer to the Snohomish County Music Project auction after an organizer had seen several of his signature instruments. It struck a chord with bidders, fetching an impressive sum.

“John crafted, then donated, one of his amazing instruments,” vice president Pat Martinelli said. “It was exquisite and certainly one of the highlights of our auction.”

For another customer, music had nothing to do with buying a custom dulcimer, Ellis said. They wanted to display it on a mantle as a work of art.

“I was crestfallen,” Ellis said. “That’s not why I’m building them, but I guess if that’s what you want, you paid me for it.”

Ellis is a purist when it comes to dulcimers – they are an acoustic instrument.

“Right away, people say, ’Can’t you amp it?’ Well yes, you can but I won’t because I’m trying to mimic the old-time instrument.”

Jokingly, Ellis answers, “If you want to hear it loud, put thirty players in a room together. They will change your mind quickly.”

Although the mountain dulcimer has long been connected with the elder generation, it has gradually attracted many younger players because it’s easy to play.

Teenage musicians seem to have a knack for it, Teresa said.

“They will come along at fairs and festivals and say they play guitar,” she said. “They’ll pick it up and be doing riffs. The first thing they want to do impulsively is reach around like it’s a guitar. I have to train them reach over instead.”

Ellis was melancholy when he mentioned that his sales have dropped considerably this year despite a market that shows so much promise with its love of folk and bluegrass music. He was thinking of hanging up his dulcimer tools.

But it’s a difficult choice to make when he knows that the mountain dulcimer almost became extinct in the mid-1900s when coal miners were forced to work longer hours to keep up with demand created by the Industrial Revolution, and wives took on the extra burden to keep family farms running. No one had time to play music.

If he needs more recent inspiration to keep alive the craft of dulcimer-making, he can look to an encounter with a man and his young daughter at the Spring Fairy Festival in Tacoma last May.

After answering a few questions about dulcimers, he agreed to play a song for them.

“As I started strumming a few bars, he took his daughters’ hand and placed it on the soundboard of the instrument,” Ellis said. He quickly deduced that she was hearing impaired.

“As I continued strumming and changing melody notes I had the best reward I have ever had since making these instruments,” he said. “I was blessed to see her grin then become an ear-to-ear smile on that little cherub face. She literally glowed with excitement. She was hearing the instrument with her hand. I offered her the pick and helped her strum across the strings a couple times.”

* * *

For details about Sunny Day Dulcimers, call 360-322-7923 or visit www.sunnydaydulcimers.wix.com/john

Popular mountain dulcimer songs

Norwegian Wood – The Beatles

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver

When the Saints Go Marching In – Louis Armstrong

Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

Both Sides, Now – Joni Mitchell

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams

You Are My Sunshine – Jimmie Davis, Pine Ridge Boys

Scarborough Fair – Simon and Garfunkel

Oh! Susanna – Stephen Foster

The Sweet By and By – Joseph Webster

River – Bill Staines

She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain – Burt Kahn

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