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That 6 1/2 Fret

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

If you're unfamiliar with the mountain dulcimer, a bit of explanation about fret numbers, and more specifically, the title of this post.

Like a guitar, the dulcimer has frets that correspond to notes. Dulcimer players also refer to the frets by their sequence numbers on the fretboard. This numbering system makes it easy for people who don't read music to read dulcimer tab. I've numbered the first octave for you on this McSpadden Schnaufer Model dulcimer:

mountain dulcimer with numbered frets
2006 McSpadden Schnaufer Model Dulcimer

Fret numbers stay the same, but the notes they refer to depend on the tuning of the dulcimer. For example, this dulcimer is tuned in D: the top and bottom strings are tuned to D for the unfretted strings and are an octave apart. The middle, unfretted string is tuned to A. Therefore, let's say you're playing a tuned on the bottom string or on the top string in the image. If you pluck that string without fretting it, you hear the D note. If you fret either D string at fret #1, you hear an E. If you pluck fret #4, you hear an A ....

Original dulcimers did not have either a 1.5 fret or a 6.5 fret. The 6.5 fret was added sometime in the sixties. If you pluck the 6.5 fret in DAD tuning on either the top or bottom strings on the pictured dulcimer, you hear a C#. If you pluck the middle string at 6.5, you hear a G#. In a nutshell, if you didn't have a 6.5 fret back in the day, and you wanted to play either pitch (C# or G#), you couldn't.

While researching for Pluck, I came across two stories about the origins of the six and a half fret that is commonly found on dulcimers nowadays. The story behind the 6 1/2 fret that appears early in Pluck credits Richard Fariña, a significant and influential dulcimer player in the fifties and sixties, for its appearance on the dulcimers we play today.

The second story is about another significant, historic dulcimer player named Howie Mitchell. First, you might ask why I used the Fariña story instead of the Mitchell story. It's because most of the research yielded only vaguely cited sources in favor of the Howie Mitchell origin story. "It is credited to ..." "People say that Howie Mitchell created the 6.5 fret...." I couldn't find any scholarly sources that confirmed Howie Mitchell was the first to add that fret. It doesn't mean they aren't out there; I just means I didn't find it within the time frame for my research.

You might also ask why I wrote about Fariña and the 6.5 fret in a biography of Schnaufer? Well, that has to do with my fascination with chains of people and events across time and place that influence us all. E.g., Fariña had an untimely death, but his influence on dulcimer players who came after him was enormous, especially on those interested in innovation. And Fariña might never have played the dulcimer if he hadn't met Jean Ritchie. Jean Ritchie's important influence on U.S. traditional and folk music is due in no small part to the "songcatchers" who visited her family in Appalachia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. And Jean Ritchie and her songs lead directly to David in numerous ways across the course of his life. I could go on and on about this, but you get my drift.

Back to Howie: if there is scholarly evidence that Mitchell was the first to add the 6 1/2 fret to the dulcimer, then, that part of my story in Pluck is wrong, and another scholar done the road will correct it.

Nevertheless, the good news is that the research led me to Howie Mitchell, another important figure in dulcimer history about whom I had no clue when I started. More on Howie in a future blog post. Oh, and more on the songcatchers soon, too. They have direct and indirect links to David's massive repertoire as well.

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