History of the Dulcijo
by Michael Fox
From an early age I associated happiness
and success with being able to create or invent something new. Very early in my life I was told the story of my grandfather. His early life was in Chatham County, North
Carolina. He was the oldest son in his family. His father went to prison when he was young and his mother died soon thereafter, probably of malnutrition trying to provide for
her family during hard times. Now my grandfather as a young teen was challenged with not only providing for himself but also a younger brother. At the
time there were no labor laws so my grandfather went to work for a cotton mill. He never had a chance to go to school but he taught
himself to read and write. While working at the cotton mill as an adult, he saw a problem with the machinery that caused a lot of breakdowns
and waste. He invented a new kind of cork friction device that solved the problem. He applied for and received a U.S. patent for this device
. Soon after he received the patent he heard that a cotton mill had received a shipment of his devices that were copied from his design
and manufactured illegally. He retained a lawyer and sued. He won the case but was only compensated about equal to the amount the patent cost.
In the late 1960s while my sister was attending Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, she came across an Appalachian
lap dulcimer. I was beginning to play guitar and harmonica so she gave me a dulcimer kit as a Christmas gift. My brother-in-law
assembled it for me because I did not have any tools at that time, being in my early teens. I learned to play the dulcimer and no one else
in the area where I lived had ever seen one before.
Soon after receiving the dulcimer I bought a 5-string banjo. Throughout high school I played with a string band (also called a jug
band). We called ourselves the Plickety-Plunk Galvanized Steel Band. I played banjo in the group and a friend played my dulcimer. Later,
after my college years I discovered the clawhammer style of banjo and it became my passion. In the early 1980s I began teaching
clawhammer style banjo in the local community college and still teach off and on today. Also in the early 1980s I met Randy Miller, who is a
fine dulcimer player, and we still play together today. I have always felt the clawhammer banjo style and the dulcimer sound really good together.
In the mid 1980s I came
up with the idea that the diatonic scale of the dulcimer and the dulcimer style of playing the melody on the first string would lend itself well to clawhammer banjo so I made my first
Dulcijo. It had a 4-inch round drum that had a piece of spruce rather than skin or plastic for a head. I loved playing that original Dulcijo but the volume was really low
and it could only be heard clearly by the person playing it. I then tried a mandolin-type body but I preferred the banjo sound. A little later I
found a Pakistan hand drum with a goat skin head. It sounded great but in humid weather the skin got soggy and it had no brackets to
tighten the drum head. We now use a maple rim with a plastic head and brackets for adjusting head tension.
I now prefer playing the Dulcijo instead
of the 5-string banjo. With the banjo I would normally play the melody in the low range of the first five frets. On the Dulcijo I play the melody generally in
the high range up the neck. This brings out the melody and makes it easier to hear. Playing the Dulcijo is also a lot like whistling -- the melodies just seem to pop out.