Dulcimer Players News Interview
AN INTERVIEW WITH

James Jones

INSTRUMENT BUILDER

 

by Jean Lewis

South Salem, New York


DULCIMER PLAYERS NEWS Vol 23 No.1 FEB-APRIL'97

At 6'8" tall, James Jones stands tall among instrument builders, and he is as warm, friendly, and talented as he is tall. We've chatted briefly at his instrument booth at various festivals, and each time I've been fascinated by his many varied interests and talents. Festivals, however, are not the best places for extended discussions, so Dave Browning of Amawalk New York, volunteered to interview James while picking up a hammered dulcimer James built for him. This profile is based on that interview plus additional material prepared by James.

James Jones makes eleven different string and percussive musical instruments including zithers, thumb pianos, folk harps, octave mandolins, mandolins, slit drums, bowed psalteries, Aeolian wind harps and the occasional guitar in his shop in rural Bedford, Virginia. Jones specializes in hammered dulcimers He has been building custom musical instruments since 1978.

 

What were your early influences?

I grew up in rural Oregon and in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small Midwestern college town, where my father was a

music professor; my mother was an English teacher. My early interests included, quite naturally, music (with a classical bent), sports, and building such things as forts. I played the violin while I was growing up, and my folks wanted my two brothers, my sister and me to be a string quartet. We all ultimately went our own ways in music.

As I grew up I aspired to become a wildlife conservationist and majored in biology at Beloit College. I graduated with a degree in biology, but my interests and life direction changed as a result of taking some art classes at Beloit. Then the Army drafted me, which put all other pursuits on temporary hold, including a possible career as a professional basketball player with the Houston Mavericks.

Fortunately, I ended up playing basketball for the entire two years I was in the Army. When I got out, I decided to go to graduate school at Murray State University in Kentucky, focusing on sculpture and printmaking. I worked at it for about a year before succumbing to the temptation to play basketball over seas. I spent the next two years playing and coaching basketball in Portugal. While there I set up a studio in my apartment where I did printmaking and collage. I had an exhibit of my collages in a Lisbon gallery.

Upon my return to the States I moved to Boston where I joined VISTA and began organizing for the Office for Children, a state advocacy agency. My work centered around the community of Somerville, Massachusetts. I also did video and printmaking in a private studio and eventually entered the MFA program at Massachusetts College of Art, where I graduated with a major in media studies and printmaking. It was there, within an associated program, the Arts and Human Services Project, that I had my first exposure to woodworking, at the age of thirty-three. At the time my sister was playing a lot of fiddle music and encouraged me to pick up the fiddle again after a nearly eighteen-year break. As a result, I became interested in the folk medium, learned a lot of fiddle tunes, and began thinking that I'd like to move away from the conceptual and towards the more concrete manipulation of materials, mainly wood. Making musical instruments combined lots of elements that attracted me, and dovetailed nicely with my musical background. I was also attracted to the concept of being self-employed. I began building my first hammered dulcimer.

I was first influenced by the instruments of Fred Montague and the playing of Sandy Davis, who was teaching and performing on the hammered dulcimer in the Boston area during that period. I read Howie Mitchell's work on making a hammered dulcimer and, of course, Sam Rizzetta's publication for the Smithsonian Institution. Sam's work was seminal and has always been an influence and an inspiration. From that material and from other instruments I had seen, I began developing my own synthesis. My first instrument took me nearly six months to design and build, and it sounded horrible until Sandy suggested I tune it up an octave, which magically transformed that collection of wood and strings into an instrument. I started another one, and the evolution had begun.

Later, Lee Spears' instruments gave me a sense of what was possible in a smaller package'. My skills as a builder have developed through sixteen years of effort, through the influences of other builders, players, and a few mistakes.

 

How have players influenced your designs?

Jem Moore was my first major influence; his development as a hammered dulcimer player has paralleled my own development as an instrument maker. He has always played my instruments and has constantly pushed me toward building better ones. Steve Schneider has also been an important source of feedback. Steve has been playing a 3/16/18/8 Custom Performance since 1991. Another musician I've been working with is Glenn McClure; I just finished a fully chromatic dulcimer for him which has a unique tuning scheme. I've also had many small but important contributions from other players. As I am not a player myself, I pay attention to actual players' desires and suggestions.

 

What is your philosophy of building?

Building to players' needs has always been my underlying philosophy. When I first started,12/11 course instruments were the rule. Beginners were the norm. They needed quality instruments that were affordable. With time, the need changed to 15/14s, and then to chromatic 3/17/17s as players began to demand more range. We are now in an era of players who are pushing the limits of the hammered dulcimer. As a result, I'm now making four-octave instruments, 3/19/18/8s, with nearly full chromatic capability, dampers and internal microphones. Thirteen years ago there was little need for that kind of instrument. I'm currently working on another even larger instrument for Jem. Who knows what's next? That is what I like about building hammered dulcimers. It is an instrument that is still evolving and it's nice to be part of that evolution. I have always worked by myself, and for the most part, in a rural environment. I like the independence and focus that gives me. It has its difficulties as I am responsible for all aspects of a business which has grown tremendously over the last few years. But I do like to be part of and in control of all the processes that go into creating musical instruments that work, that become vehicles for artistic expression, and that stand the test of time. For now, I intend to keep things small. One of the manifestations of having a shop within sight of my home and working without employees is that I can keep costs down. I have always kept my prices low in order to make my instruments affordable. I am interested in having my instruments played by musicians of all technical levels. That is why I offer seven models of hammered dulcimers. I have built over six hundred and eighty hammered dulcimers.

 

What is the history of your shop?

I started out in a cooperative wood shop in Somerville, Massachusetts but because of a desire to live in the country my wife and I moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in Bedford, Virginia . I had all my machinery on a narrow side porch with a small tool and assembly area in an upstairs bedroom.

Upon the birth of our first son, I graduated to a 10' by 40' converted house trailer (which unfortunately leaked when it rained). My current 2,000 square-foot shop, which I designed and helped build, is paradise compared to my earlier accommodations. Located ten miles north of Bed ford, Virginia, it nestles at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, almost with in sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway. My commute is a one-hundred-foot stroll.

 

What models of hammered dulcimers do you currently make?

I currently make a 12/11 Student, 12/11 Custom, 15/14 Custom, 3/13/12 Travel, 3/17/17 Custom Chromatic, 3/16/18/8 Custom Performance, 3/19/18/8 Custom Performance, and instruments that are designed in collaboration with the artist. Although my building methods haven't changed a great deal over the years, I have always offered a great deal of choice. Purchasers are able to custom design their instruments by selecting from the wide range of woods I keep available. All of my custom instruments have unique soundholes. Most are the result of an exploration in paper cutting started many years ago in Boston. Others are the unique selections of individual purchasers (like the tree frog which clings to the sides of Steve Schneider's dulcimer's soundhole). I've always been interested in getting a lot in a small package. My larger instruments have a lot of capability, but because of a 7/8" string spacing and the eight extra bass courses that weave through the mix, the instrument is still relatively small. I've tried to accomplish all this without the loss of tonal capabilities.

 

What are your interests beyond instrument building?

My family: my wife Karen, and sons Goss, age thirteen, and Garret, age nine. Karen and I left the Boston area to pursue our crafts in rural Virginia. She became an excellent weaver and practiced the craft for nearly eight years. Then we had our boys and the focus turned to home schooling which she has done for the last seven years.

I played tennis in college and have rediscovered the therapeutic benefits of playing on a regular basis; and I play basketball with and coach my two sons.

I also love to play with the capabilities of the computer. As I have had to develop a number of different owner's manuals, promotional pieces and a web site for my business, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about putting together materials using some of the latest technology. I never seem to have quite enough time to get the kind of expertise I need though!

And now I'm playing music. Though I grew up playing violin, I didn't play after high school until I was thirty-two. My sister, who is fiddler for The Reel World String Band, got me playing old time and Irish tunes. I have also picked up a lot of contra-dance tunes, which I still enjoy playing. I have played with a couple of neo-Celtic groups based in Roanoke. I still play some with my oldest son, Goss, who is learning to play the flute and hammered dulcimer and I attempt to keep up with Garret, my little drummer and pianist.

To subscribe to the Dulcimer Players News,The Journal for Hammered and Fretted Dulcimer Enthusiasts, contact DPN, PO Box 2164 Winchester, VA 22604 or e-mail dpn@dpnews.com
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