Here’s a cool old patent from 135 years ago, showing a double-necked dulcimer with a rectangular body. These “double” dulcimers were meant to be played by two people at once, usually seated on either side of a table.
It is interesting that the inventor does not actually refer to this instrument as a “dulcimer”, but rather as being like a zither. So this must pre-date beginning to call this style of instrument a dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer.
These were also sometimes known as courting dulcimers, because when a young man came calling on his sweetheart, her parents would seat them at the table with one of these in between. The parents could then leave the room, and as long as they heard both sides of the instrument being played, they’d know that the young hands were not busy elsewhere.
You can see in the patent’s drawings that the fretboards also were marked with shapes, which harken back to an earlier form of musical notation that used shaped note heads to help indicate pitches.
This may not be the earliest dulcimer patent, but it stood out as being of interest to homemade instrument builders.
In this series of posts, we feature various U. S. patents from the last 150 years, which were either historically significant in the development of modern musical instruments and instrument-building methods, or which present something interesting or just plain cool. We hope that these historical curiosities will help give cigar box guitar builders some context for their work, and hopefully also provide some inspiration.
This patent was filed in 1921, and published by the U. S. Patent and Trademark office in 1923. It is historically significant because as far as we can tell, this is the first registered patent for an adjustable steel truss rod in a guitar (if you know of an earlier one, please let us know in the comments and we’ll check it out!). The inventor is listed as Thaddeus J. McHugh, of Kalamazoo Michigan, “assignor to the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company.”
The adjustable steel truss rod was a major innovation in guitar manufacture, and most electric and acoustic guitars today include them. Being able to make fine adjustments to the bow of the neck, and thereby adjust the string action of the instrument, is now considered to be an integral part of guitar maintenance.
From the patent’s text:
The main objects of this invention are:
First. To provide an improved neck for stringed instruments, which is so constructed that it is not likely to sprint or warp under the strains to which it is subjected in use, and one which should it become warped, may be straightened.
Second. To provide an improved neck for stringed instruments which may be adjusted or sprung to adjust or regulate the distance of the strings from the keyboard.
By this arrangement of parts, I provide a neck for stringed instruments which is not likely to warp or spring under severe strains, and one which should it become warped or sprung may be readily adjusted to remove the spring, and also to adjust the position of the strings relative to the fingerboard.
By this arrangement of parts, I am also enabled to use wood which has not been heretofore considered satisfactory for the manufacture of necks, on account of its not having sufficient strength and rigidity, and further, great care in selecting stock is not necessary.
Here’s something a bit different – a patent that was granted by the U. S. Patent Office in 1936, to one Grant C. Haium of Wisconsin, for a musical instrument formed (according to the drawing) from a pitchfork, tightened string, resonator drum and an interesting slide/resonator box. He even even states that he prefers to use a cigar box as his unique slide/resonator (see quote below)
Here is how the patentee described his creation:
“Being an innovation, and in fact somewhat of a rustic revelation, the structure will be found notable as a unique contribution to the art and trade in that it may be justly accredited as possessing the attributes of an irregular yet practicable stringed musical instrument which though of a limited tone compass is nevertheless usable, in teh hands of an artist, to promote achievement not of a renowned type, but rather of a captivating and humorous character calculated to appeal to a listener moved by the efforts of a humble performer.”
Later, he writes: “The slide [the box with the hole in it shown in the drawing] has an additional function, however, and is in the nature of a sound wave amplifying unit. Under the circumstances, I have found it expedient and practical to use an ordinary cigar box and to fasten the lid closed and to form an opening or outlet in the top thereof. This enables the box to serve somewhat in the capacity of the “body” on a violin or equivalent instrument.”