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Stringed Vessel: The Design Secrets Behind a One-of-a-Kind Richmond Instrument

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Designing an instrument isn’t what was on the mind of Dave Watkins when he walked into the Dulcimer Store in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, in 2007.

When the owners encouraged him to try playing a dulcimer, they immediately pegged him for the guitar player he was, suggesting instead that he try the dulcitar, an acoustic hybrid of the two instruments created in 1971.

“It was so simple, so easy to play,” Watkins recalls. “You play anything on it and it sounds like the mountains, that high, lonesome sound.”

It was the start of an ongoing love affair.

After putting a pickup system on it, he began using it to perform, eventually switching to a fully electric dulcitar to achieve more volume, range of sound and a wider sonic palette without losing the sensibility of the original instrument.

It was better, but it wasn’t enough.

So two years ago, he began brainstorming his concept of the perfect dulcitar for performing, one that would incorporate everything that mattered to him and eliminate every tiny thing that annoyed him or posed the possibility of an inconvenience while playing.

“I made only one sketch of it and no drawings to scale,” he says, laughing. “I just knew what I wanted to achieve: functionality first and aesthetics second, but still important.”

Inspired by early pioneers of headless and ergonomic guitars such as Steinberger and Klein with a dash of contemporary influence in the body shape from Strandberg, Watkins looked to Malinoski’s unique aesthetic, which incorporates a sense of humor into design using unusual shapes and nonstandard materials.

He cites a high-end luthier, Japanese-born Michihiro Matsuda, as inspirational for treating instrument building as a form of sculpture, not just the creation of something functional. Luthier Rick Toone showed him the value of embracing interesting imperfections in wood grain and highlighting them as a focal point of the design, while German luthiers Teuffel and Claas offered an informative take on body-to-neck construction.

After two years ruminating on the design, he went to work in December. His first step was buying two five-string, short-scale, children’s bass guitars, and ripping one apart to develop a template. The neck is the only part of his dulcitar not built from scratch, but only because Watkins didn’t have the proper tools for the job — yet, he adds.

Certain that he wanted a headless guitar, he also knew he didn’t want the design to require a tool to change strings, so guitar tuners were placed below the bridge to allow for quick string replacement and stable tuning. A locking jack and mounts for his guitar strap went on the instrument’s back to keep the cord out of his way and achieve maximum strap comfort.

While at Lowe’s on an unrelated errand, he spotted a piece of poplar with wormholes and a distinctive sap wood stripe that he envisioned as a diagonal accent across the body of the dulcitar. The curvature of the instrument’s side piece was designed to naturally direct the player’s arm to the most comfortable position for playing. A piece of maple he had for years was used as the pick guard, its irregular edges crafted by nature and its grain pattern a striking contrast to the poplar.

“I didn’t want to be tripping over the instrument to let the sound come out,” he says. “I want the improvisational aspects of my live sets to just flow out, influenced by the people and sound of the room. Anything that prevents letting the music out, I wanted gone. This is a vessel to allow music to happen and I want no regrets as I play.”

Although he’s already played the new dulcitar at shows, it’s not quite finished. A translucent surfer green tint will allow the poplar’s grain to shine through, and the maple pieces will be sealed with oil — neither of which he’s had time to do yet. That’s partly because he’s too busy playing it.

“I wanted an instrument that was a little ridiculous because the music I play is a little ridiculous,” he says of the design. “I don’t want people to know what it might sound like by what it looks like.” S

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