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Hammered Dulcimers
From the Inside Out

An Interview With Rick Hudson

by Daniel Elton Harmon

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Hudson is a name long respected among hammered dulcimer enthusiasts. From his home in the San Bois Mountains of Oklahoma, Rick Hudson today continues the legacy of quality instrument making begun in 1988 by his father, the late Jerry Hudson. In Spring 2003, Rick found time between his workshop regimen and festival schedule to grant us the following e-mail interview. We talked of woods, designs, tones, the Hudson family's musical roots and Rick's emerging work as a recording engineer.

Sit back and imagine the scent of spruce, a flood of bell tones as the hammers dance, and a dedicated luthier's discourse on his beloved craft.

* * * *

DH: Outline for us the Hudson family musical history, beginning with your Grandfather Don (or earlier generations). Which of your siblings/cousins are performing or building instruments today?

RICK: Musical roots run deep in my family. Both my grandparents on my dad's side sang or played hymns in church for most of their lives. My grandmother Frances is legally blind but had dedicated a significant portion of her life to playing hymns on the piano in church every Sunday. My uncle Jim is an accomplished player and builder of fine hammered dulcimers and operates a full-scale recording studio out of his home in Britton, MI. I think pretty much everybody on that side of the family is musically inclined in one form or another.

* * * *

DH: Do you perform/record on hammered dulcimer yourself?

RICK: I am only an intermediate player of hammered dulcimer, as I spend the great majority of my time building them rather than playing them. I was raised around the construction of the instrument, and have attended dulcimer and bluegrass festivals off and on for years, so I'm no stranger to the many sounds and textures they're capable of producing. Acoustic guitar is my main instrument, as I am more of a singer-songwriter than an instrumentalist, per se. I do have a workable knowledge of the hammered dulcimer and apply melodies and chord patterns to many of the songs I've written through the years. I also play bass guitar, drums, trumpet, Irish bouzouki and just about anything else I can get my hands on.

* * * *

DH: What are your favorite dulcimer woods, and where do you obtain them? How long does wood "seasoning" require?

RICK: I use Sitka spruce for soundboards, laminated Baltic birch for backs, hard maple for pinblocks, soft maple for bridges and an assortment of woods for rails. I get the spruce from Northwest Specialty Woods in Washington State, and get the rest mainly from the Paxtons in Oklahoma City, though I have been known to travel to other stores in the region if they've got what I'm looking for. All of the woods I purchase are professionally kiln-dried by the companies that supply them to me, though I do give them at least a couple of weeks in the climate-controlled (which means moisture-controlled) shop before attempting to work them.

* * * *

DH: How do different woods affect the sound of the hammered dulcimer?

RICK: Well, the soundboard wood is definitely the most likely to affect the sound of the instrument. Sitka spruce is a bright- but delicate-sounding wood with moderate sustain characteristics that help us achieve a flexible but consistent tonality from instrument to instrument. It's worth adding that though Sitka spruce is rather bright-sounding at first, it tends to mellow with age.

The next most important wood is the bridge wood. It's more difficult to describe exactly what makes different woods better or worse here, but we tend to favor the soft maple in this position. It provides a bold sound with a very solid percussive character to the instrument. Some other woods that are popular for this particular application are walnut and mahogany. The maple is used mainly for its structural characteristics, but is also a nice tone wood and finishes quite nicely.

The rail wood probably affects the sound of the instrument the least, hence the variety of options available in that particular application.

* * * *

DH: Tell us a little about Jacob Trapper, the engineer who collaborated with your father on the light-weight bracing system.

RICK: Unfortunately, I do not know much about Mr. Trapper other than the fact that he collaborated with my dad and they came out with the suspended "truss" bracing system that is exclusive to our instrument line. The suspended bracing system avoids having braces touch the back of the instrument, allowing for free resonance of the soundboard and back for a unique tonality, volume and bass response among many other conventional designs. We also employ an arched soundboard, which adds much-needed strength and projection—a must when using as few braces as we do.

* * * *

DH: Once all the woods are at hand, how long does it typically take to build a new instrument (including the stringing/regulating process)? How many instruments do you make annually?

RICK: The assembly of the instruments takes relatively little time. However, the sanding, finishing, stringing and regulating of the instruments is quite time-consuming. I am doing great if I get a couple or more done in a week, but that's probably due to the fact that I took over production from my dad, Jerry Hudson, only a little over a year ago. I did spend a lot of time in the shop prior to assuming production, and recall him having put out upwards of 175 instruments a year. I don't know how he did it. . . . I guess he just absolutely loved what he was doing and couldn't get enough of it. Don't get me wrong—I enjoy what I do, but I try not to put out many more than a couple in a week.

* * * *

DH: Do all of your instruments contain the entire range on two bridges, or do you frequently use and/or experiment with supplemental bridges in your instruments today?

RICK: Thus far, the vast majority of our instruments are three-octave, fully chromatic, using only two bridges. This is a tuning scheme that my dad developed some years ago that many players prefer. We do offer a limited selection of extended-range instruments which place a combination of chromatic notes and extended bass strings on a third, partial bridge placed to the left of the treble bridge.

I am currently developing a travel-sized instrument that has the entire range of a diatonic 16/16 in an 8/13/13 layout for ease of transport and storage, and a massive four-octave, fully chromatic instrument that's now just on the drawing board. That one is intended for use by the highly advanced, progressive players out there.

* * * *

DH: What's the most important thing you learned from your father?

RICK: Far and away the most important thing he taught me was to have an eye for detail. Detailed work is what sets skilled craftsmen apart from everyone else. Meticulousness and perfectionism may at times seem like a curse, but they definitely have a purpose. Good work stands for itself, and there is nothing more rewarding for me than for others to notice the effort that went into a particular instrument.

* * * *

DH: Is your wife Melissa involved in the hands-on construction work? How large is your staff?

RICK: Melissa is not currently involved in the construction of the instruments. I handle all aspects of construction, from wood stores to stringing and tuning, while she handles the business end of things. What she does gives me the freedom to focus totally on the instruments.

* * * *

DH: I believe you have a recent addition to the family?

RICK: As of January 11th, I am the proud father of Gabriel Zane Hudson. He's absolutely adorable, precious, and is the best thing his mother and I have ever done.

* * * *

DH: Obviously, you take your operation on the road during festival season. How many festivals do you attend, and how far afield?

RICK: We currently attend around a half dozen festivals per year. Some are relatively close to home, such as the North Texas Irish Festival, while others seem half a world away—namely, the Funfest in Evart, MI.

* * * *

DH: Tell us about your recording studio.

RICK: My studio is primarily a Roland VS-880EX with a handful of microphones, some outboard processors and a computer for mastering duties. I am a big fan of the disk-based recording platforms that are out there. I just love the editing capabilities and track-bouncing capable on these relatively inexpensive machines. I usually just set up a large condenser microphone into a decent preamp, go through an Alesis limiter and straight into the Roland. The machine does most of the rest of the work, up until mix-down time, where I usually just send the analog signal through a BBE Sonic Maximizer and a graphic EQ into the computer. From there I just make sure the levels are uniform and comparable to professional recordings, and try to group the songs together in a manner that adds significance to their existence. I truly love the recording process inside and out.

* * * *

DH: Who are some of the hammered dulcimer performers using Hudsons?

RICK: There are a lot of dulcimists playing Hudsons out there—Mark Shelton, Kay Brown, David Usher, just to name a few. There is also an up-and-coming young artist named Joshua Messenger, a dazzling player who sometimes plays a Hudson. He will be competing for the national championship this year.

The most interesting thing about the people I run across in this business is that they're some of the greatest folks in the world. Before I started building dulcimers, I never would have pictured myself in a career surrounded by such good people, but here I am and I'm loving every minute of it!

* * * *

Visit the Hudson Musical Instruments Web site at www.hammereddulcimers.com.

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© 2003-2005 Hornpipe Vintage Publications