An Article by Grahame Hood : John Pearse Dulcimer
YOU can own a John Pearse Dulcimer

Lucky me!  Now I do, bought on eBay for £65. It is an interesting instrument, to say the least, certainly the first, and probably the last, dulcimer commercially produced on a large scale in the UK.

In 1970 John Pearse had a television show on ATV, part of which involved him showing viewers how to make a simplified version of the dulcimer, basically a fretted, hollow fingerboard which could be amplified by placing it on a table or building a simple body for it. There was also his “The Dulcimer Book”, with plans and instructions on how to make what Pearse called the ‘fingerboard staff dulcimer’ and how to play it.  A later edition of the book featured a different cover and was retitled “Make and play the Dulcimer”, which was the first tutor book I ever bought when I started to play in the late 1970s. Both editions sold well. However, this was not all; Pearse also had his very own branded dulcimer.

John Pearse Dulcimer

They were sold under the Rosetti brand, a British company who imported instruments from Europe and Japan, notably Epiphone guitars, and built by a small company called Shergold.  The company was formed by Jack Golder and Norman Holder, who had been part of the early British electric guitar industry and had originally worked for Burns of London. The finger boards were made separately by Eddie Cross. Norman;"The ply we used for the sound board was expensive and hard to acquire - it was multi core aircraft ply.  The backs were just a 3mm gaboon ply - quite cheap".  He commented that the instruments were built cheaply for use in schools.

The basic design was a light triangular body with a carved head, featuring a low scroll which was in itself inspired by those seen on Burns guitars.  The head had two long semi slotted indentations similar to those used on Rickenbacker 12 string heads.  Three cheap machine heads were fitted from the rear, though the indentations, and the thickness of the head, meant that they could have been fitted from the side if required.  A prototype owned by Eddie Cross and pictured online, did not have the indentations, and also lacked the zero fret fitted to the stock models.  The fingerboard was made of low-quality rosewood.  A fitted plastic nameplate was glued to the headstock.   The body had three sets of round sound holes.  There were no internal labels.

John Pearse Dulcimer

The dulcimer is 85cm long top to tail, the body being 14cm wide at the end, narrowing to 3.5cm at the head. The scale length is 70cm and the body is 3.2cm deep.  Considering how easily corners could have been cut in making such a basic instrument (remember those Camac triangular dulcimers?) it is very well made, particularly around the head.  The fingerboard has a zero fret, and the nut and saddle are both plastic.  Soundwise? Surprisingly loud, but inevitably, bearing in mind how small the body is, it leans towards the middle of the tone spectrum.

The first one I ever saw would be around 1980 and belonged to a friend of mine in South London.  His had a pickup- a transparent blue square piezo sheet installed in front of the bridge.  He had bought it second-hand and assumed the pickup has always been fitted to the instrument.

Liz Conway, Mountain Dulcimer rep for the UK’s Nonsuch Dulcimer club, remembers staying with a friend whose boyfriend had made her a stick dulcimer following the instructions on the programme.  “I had a little go on that one and thought, maybe I can get away with this and later found and bought the triangular dulcimer in a shop in Newcastle”.   She thinks she paid about £18 but sold it on to another player when she got her first Stefan Sobell dulcimer, for which she paid all of £35.  Lindsay Porteous also bought one new in a music shop in Dunfermline, Scotland, around the same time.  My dulcimer was bought in Penzance by a man from Bristol on his way to the Scillies.  So, they were well distributed around the UK by Rosetti.   They came in a branded brown plastic coated cloth carrying bag with a strap and buckle fastening.

In 1972, Judith Wells of Chigwell Row, Essex, wrote to the Melody Maker’s ‘Any Questions’ page asking for “details of available literature on how to make a dulcimer- not the straight sided John Pearse type.”  Do I detect a note of disdain?

The leaflet coming with the dulcimer suggested using two banjo 1st and one 2nd strings, and warned the purchaser not to use guitar strings!  (there is a scan of this online).  The suggested tuning in his book was BBE. I tried this using two 0.011 and one 0.015 strings but found the bass string did not play in tune all the way up the neck, though the first and middle ones were fine.
I replaced them with two 0.010s and a wound 0.018, this being the thinnest wound string my local music shop had. Tuning up to DDG, the results were most satisfactory, with all notes in tune up the neck.  The saddle is possibly a bit high, but I’ll leave it for the moment.

John Pearse

There was also an LP record to tie in with the project, called "How to Make and Play the Dulcimer".  The LP is not listed in any of his discographies that I have seen but is listed in Horst Pohl's 1987 book "The Folk Record Source Book (Second edition)".  Horst was a German doctor with a huge knowledge of UK folk music, and he gathered information from many collectors and writers (including, modest cough, my good self) and lists the album as being issued on the UK Marble Arch label, MAB100, not giving a date.  This in itself is odd. Marble Arch was a budget subsidiary of PYE records and released cheap albums, particularly endless permutations of early Donovan and Kinks tracks.  Neither the album nor the serial number are listed on an online discography for the label.  However there is no doubt the album exists and no doubt someone has a copy and can set the record straight regarding the serial number and the track listing".

I have been unable to find out how many John Pearse dulcimers were made and I suspect we will never know, though I would guess several thousand.  They turn up on auction sites very occasionally, and some have even made it to America.  Perhaps there are still one or two sharing dusty school music room cupboards with equally unloved autoharps to this day?  There is no doubt the instrument succeeded in what it set out to do and I have become very fond of mine.

Grahame Hood

Orpington Folk Club
Orpington Folk Music & Song