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DISCOVERY

Musician Picked Trade That Sounded Just Fine

August 11, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You've heard that sound before; you're sure of it. It's a kind of plaintive sliding sweet twang that calls up an immediate picture of deep blue evenings far back in mountain hollows, maybe with a lamp burning on the porch. You know that sound, but if you're like most Americans, you probably can't name the instrument that produces it.

But Jim Fyhrie can. He can not only name it, he can play it and build it, for Fyhrie is member of the world's tiny fraternity of dulcimer makers. At the Plectrum Dulcimer Co.--his garagelike shop on Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach--Fyhrie has turned out between 40 and 50 Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimers each year since he began learning the highly specialized trade in 1968.

The mountain dulcimer, first seen in Appalachia in the 1800s, may be the only truly native American instrument, Fyhrie said (the banjo, he said, has African ancestors).

"I first ran into a dulcimer in Colorado when I was in graduate school," said Fyhrie, a former schoolteacher. "It was hanging on the wall at somebody's house and nobody knew anything about it, didn't know how to play it or tune it. I took it down and tuned it to what I thought it ought to sound like and found out I could play it without much problem. Later on, I thought I'd better have one of these myself, so I built one."

About a year later, Fyhrie tried his hand at building a second type, known as the hammered dulcimer. Unlike the mountain dulcimer, which resembles an elongated violin and is held in the lap and picked with a plectrum, the hammered dulcimer is trapezoidal, has dozens of strings, sits on a stand and is struck with wooden hammers.

The hammered dulcimer, Fyhrie said, goes back even further. "The earliest ones were found in the tombs in the pyramids in Egypt," he said. Fyhrie also makes 40 to 50 of these each year.

Fyhrie said he learned how to make dulcimers in the same way he learned how to tune and play them: by trial and error. Today, he is an accomplished musician and craftsman. He plays at regional music festivals around the nation, and he has just released his fifth album. And his instruments--hewn from redwood, American walnut, hickory, maple and spruce--are obviously the work of a master.

At first, he said, he made his dulcimers during the summer to generate income when he was not teaching art, math or physical education. Then in 1970 he entered the Sawdust Festival, where his playing and his instruments were such hits that he decided to devote himself to dulcimers full time.

Fyhrie's customers are mainly from Southern California, but he has received orders from players as far away as Germany and Jamaica, he said.

"All kinds of different people buy them--from kids to retired people," he said. "Usually, it's people who want to play something but don't already know how to play, and they're just taken by the sound of it. They like it because it's easy to get something out of it right away."

THE PLECTRUM DULCIMER CO. AT A GLANCE

Where: 2795 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Hours: Irregular. Call 494-7478 for information.

Products and prices: Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimers, average price $175. Hammered dulcimers, average price $550. Custom work available.

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