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Ben Seymour began building instruments with a kit for a simple plucked psaltery, meant as a birthday present for his wife, Becky. From that experience, he decided that it would not be all that hard to make other instruments, so he made a lap dulcimer, which, though rough-looking, had a pretty good sound. A friend had him make a dulcimer for her, and after that, Ben says he became obsessed with it, and "now I can't stop!"
From the beginning, all Ben's instruments have possessed excellent tonal quality and exceptional volume. Whether it's that he happened upon the perfect shape for his soundboxes, or that it's some kind of "Ben magic," we don't know.
Ben has been building dulcimers since 1994, and has added bouzoukis, psalteries, harps and other custom instruments to his portfolio. He also has repaired many acoustic instruments, including those of various ethnic backgrounds, such as balalaikas and domras.
Article (.pdf file) from the Tryon Daily Bulletin, 1/25/2011. (Contains a few inaccuracies.)
Ben‘s first exposure to Galax-style dulcimers came from hearing the instruments played in an old-time music performance at a dulcimer festival. He then had an opportunity to view dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith’s rare collection of instruments including a variety of dulcimers, including the Galax, and predecessors of the dulcimer. This inspired Ben to expand his repertoire by building reproductions of the scheitholt, an old German instrument and likely dulcimer ancestor. Ben began his first Galax after hearing that Jacob Ray Melton of Galax, Virginia, the last traditional builder of that dulcimer style, had passed away.
Wanting to preserve the Galax from disappearing from dulcimer history, he decided to add it to his line of modern instruments. In building the first Galaxes, he carefully reproduced Galax features by studying original instruments as well as photographs in Ralph Lee Smith’s preeminent history of the dulcimer, Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. When shown one of Ben’s Galaxes, Ralph Lee Smith stated that Ben had achieved the “traditional-style instrument of the Virginia type.”1
The Galax dulcimer is distinguished by its distinctive lozenge shape and by its stringing: four strings are placed equidistantly across the fretboard, each tuned to D above middle C. Tuning the instrument in this manner allows it to be played in the keys of D and G without having to retune; the particular pitch and supporting drone strings give it the ability to hold its own in a band of other stringed instruments. Some Galaxes are built with a “false back,” designed to support the dulcimer on the player’s lap, which allows the real back of the instrument to vibrate, increasing the volume. To play a Galax in true traditional form, a “noter,” or smooth piece of stick or dowel, is used in place of the fingers of the left hand to change string pitch, and a feather quill is used to strum the strings. There are no holds barred for modern players, however, and fingerpicking styles and chord playing alike are also found among Galax players today.
Ben intends to continue producing Galaxes along with his own style of dulcimer, as he takes seriously his role in preserving the Appalachian heritage of the Galax dulcimer in particular, and the mountain dulcimer in general, and is devoted to carrying the instrument and its story far into America’s new century.
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Ben teaches the playing of the mountain dulcimer to students from third graders to retirees. He has tutored classes and taught electives at Western Carolina University's Mountain Dulcimer Week for several years.
Ben has held several Visions program teaching residencies at Dorman High School (Spartanburg, South Carolina) and provided educational performances at D. R. Middle School (Lyman, South Carolina.) More locally, Ben has mentored Polk County, NC high school students in construction and playing of the dulcimer, and taught at Isothermal Community College (Polk Campus in Columbus, North Carolina) and Top O’ the Morning music shop (Saluda, North Carolina.) He also instructs private students out of his home.
Ben offers five-day residencies which include historical notes on the progress of the dulcimer, including a demonstration of its German predecessor, the scheitholt (featuring a reproduction scheitholt which Ben constructed based on historical illustrations--see the Antecedents page), as well as demonstrations of the modern dulcimer’s versatility in performing a range of musical styles. Students learn to read tablature, how to count beats and measures, and how to play to the timing of basic musical signatures. By the end of the week, students are able to play a few tunes on the dulcimer. As the situation allows, a concert by students and/or teacher may conclude the week.
Article (.pdf file) about a recent teaching session in Sumter, SC.
Ben is a member of the Guild of American Luthiers, and a graduate of the Chimneys Workshop for Violin Makers, is on the Artists Registry of Handmade in America, and is included in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area online Artist Directory.
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1 Smith, Ralph Lee. “Postscript: Ben Seymour is Making Galax-Style Dulcimers.” Dulcimer Players News. Feb.-April 2001: 33.