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Building the Prima Gusli

Building the Prima Gusli

by James H. Flynn

Originally published in American Lutherie #27, 1991 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



The Gusli is a very old Russian folk musical instrument. Most probably, it dates back to the 11th century. The gusli is a Russian version of the ancient dulcimer or psaltry. Also in the same family, although different, are the Finnish kantele and the Hungarian cymbalom. Over time, the gusli has changed to accommodate a wide range of musical situations. Today, with especial thanks to the great V.V. Andreev (American Lutherie #17, see Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Two, p. 180), one must be specific in describing the gusli because of the many styles.

The largest of the guslis, both in physical size and musical range is the piano gusli which is shown in Fig. 1. This instrument stands on four legs (which are detachable to facilitate moving) and has a musical range of five octaves. The keyboard, which is one octave wide, is manipulated with the fingers of the left hand while the right hand works over the exposed strings with a plectrum. Activating the keyboard lifts the dampers on certain strings in all octaves.

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Letter: Lutherie in Russia

Letter: Lutherie in Russia

by James Flynn

Originally published in American Lutherie #25, 1991



Dear Editor:

I understand that at the recent convention there was some discussion of the changes in east European countries and the effect it was having on instrument import and export conditions. Perhaps our readers would be interested in the situation as it affects the Soviet Union. As you are aware from AL#17, the Balalaika and Domra Association of America has many contacts with musicians and masters (luthiers) in that country. We had a very successful convention in Washington, D.C. last summer. We hosted seven prominent artists and discussed these matters with our guests as well as with many in our Association who have recently visited the Soviet Union.

There is no lack of skilled masters. Before the political changes it was difficult for these masters to establish their own shops on a paying scale and to have the authority to sell direct to musicians through a retailing system. This removed the direct contact between the artist and the instrument maker — a discouraging thing. Several mass-production factories catered to the tourist trade and made instruments such as the balalaika that retailed for about $30. Concert grade instruments could be obtained on a special basis at the Moscow Experimental Factory. Most Russian folk players in western countries have always preferred instruments made by Russian masters because of the prestige so associated with this. Acquisition of instruments in the “old days” was generally done on an individual basis rather than placing an order with a factory for a bunch of instruments.

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Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers by L. Allen Smith

Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers by L. Allen Smith

Reviewed by James Flynn

Originally published in American Lutherie #7, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers
L. Allen Smith
University of Missouri Press
P.O. Box 7088, Columbia, MO 65205
Columbia & London, 1983

L. Allen Smith worked long and hard over his doctoral dissertation from whence this book was derived. It is handsome, containing descriptions of 193 instruments in the zither and dulcimer family, most accompanied by photographs. In the foreword, Jean Ritchie sets forth her very authoritative views on the origin of the dulcimer and offers her judgements as to why early study teams were not able to uncover many dulcimers in Appalachia.

The book falls far short of resolving, on a scientific basis, the birth place(s) of the dulcimer. The pre-revival instruments Smith describes were made prior to 1940, and his field work, searching for these early dulcimers, was done in the early 1970s. As most of us who have travelled these eastern mountains know, old dulcimers have been swept up long ago and it is anyone’s guess as to where they are now hanging. Nevertheless, Smith found 193 instruments and classified them into five categories as follows:

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Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers by L. Allen Smith

Reviewed by James Flynn

Originally published in American Lutherie #7, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers
L. Allen Smith
University of Missouri Press
P.O. Box 7088, Columbia, MO 65205
Columbia & London, 1983

L. Allen Smith worked long and hard over his doctoral dissertation from whence this book was derived. It is handsome, containing descriptions of 193 instruments in the zither and dulcimer family, most accompanied by photographs. In the foreword, Jean Ritchie sets forth her very authoritative views on the origin of the dulcimer and offers her judgements as to why early study teams were not able to uncover many dulcimers in Appalachia.

The book falls far short of resolving, on a scientific basis, the birth place(s) of the dulcimer. The pre-revival instruments Smith describes were made prior to 1940, and his field work, searching for these early dulcimers, was done in the early 1970s. As most of us who have travelled these eastern mountains know, old dulcimers have been swept up long ago and it is anyone’s guess as to where they are now hanging. Nevertheless, Smith found 193 instruments and classified them into five categories as follows:

Type A: Pennsylvania German zithers with straight sides, 37
Type B: Pennsylvania German zithers with a half-bout, 3
Type C: Dulcimers with straight sides, 11
Type D: Dulcimers with a single bout, 71 (2 # 34s)
Type E: Dulcimers with double bouts, 71 (2 # 17s)

Smith’s conclusion that specific styles of instruments were organic to certain geographic locations is hard to justify when only 73 of the 193 instruments have been positively verified as to birthplace. These data become further weakened when 25 of the 73 are attributed to three makers (Thomas, Amburgey, and Hicks). While Smith did rely heavily on Allen H. Eaton’s classic Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (Dover, 1937/1973) he failed to point out that the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and its forerunners were organized to give recognition to mountain craftsmen and to market their products. Where did the estimated 1500 dulcimers go that were produced by Kentuckian James Edward Thomas? Were they marketed by the Guild and did they influence the design of other makers? Although Smith states that the book’s primary purpose is to catalogue early instruments, he opens the door to these unanswered questions by addressing the subject.

For the serious luthier, there is little of value here. However, it is an interesting compilation of some early instruments and is worthwhile if only to provoke more research and study of this wonderful but neglected true American folk instrument.