The Aaron Sarlo Tapes: The Story of the Dulcimer

March 24, 2019

By AARON SARLO

For my 17th birthday, my uncle gave me a McSpadden dulcimer. He had asked me, “What do you want for your birthday, Aaron?” I specifically remember over-reaching, and asked for a [very expensive – $60] chorus pedal for my guitar. On my birthday, he showed up with the dulcimer, which I thought was cool. It came with a little wooden dowel, and the instructions showed me how to play with it, but it was a really limiting sound, and far away from the thrashing rock chords I was into playing at the time. So, into the closet it went. I did record a few errant demos with it, and I played it on the TSEP song, “Daisy,” which was on the Ardent release. Other than that, it just stayed in my closet, collecting dust, for more than two decades. 

Then, in 2014, my wife, Sarah, suggested that I get the dulcimer out and play around with it. I took it out of the closet, and placed it in front of me. I had forgotten all about the dowel — because I’d lost it — and just started plucking around in an open D tuning. I then started figuring out how to make a chord with the instruments structured fretting. I found D major, its relative minor, and two or three other complimentary chords, and I plucked those, rather than strumming. I was highly intrigued. 

I took the instrument down to Little Rock Frets, and asked the inimitable Bryan Knight to install a mandolin pickup into the dulcimer. He did, and I took it back home, and ran it through my pedal board, and into my Bogner amp. I tinkered with distortion, reverb, delay, and tremolo. I finally settled on a rich delay with a decent amount of decay and a lush reverb setting as an excellent default sound for this arrangement. I tried those chords again, and when I did it sounded like an angel plucking a forgotten instrument. I am not referring to my ability to play, as I was, for all intents and purposes, a beginner. I mean to say that I had stumbled on an otherworldly sound. Through a seemingly random series of events (Uncle: Happy birthday, Aaron. Me: What the hell is this? 25 years later. Wife: Hey, dummy. Go play your dulcimer. Me: Oh, ok. Hey, what if I played it through my amp?), I had found a true love for, and unique sound on, mountain dulcimer. Now, I freaking love playing it. 

I have only played it out a few times. But, I’ll never forget the first time. I was sound checking with it at White Water for the first Duckstronaut show. There were a couple handfuls of people in the room, drinking beer, and talking in a low rumble. I started playing the dulcimer, just to get a level for the sound man. I played for approximately sixty seconds, and when I stopped, the room was dead silent. I looked up, and every single pair of eyes was on me. Someone said, “That sounds amazing. What is it?” I shouted back, “It’s a mountain dulcimer.” The sound man, Will Boyd, who I had never seen compliment anybody, least of all me, came up to me, and said, pointing at the dulcimer, “THAT is beautiful.”  


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