Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gilmer Vaughn Dulcimer

Several weeks back, I had changed my profile pic on facebook to one of me playing the dulcimer when I was competing at the 2005 Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax. This was a profile photo that I had used before, but this time, a family member, Donice, saw it on the page of a mutual friend. 

She then contacted me and was telling me that Gilmer Vaughn, my first cousin, once removed, used to build dulcimers. I had no idea!  What an exciting thing to discover. I have played the dulcimer for almost 30 years and I have done quite a bit of primary research about the history of the dulcimer and all of that time, I had a family member who made dulcimers! (To see my research, click here.) Some of my research was included in Ralph Lee Smith's revised edition of Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions.

Donice explained that when Gilmer died in 1997, his wife, Ruth, gave her and her husband, Raymond (Gilmer's brother), one of his dulcimers. The dulcimer was not finished because it needed tuning pegs, a bridge, a nut and strings. (Raymond passed away in 2009.)  After Donice told me how she came to have the dulcimer, she said that she would like to give it to me because I am not only family, but a dulcimer player as well.

I feel honored and blessed that Donice wanted to entrust this treasure to me.  Here are some photos of the dulcimer.

When I peeked inside the sound hole, the following was inscribed in the wood.

G. C. Vaughn
April 1996
No. 22

Donice told me that Gilmer met with Ken Hamblin, a well known dulcimer in Salem, Virginia on several occasions to learn about building dulcimers. When I was in college in the 1980s, a friend and I used to play our dulcimers around campus.  At that time, I had a Sears & Roebuck dulcimer and an Audrey Hash handmade dulcimer with wooden tuners.  I SO badly wanted a Ken Hamblin dulcimer like my friend, Teresa.  It had a beautiful tone and it was just gorgeous.  It also had what Ken called an "Old Joe Clark tuner" on the bass string.  I finally added a Hamblin dulcimer to my collection in 2009.  Now, to find out that Gilmer learned from Mr. Hamblin makes this one even more special!  (To read a newspaper article about Ken Hamblin click here.)

I had initially thought that I would just leave the dulcimer in its unfinished state, but after having a brief discussion with Donice, I decided that I would see if a local dulcimer builder that I know would be willing to finish it for me. I met with Jack Ferguson this past Friday to discuss finishing this dulcimer. Jack builds beautiful instruments and I know that he will do a wonderful job. I think that the dulcimer may be made of white walnut (butternut).  While discussing the options for finishing the dulcimer, I decided that it will have 3 strings instead of 4 because of the width of the fretboard.  Also, using geared tuners instead of the more traditional friction-style pegs so that it will be more playable.  One of the hardest things was deciding on whether to put any type of finish on it.  After discussing that in its natural state it would show water drops, fingerprints, etc and that also, a finish would protect the wood from drying out any further, I opted for a clear finish so that the wood would be protected, but it would retain the natural beauty of the wood.

I cannot wait to hear the beautiful sounds coming out of Gilmer's dulcimer. Be sure to check back because I will post photos and video once the dulcimer is finished.

Hammin' it up!
L to R:  Gilmer Vaughn (my cousin), Willie Vaughn (my uncle),
Vera Vaughn Burnette (my mom)

To read about how I first became involved with the dulcimer read this blog post.

Copyright 2012--All Rights Reserved--The Wheel & Distaff by Kimberly Burnette-Dean.  


  1. What a great story. If it's your cousin on the Vaughn side..........might be a cousin removed from me, too!
    I'm not sure I knew you played the dulcimer in competitions. Wow! I am impressed. Did you place in the competition?
    I am still "pecking" along, but I am sure I could do better if I had more time to devote to it.
    Can you recommend a good beginners book?
    Hope to see you soon!


    1. My Grandpa Vaughn's brother was Gilmer's dad. So you probably are related to him also!

      I used to compete at Galax every year, but haven't been for the last several years. I have placed 3rd, 4th, & 5th in the dulcimer competition.

      A couple of books that I like for beginners are: "Mel Bay's Teach Yourself Dulcimer" and any of Stephen Seifert's "Join the Jam" books because not only do you get written music to learn by, but also CDs that you can play along with.

  2. Kimberly-

    An excellent story. I am glad the dulcimer landed in the proper hands. How many does this make for you?

    1. I was thinking about the number yesterday. . . somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 . . .

  3. What a beautiful are quite the talented one! Proud to call you "cousin"!! I love hearing the dulcimer.I hope to hear you sometime!
    Donna Kirk

    1. Thank you, Donna! I plan on doing an update post with photos of the dulcimer now that it is completed. I would like to include a video of the dulcimer so that folks can hear how beautiful this particular instrument sounds. I have not been playing much over the last year, so I need to practice up a bit before I record anything! ;)

  4. My sister Karen and I both own dulcimers built by our Uncle Gilmer (we are Ray and Donice Vaughn's children). We both proudly display the dulcimers in our homes and consider them complete and total treasures. I live here in Roanoke as well and would love to hear you play sometime. I'm afraid I can't play anymore but would love to pick it back up some day. I know my Uncle Gilmer would be over the moon to know that that dulcimer was in your hands now and being used. Bless my mom's sweet heart for being faithful to making sure it found the perfect home. I'm sure my Aunt Ruth will be pleased as well. Post the video soon!!!
    Katie "Vaughn" Varney

    1. Hi Katie! Thank you so much for your comment! I am just totally excited about this dulcimer. It means so much to me and the sound is beautiful. I am a bit out of practice, so once I get back in the groove I will post a video .


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