The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Fiddles, Banjoes, Dulcimers - Mountain Made

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983-05

Issue: May, 1983

There are many people in Floyd, Patrick, and Carroll Counties who “make music.” Many of them make more than music; they make the very instruments they play. Some are professional craftsmen who do this as a trade but the ones interviewed here are the ones who do this mainly for a hobby but occasionally sell their instruments. One, Billy Weeks, from Willis, Virginia is interesting to me because he makes fiddles but does not know how to play them. Let’s meet him first.


I was told of Billy Weeks by Carlton Harmon, one of the musicians interviewed this month. Mr. Weeks makes the fiddles and carries them to Mr. Harmon to test them, to see how they sound. My curiosity got the better of me and I called him to see just why someone who doesn’t play an instrument would want to make them. Mr. Weeks said that so far, he has made three fiddles and that he loves to hear them played but he is a mechanic by trade and his fingers aren’t nimble enough to “work right.” He said Lane Via helped him make the first one. He “hulls it out and shapes it by hand.” The wood he uses for fiddles is maple for the back and sides and spruce for the top because, “You can get spruce thinner and it vibrates better and makes a better sound.” It takes him three or four months to make one and he said he does it mostly in the winter months as a hobby.

How do his fiddles sound? Carlton Harmon said, “They’re good, about as good as any I’ve played.”


Next, I interviewed a dulcimer maker. He is Reverend Ralph Spradling, pastor of the Topeco Church of the Brethren. The first instrument he ever made was a “cigar box banjo,” when he was just a little boy. He said he got an old piece of screen wire and pulled the wires out of it to make the strings. I ask if it would play? He allowed that it would make “sounds.” He grew up in a musical family and said there wasn’t practically any instrument his father couldn’t play. He plays several instruments himself but said he became interested in dulcimers after he came to Floyd County. He learned how to make them by writing to the Smithsonian Institution and they sent him instructions by return mail.

Reverend Spradling says, “For a good dulcimer, use hard wood for the backs and sides and soft wood for the top.” He also thinks spruce is best for tops. Dulcimers are played with a small straight piece called a “slide” or “noter.” These could be made out of anything from rosewood to one that “Cap” Ayers of Meadows of Dan uses that is made of a deer antler.

We think of the dulcimer as our own “home grown” musical instrument but recently, Reverend Spradling showed one to a family from Vietnam, who were resettling in America and the man recognized it being very similar to an instrument in his own country. I guess music truly is universal.


Cruise Howell rounds out our interview. He is a banjo maker from Meadows of Dan, whose father, Jeff Howell, was mentioned in our March issue in the “BACKROADS” column as the fiddler who could sing and play the fiddle at the same time. Mr. Howell has made fourteen banjos and “sold some and gave some away.” One of the ones he gave away was to his grandson, Sammy Shelor, who plays professionally with “The Virginia Squires,” who are going to Europe in the fall for a tour.

Mr. Howell likes to make his banjos out of wood that has been seasoned at least 25 years. He said curly maple or walnut are the best woods and the kind of metal used on them makes a big difference in the sound. “Brass fittings are the best.” The old instruments used to have animal hide covers but Mr. Howell has gone modern on this part. He uses a special type of material that looks like hide and is specially made for banjo heads. The reason is that when the weather is damp, the old “skin” tops will not stay tuned but the new covers will. He is modest about his banjos but they have been sold in Baltimore and Fairfax as well as around here. He says, “I don’t make a profit. I just try to make every instrument a little better than the last one.