This profile article was originally published on the Mel Bay web magazine Dulcimer Sessions and titled Luthier Spotlight Sam Rizzetta and Music as their first feature on a dulcimer maker.
The scenic Shenandoah Valley and mountains of West Virginia are home to a rich musical heritage. When Carrie, my wife, and I moved east in 1968, it seemed a perfect area to enjoy the beauty of nature, learn music within the Appalachian tradition, and pursue my lifelong fascination with stringed instruments. Today, our shop and home sit between two streams on ten wooded acres, where the cardinals, hawks, deer, wild turkey, cats, and fish are interrupted only occasionally by the sounds of woodworking tools and dulcimer music.
Music captured me at a very early age. My uncle Earl Nott from Montana would occasionally visit us in Illinois where I grew up. As a child I would sit on the floor at his knees for hours while he played the banjo. I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful. When I was old enough to be trusted with tools, I used my father’s basement workshop to build crude banjos and guitars. I am certain that the instruments and my playing were awful, but I was persistent. A passion for art eventually lead to adding carving and mother-of-pearl inlay to my instruments.
Later, I followed careers in art and biology while continuing to build instruments. The hammer dulcimer discovered me in the 1960s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I repaired guitars and illustrated books to put myself through grad school. I heard Chet Parker of Grand Rapids play his dulcimer that he had made in 1903, and it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I had to build one for myself!
By 1968 I had moved east and built my first fretted dulcimers. While Carrie worked at the Library Of Congress and I worked for the Smithsonian Institution, we made many musical friends and discovered West Virginia. Eventually we moved to a mountain top farm where we could spend full time building instruments and performing.
In 1974 Paul Reisler and I formed the string band TRAPEZOID with Pete Vigour and Paul Yeaton. I designed a family of hammer dulcimers from soprano to bass, and playing dulcimer quartets was our trademark. It was a magical sound and had never been done before. While warming up backstage for our first gig as a quartet we got our first offer to record. We had not yet played a note onstage, but already had a record deal! We did tour a lot after that. By 1978 I decided to spend more time building, composing for dulcimers, and playing solo.
Starting in 1974 I had also helped Paul Reisler teach instrument making classes at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, WV. In 1981 I started the hammer dulcimer playing classes at Augusta and continued to teach there through the late 1990s.
Because my interest has always been to experiment and to build one-of-a-kind instruments, I have never built fast enough to keep up with demand. In the late 1970s or early 1980s my friend John McCutcheon got me together with Dusty Strings Company, hammer dulcimer manufacturers who were providing good dulcimers to music stores nationwide. I found that the Dusty Strings owners, Ray and Sue Mooers, and I shared a love for dulcimers, a devotion to craftsmanship, and a sincere commitment to providing the best possible dulcimers for people who share our fascination with them. We agreed that they would adapt and build some of my designs. In our long collaboration since then I have found that I can trust them to build my designs to the highest standards. Today, many Rizzetta designs are available as Dusty Strings models, and we are always planning improvements and new instruments.
After Carrie suffered shoulder injuries from lifting and sanding in the shop, she “semi-retired” to the office to manage our business. In 1983 I was fortunate to enlist Nick Blanton to build new dulcimer designs. Nick started building and playing hammer dulcimer in 1977 after taking an Augusta instrument making class with Paul Reisler and me. He has since become a superb craftsman, an extremely knowledgeable historian of the dulcimer, and one of the most sensitive and skilled stylists as a player. Although Nick runs his own shop nearby and produces his own dulcimers, he still builds my designs on custom order. And we still enjoy continuing to collaborate on new instruments.
I have always approached instrument making as a synthesis of science and art. My background in science and research lead me to do extensive controlled experiments to improve the sound, playability, and utility of dulcimers. The artistic and intuitive side of me insists on visual beauty and an elegance of form and function. And, as a working performer I understand and share the needs and desires of people who care about their music and their instruments. Many essential features of modern hammer dulcimers are ones that I invented and developed.
- Bridge markers to mark the tonics or “home” notes to make playing easier. Before I built my first dulcimer, bridges were always unmarked! While teaching myself to play in the 1960s, I added markers to my very first dulcimer (and every one thereafter). These markers are now standard with all builders and players.
- Adjustable bridge braces that permit tone adjustment.
- Locking frame joints that improve strength, tuning stability, and durability.
- Modern stress frame construction that permits light weight, portable dulcimers. Our instruments are engineered and analyzed for stresses to achieve strength, light weight, range, tone, ease of playing and ability to stay in tune.
- Because of my expanding musical interests I evolved ways to add chromatic notes and, in the mid 1970s I built the first 16 treble and 15 bass “chromatic” dulcimers. Still in the 1970s I added bridges beyond the traditional 2 bridges to provide more notes, play in more keys, and add more bass without making dulcimers larger. This led to the Dusty Strings D300, D260, D500, D550, and D570. In the early 1980s I introduced EXTENDED RANGE dulcimers, larger dulcimers with more bass and over four octaves range. They combined the range of my STANDARD dulcimers with the lower range of my BASS dulcimers. This gave rise to the Dusty Strings D600, D650, and D670.
- Pedal operated dampers that are touch sensitive. I invented a very portable damper system that operates quietly and with a minimum of moving parts to break. Players can mute tone, cut off sustain, and achieve a marimba like sound.
- The PIANO DULCIMER, a fully chromatic hammer dulcimer with the notes marked and laid out analogous to the piano keyboard. The PIANO DULCIMER makes it easy for keyboard players to use the dulcimer sound and to play in all keys. Dusty Strings versions are the PD30 and PD40.
- Resin sealed interiors are available on hammer dulcimers to reduce the effects of humidity and improve tuning stability. Tone is not changed; some of my best sounding instruments have this feature. I experimented in the 1970s with wood saturation epoxy to limit the detrimental influences of humdity. Although costly and time-consuming, this is still the best way.
- Tuned braces and carbon fiber frames. Recent experiments in tuning the braces inside hammer dulcimers have resulted in greatly expanded tone and power. This feature is now available in my instruments and in my designs built by Nicholas Blanton. I have also pioneered the use of modern advanced composites technology in dulcimers. With a back and chassis framework of woven carbon fiber composite, my newer dulcimers are stronger and lighter in weight, less susceptible to humidity problems, and also more powerful and resonant.
- Ultralight Arch Back dulcimer designs are the most recent development. They reduce weight and enhance tuning stability and portability.
For me, music is a joyful and powerful spiritual connection to the soul and a bridge between people. Building instruments for others is a responsibility and a privilege.
First published by Dulcimer Sessions, a Mel Bay web magazine. Updated May 2006; May 2017.
Sam’s father, Pasquale, played violin and accordion, and his uncle Earl Nott was a great banjo player. So, Sam fell in love with traditional music and stringed instruments at an early age. He experimented with building banjos and guitars as soon as he could use tools. Chet Parker of Grand Rapids, MI was an early hammer dulcimer inspiration. In 1968 Sam met West Virginia hammer dulcimer player Russell Fluharty, Kentucky mountain dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, and dulcimer innovator Howie Mitchell. Later Sam moved to Randolph County, WV and was influenced by his neighbors like guitarist Blackie Cool and fiddler Woody Simmons, as well as by traditional musicians and instrument customers who visited from distant parts of the world.
In the winter of 2021, Sam became ill. He was eventually diagnosed with Amplified Killer Cell Leukemia, a disease for which there is no cure. He passed on October 26, 2021 in the care of Hospice. He left behind his love of the outdoors and his mark on the design of the modern hammered dulcimer. If you hear one being played, you're hearing a bit of Sam Rizzetta.