Seagull Merlin Tuning

If you're going to learn to play an instrument, you need to learn to tune it. But, how? As it turns out, today's technology makes it easier than in the past, but there are still several ways to tackle the problem, and knowing a variety of them can help you should something come up.

 Seagull Merlin Tuning | Video Transcription

Hey everyone, I keep getting questions abou:

  • "How do I tune the instrument?"
  • "How do I tune my Seagull Merlin?"
  • "How do I tune my stick dulcimer?"

[Got a non-Seagull stick dulcimer? Try the Stick Dulcimer Tuning video instead.]

So for today, I'm gonna go over tuning a Merlin. In this case I've got a mahogany top Seagull M4 Merlin stick dulcimer. So I'll walk through a couple quick things on this, and then we'll take it from there. There's a couple different ways that you can think about tuning an instrument. They vary in terms of sophistication level, ear level, training, or expense. I'll try and walk through a couple of those.

The first thing to know - because I think there's also a question on what it should be tuned to - a standard tuning for a dulcimer is root, five, octave. So one, five, octave, which is reference to the scale, the pitch of the scale. So the "root" is the first note, "5" is the fifth note, "8" is the octave, which is the repeat of the first note so that's how these should be tuned. The standard tuning of the actual notes themselves that come out of the gate from the factory on these guys is D-A-D. Some Strumsticks will come out at D-A-D, and other versions will be G-D-G which is standard. But, of course, you could tune it up or down depending on what you feel like doing, or what the gauge of the strings is that you have, which is a whole separate topic unto itself.

Relative Tuning

So, anyway, getting the tuning part now. There's tuning relative to the instrument, which is often what I'll do simply because I don't feel like finding a starting pitch. And what I mean by "relative" to the instrument is, if you assume one of the notes on here, one of the strings, is correct, then you tune everything else relative to it. So in this case I'm gonna assume that my low string, D, is in tune and then I'll tune the rest of the strings relative to it. This is the cheapest way of doing it because I don't have an external tuner involved.

So for the sake of this demo I'm going to detune a couple these strings here. Sounds real good doesn't it? Alright so a way to do this is to, assuming again that your low string is the one you want to tune to, to then fret at the 4th fret. And then while you're holding that down strike the next string to see if you can get those two to match. It'll mean you have to strike the strings a lot. Go back and forth then tune, back  and forth and tune, and you may not be able to hear the difference if you're starting to play an instrument for the first time. You may have a hard time hearing the difference.

So what I recommend for that is listen and then, if you're not sure, detune the string you're trying to get in tune. And then that way you know where you should be, which is lower (flat), then tune UP to where it starts to sound in tune. And then I don't know so I need to check again. Really close. And for me that's close enough for now. You can repeat that process but on a different string, on a different fret. So, if you go to the third fret on the new string that you tuned you can get the note, which is the octave.

[If you're still getting started learning, check out our Seagull Merlin Lessons]

Now the tricky part that I want to point out to you is that because, on a Seagull Merlin you've got two upper strings, it's really hard to get those things tuned separate. So what I recommend doing is - this is hard - hold down the top top or the one closest to the floor with your thumb, and, if you can, with your nail strike just that one that's in between. You can also figure out how to do that with two hands, but then you don't have one to tune with, so I would recommend you just try to use your thumb. So you're just resting your thumb on this bottom string, because you want to get just one string of those top two in tune first. Then you can tune the second one to that one.

Again I'll do, in this case, I'll do a fretting here on the third fret. And that is pretty close for me for now. And then we leave just the top two strings and if you know that the one that's the closest to your to your face if that one's the one that's in tune then you can just strike both of them. Again tuning down then tuning back up until they sound real close.

Now then the whole thing about having two strings at the top, the fun thing about that is that you can't physically ever get them perfectly in tune. And that's part of the beauty of this particular sound. So it gives it what's called a "chorusing" effect. That's the exact same sound effect that you have when you're using a 12-string guitar or a mandolin, so never expect to be able to get them perfect, but you should be able to hear getting them real close to one another. I'll down-tune and re-tune again. There we go. Now another way you can tune that top string is to try and hit the low string and the top string sounding in tune, which is harder on the ear when you're still learning, because they are the same note but they're an octave apart so they're not going to sound identical, but your ears should start to hear where the oscillations of the different frequencies -- man that sounds nerdy, when those start to align.

I'm not going to do that right now. But that's the idea. That's another way to check your tuning across the whole instrument, because if you do get them, if you're slightly off when you're going relative - the relative method - if you're slightly off as you go from the first to the second, you'll be slightly off when you get from the second to third. And even though you think you got in tune, the whole thing is out of whack. So anyway, tuning relative to itself is one way to get the instrument where you want it.

EQ Model Seagull Merlin M4

Now the second way is the slightly sort of cop-out way in my opinion - in a good way! Is if you buy one of the ones that has an "EQ" on it. They call it an "EQ" but it's actually a tuner, so you get the volume, you get the tone, right there. Then you can turn that on and get it to tell you whether you're sharp or flat. And it just so happens - so that's if you buy the EQ model Seagull Merlin but it just so happens that it's telling me that my mine is flat.

So when I tuned relative to itself I did not get the starting reference point on the low string to be an actually in-tune D. I just assumed it and I went with it. So that leaves you with "how do I get this bottom string, or any of the strings, to be in tune to something other than themselves?" So the way I typically do that is I have a tuner, an external tuner, that I use. This is just one that I found on Amazon. I guess I could probably put a link to it in the video. But there's also ones that you can get that will clip on to the end of the instrument. Those are fun because they don't require the room to be quiet, they can work off the vibrations of the instrument themselves. You can get those. I hope to have some of those on the website soon as well. So the way these work is you strike the string, and then it tells you whether it's flat or sharp. You can see the meter go across and then you do the same, actually the same tactic that I described earlier, as you would drop the string down to a slightly lower pitch then work your way up to it. I can't really do that while holding this instrument, but take my word for it. So the clip-on mechanism that most people use these days is really great because you don't have to, not only just a tune against the vibrations of the instrument, but you don't lose it as easily because you can just leave it clipped on.

There's also apps out there. I use ClearTune which I can't show you right now because my phone is in use for recording this. Anyway, those are some options. I feel like I've definitely left something off, like tuning forks if you want to get into that, but for the most part that's where you need to go. If you have questions it'd probably be easier for me just to field those and make another video if I need to so let me know.

Thanks!

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