Strumstick vs Merlin

There is one question that I have received for quite some time. "Which is better, Seagull Merlin vs Strumstick?"

That's a bit like picking favorite children, so have a look at my attempt to answer it by comparing the two. They're both stick dulcimers, but they're fairly different, so it'll come down to preference!

Strumstick vs Merlin | Video Transcription

Hey there, I'm Ryan with StickDulcimer.com coming to you from East Nashville's recording studio Forty-one Fifteen. This is a great location. My friend Dewey gave me an opportunity to sit in here and make some videos for you on how to understand stick dulcimers, and a question we get a lot of the time is “what is the difference between the Strumstick and the Seagull Merlin?

Which one are we after here, Strumstick versus Seagull Merlin. Okay, now I have another video that's about this one, and this one these are both Strumsticks. This is the G29 junior model, and this is the D33 model. I want to compare this one and this one today, the Seagull Merlin M4, because they're both in this case, they're both tuned to D A D, so they're in the same note register. So we can have a better comparison.

Okay, now, there's a lot of things about both of these instruments that are similar and a few things that are different. They're both stick dulcimers. That's something a lot of people don't realize in that they are both diatonically fretted. They're fretted to be in one key, and they're tuned like a mountain dulcimer, so one five octave, D A D in both cases. Now some of the differences and why people often don't know that Merlin's and Strumsticks are the same general family of instruments is that they have different fret counts and different string counts and different spacings on the neck. A lot of stuff, so let me break those down.

First, I'll go through the Seagull Merlin. Now this is made in Canada. This one particularly is one piece of maple all the way through. Technically it's glued right back here, but it's one main piece of maple as the neck and for the body as well. And then it's got a spruce top on it. They come in mahogany as well. It's four strings with the top strings being doubled so those doubled strings give it what's called a chorusing effect, which I personally prefer quite a bit. It gives more volume, it gives it just a slightly different type of sound, similar more to like a mandolin would be.

So now for comparison's sake, this is the D33 model. Notice that it sounds a little thinner and that's that's entirely due to the fact that the body is smaller it's got less resonant capacity. Now it is three strings, again tuned the same D A D. And one thing that you may notice is that there are more frets on it. These frets are the wire pieces that you push the strings down on. The Seagull Merlin has only seven frets. It's one octave, so one full scale of frets, whereas the Strumsticks, the McNally Strumsticks, have one and a half octaves of frets. So, now the thing that you may have noticed when I was playing that is there's also an extra note. There's one extra fret here. It is from the mountain dulcimer world known as the six and a half fret, or in music theory world, the flat seven note.

The Seagull Merlin on the other hand does not have that. It is strictly one octave. So that's a big difference. I can't advise you on which one you should go with from that perspective, but if you want super easy, whether it's for kids or your first time out trying to learn, maybe that extra frets are something you want to leave out for now and go with the Merlin, right?

Now the other thing to keep in mind with the Strumstick, this one in particular, the Grand McNally, the D33 versus the Seagull Merlin is that the spacing on the frets is way larger. You can see the stature of the instruments is similar in length, but the fret scale, in terms of how long the fretboards are, is different. And so with that, the spacing on the frets for this one are much wider apart. Now on the smaller version they make, it's a little closer together. It's a little more similar to the Seagull Merlin, so depending on the size of your hand, your comfort with fretted instruments, that's something you may want to keep in mind.

Another thing similar to that, in that it has to do with spacing, is that the McNally Strumsticks are very similar in spacing between the strings as a guitar would be. The neck is one inch wide, so the strings are closer together, whereas the Seagull Merlin, they've made a wider neck on it, presumably for helping with education, with new fingers on fretboards, so that there's less room for you to nudge up against other strings. The neck is about  1 1/8" wide, and that 1/8" makes a big difference.

So if you're used to playing guitar, and I've been playing for 30 years, sometimes it throws me off for just the first minute trying to figure out where the strings are, but I've also found that it's kind of comforting to have that little extra space... so just something to be aware of. Again, that makes this a pretty good instrument for people who are playing for the very first time. 

Now something you want to keep in mind, just depending on when you're purchasing, if you think about an electric Strumstick or an electric Seagull Merlin, they both come that way. Now this particular one has a pickup back here, but it has no controls. It's just a pickup you plug into an amp with a cable, quarter inch cable. Same thing here on the Seagull Merlin. This is an EQ model Seagull Merlin M4 EQ model, but the thing I love about these is they come with an onboard tuner and a tone and volume control there.

So both the Strumstick company and the Seagull Merlin company have pickup options, but the Seagull Merlin has a little extra something to it in that it has the tuner and the volume controls. So those are a couple, those are a few... oh you know one more thing of high importance is the bridge. The bridge is back here. This is the part where the strings go over the sound resonant cavity of the instrument, and that's how they vibrate and give you the sound that you've got.

[Learn More: What is a Dulcimer Guitar?]

Now this is a much larger sound. I think I was alluding to that earlier, but the other thing is that this bridge is what's known as fixed. In other words, it's just glued right there, and the bridge saddle, right there, which is the white part. That's what's called "compensated." Which means out of the factory, it's designed for the strings that are on it and only the strings that are on it. Now you can get away with a little bit of variance if you're getting fancy and want to try out new string gauges, but you you can't get away with, say, G tuned strings on this particular instrument. But the real big difference there is that this is fixed. It's glued and it's compensated, whereas on all Strumsticks and pickin' sticks, the bridge back here is actually a "floating" bridge.

That's just something worth knowing because what can happen is when you get it at home and you're playing around with it, maybe you knock it into something, maybe you press really hard on it, it can get a little out of tune because the bridge actually moves around affecting how the strings are sized and where they vibrate a little bit, so if you get that, just be aware that that possibility. I think all the Woodrow instruments, which are made in Asheville, are the same way.

I have a video for how to compensate for that, how to figure out if it's out of tune, that it's possibly the floating bridge. But anyway, the point being that they have that difference between both the Strumstick and the Seagull Merlin. So if you're trying to decide between a Seagull Merlin versus the Strumstick, I hope this has given you what you need to know. If you have other questions, by all means, feel free to reach out at hello@stickdulcimer.com, and we'll do our best to give you everything we know.

Thanks!