BEREA, Ky. – Berea is designated the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky, and Warren May has played the Appalachian dulcimer far longer than it’s been designated Kentucky’s state instrument.
“You basically have a guitar style instrument without all the bad notes and far, far easier to play,” May said.
May has also makes them as long as he’s played, 48 years. He made his first dulcimer in 1972 because he couldn’t afford one. So long before the days of YouTube, the high school woodshop teacher, at the time, taught himself.
“Once I realized the dulcimer was easier to play than a guitar, and I could really play notes to songs and actually have more fun playing an instrument, I just dropped the guitar altogether and started making dulcimers, and that was my career,” May said.
He opened a store in 1977 to sell his dulcimers and furniture, but didn’t make much money until a big break nine years later. The Smithsonian catalog ordered 100 dulcimers.
“Which I had to make in 90 days, so that sort of set my pace of a dulcimer a day,” May told Spectrum News 1.
With help from a few full-time workers, May kept that pace. At the end of 2019, the 72-year-old closed his store to slow down and now works solely out of his woodworking shop on his farm. He still works on several dulcimers at a time with part-time help, and the whole process to make one instrument takes three weeks.
May takes great pride in the wood he chooses to make his instruments with, and the type chosen helps determine how the dulcimer will sound.
“Like on a walnut you might do a strumming like you would on a soft guitar. A cherry you would play your really bright, specific noting songs, or finger picking,” May explained. “ [With] poplar you might do a little more of a brassy, mountainy, rusky sound.”
Almost half-a-century after the first one made, May has hand-crafted a lot of Kentucky dulcimers. On the day Spectrum News 1 visited Warren, he was working on instrument 18,841. A paper sealed inside each dulcimer proves it.
“And I have hand-signed each one of them. I don’t have printed labels. I actually make each one from brown paper bags,” May laughed.
Each dulcimer sells for $400 to $1,200, depending on the wood, design, or if it’s a special order. Out of the all the steps to make one, a finished dulcimer is May’s favorite part of the whole process.
“I think that’s the joy of instrument making, is the final product of the music, and the enjoyment of playing the music,” May said.
And no one makes a Kentucky dulcimer like May. That’s because he said he has never shown someone how to make the instrument exactly the way he does. And as long as he’s healthy, May said he’ll keep making them.