Maker: Bill Berg, The Dulcimer King
The Brown County luthier has strung together a terrific career building traditional instruments.
Some of Bill Berg’s traditional mountain instruments may look like the sort of thing played alongside a whiskey jug in a holler, but they’ve landed in the hands of rock’s biggest stars. “R.E.M. bought a specialized instrument from me that had a sitar-like sound,” Berg says. Turning out dulcimers, harps, and psalteries since the 1970s, the 68-year-old craftsman has also supplied many recording studios.
Berg began studying under a violin-maker after graduating from high school. Later, he peddled his handmade instruments at craft fairs and music festivals. “I sold to a lot of young women who wanted to be like Joni Mitchell,” he says. “Now, I sell to older ladies, and Joni Mitchell would be in that ‘older lady’ category.”
Perhaps Berg’s most popular instrument is the dulcimer. For hourglass dulcimers, he soaks wood slices, bends them around piping, and torch-heats. Hammered dulcimers include much thicker pieces. “There’s a great amount of tension on those,” Berg notes. That tension comes from piano wire strings—66 of them on larger models. Placing the bridges perfectly is key. “If the bridges are off by an eighth of an inch, you’ll play the wrong notes from one side to the other,” he says. To anyone who would disparage the dulcimer as primitive, Berg points to the complex arrangement of strings and painstaking craftsmanship required to make the hammered variety. “It’s really like playing a little piano,” he says.