Where Dulcimers Are Born
A Visit with Homer Ledford
The Appalachian dulcimer is the Kentucky's official
instrument. There are several craftsmen in the state who
hand-make the instrument, including Homer Ledford of
If you're looking for Homer Ledford’s workshop, check behind
his house. You can't miss it because there is a hand-carved
dulcimer on the mailbox. Inside, there are stacks of wood,
various saws and drill bits along with instruments in
various states of repair.
Perched on a stool, Homer Ledford begins the
dulcimer-making process at his saw.
Ledford has been crafting Appalachian dulcimers since 1946.
He's working on number 5,963 right now. It's a labor
intensive process that has to meet tough standards: his own.
lucked into his profession by being in the right place at
the right time. While a student at a vocational school in
North Carolina, a handicraft guild in New York city
requested some dulcimers to sell. (The instrument was
gaining popularity in the East thanks to folk musician Jean
Ritchie who incorporated the dulcimer in her work with
under-privileged kids in New York.) Homer jumped at the
chance to fill the original orders with his own creations.
Until then, he had only made a fiddle from cast off wood.
His dulcimers sold quickly and soon there were more orders
to fill. Homer started producing 200 a year. That wasn't his
only source of income, though. He also taught industrial
arts. But he had to quit teaching in 1965 to devote more
time to dulcimer making.
Ledford inspects a recently cut dulcimer top.
Ledford works by himself. He says he doesn't have time to
teach an apprentice. His son, Mark, used to help a little in
the shop but he favors computers over wood. Homer prefers to
work with walnut, spruce, cherry and butternut woods: the
thinner, the better. He gets some of his wood from old barns
and churches. The machines he uses include electric drills,
fret and coping saws, a table sander and lathe. But he
considers his "basic" tool a pocketknife.
Ledford’s first dulcimers sold for $20. Number 5,000 brought
the highest price he's received at $1,200.
owns more than a dozen of his own creations including
acoustic, fretless, bowed, and eight-string dulcimers. One
of his Appalachian dulcimers is on a rotating display at the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC along with a
5-string banjo and his dulcitar, an instrument that is part
dulcimer, part guitar
Ledford also repairs various instruments including
knows where most of his creations are because all but the
first 100 have a serial number and he keeps a record of the
number and owner. He also logs any repair work he's done on
the instruments. Homer is a master repairman with the C.F.
Martin Company and spends more time these days “fixing"
rather than "making" instruments. But at age 75, he says he
doesn't plan to stop crafting dulcimers anytime soon.
Homer Ledford story and photos by WEKU's
Dulcimer photo courtesy Kentucky Arts Council