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mr79
03-22-2014, 07:38 AM
Because I haven’t yet seen one online, I thought I’d do a quick rough and ready review of the Seagull Merlin Dulcimer which I got last week. It costs about £130 here in the UK. I got mine from Omega Music, with their usual superfast and friendly service.

The Merlin is pitched as a dulcimer ‘inspired’ instrument, one that it is impossible to play a wrong note on (it’s not impossible, I did it!). Mine is made from all solid rock maple with a solid mahogany top (it’s also available with a spruce top). The back, sides, neck and head of the dulcimer are made from a solid block of maple (which is itself three blocks glued together) which has been routed out to create the body cavity. The woodwork on it is lovely, really well made from really nice wood. In terms of woodwork alone it’s probably worth its price!

It has good quality geared tuners with ivory buttons, a plastic bridge and saddle (well, they say Tusq nubone or something similar, but it is basically plastic) and has four strings tuned DAdd (with the last two strings forming one single course). The nut is just a large fret. It has just 7 frets, comprising a diatonic scale with no flats or sharps (although that does depend on how you tune it).

Sound-wise it’s really lovely – loud, but not brash, with that distinctive stick dulcimer sitar-ish, banjo-ish tone. It sounds almost as good as my other stick dulcimer, a GDg tuned, cherry and mahogany custom one I had made by Robert Hinchliffe in Yorkshire. Almost!

So, nicely made and well put together. I did have a couple of niggles though. First was the finish. Of the £130 cost, about 50p of that must have gone on sandpaper as mine was really rough! The finish is matte, which probably contributed to that, but it did almost feel like unfinished, untreated wood.
Second was the bridge. When I held it up the light the treble side was not quite making contact with the top. Also the intonation was ever so slightly off on the melody side. On a normal stick dulcimer, this wouldn't be a problem as you could just whip the bridge off and level it, then position it at the angle you wanted. But the bridge on the Merlin has two plastic lugs sticking out of it which fit into small holes on the top, making adjustments impossible. I assume they've done this as part of the ‘easy to play, no knowledge necessary’ thing.

The biggest niggle is the amount of frets. My custom one, despite being the shorter GDg stick, has almost three times the number, including the all important ‘half’ frets. Where Seagull have ended the fretboard on the Merlin really reduces your options. Also, on a normal stick dulcimer you can explore different tunings (using different strings) to get different keys and moods, but the Merlin’s raised fret nut means if you try larger gauge strings (not much larger either) you get string buzz as the action is set as low as possible. You can get CGcc with no buzz, but lower than that and mined buzzed buzzed buzzzzzzed…

That said, it is good fun. I’ve spent at least an hour a day on it, but that hour has felt more like meditation than musical exploration. It’s possible to just zone out while moving your fingers randomly around the fingerboard, and then completely forget what you just did! But (when I've concentrated more) I have been able to do things on the Merlin and then translate them over to my baritone uke – playing the Merlin seems to make me better on a full chromatic fretboard.

So, would I buy it again? Probably… there’s not much like it! The little booklet has sample tunes like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, which I think speaks volumes about where Seagull are aiming the Merlin. But if I was going to buy an instrument for a kid, then for the same price I could also buy a Bruko solid slimline soprano uke, or any number of other well made, fully chromatic scaled ukes… I kind of love the Merlin for its size, looks and sound quality, but am a little disappointed in its range of use. For relaxing it’s brilliant, for preparation or improvising something for another instrument it’s nice to have around, but as an instrument in its own right I find it limited (like all stick dulcimers, chords on the Merlin would require six-inch fingers). I’m currently modifying it a bit to see what I can get it to be like, which I’ll post up soon.

I hope this is useful to someone, it’s the first review I've done so if I've missed anything shout it out!

Jim Yates
10-05-2014, 07:58 AM
71547

Good review. They have a couple of these at the music store where I teach. One thing I could add is that for those who are used to playing a standard mountain dulcimer, the frets are arranged differently. The Merlin starts at what would be the third fret of a mountain dulcimer.

MickeyD
10-05-2014, 08:36 AM
The guitar store I work in gets these occasionally as well, and I agree with much of your review. I think your assessment concerning the meditative qualities (that you can't play a "wrong" note) are spot on. A fun little instrument, but I would rather a beginner get an instrument with the full chromatic scale, the possibilities are just so much more. I've actually never played a standard mountain dulcimer and this piece makes me want to give it a whirl.

cletus
10-05-2014, 08:39 AM
Thanks for the review. I have been very interested in these instruments.

PhilUSAFRet
12-05-2014, 01:46 PM
Thanks. Just ordered a mahogany topped model. I like the looks of the spruce top better, but in the end, I had to go for the sound I liked better. Perhaps I'll have to get the spruce topped one too. I plan on putting piezo pickups in them.

PS: Tusq and Nubone are not "basically just plastic"

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CB4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.graphtech.com%2Fdocs%2Fdefaul t-document-library%2Foem-catalog_2014.pdf%3Fsfvrsn%3D4&ei=7XKCVLDlFcGvggTblYOgDA&usg=AFQjCNEIHzI95I-hHtJhfZV8Miio6leypQ&sig2=-tSFSqx4-BEXyhiYl37KOA

Update 12/17/14: Been playing this baby. Got several dulcimer books from my library. I'm loving the tone of this thing. I will eventually tune it low DGdd. The neck is a bit thick and may bother some. I has basically a very dull satin finish, so it doesn't gain any points for a beautiful finish. It is however well made, as you would expect from Seagull. As with other instruments it's size and shape, it's a little hard to hold, but I expect it to settle down with a strap. As of now, I'm loving this thing and am glad I bought it. Got the cheaper of the two cases at $19.95 and it nicely made. The appearance of some reddish sapwood in the maple, while somewhat "natural", gives the appearance of a B stock item. Intonation on the D and A strings a little sharp. Tuning must be very "precise"...of course that's as it should be. No sloppy tuning on this baby.