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The southern Appalachian mountain culture and string-instrument music go hand-in-hand. The craft of building these instruments goes back to the earliest Anglo settlers in the region. Many of these homemade instruments were faithful reproductions of what might be purchased in a store or from a mail-order house. Others represented combinations of instruments, grafted together in the mind of some nameless mountain inventor, producing something new and unique.

The Mountain Lark is such an instrument: a contemporary representative of mountain ingenuity and hand-craftsmanship. I originally developed the Lark for an entry level lutherie class I was teaching at the John Campbell Folk School, where it was known as a "Campbellin". After building several prototypes, I was impressed by the solid construction, graceful lines, and high, sweet sound. And speaking of sound, nearly everyone that hears the Mountain Lark for the first time is amazed by the amount of sound that comes from such a simple instrument.

If you are just starting to learn music, there are few stringed instruments that are as easy to learn to play as the Mountain Lark. The instrument is tuned to an open chord. That means that if you strum across all three strings at once, a harmonious sound will result. Once your instrument is in tune, you will find it quite simple to pick out a song on the melody string (the bottom string if you are holding the instrument like a guitar). Use the index finger of your left hand to depress the string between the different frets to get different notes. At the same time, strum across the melody string with the pick held in your right hand. Once your tune is well in mind, continue to play it, but strum across all three strings instead of just the melody string. The other two strings are not noted (playing in this style) but act as drones to produce harmonies to the melody string.

Although the Mountain Lark can be tuned in a variety of ways to play in different keys, I most often play it tuned A-E-A (key of A). To get into this tuning, follow these steps:

1. Tune the bass string (gold colored, fat string) to the A immediately below middle C on a piano.

2. Depress the bass string at the fourth fret and tune the open (not depressed) middle string to sound the same as the fretted bass string.

3. Finally, depress the middle string at the third fret and tune the open melody string (the one opposite the bass string) to sound the same as the fretted middle string.

The two outside strings should now be A notes an octave apart. The middle string should be an E note in between the two A notes.

Tunings for some other keys are as follows:

KEY
BASS
MIDDLE
MELODY
G
G
D
G
D
A
D
A
C
G
C
G

The strings that come on this instrument are light gauge ball-end banjo strings (.011, .012, and .020 wound). Different sizes of strings will change the sound but may require the bridge and nut to be reslotted. Heavier gauge strings will increase the stress on the neck and in extreme cases could cause bowing. I do not recommend using any string more than plus or minus one size (.001) of the original.

Since I sell a fair amount of my instruments to folks just passin' through our neck of the woods, I need to mention one other thing. The absolute worst thing you can do to a stringed instrument is to leave it closed up in an automobile on a hot day. Those that are afoot or on horseback shouldn't have much problem.

You may have grown up around traditional old-time music, become attracted to it by a visit to the mountains, or just be drawn by the unique looks and sound of this little instrument. Whichever it is, the Mountain Lark offers you a stepping stone into the musical heritage of the Appalachian people or an avenue to start a musical heritage of your own.

I was playing a tune called "The Arkansas Traveler" at an old-time music festival. As I completed my rendition, I heard the voice of an elderly gentleman from the back of the crowd: "That may be a new-fangled instrument, but it sure can make some good old music."

If you have any questions, please contact me.

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