Michael Fox doesn’t claim to be the inventor of the dulcijo, but he certainly plays the hybrid instrument like it’s all his own.
Fox, 54, of Hickory, started experimenting several years ago on the design of an instrument with the neck of a dulcimer and the drum of a banjo, and after infusing the right parts in each instrument into one music-maker, the dulcijo was born.
“It finally, after about five or 10 years, came together,” Fox said. “I just came up with this name, and I thought it was unique.”
But after some research, Fox discovered that other dulcijos exist in the United States. Each dulcijo is as unique as its creator, and the fact that other instruments similar to his exist in the world doesn’t bother Fox at all.
“I don’t much care,” he said. “I don’t know who was first. I certainly don’t go around claiming invention. I just like playing it. It’s about all I play now.”
Fox plays music in the style of what he calls traditional Appalachian Mountain music.
He uses his left hand to play the dulcijo like a dulcimer, and he uses his right hand to pluck the instrument in the old-time claw hammer banjo style, which requires Fox to play the dulcijo with a downward stroke of the back of his fingernail.
“It’s the way folks played prior to the introduction of microphones and radios,” he said. “It’s played like they did in barns and square dances, and it’s really associated with the mountains.”
Fox’s traditional mountain music caught the ear of documentarian Bruce Bowers last year at the Apple Festival in Wilkesboro while Fox and a friend were sitting by the road playing their instruments.
“A gentleman asked if he could use my music in his documentary,” Fox said. “I thought it was neat, but I didn’t think much of it.”
Fox sent Bowers a copy of several of Fox’s songs on a CD, and Bowers infused the music into his documentary, which premiered Sunday at 7 p.m. on WTVI in Charlotte.
“I didn’t know what (the documentary) was going to be like, but I was really pleased when I saw it,” Fox said. “The music is really just kind of subtle in the background. (Bowers) really does a good job of just blending it into the film.”
Fox’s music featured on the documentary is a combination of classic favorites, like “Amazing Grace,” as well as a tune he wrote, called “Robin in the Road.”
The unique design of Fox’s dulcijo makes it easier for Fox to play certain scales and keys on the instrument.
Traditional banjos have five strings, but the dulcijo has three. Instead of regularly spaced frets along the neck of the instrument, the dulcijo leaves out certain frets that aren’t necessary when playing the mountain-style music.
“It would be a lot like leaving a couple of black keys off a piano,” he said.