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Extreme Variax Transplant
-- Turning a Variax 300 into a Mountain Dulcimer!
by Quintin Stephens, Katy, TX


The inspirations for the body style.  The first is my main dulcimer that I play on a daily basis.  I play over the top instead of flat lap or from underneath like a guitar, so I only needed the teardrop shape on the top of the instrument. 

The other should be recognizeable as Prince's guitar from Purple Rain.  I've always liked this guitar and thought it was cool looking.  Besides, I was in high school/college in the '80s, so Purple Rain was kind of the theme for my generation.  I like the narrow look and the reversed horn.

I use the electronics from a Variax 300 because I have 4 of them and, If I make any more in the future, 300s are only $299 a piece.  According to what I've read, the electronics are basically the same in the 300/600/700, so I opt for the lesser price.

So, this is the final shape I came up with.  My son named it the Shark, so I have to design a headstock that reflects that theme.  I traced an exact copy of my teardrop dulcimer on the top so when I play, I won't notice any difference.

Now the hard part!  Dulcimers are typically three stringed instruments, or, like mine, a six string in three courses, like a 12-string guitar.   I thought about just cutting down the bridge plate from a 300, but the string spacing on a dulcimer is wider.  So, after exhaustive searches on the internet for a hardtail plate made for three string dulcimers and coming up empty, I decided to just machine my own from bar stock I have.  Here are the rough cuts.

After taking numerous measurements from the Variax 300 hardtail plate, I came up with a hole pattern that works with the dulcimer.  Not only did I have to drill holes for the three bridge pieces, but also for the electronic leads to the Variax board underneath the plate.  Notice the string holes and the intonation screw holes for the individual piezo elements are wider then the spacing for the electronic leads.  Not much, but just a little.  The electronics are 10.5 mm apart and my string spacing is 13.5 mm apart.

Had to file out between the holes at the top where the leads go from the bridges pieces to the Variax board.  At 2.5 mm wide, it took a very small file and about an hour each hole.  Whew!

Not for the faint of heart.  At this stage, I just had to jump off the diving board with both feet and assume that, at worst, I was out $300 if this didn't work.  Man, I wish you could buy individual components from Line 6.  So, since I have only three strings, I only need three of the leads.  I desoldered the board and the leads from the Variax hardtail, held my breath and trimmed the un-needed parts off with my band saw.  At this moment, I have no idea if my experiment is going to work!  If I do many more of these, I'm going to have my own PCB made to do this job.

With the bridge pieces mounted back on.

Now to re-install the works into one of my Variax 300s and test it all out.  Guess what -- IT WORKS JUST FINE!!!  While here, notice that I have also cut apart the "coffin" box that the Variax 300 electronics come in so I can move around the positioning.  Instead of removing the boards from the coffin, I just trimmed the coffin itself to still give me some shielding and something to mount the electronics to.  Notice also that the neck I have installed on this guitar has some frets removed to give me a diatonic scale, as a dulcimer.  Playing this guitar this way is the direct inspiration for the build.  Also, as a lot of you know, the pickguard on the 300 is just plain goofy-looking, so I cut out some flame shapes to go around mine.  Looks kinda cool with a white pickguard and black flames.

Don't worry, I have 4 Variax 300's, so I'll put regular guts back into this one...

So, since my electronics are working and I have a working bridge plate, I continued with the build.  I decided to use Poplar for the main body of the guitar because it is cheap, not too heavy, and available at Home Depot.  The only real worry is that it leaves "fuzzies" on the edges when you are working it, no matter how sharp your tools are.

Gluing up the first two boards.  I will add a 3/8 thick maple top to this.

Making the different jigs to rout the spots for the electronics.  I'll need about 10 different jigs by the time I am done.

Making the main body template...

The additional hole across the top of the jig is to rout out extra wood to lighten the whole thing.  With it being a solid body from stem to stern, this thing will be heavy. 

Body routed to the master template, the excess wood removed across the top, and the channel for the bridge wiring.

I laminated only the first two 3/4 boards so I could rout out the jack hollow from the top, instead of from the edge.  Just seemed easier to me.

Back rout for the main board.  You can see the bridge wire channel peeking through the back rout.

Jack rout, bridge wire rout, excess wood rout, and the main board rout (on back).  OK, so if you look at it one way, it does kind of look like a shark, but if you look the other way, it looks like a flying goose.

Decided to make a soundhole in the top a la Richenbachers, so I went ahead and painted the inside of the rout black.

The soundhole cut into the maple top - kind of a jackknife/lightning bolt.  I am planning on painting this thing, 'cause I can't stain worth a darn - so, not much pretty figure in the top.

Gluing the top onto the body.  Yeah, I know my shop is a mess.  I am a stay-at-home dad and don't get as much time out in the shop as I'd like.

The top has been glued and you can see how the soundhole idea is going to work.  I'll have to get a little paintbrush and paint the inside of the hole black again by the time I'm done.  A closer look at how I cut part of the "coffin" box.  This is the bottom to the section that has the knobs.

The knob plate cut to size.

A quick look at how the Shark/Goose is shaping up.

Knob and 5-way switch rout in the top.  I'll go ahead and mount them on a pickguard like the guitars do,  Notice the large hole leading to the main board rout in the back.  This is for the ribbon cable that connects the two sections.  There is also a hole leading to the jack rout for the big bunch of blue wires that run from the jack to the knob section.  I am also moving the 5-way to above the knobs because I use the 5-way more during a performance than the knobs.  I use WorkBench to pack my custom tones in batches, so, for every one click of the model knob, I hit the 5-way at least 5 times. 

Closer look at how the jack hole turned out.  Much easier than trying to rout on the edge of the instrument. 

Main board rout in the back looking into the knob rout in the front.  You can also see the bridge wire channel at the top.

I used a 3/8 thick top, but, my regular dulcimer has a 1/8 thick top with a little overhang (kind of like a violin) that I have gotten used to using when I play.  So, here I rout the top plate to simulate this overhang.  I definitely had trouble with the edge grain on this poplar chipping out when I used the 2 inch flush trimmer.  If I make any more of these I'll look into a different wood.  I see a lot of filler in my near future.

Routed the battery holder and the cover plate ring.  There is a small hole leading from the battery section to the mainboard section for the battery lead to run through.  Lots of wires leading everywhere in the Variax, so there was a lot of planning ahead.  As you can see, I can change the routing jig for the bridge wire and not make the channel quite so long, which would eliminate taking out any more wood than necessary.  Well, that's what prototypes are for.

Another "not for the faint of heart."  Look at the coffin case for the main board.  I cut it to size, then hammered out the bends to make the top of it flat so I still had coverage over the whole board.  Ugly, but it works.

Put the main board and the battery holder in to check the fit.  That's one thing I like about separating the electronics, you have much more flexibility in placement of the elements.  I  couldn't place the battery holder near the back like the guitars because it would have interfered with the jack.

Ribbon cable leading from the main board through the hole and into the knob section.

Next comes the fretboard and the bridge work!  I'll update as I go along...

Last updated 7/16/07...

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