Posted by Greg Olwell
Before the angry emails start pouring in, let’s be clear about the Seagull Merlin—it is not a guitar. It’s an instrument that didn’t even exist before Seagull invented what it calls the “strummable dulcimer.” But it’s so charming and user-friendly that guitar players looking to expand their sound could easily fall in love with the Merlin’s bright, twangy voice.
Seagull, the acclaimed stringed-instrument company based in La Patrie, Quebec, has made an instrument that’s so easy to play that just about anyone who can press a finger on a string can begin to pluck melodies within seconds. In the several weeks that I had a pair of Merlins—one spruce-topped, the other mahogany-topped—I couldn’t stop playing free-flowing melodies around the office.
For immediate music-making gratification, you can thank the Merlin’s stripped-down design and nonchromatic tuning. The Merlin has fewer frets than usual, and weird spacing. That’s because it takes its inspiration from the classic hillbilly stringed instrument, the Appalachian dulcimer.
The Merlin is designed to be simple to play and to make, and has the “unnecessary” frets removed so it’s almost impossible to press down on a wrong note—provided you’re OK playing in one key.
Like a lap- or table-mounted dulcimer, the Merlin is a diatonic instrument, meaning that it’s tuned to a specific key—D, in this case—and fretted so that you can only play notes in that scale. It’s strung with four steel strings and tuned D-A-D, with the top string doubled, like strings on a mandolin or 12-string guitar.
There’s something about being able to play an instrument without the fear of plucking a wrong note that’s not only liberating, it makes you feel like a musical superhero. Both familiar and improvised melodies seem to fall from my fingers when playing the Merlin, and I find that music just flows a little easier. I mostly play the Merlin with a pick, either single-note lines or strumming all of the strings and playing drone notes while moving a melody line up and down the fingerboard.
There aren’t many instruments built like this one, with strings about the same length as on a baritone ukulele. It has a thick and comfortable one-piece maple neck that’s hollowed out where the fingerboard meets the body. Two small wings on either side of the center strip complete the body, which is capped with either a solid mahogany or spruce top. Both models have a zippy and raw, rootsy sound that leans toward a backwood-banjo plonk and zing, but the different tops seem to give each a distinctive character that’s like the difference between milk chocolate and lemon.
I prefer chocolate-y sounding instruments, so I’d reach for the mahogany Merlin if I were to play by myself. The richly grained top seems to balance the brightness of the maple body and neck with a mellower and warmer sound that feels right for more plaintive playing. But, it isn’t a dark or muddled sound, it’s more of a tight and warm midrange-y tone that compresses highs and lows into a bigger punchier tone the harder I strum or pick.
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If the mahogany version balances the maple’s brightness with softness, the spruce seems to accentuate it. It has tremendous dynamic snap, with a scooped midrange, fizzy highs, and a lively feel that screams “lead instrument.” If I were to play a Merlin with a group and wanted to be heard, this would be the one I’d pack in the gig bag. It’s loud, bright, and frisky, but not harsh.
I have to hand it to Seagull for twisting the lap-style Appalachian dulcimer and making a strummable instrument that feels familiar and useable for a guitar player.
Both Merlins are inspiring—and about as player friendly as a stringed instrument could be at a price that makes them an affordable way to add a fresh, unique flavor to your next strumming session.
At a Glance
Strummable dulcimer available with a spruce or mahogany top
Hollowed maple body with integral neck/fingerboard
$155 list; $129 street, seagullguitars.com