It’s amazing just how many people dream about playing a stringed instrument. When they finally do get around to trying out a guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or bass, they sometimes find it takes a little more work than they figured to make their dreams come true. If you are one of those people who has always wanted to make your own music, instead of buying it prepackaged in the store, let me tell you about an instrument that is both very easy to play and inexpensive to buy — the dulcimer.
Of all the stringed instruments you can think of, the dulcimer is the one whose history has always been shrouded in mystery. Take its name, for example. Although most people refer to it as a dulcimer, others insist on spelling it like it is sometimes pronounced: “dulcymore.” Even more confusing is the fact that there are even two different instruments that go by that name! The one we are going to be talking about is a long slender instrument that is usually equipped with three or four strings. It is always played on the lap, and hence is also called the lap dulcimer, but also responds to the name Appalachian dulcimer, mountain dulcimer or plucked dulcimer.
But competing for the name is an entirely different instrument that is shaped like a trapezoid and is played with lightweight mallets. This “dulcimer” is often referred to as a hammer or hammered dulcimer. Are you thoroughly confused?
When most people think about the Appalachian dulcimer, their brains often conjure up quaint old scenes of quilts, baskets and crooked roads winding through deep gorges of Appalachian mountains. Although this stereotype is generally a farce, it is true that the dulcimer has developed through the years in the Appalachian South. Its history before that is, unfortunately, still a mystery. Musicologists have been arguing about the origins of the dulcimer for over thirty years and haven’t reached an agreement yet. The general consensus is that immigrants from northern Europe brought related instruments (or the idea of the instruments) to America during their passage to this country. European instruments that may have acted as a prototype include the Norwegian langeleik, the Swedish hummel, the German sheitholt, the Icelandic langspil and the French epinette des Vosges.
American craftsmen, working in their homes and workshops, undoubtedly borrowed ideas from some of these instruments and fashioned their own handmade instruments which later took the name “dulcimer.” What is amazing is the individuality of these handmade instruments. Early versions of the dulcimer varied in nearly all construction details. Eventually, several general shapes became commonly used and most dulcimers found today share numerous characteristics, including a long slender body with a hollow fingerboard running the length of the instrument, a movable bridge and hand carved tuning pegs.
This is not to say that there isn’t still a wide variety of types of dulcimers. Homer Ledford, from Winchester, Kentucky, for example, has been known to combine the dulcimer with the Dobro guitar (a “dulcibro”) and the dulcimer with the guitar (a “dulcitar”).
Occasionally, one also finds an enlarged dulcimer that has two fretboards, sitting side by side. Often called a courting dulcimer, this instrument was designed to be played by two people, sitting opposite one another. Legend has it that the instrument was often played by young couples engaged in the quaint act of “courting.” With their knees practically touching as they strummed the dulcimer, it was as risqué as mountain propriety would allow. The rule was that couples were allowed to be unchaparoned as long as they played the dulcimer. When the music stopped, however, one of their parents would come running to find out what was going on. I wonder how many couples decided to take the plunge and get married just so they could visit each other without having to play that dang dulcimer all the time!
Now that we know a little background about the dulcimer, let’s talk about selecting one. Although not as widespread as guitars or banjos, dulcimers are available at many music shops around the country. In the Appalachian South, dulcimers are easy to find at most craft shops. Traditionally, dulcimers have been hand made by individual craftsmen working in small workshops. In recent years the dulcimer has gone the way of modern times and has become another victim of technology. Dulcimers are now mass produced in Japan, South Korea, and Czechoslovakia. Instead of using fine hardwoods, the factory-made instruments have yielded to plywood. Of course, a plywood instrument is still OK to play, it just sounds like it’s being played inside a paper bag!
When selecting a dulcimer, it is a good idea to sit down and play as many dulcimers as you can to compare playability, tone, and general appearance. As you start shopping for your instrument you’ll soon find out that there are numerous critical choices you’ll have to make. Take strings, for example. Dulcimers come with different numbers of strings. I suggest a three stringed dulcimer, although a four string dulcimer is also perfectly fine. Some dulcimers are equipped with double strings on some, or all, of the strings. This, too, is OK, but keep in mind that the more strings you have, the more tuning you’ll have to do. My philosophy is the fewer strings, the better.
The next critical choice you’ll have to make is tuning pegs. Traditionally, hand- carved pegs have been standard equipment on home made dulcimers. Although pegs of this type fit in with the character and temperament of the dulcimer, they are often persnickety, and a bother to tune. The solution is to have fine metal tuners attached to the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece. Fine tuners are the greatest thing since sliced bread; they make tuning a breeze. In order to attach the fine tuners, there must be at least an inch of space between the tailpiece (where the strings are attached) and the bridge. Without this amount of space, the fine tuners won’t fit. If the dulcimer you own (or are considering buying) can’t be fitted with fine tuners, you may want to consider converting to machine tuners, as they’re called. Although not traditional, and certainly not as aesthetically pleasing as hand carved pegs, the machine tuners certainly make tuning easier, even bearable.
The other choices you’ll have to make aren’t as weighty as the ones you’ve just dealt with. Mainly, they have to do with the outward appearance of the instrument.
Top: The top or soundboard of the dulcimer is largely responsible for the sound quality. The best dulcimers are constructed with quarter-sawn spruce for the top, the same type of wood used in fine guitar construction. Ask the salesperson in the music or craft shop what wood is used in the top.
Sound holes: Dulcimers have always had a wide variety of shapes of sound holes. For you, this will merely be a matter of aesthetics. Heart shaped sound holes are the most common and are rather romantic, don’t you think?
Size: Generally, the larger the dulcimer, the more volume there is. If you are planning on playing in a band (or on the Grand Ole Opry) you might want to purchase a dulcimer with a slightly larger sound box. However, when you’re first learning, “quiet is beautiful.”
Strings: The easiest thing is just to buy a set of dulcimer strings, already packaged and ready to go. However, dulcimer strings are often hard to find. Eeeks. Please remain calm! There is a simple solution. In the event you can’t find dulcimer strings, simply purchase a set of light gauge banjo strings. When it’s time to change strings (every few months, depending on how often you play) set your dulcimer on your lap with the tuning pegs pointing to the left. The string closest to you is called the first or melody string. Sometimes this string is strung double. The string furthest from you is the bass string and is named either third or fourth, depending on the number of strings on your dulcimer.
So unwrap your set of banjo strings, making sure not to bend or crimp any of the strings. The banjo fourth will work for your bass string. Since the first and fifth strings of a banjo are identical, you can use these for your first and second strings. If you have double first strings, use the banjo first and fifth there. You can then use the banjo second for the middle string on the dulcimer. Feel free to experiment with strings, since almost every dulcimer player you talk to uses different strings on their instrument.
Dulcimers are tuned in a variety of ways, depending on the type of song you want to play. For starters, let’s learn to play in the most common tuning, which is called Ionian. Using a pitch pipe, electronic tuner, piano, or any tuned instrument for that matter, play a D note and tune your bass string (the one furthest from you as you hold it on your lap) to that. If you don’t have another instrument to tune to, don’t panic! Just tighten the bass string so it is about medium tension. When you get the bass string where you want it, fret (or push down with your left index finger) the bass string to the left of the fourth fret. The note produced will be an “A”. This is the note the other two or three strings should be tuned to. Merely play that fretted note and change the other strings until they match that note. Counting from the first through the third or fourth strings, the tuning of your dulcimer will then be AAD or AAAD, depending if you have three or four strings.
As you are fumbling with your dulcimer trying to tune, don’t forget that fine tuners will save you umpteen hours. Run out right now and get some. (Take your dulcimer with you to make sure they fit your instrument).
More Tuning Hints:
Your wonderful, graceful, traditional hand carved pegs may well give you a fit! To make them work better, try pushing them slightly inward as your are turning the peg. If they will not hold the pit.ch and keep slipping, check to see if the pegs are slick. If so, remove the peg and roll them one turn only in 100 grit sandpaper to roughen them up enough so they’ll hold. Some people also recommend blackboard chalk to add a little resistance to the peg. If you do have fine tuners and your pegs slip, you can buy an inexpensive chunk of fiddle rosin from the music store and simply power a corner of it and apply to the peg. This method will make the pegs very sticky and hard to turn, so think of the rosin as weak glue that will hold your slippery pegs so you can tune with the fine tuners. Excess rosin can be removed by washing in warm water and soap. However, moisture tends to make the pegs expand, so keep in mind that washing the pegs could add another misery to tuning.
Although dulcimers can certainly be played with just your bare fingers, some players use a “noter” with their left hand to play the notes. A noter is nothing more than a round stick or dowell (about 3/8th in diameter) about two inches long. If you like the idea of fretting the strings with a noter, that’s perfectly OK. If not, your fingers will do a fine job.
More Playing Equipment
Some traditional dulcimer players insist on using a turkey feather or quill for strumming the instrument. Here again, it’s a matter of preference. Let’s start out using our fingers and if you like, you can later graduate to a turkey quill or its modern equivalent: a pick.
Let’s begin with a fine old hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Remember that you will be fretting the first or melody string (the one closest to you) with the index finger of your left hand, or using a noter. The other strings will be strummed “open” or unfretted, which produces a drone-like or bagpipe effect. When fretting the melody string, be sure to push down in the middle of the space. The third space or fret, for example, would be between the second and third metal fret.
For your right hand, merely strum all the strings with your right index finger. The direction your strum will be away from you. If you do happen to have a pick or quill handy, you can certainly use it.
So now we’re ready to play “Amazing Grace.” The numbers over the words tell you what fret of the first or melody string to play. The zero tells you to play the strings open, or unfretted. The arrows are to remind you to strum “down” or “across.” It helps to sing or hum to song to yourself as you are playing. Be sure to strum all the strings with your right index finger or pick.
Until you get used to which fret is which, it’s not a bad idea to write the number of the frets on the fingerboard so you can more easily tell what fret you want to play. Use a soft dull pencil so as not so mangle your beautiful dulcimer.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
0 3 5 4 5 4 3 1 0
That saved a wretch like me.
0 3 545 4 7
I once was lost but now I’m found,
0 3 5 4 5 4 3 1 0
Was blind but now I see.
0 3 5 4 5 4 3
Wayne Erbsen is a master of a number of different instruments including the dulcimer, banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. He has written over thirty instruction books and songbooks. Check out his book Southern Mountain Dulcimer.