DULCIMERS - THE INSTRUMENTS - FAQ
Where can I buy one?
Both Mountain Dulcimers and Hammered Dulcimers are unique handcrafted
instruments, not typically found in local or general music stores. The two instruments
are very different from each other, the only resemblance being they are both made from
wood, have strings and bear the same name. The best places to buy are directly from
the builders (known as luthiers). Most of them have websites where you can compare
instruments. Dulcimer festivals often have vending areas for dulcimer luthiers to sell
their instruments directly. This affords a hands-on tryout and lets you fit the instrument
size to your hands and the musical tone to your ears. Many instruments, especially
hammered dulcimers due to their larger size, are special ordered and custom made by
the luthier. You will get a unique instrument with your choice of woods.
What kind of music is used for dulcimer?
Mountain Dulcimer music is played by reading ‘tablature’, a number system based on
the same principles as tablature used to play guitar, mandolin, banjo, or lute. You do
not need to read music notation to play. The fretboard is different from other fretted
string instruments, using the diatonic scale (do, re, mi scale) of eight whole notes known
as an ‘octave’, unlike the guitar’s use of the chromatic scale of all twelve notes.
Because of its use of the whole note diatonic scale, mountain dulcimer is considered
easy to play as you can easily sound out the notes for a tune. Many dulcimer tab books
are available for sale.
Hammered Dulcimers use regular music notation and require the ability to ‘read
music’. This instrument also uses the ‘diatonic scale’ (do, re, mi scale), and can more
easily play in different keys. Its many strings are stretched over two bridges that sit on
top of the soundboard. Hammered Dulcimer is like a naked grand piano, where you can
see the strings under the lid.
Is there just one type of both Mountain and Hammered Dulcimer?
No, on both counts!
Mountain Dulcimer, a folk instrument that lends itself to change through the folk process,
started out years ago in tunings of a 1-5- 5 scale relationship (often tuned to DAA). These
traditional dulcimers had a ‘6’ fret, but around 1955, a new 6 ½ was added, allowing the
instrument to be tuned to a 1-5- 8 (often tuned to DAD) relationship. This allows greater
versatility and use of a chord-melody playing style. The use of a newly-developed capo offered
more playing keys. Dulcimer shapes include hourglass, teardrop, and box shaped. Through the
folk process, newer instrument varieties on the market include chromatic dulcimers, bass
dulcimers, baritone dulcimers, banjo dulcimers, strumsticks, and extra frets added like the 1 ½.
Hammered Dulcimer is normally a diatonic instrument, but like the mountain dulcimer,
chromatic models are now being made. You can get larger or smaller instruments for easier
transport,with more or less string ‘courses’ going over the two bridges. Examples are the
12/11 dulcimers, meaning there are 12 courses of strings on the treble bridge and 11 courses
on the bass bridge and the 16/15 dulcimers with 16 courses of strings on the treble bridge and
15 courses on the bass bridge.
How do you make the strings sound on each of the instruments?
Mountain Dulcimer in the historical early days of playing would make use of a turkey or goose
quill cut in half and filed to perfection – the thick half would ‘note’ the strings, sliding up and
down the fretboard with the thin end used as a pick to strike the string. Now the strings are
strummed with a guitar pick, fingerpicked with guitar or banjo thumb and fingerpicks, or
strummed or picked with bare fingers. “Drumming” can also be done by striking the strings
with a wooden stick.
Hammered Dulcimer strings sound when struck with specially crafted ‘hammers’ that lightly
bounce off of the strings. Two hammers are used at one time, which allows for quicker playing
and for playing harmony notes with the melody.