What should I look for when buying a dulcimer? FAQ

1. Not all dulcimers are created equally – each good American-made instrument is handcrafted by an experienced luthier. Dulcimers are unique, with no two being alike. The skill, experience, and craftsmanship of the builder have much more to do with the instrument’s sound than the kind of wood from which it is made. Builders usually go through trial and error learning to craft an instrument, which can take years to perfect. One dulcimer might be great with tremendous resonance and action, and then the next one might buzz or twang if frets weren’t placed correctly, the bridge or nut might not be well aligned, or the action might be too high. Some of the better builders are those who play, as well as being builders. They know the sound, resonance, playability and quality to strive for. They are usually networked with other players through dulcimer festivals, keeping up to date with current playing styles and what players want from their instruments.

2. Hands-on tryout

The best way to choose an instrument is a hands-on tryout - unless you know and trust a builder’s quality enough to risk buying it unseen and unplayed. Players have waited up to a year to receive their custom handcrafted instrument after ordering from a good builder – the wait is usually worth it! Buying off the Internet can be chancy. Plywood instruments from China, Romania, and Pakistan can be lacking in quality and playability.

3. How to check a dulcimer for quality Aesthetics are nice and we like pretty, but it is an INSTRUMENT – sound and playability are the most important elements. Tips:

a. Fit your instrument to YOU! Measure ‘scale length’ (known as ‘VSL’ - vibrating string length) -the length of the fretboard between the bridge and the nut (the plastic pieces at each end of the fretboard that hold the strings up off the fretboard). The longer the distance, the longer will be the ‘scale’ of the fretboard, the shorter the instrument, the shorter the scale (better for children’s or women’s smaller hands). Some instruments are so long that fingers have difficulty reaching chords, if you choose to play chord-melody style. If you will be playing just old time noter-drone style with one finger, dulcimer scale length will not matter. Common sense - longer fingers can handle longer instruments – measure your palm and the distance you can reach between your thumb and pinkie. The instrument should be long enough to extend on either side of your lap, allowing enough room to easily reach both the strum hollow with your right hand and the frets with your left hand. Too short and you will have compacted your ‘playing field’ to an uncomfortable level, will have difficulty holding the instrument across your lap, and will have reduced the amount of interior hollow space that is necessary to produce clear ringing tones (avoid ‘tininess’!). Check the width of the fretboard –is it too narrow for your fingers or too wide to reach chords?  Dulcimers with deep sides (deeper than two inches) emphasize the bass end of the spectrum.They sound full and rich on the bass string as well as in the first three frets across the fingerboard, but they tend to be lacking in clarity and volume on the melody string especially in the second octave (from the 7th fret upward). But keep in mind that this is generalization and does not take into account critical factors such as type of finish and woods used.Dulcimers having a relatively shallow side depth (1 ½ inch or less) tend to favor the high frequencies and the open bass string may not sound as full and warm as you might want.

b. Make sure the tuning pegs or gears (three or four turn knobs at the top of the instrument where the strings are wound) are of a decent quality. If they are old or cheap, the metal can easily strip due to string tension, then will give too easily, pulling the strings out of tune. Old tuning pegs can be replaced.

c. Check the action on the strings – the higher the action, the harder it is to push the strings down. Viewing the instrument from its side, hold it up and look at how high the strings are off the fretboard. The end where the nut and tuning pegs are will be lower and should only have enough room for one penny to slide between the strings and the fretboard. The other end of the fretboard, where the strum hollow and the bridge is, will be higher and should only have enough room for a maximum of two pennies between the strings and fretboard. The high end shouldn’t be so high that it is hard to press the string down to get a good sound. Neither should it be so low that it buzzes because it is touching a fret somewhere.

d. Check every string at every fret for buzzing, ‘thunking’ and other odd sounds. Sometimes frets are not placed evenly nor are they hammered into the fretboard at the same depth, causing intonation problems. You can use an electronic tuner for accuracy.

e. Do you want to be a noter-drone style player using a noter stick? If so, buying a dulcimer without a 6 fret will work. Do you want to be a chord-melody style player? If so, check for a 6 ½ fret – the standard for today’s dulcimers, offering great versatility for playing.

f. Check bridge and nut for extra slots, allowing for four-equidistant string placement. This gives you options for growing with your instrument.

4. Wood choices and sound

Wood choices often are key in setting dulcimer prices – the less expensive the wood, the lower the price – wood prices have risen dramatically. The material from which your dulcimer is made determines the pitch of its sound by a spectrum of sound frequencies transmitted into the air. Each instrument has its own particular set of frequencies defined by instrument size, the material from which it is made and the tension put on it by the strings. Look for a good ‘tonewood’ – the term used for types of woods known for their tonal qualities. The tonal qualities can give you either a good or mediocre sound, depending on how sound bounces off of and vibrates the wood. Dulcimers are made from mostly hardwoods - often tops are from spruce, cedar, walnut or maple offering good resonant quality with nice color variations. The back and sides can be different – rosewood, cherry, walnut, koa, maple, wormy chestnut, sassafras. Sometimes builders use just one wood all over, like walnut or cherry. Be wary of soft woods such as pine and veneers. The fretboard takes a lot of abuse, so a good hard wood is best there – like ebony.

Wood often has limited availability due to being purchased from specialist dealers who juggle import tariffs, lumber harvesting laws in many countries (with conservation laws, some trees can only be harvested every 20 years!). Music instruments require a straight wood grain and must be thoroughly dried either by time or by kiln. Reclaimed wood is an option as it is well-dried and can be re-sawn for repurposing into instruments.

5. Pegheads

Pegheads can be flat (like a guitar’s peghead) or scrolled. It is purely aesthetic and your choice. Know that a flat peghead is MUCH easier for changing strings. A scrolled peghead will require the purchase of needle nose pliers. Both peghead styles will require wire cutters when changing strings.

6. Nut and Bridge

a. Some builders have a ‘floating’ bridge, meaning it is not glued down into a provided slot. 

b. Do the nut and bridge allow for advancing your playing interests as you grow in your skills and aware of this when changing strings – if you take all the strings off at once, there is nothing to hold the bridge in place and bridges can be lost.tastes? Will your instrument have enough slots in the nut and bridge if you go into four-equidistant string playing

7. Frets

a. Good fret placement is essential – if a fret is ‘off’ by a cent, the instrument can sound out of

b. Feel the edges of each fret. Are they smooth and have been filed at an appropriate angle? If not they may 'catch' your finger.

c. Make sure frets are hammered into each fret slot at exactly the same depth.

d. Finger each fret on EVERY string to check for pitch inconsistencies. Your ear is a good judge, so is an electronic tuner.

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