Heritage and History
Excerpts from Wikipedia. Any work used from this source is
The Appalachian dulcimer (or mountain dulcimer)
string instrument of the
typically with three or four strings. It is native to the
region of the United States. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and
its fretting is generally
Although the Appalachian dulcimer appeared in regions dominated by
Scottish settlement, the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or
Scotland. However, several diatonic fretted zithers exist in Continental Europe,
which bear a strong similarity to the dulcimer.
Ritchie (The Dulcimer Book, 1974) and others have speculated that the
Appalachian dulcimer is related to similar European instruments like the
epinette des Vosges.
Some think the origins come from medieval France as text of the instrument
showing up in French Canadian territories with the colonists, which subsequently
correlates with the arrival of the instrument in the Northern mountains of New
England on the border of what is now the Province de Quebec. (Source from the
Chateau Ramezay Museum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
A traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and
pluck or strum the strings with one hand, while fretting with the other. The
dulcimer may also be placed in a similar position on a piece of furniture such
as a table or chest of drawers, to enhance the sound. There are two predominant
methods of fretting. First, the strings may be depressed with the fingertips of
the fretting hand. Using this technique, all the strings may be fretted allowing
the player to produce chords. Second, the melody string, the string closest to
the player, may be depressed with a noter, typically a short length of dowel or
bamboo. Using this method, only the melody string is fretted and the other
strings act as
drone strings (the melody string may be doubled so that the melody can be better heard
over the drones). In this second style of playing, the combination of the drone
strings and the buzz of the noter on the melody strings produces a unique sound.
In practice, a wide variety of playing styles have long been used.
Ritchie's The Dulcimer Book (1974) has an old photograph of Mrs. Leah
Smith of Big Laurel, Kentucky, playing the dulcimer with a bow instead of a
pick, with the tail of the dulcimer held in the player's lap, and the headstock
resting on a table pointing away from her. In their book In Search of the
Wild dulcimer (1974), Robert Force and Al d'Ossché describe their preferred
method as "guitar style": the dulcimer hangs from a strap around the neck, and
the instrument is fretted and strummed like a guitar; they also describe playing
"Autoharp style" where "the dulcimer is held vertically with the headstock over
the shoulder." Lynn McSpadden, in his book Four and Twenty Songs for the
Mountain Dulcimer, states that some players "tilt the dulcimer up sideways
on their laps and strum in a guitar style." Still other dulcimer players use a
finger style technique, fingering chord positions with the fretting hand and
rhythmically plucking individual strings with the strumming hand, creating
Contemporary players have also borrowed from chord theory and
analogues to create a variety of more complex ways to play the dulcimer. Some
dulcimers are constructed with four equidistant strings to facilitate playing
more complex chords, particularly for playing jazz. In another line of
contemporary innovation, electric dulcimers have been used in rock music. The
Appalachian dulcimer is both easy to learn to play, and capable of complexity,
providing scope for a wide range of professionals and hobbyists.
Strings and tuning
frets of the
Appalachian dulcimer are typically arranged in a
diatonic scale. Traditionally, the Appalachian dulcimer was usually tuned to
DAA, or notes with this 1 5 5 relationship. The key note is on the
and the middle string is an interval of a perfect fifth above it. The melody
string is tuned so that the key note is at the third fret. This facilitates
playing melodies in the
mode. The melody played on the top string (or string pair) only, with the
unfretted drone strings providing a simple harmony, gives the instrument its
distinctive traditional sound. To play in a different key, or in a different
mode, a traditional player would have to retune the instrument. For example, to
play a minor mode melody the instrument might be tuned to DAC. This facilitates
mode, where the scale begins at the first fret.
A photo from the May 1, 1917 issue of
Vogue, featuring an Appalachian dulcimer.
Modern instruments usually include an additional fret a
half step below the
octave position, the so-called "six and a half" fret. This enables one to play
in the Ionian mode when tuned to DAD, the traditional tuning for the
Mixolydian mode, where the scale starts on the open fret. This
is often found to be more conducive to chordal playing, as opposed to the more
traditional dronal style. Among modern players, it is fair to say that the
instrument is most commonly tuned to DAD. So-called "chromatic dulcimers" are
sometimes made, to permit play in any key without re-tuning.
While currently the most common tuning is DAD, it is often easier for the
beginning player to tune to DAA or the so-called "Reverse Ionian" tuning, (DGD).
"Reverse" tunings are ones where the key note is on the middle string and the
bass string is the fifth of the scale, but in the octave below the middle
string. This is sometimes suggested as an easier tuning. From (DGD) one can put
capo on the first
fret to play the
mode, or retune the second string to (A), to play the
Mixolydian mode, then from Mixolydian capo the first fret to play the
mode. DAA tuning should not be thought of as simply a "beginner" tuning,
however. Many accomplished, innovative players use this tuning.
The Appalachian dulcimer is widely used in the American
old-time music tradition. The instrument first appeared in the early
Scots-Irish in the southern
Appalachian Mountains, and is thus also called a mountain dulcimer.
The instrument became used as a parlor instrument, as its sound volume was
well-suited to small home gatherings.
The Appalachian dulcimer achieved a renaissance in the
revival in the United States through the work of
Kentucky musician who introduced the instrument to
York City audiences. In the 1960s, the American folk musician
Richard Fariña (1937–1966) became the first to utilize an Appalachian
dulcimer in a less traditional way, pointing out its similarity in tone to some
instruments. Styles performed by modern dulcimer enthusiasts run the gamut from
traditional folk music through popular and experimental forms, although most
perform in more or less traditional styles. Increasingly, modern musicians such
Butch Ross and
Quintin Stephens have contributed to the popularity of the
electric dulcimer. Dulcimer festivals take place regularly in the United States,
Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as the Appalachian dulcimer has
achieved a following in a number of countries.
While the dulcimer may not have a large fan base in young people, many music
teachers consider them to be especially educational. Because of this, they are
often used in educational settings, and some music classes make dulcimers.
However, because of budget, time, and craftsmanship skill issues, these are
usually made from cardboard.
As a folk instrument, wide variation exists in Appalachian dulcimers.
- Number of strings: Dulcimers may have as few as
two or as many as
12 strings (in six
courses). Instruments with fewer than two strings would more properly be
A variety of dulcimer shapes.
- Body shape: Dulcimers appear in a wide variety of
body types, many
of which are recorded in "A Catalog of Pre-Revival Dulcimers." A
representative array would include: hourglass, teardrop, trapezoid,
rectangular, elliptical ("Galax-style"), violin-shaped, fish-shaped, and
- Material: Dulcimers may also be made of plastic or cardboard.
However, these other materials do not lead to the same sweet quality of sound
that aged wood possesses. The reason that these materials are used is often
- "Courting dulcimer": One
unusual variant is the "courting
dulcimer." This instrument consists of one large dulcimer body with two
separate fingerboards. The instrument is laid across the laps of two facing
individuals (the eponymous "courting" pair) and used to play duets.
- "Bowed Dulcimer": Dulcimers that can be played with
bows, and in
the modern era heavily modified variants have been made exclusively for bowed
Banjo dulcimer: also called a
Banjo-mer, resembling a standard
dulcimer, but with a banjo head on the body.
- Cardboard dulcimer: cardboard dulcimers are produced primarily as
student instruments or for teaching workshops. Though not as refined as
higher-end dulcimers they are considered serviceable and practical
instruments. Cardboard is a functional material as the body of these dulcimers
is not load-bearing.
- Electric dulcimer: acoustic dulcimers may be electrified with
pickups, and several builders produce solid-body electric dulcimers.
Aquavina: a dulcimer employing a
metal resonator filled partially with
water. The resonator is agitated while playing, producing an eerie oscillation.
Appalachian dulcimer manufacture is often conducted by small, family-run
businesses located in the
American South and particularly in
John Bailey's book provides instructions for constructing a dulcimer:
- Bailey, John. Making an Appalachian
Dulcimer (1st, The Folk Shop Instrumental Series ed.). The English Folk
Dance and Song Society.
John Bailey's Book "Making an Appalachian Dulcimer" provides
instructions for constructing dulcimers
Bear Meadow Appalachian Dulcimers
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