Dulcimer: What is a Dulcimer? (Definition and History of Dulcimer Musical Instrument)

Dulcimer Definition, Information and History of Dulcimer Musical Instrument
Dulcimer Definition, Information, and History of Dulcimer Musical Instrument

What is a Dulcimer?

A dulcimer is a stringed folk instrument which basically comes in two different varieties: the hammered dulcimer – which has strings stretched over a sounding board with a trapezoidal shape, generally setting on a stand, angled in front of the player who strikes the strings with two small hammers called mallets and the Appalachian dulcimer – often referred to as a mountain dulcimer, is a narrower version of the zither family instrument, having three to five strings with a fingerboard that’s fretted which is held in the lap of the player who strums it with a small stick, sometimes referred to as a quill or plectrum, with the right hand while controlling the chords or melody with the left hand.

Dulcimers are considered to be one of the easiest instruments to learn how to play, making them ideal for beginners and children who want to play an instrument. In addition, they are also relatively quite, so they can be played just about anywhere anytime. In fact, a lot of people liken their soft sounds to being in a relaxing atmosphere, making them well-suited for either the personal relaxation of the player, for the creation of a relaxing environment for those listening, or both.

Introduction and History of Dulcimer

What makes dulcimers so easy to play is that they generally only have three or four strings to keep in tune, instead of six, eight, or even twelve. In addition, these strings are usually tuned to an open chord, making it possible to get a beautifully pleasant sound just by strumming all the strings. Furthermore, simple melodies can easily be picked out, while fingering only one string for the melody and using the other strings in order to provide a drone harmony.

Another reason they are easy to play is that they have frets like banjos and guitars so exact finger placement is not necessary. A simple strum can produce the desired sound as a dulcimer doesn’t play sharps or flats, but instead all “white keys”, or the diatonic scale, making it is easy for picking out playing familiar folk tunes almost effortlessly.

Lying flat in front of the player, whether in a lap, on the table, or in the floor, a dulcimer is easy to play because the player can see both his fingers and the keys and, therefore, is able to see what he is doing. Many music students have stated they had never made music so fast on an instrument before trying this particular stringed instrument.

If you’re wondering if there’s a specific age that’s best for picking up the dulcimer, there isn’t one that’s necessarily better than another. Most dulcimers are made tough enough that even young children can’t hurt them and, as long as the child is being watched, there’s really nothing on the instrument that can hurt the child, either.

By the time a child has reached three or four years of age, he should be able to strum, with either his fingers or a pick, or play by using chopsticks to bounce on the strings. With patient instruction, four to seven-year-old children can be taught to play simple tunes while older children will be pleasantly surprised to find out they can play a tune right away. However, with all of this being said, generally, the recommended age is eight years and up.

Another thing that should be pointed out if you are considering the purchase of a dulcimer is cost. As far as musical instruments go, the dulcimer is one of the least expensive. Good quality, all-wood constructed instruments generally run between a hundred dollars. In addition, you can actually find directions online for making a rugged beginners’ instrument that has a good sound and an even lower price point than previously stated, so be sure to check out all the options if you’re interested in learning to play the dulcimer.

Appalachian Dulcimer

The name “dulcimer” actually comes from words that mean “sweet sound”. If you’ve ever heard one being played, then you know that’s a perfect name for this instrument. The instrument has been called by several other names as well, such as those with added adjectives used for describing where it’s from or how it’s played, like mountain dulcimer, Kentucky dulcimer, lap dulcimer, or box dulcimer. In addition, the dulcimer has also acquired a few nicknames as well, some which are also shared by other instruments, such as mountain zither, harmony box music, or hog fiddle.

Even though it resembles a guitar, it’s, in fact, a very different instrument altogether. In fact, the Appalachian dulcimer is generally played on the lap. This dulcimer was developed during the early eighteen hundreds in the Appalachian Mountains, but some historians believe it can be traced back to the ancient lyre. Nonetheless, it is a fairly simple instrument belonging to the zither family. For the sake of the reader, from here on out, the Appalachian dulcimer will simply be referred to as the dulcimer (and the European style will be referred to as the hammered dulcimer.)

The dulcimer is hourglass shaped and it can have from three to eight strings, but typically only has three or four. Interestingly enough, the strings can be finger plucked, plucked or strummed with a pick, or they can even be played with a bow as a violin is played, each making very different sounds. This range of sound makes the dulcimer good for a variety of music genres, such as rock and roll, gospel, Cajun, ragtime, blues, jazz, classical, and, of course, folk. There are a lot of areas which have specially dedicated festivals just for the dulcimer and its music. One in specific is the Dulcimer Music Festival which occurs annually at Mardi Gras.

Origin And History of Dulcimer

The dulcimer first appeared among Scottish and Irish immigrants during the early nineteenth in the Appalachian Mountains. However, the instrument has no known predecessor in either Scotland or Ireland. Because of this, a large part of the dulcimer’s history has been speculative until fairly recently.

Dulcimer History
Dulcimer History

More extensive research has been made since 1980, tracing the development of the instrument throughout several distinctive time periods. In addition, the dulcimer seems to share likely origins with several similar instruments from Europe, such as the French epinette des Vosges, the German scheitholt, the Norwegian langeleik, and the Swedish hummel.

These discoveries were only just made recently by L. Alan Smith and Ralph Lee Smith who, by analyzing older dulcimers, were able to reconstruct the instrument’s history. Prior to this, there were few recorded histories of the instrument and its origins were mostly speculated.

Because of the Smiths’ studies, the development of the dulcimer could be divided into three distinct periods. Ranging from 1700 to the mid-1800s is what is referred to as the transitional period. Next, spanning the mid-1800s to 1940 is the traditional or pre-revival period. Lastly, the third period is from 1940 to the present time, which is referred to as the contemporary or revival period.

A luthier, which is someone who makes stringed instruments, such as guitars and violins, from Volga, West Virginia by the name of Charles Maxson believes that because in the early days folks didn’t have access to the right tools and time, that they were unable to make a more complex instrument such as a violin. He believes that this is one of the discerning factors leading to the making of the dulcimer, which had less dramatic curves than the violin. He also stated the epinette des Vosges, scheitholt, and langleik as predecessor/ancestor instruments to the dulcimer.

What little history is known, however, is that there were few dulcimer specimens which existed earlier than 1880 when J. Edward Thomas began building and selling them in Knott County, Kentucky. Its moderate sound volume made this instrument usable as a parlor instrument, being better suited for small gatherings. However, the dulcimer was very rarely heard in the first half of the twentieth century due to only a few players being scattered throughout Appalachia and only a handful of makers. There are virtually no dulcimer recordings which exist earlier than the late 1930s.

Brief Popularity

The Appalachian dulcimer enjoyed a brief period of popularity thanks to the soprano folk singer Loraine Wyman. Around the time of WWI, her tour of concert venues brought the dulcimer brief fame. Wyman not only demonstrated how the instrument was played, but it was also portrayed in “Vogue” magazine in which they published a picture of her holding her dulcimer, a Thomas. However, Wyman preferred singing to piano music and the dulcimer’s first bout with fame was short-lived.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that America’s urban music revived the instrument once again. Jean Ritchie, who was a musician from Kentucky, began performing in NYC for large audiences. Ritchie became so popular, that she even distributed dulcimers during the early 1960s with her partner, George Pickow. The dulcimers were made by a relative of Ritchie’s, Jethro Amburgey, who had been the local school’s woodworking instructor. However, the two ended up making their own dulcimers in NYC. Another folk musician, Richard Farina, was also responsible for bringing the dulcimer to a wider variety of audiences. So much so, in fact, that by 1965, a dulcimer had become a must-have in the folk music instrument repertoire.

While Amburgey was an influential builder of dulcimers, so were the builders who came after him, which were Joellen Lapidus, AW Jeffreys, Lynn McSpadden, and Homer Ledford. In addition, Capritaurus was a dulcimer-producing company formed by the Rugg brothers, Howard and Michael, in 1969. Not only were they the first to mass produce the dulcimer, but they were also responsible for making design changes which made the instrument both easier to play and easier to produce. Their changes included making the body bigger and installing geared tuners instead of wooden pegs, which made tuning them easier while also making them more reliable. It is this design that is still popular today.

Dulcimers Today

The Appalachian dulcimer is now found to be a core instrument in the contemporary use of a variety of music types. Contemporary styles range from traditional folk music to popular music and even experimental forms of music. Some musicians use its similar sound in tone to Asian and Middle Eastern instruments as well. In fact, modern, contemporary musicians have actually aided the popularity of dulcimers in the form of solid-body electric instruments. The popularity of dulcimers has led to music festivals taking place regularly all over the world, in the US, Ireland, the UK, and Canada, where the instrument has achieved a following.

Though this particular instrument is generally associated with the elder generation, it is gradually becoming more and more popular with the younger generation who have discovered its unique sound and charms. Because of it being so easy to play, music teachers consider the dulcimer to be an excellent educational instrument as well. This being the case, these instruments are often used in an educational setting, with some classes even going so far as to make their own dulcimers, albeit made with cardboard due to limits in craftsmanship, skill, budget, and time.

Some of the more popular musicians who played dulcimers are The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, who played an electric version on their album Aftermath in 1966. In fact, you can see Jones playing the instrument during their Ed Sullivan Show performance. Jones was influenced by Richard Farina. One of the most famous Appalachian performers is Joni Mitchell who made dulcimers famous on her album Blue as well as in her live concert performances. A famous pop star, Cyndi Lauper, was also a high-profile dulcimer player. Her album The Body Acoustic features her playing the instrument and her subsequent tour supported the album where she performed songs such as “Time After Time” solo on her dulcimer. Other contemporary musicians who use the dulcimer as their primary instrument are Bing Futch, who is from Orlando and competes annually in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Rory Gallagher, who is an Irish blues guitarist, and Stephen Seifert.

Form and Construction of the Appalachian Dulcimer

The Appalachian dulcimer, which is considered to be a folk instrument, is a plucked box-zither. Traditionally they are made from typically one type of wood, most likely whatever was common in the instrument-makers area of mountains. However, more recently, dulcimer builders have added guitar construction ideals and aesthetics. Today’s dulcimers generally use cedar or spruce, which are tonewoods, for the soundbox’s top. Then a harder wood, such as rosewood or mahogany, is used for the neck, sides, and back and a hardwood, such as ebony, maple, or, again, rosewood, is used for the fingerboard. The bulk of Appalachian dulcimers are still made in America and as such, typically employ the use of hardwoods readily available such as apple, cherry, oak, and walnut.

The dulcimer, as with many folk instruments, has been and will continue to be, made in many different construction variations, sizes, and shapes. However, there are specific forms that are more popular than others. The typical format has the neck centered in a long narrow soundbox, running the instrument’s length. Generally, they are 27 1/2 to 39 1/2 inches long, 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 inches in its widest spot, and a depth of about 2 to 2 1/2 inches, with the fingerboard sitting about 1/2 inch above the soundbox. The soundbox generally has four holes, (but may only have two) two in the upper bout and two in the lower bout. These holes can be made in a variety of shapes, with heart-shaped being a traditional favorite in addition to the violin “f-hole” shape. Nonetheless, dulcimer makers often personalize their instruments with special soundhole shapes of their own. Even though the overall shape of the dulcimer has changed over time, the most popular designs are a long, narrow rectangle or trapezoid, teardrop, ellipse, or hourglass.

The headstock containing the tuners is located at one end of the neck. These headstocks typically either have a scroll shape or that similar to a banjo or guitar, but the shape can also be decided by the style of tuners as well. Older, more traditional dulcimers use violin-style friction pegs made of wood. However, modern dulcimers will most likely use those made of metal, whether geared like a guitar or adjustable friction style.

The tailblock is on the other end of the neck, containing brads or pins in order to secure the string ends, which are stretched between the tuners and end pins. The strings continue to pass over a bridge at the tail end and a nut at the headstock, which determines the strings’ sounding length. Between the bridge and nut is the fingerboard. The neck is then carved down between the bridge of the neck and the end of the fingerboard which creates a hollow scallop close to the soundbox top. This area is referred to as the strum hollow and is where the player can use a beater, their fingers, or a plectrum to make the strings sound.

Both single player and two player dulcimers have been made in addition to multi-neck single player units. However, the majority of Appalachian dulcimers are single player with a single neck made with anywhere from two to twelve strings. Three strings are most common on older models and three to six strings are more common on modern models with a variety of string arrangement possibilities.

Dulcimer Product

Appalachian dulcimers are generally made by either individual makers or small, family-run production businesses typically located in the Southern parts of America, especially in Appalachia. It is relatively common and easy to custom-order dulcimers, while their cost runs significantly less than custom-ordered string instruments such as a banjo, mandolin, or guitar. In addition, cheap imports come from countries such as China, Pakistan, and Romania and are slowly making their way into the American dulcimer market. For those who wish to construct a dulcimer on their own, Making an Appalachian Dulcimer, written by John Bailey, is one book which provides instructions for building a dulcimer that is still in print.

Playing the Dulcimer

The dulcimer is considered to be one of the easiest instruments to learn how to play, typically having only three to four strings with a simple diatonic fret pattern. Traditional-style musicians place the dulcimer in their lap to play, using one hand to strum or pluck the strings while using the other hand to fret. Furthermore, the instrument can also be placed on furniture, preferably made of wood, boosting the volume and enhancing the sound.

Basically there are two fretting methods for the dulcimer. The first is to use the fingertips to depress the strings, which allows all the strings to be fretted and can produce chords. The second way is to depress the melody string, which is generally the closest to the player, using a noter. A noter can either be a short piece of bamboo or short length of dowel. When using this method, however, only the melody is fretted, with the other strings acting as drones.

The dulcimer attracts a wide variety of playing styles, such as being played with a bow, like a violin or “guitar style”, hanging from a strap around the neck of the player or just resting sideways in the lap. The dulcimer can be both fretted and strummed like a guitar. Other dulcimer players enjoy more traditional styles of playing, such as using a fingerstyle technique, such as using one hand to finger chords and the other to pluck individual strings. Musicians have imported a variety of playing techniques from other stringed instruments, adopting more and more complex techniques, which has greatly expanded the versatility of the dulcimer. This makes the Appalachian dulcimer not only easy to learn how to play but also capable of more complex music as well. The dulcimer is good for beginners, hobbyists, and professionals all the same; it’s good for all who want to learn how to play.