Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers

The Appalachian dulcimer (or mountain dulcimer) is a fretted string instrumentof the ZITHER  family, typically with three or four strings. It is native to the Apalachian region of the United States. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and its fretting is generally diatonic.


Although the Appalachian dulcimer appeared in regions dominated by Irish and 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. Others have speculated that the Appalachian dulcimer is related to similar European instruments like the langeleik, Scheitholz, and Epinette des Vosges.

The traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and pluck or strum the strings with the right 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 (see photo at left). 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. Jean Ritchie’s The Dulcimer Book[1] 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[2], 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[3], states that some players “tilt the dulcimer up sideways on their laps and strum in a guitar style.” Still other dulcimer players use a fingerstyle technique, fingering chord positions with the fretting hand and rhythmically plucking individual strings with the strumming hand, creating delicate arpeggios.

Contemporary players have also borrowed from chord theory and guitar 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.

A photo from the May 1, 1917, issue of Vogue, featuring an Appalachian dulcimer.

The 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 I V V relationship.[citation needed] That is, the key note is on the bass string and the middle and melody strings are at an interval  of a perfect fifth above it. The melody string is tuned so that the key note is at the third (diatonic) fret. This facilitates playing melodies in the Ionian mode (the major scale). The melody is played on the top string (or string pair) only, with the unfretted drone strings providing a simple harmony, giving 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 playing the Aeolian mode (the natural minor scale), 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 (a blues scale), where the scale starts on the open fret. This arrangement 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.[citation needed] So-called “chromatic dulcimers,” with twelve frets per octave, are sometimes made, to permit playing in any key without re-tuning.

While the most common current 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 in which 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[by whom?] suggested as an easier tuning. From DGD one can put a capo on the first fret to play in the Dorian mode, or retune the second string (to A), to play in the Mixolydian mode, then from Mixolydian, capo the first fret to play in the Aeolian mode. DAA tuning should not be thought of as simply a “beginner’s” 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 19th century from the 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 is well-suited to small home gatherings.

The Appalachian dulcimer achieved a renaissance in the 1950s urban folk music revival in the United States through the work of Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky musician who introduced the instrument to New York City audiences.[citation needed] In the 1960s, the American folk musician Richard Fariña (1937–1966) became the first[citation needed] to utilize an Appalachian dulcimer in a less traditional way, pointing out its similarity in tone to some Middle Eastern and Asian 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 as Lindsay Buckland, Bing Futch, Butch Ross, and Quintin Stephens have contributed to the popularity of the solid-body 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.

Though the mountain dulcimer has long been associated with the elder generation, it has gradually attracted a number of younger players who have discovered its charms. Due to its ease of play, many music teachers consider it to be an especially good educational instrument.[citation needed] Because of this, they are often used in educational settings, and some music classes make their own dulcimers. However, because of budget, time, and craftsmanship skill issues, these are usually made from cardboard.




                                                                           The Hammered Dulcimer

“…everyman that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship….”

    Daniel III:10

It is no wonder that King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree was opposed, for the sound of the dulcimer makes one feel much more like dancing than “worshipping.” In fact, the modest revival of dulcimer playing in America seems due in large measure to the delightful manner in which dance tunes can be played on it. The hammer dulcimer is capable of a range of tones from a sort of music-box sound to powerful and percussive piano-like effects which can stand out in any band.

Although the plucked dulcimer (also called Appalachian or mountain dulcimer) shares the same name, the two instruments differ considerably in form, sound, evolution, and manner of playing. Both have strings stretched across a neckless soundbox, which identifies them in certain classification schemes as belonging to the zither form. The plucked dulcimer relies on the shortening (fretting or stopping) of strings to produce many pitches with one or few strings. Guitars, banjos, and fiddles work in this way. The alternative is to have one string or course of strings tuned to each desired pitch, as in the harps, piano, psaltery, and hammer dulcimer.

The name dulcimer comes from the Latin and Greek works dulce and melos, which combine to mean “sweet tune.” The meaning and the biblical connections no doubt made the word attractive to those who named the Appalachian dulcimer. All evidence seems to indicate that the Appalachian dulcimer dates back no more than 200 years and that Bibles refer to the hammered type.

The true hammer dulcimer is a close relative to the psaltery, the chief difference being that the psaltery is usually plucked and the dulcimer is usually struck. Early varieties were rather simple, having relatively few strings which passed over bridges only at the sides.

The versatility of the dulcimer was greatly increased by clever placement of additional bridges. Treble courses pass over the side bridges and also over a treble bridge usually placed between the side bridges so that the vibrating lengths of the strings are divided in the ratio 2:3. This results in two notes from each string in the ratio of a perfect fifth interval. Other ratios have occasionally been used. Many dulcimers have another bridge added near the right side to carry bass courses. The bass courses pass high over the bass bridge and low through holes or interruptions in the treble bridge. Likewise, the treble strings are raised at the treble bridge and pass low through the bass bridge. Thus, the treble strings may be struck near the treble bridge without danger of hitting bass strings, and bass courses can be played near the bass bridge without running afoul of treble strings. This arrangement triples the number of notes possible without any increase of size or consequent increase in distance from the player. Dulcimers of this sort began appearing in Europe during the 16th century and remained rather popular to the 18th.

The ancient origins of the dulcimer are undoubtedly in the Near East, where instruments of this type have been made and played for perhaps 5000 years. Santir and psanterim were names early applied to such instruments and are probably derived from the Greek psalterion. Today the dulcimer is known as the santouri in Greece and as the santur in India.

From the Near East the instrument traveled both east and west. Arabs took it to Spain where a dulcimer-like instrument is depicted on a cathedral relief from 1184 A.D. Introduction into the Orient came much later. The Chinese version is still known as the yang ch’in, or foreign zither. Though its use in China is reported to date from about the beginning of the 19th century, Korean tradition claims association with the hammer dulcimer from about 1725.

Although the early keyboard string instruments could have been derived from either psaltery or dulcimer, it seems logical that the dulcimer provided much of the inspiration for the piano. The dulcimer is capable of considerable dynamic nuance; a wide range of effects from loud to soft can be achieved, depending on the manner in which the player strikes the strings. Harpsichords were quite limited in this quality of expressiveness and the clavichord was severely limited in volume. The pianoforte was the result of attempts to overcome these restraints, and the solution was to excite the strings with leather or felt hammers as on the dulcimer. One early form of the piano even bears the name of a 17th-century Prussian dulcimer, the pantaleon.

The most elaborate of dulcimers is certainly the cimbalom, developed around the end of the 19th century in Hungary. This instrument is a mainstay in the music of the Hungarian gypsies and is used as a concert instrument. The cimbalom is equipped with a damper mechanism and has a range of four chromatic octaves. Most other dulcimers are tuned to a diatonic scale with ranges of two to three octaves.

Dulcimers were reasonably common domestic and concert instruments in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt they were first brought to the colonies from England where they were used in the street music of the time. Portability and simplicity made the dulcimer much more practical than the piano for many settlers. These attributes probably led to its association with the lumber camps of Maine and Michigan. It is still referred to as a “lumberjack’s piano” in the North. As names for the dulcimer go, however, the American appellation “whamadiddle” must be ranked as most colorful, with a close second in the German term “hackbrett,” literally “chopping board!”

It is interesting that in this era of folk instrument revivals the Appalachian dulcimer, which never had a very widespread distribution in the past, is getting considerable attention from urban performers, while the once well-known hammer dulcimer has faded into relative obscurity. Occasionally, old dulcimers can be found in the Appalachians, Maine, New York, and in various parts of the Midwest.

Several dulcimer factories were thriving in western New York during the 1850s and 1860s. They employed salesmen who played and sold their instruments as far away as Missouri and into the southern states. Michigan has continued to nourish a persistent tradition of dulcimer hammering, and a club of players has been organized there. One Michigander, Chet Parker, has been recorded, and his fine playing of old dance and popular tunes is well worth hearing (Folkways Records FA 02381).


The hammer dulcimer is an instrument easily played by ear. Once the tuning is understood, finding melodies is not at all difficult. Playing a rapid tune up to speed may require some practice, however. The key to playing fast passages is to strike one note with one hand and the next note with the other hand, and so on. Give some thought to which hand will be used for which note. You must change from one side of the bridge to the other many times in most tunes. You will want to do this without getting your hands crossed. Try to determine the easiest way to play a tune when starting to learn it. This may help avoid having to relearn the hammering pattern as you attempt to play more rapidly.

Many things have been used for hammers. Bent pieces of cane or curved sticks are perhaps the simplest. Most hammers consist of thin handles with knobs on one end. Handles may be made from tortoiseshell, whalebone, spring metal, wood, and old corset stays. The knobs or hammer heads are usually wood, sometimes with a covering of leather or felt. Sticks with felt pads for hammers give a soft sound but can be hardened by dipping in thinned lacquer or shellac for a loud, crisp tone. Try making different kinds to discover what feels best to you.

Hammers are usually held between thumb and forefinger or between the forefinger and long finger on each hand. Hold them lightly but firmly so that they bounce easily on the strings.

Dulcimers are usually tuned with a fifth interval between notes on either side of the treble bridge, the left side being higher. The bass bridge, when present, carries longer strings and lower notes. Figure 2, a tuning diagram for a D-G-C dulcimer with 12 treble and 11 bass courses, shows a rather common tuning scheme and is the one referred to in this section on playing.

Let us identify pitch locations this way: /2 equals right side treble course #2 (second string from low end); 2/ equals left treble course #2; 2 equals bass course #2; and so on. Starting at the second treble course on the right (/2) a major scale in D can be played in the following way:

You will also find major scales for G and C starting at /5 and /8 respectively. Play them.

The relationship between the bass courses and the right treble courses is the same as that between left treble and right treble courses. Try playing a G scale one octave lower than before using bass courses:

By exploring a little you will find about 2 1/2 octaves in A, D, G, and C, with only an occasional note missing here and there.

Minor scales of Am, Bm, and Em are also present.

For Em: /3 /4 /5 /6 /7 /8 /9 /10

Here are some tunes to try. L and R indicate whether a note is struck with the left or right hand:
Turkey in the Straw, Flowers of Edinburgh, Soldier’s Joy, Fisher’s Hornpipe.

Here are a few chords to try. You can easily find additional ones as needed.

D – /2 /4 2/
G – /2 /5 /2
A7 – /1 /3 /5 2/

G – /5 /7 5/
C – /5 /8 6/
D7 – /4 /6 /8 5/

Am – /6 /8 6/
Dm – /9 /11 9/
Em – /3 /5 3/
Bm – 3/ 5/ 7/

Because of its volume the dulcimer works well as a lead instrument in a band. Try it in combinations with other instruments. You will also find it easy to play chords for back-up and rhythm. Listen to tunes you like and then try to hammer them out by ear. If you read music get a book of dance tunes and get to work!

The Hammered Dulcimer

To most modern Americans, the hammered dulcimer is a new and unfamiliar instrument. Even people who know much about American music often confuse the hammered dulcimer with the three- or four-stringed “mountain” or “plucked” dulcimer, although the two have nothing in common except their name. Surprisingly, the hammered dulcimer, which is an ancient ancestor of the piano, at one time enjoyed widespread popularity throughout this country.

The hammered dulcimer probably originated in the Middle East about 900 A.D. and is related to the much older psaltery. It spread from there across North Africa and was brought into Europe by the Spanish Moors during the 12th century A.D. It is possible that hammered dulcimers were played even earlier than this in Ireland, where they were called “tympanons.”

Throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the dulcimer remained a popular instrument in both eastern and western Europe. It was known by different names in different countries. For example, the dulcimer was called a “tympanon” in France, a “hackbrett” in Germany, and a “cymbalon” in Hungary. In England it was so popular during the late 16th century that the translators of the King James version of the Bible used the term “dulcimer” as the English translation for the Greek “symphonia.” This term was actually a mistranslation for a type of Greek bagpipe that gave rise to the often quoted, but incorrect, belief that the dulcimer is as old as the Bible.

It is unclear when the first hammered dulcimer was brought to America, but the earliest reference to its use in this country comes from Judge Samuel Sewall who wrote of seeing one played in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1717. Hammered dulcimers are particularly interesting because, unlike the piano, dulcimers were often built at home, or in small shops and factories, and hence tended to reflect differing regional and personal folk styles. During the 19th century, these small shops, which usually employed less than a half-dozen craftsmen, operated in places like Norwich, Connecticut, Chautauqua County, New York, and Brooklyn, New York. Mail order companies (e.g., Montgomery Ward) also sold dulcimers.

Why the dulcimer virtually disappeared during the first half of the 20th century is something of a mystery, but possibly it was due to competition from the more fashionable piano. Fortunately, this beautiful instrument is now enjoying a revival. For the first time in many years, new dulcimers are being built, and there is an increasing number of new players.

Authored by Sam Rizzetta
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution 1997

Mountain Dulcimer – A Selection of Books

Boone, Hubert. “De Hommel in de Lage Landen.” Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments Bulletin 5 (1975): 9-153.

Bryan, Charles Faulkner. “The Hammered Dulcimer.” Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 18 (June, 1952): 43-7.

Cox, Esther. “The Original Dulcimer Players Club.” Mugwumps 5 (Summer, 1977): 9.

De Hen, Ferdinand J. “Folk Instruments of Belgium: Part I.” Galpin Society Journal 25 (July, 1972): 87-132.

Gifford, Paul. “Development of the Hammer Dulcimer.” Mugwumps 3 (September, 1974): 19-23.

Groce, Nancy. The Hammered Dulcimer. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1973.

“The Hammered Dulcimer in America.” Michigan State Historical Society’s Chronicle, Winter, 1975.

Hanks, Sarah E. “Pantaleon’s Pantalon: An Eighteenth-Century Musical Fashion.” Musical Quarterly 55 (April, 1969): 215-28.

Hasluck, Paul Nooncree. Violins and Other Stringed Instruments: How to Make Them. London: Cassell & Co., 1914.

Holmes, Michael I., ed. The Hammer Dulcimer Compendium. Silver Spring, MD: Mugwumps’ Magazine/MIH Publications, 1977.

Marcuse, Sibyl. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. 1964. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1975. See entries for “Appalachian Dulcimer,” “Dulcimer,” “Humle,” “Hummel,” “Langleik,” and “Scheitholt.”

Mitchell, Howard W. The Hammered Dulcimer. 3d ed. Sharon, CT: Folk Legacy Record Co., 1971. Book-and-record set.

The Mountain Dulcimer: How to Make It and Play It (After a Fashion). Huntington, VT: Folk Legacy Records, 1966. Record and booklet.

Odell, Scott. “The Appalachian Dulcimer.” In The 1968 Festival of American Folk Life, 30-1. Washington, DC: Office of Folklife Programs, Smithsonian Institution, 1968.

Panum, Hortense. “The Scheitholt Family.” In The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages: Their Evolution and Development, 263-91. Translated, edited and revised by Jeffrey Pulver. 1939. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Randel, Don Michael, ed. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.

Ritchie, Jean. The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.

Rizzetta, Sam. Hammer Dulcimer: History and Playing. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1972.

Making a Hammer Dulcimer. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1972.

“The Hammered Dulcimer.” Mugwumps 2 (November, 1973): 8-11.

Sackett, S.J. “The Hammered Dulcimer in Ellis County, Kansas.” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 14 (1962): 61-4.

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John, eds. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 29 vols. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Seeger, Charles. “The Appalachian Dulcimer.” Journal of American Folklore 71 (January-March 1958): 40-51.

Smith, L. Allen. “Toward a Reconstruction of the Development of the Appalachian Dulcimer.” Journal of American Folklife 93 (1980).

A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1983.


About RAM Chandrakausika राम च 51

Ram51 is a researcher in the various fields of Musicology, Philosophy and History as well as old languages. One of his first topics is the wide scope of Indo-arabic cultures as represented in various art-forms religion and history. Below a list of selected Research topics which sum up partitionally the task of anthropological Frameworks in totaliter : Sanskrit Hinduism and Mythology Hindustani Music, The Muqhal Empire Gharanas from North India Kashmir Sufiyana The Kashmir Santoor Traditional Folk Music from USA Philosophy in Orient and Okzident Genealogy of musical instruments Ethnomusicology, Arabic Maqams, No Theatre fromJapan, North american poetry, Cultural heritage of mankind and Islamic architecture... View all posts by RAM Chandrakausika राम च 51

You must be logged in to post a comment.

%d bloggers like this: