History and Advice for Prospective Buyers
© 1994 by Custom Builder and Musician Jerry Rockwell
History of the Mountain Dulcimer
This American folk instrument has a rather short, uncertain musical history, arising from the southern Appalachians in the late 1700's. It has European ancestors: the Swedish Hummel and Norwegian Langeleik, the French Epinette des Vosges and a close relative, the German Scheitholt (later the Pennsylvania German zither). Variations spread from the Appalachians of southern Pennsylvania into Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but few pre-1850 examples have survived.
The mountain dulcimer is formally classified as a fretted zither. Characteristically, it has a long soundbox supporting a fretted fingerboard that has strings stretched lengthwise along it. Appalachian, fretted, or lap dulcimers are alternate names, the latter because it is usually played while resting on one's lap.
Buying a Dulcimer
Mountain dulcimer building is a highly individual folk craft. The strings, wood, shape, size, common tunings, and playing methods vary widely, and are subject to change via the living folk process.
The search for an instrument should include as much listening as possible, either to live or recorded performances: look into music stores, particularly those that specialize in acoustic instruments. The players and their music are as diverse as the instruments: seek out those who have been involved with the dulcimer for a long period of time, and who have rich and varied repertoires. The very best dulcimers come from individual craftsmen who are also accomplished players and teachers. I know of very few exceptions to this rule.
Dulcimers are sometimes categorized as being pre-revival (before 1940) or modern (1940 to present day). Historically, the instruments were, and the best ones still are, painstakingly fashioned, set up, signed, and/or dated and numbered, by the same pair of hands.
A handmade dulcimer, pre-revival or modern, is a piece of American folk culture, an irreplaceable, one-and-only gem.
Some very fine dulcimers are being manufactured today using production line techniques and tools. The instruments may be signed by a team member, or perhaps by the craftsperson who does the final set-up. They tend to look and sound exactly alike.
Several factories build quantities of very cheap dulcimers that can be a liability to a beginning player. Some of these are almost impossible to tune, are not set up properly for playing, produce a shrill, distorted tone, or are made of poor quality plywood.
The highest-quality stringed instruments are made of solid wood, which vibrates evenly and predictably, and amplifies the strings' vibration in a sustained, musical fashion. Some plywoods sound surprisingly good--particularly those that are thinner than one-eighth inch--but most of the very-low-priced dulcimers and kits use some form of luan plywood, which is to be avoided at all costs.
High quality solid woods, combined with woodworking skill and appropriate acoustical design, should yield a high-quality dulcimer--regardless of wood species. Nevertheless, this is one of the most subjective areas of dulcimer building. Each builder has her or his favorite woods.
Listen to a few instruments, old and new. American hardwoods native to the Appalachians -- cherry, butternut, walnut, chestnut, sassafras, and poplar -- gave traditional dulcimers their characteristic plaintive sound. In recent times, however, dulcimer players and performers have been asking builders for more volume. This has led many modern dulcimer makers directly to the steel string guitar for ideas and inspiration.
Guitars generally have dense hardwood sides and backs, made of rosewood or maple; and soft, resonant, and loud soundboards made of spruce or cedar. Combinations like these are seen on many contemporary dulcimers, and these woods often do produce more volume, but some are a little too close to the guitar model in tone for my own personal taste: there's something about that simple, plaintive, nasal quality that's hard to beat.
For me, the essence of the mountain dulcimer is a certain fragile sweetness that is--by its very nature--subtle and delicate.
Finishes are often a matter of great controversy among dulcimer builders. The type of finish used on a plucked string instrument has a great influence on the tone of the instrument. Finish sort of teams up with the wood to produce the final result: either a bright, crystalline tone with emphasis on the high-end; or a warmer,softer, and often fuzzier tone with more emphasis on the bass, or low-end. Of course, most dulcimers will fall somewhere between these extremes.
Polyurethane and lacquer-type finishes are very hard, and emphasize the high end (treble) response. Provided there aren't 20 coats polished out to a mirror-like gloss--in which case the entire instrument is seriously damped--these finishes add to the clarity of the tone, and they also tend to increase the volume.
Penetrating oil finishes have a dampening effect; they soak into the wood and alter its basic vibrating structure. Their strong points are that they give the wood a deep, rich luster; and they have an earthy, gutsy, and very woody tone that contrasts sharply with the guitar-like tone characteristic of lacquer. Oil finishes will give the dulcimer a softer, warmer, and fuzzier tone.
You'll probably need to make minute tuning adjustments every time you play the dulcimer; so tuners are a major concern.
Wooden friction pegs are traditional; they are often hand-carved, although standard ebony violin/viola pegs are sometimes used. Aesthetically, wooden pegs are sometimes used. Aesthetically, wooden pegs complement the dulcimer perfectly, but they spell trouble for getting in tune. They make it hard to achieve fine adjustments in pitch (to tighten or loosen the string tension very gradually). Wooden friction pegs are also notorious for slipping out of tune unexpectedly -- unwinding completely so that the strings go completely slack.
Metal friction pegs are a significant improvement over wooden pegs; fine adjustments in pitch can be made more easily. They consist of a 2-piece metal shaft and collar, with a plastic button for turning. Tension is adjusted via a small screw at the tip of the button. they are often used on traditional scroll-type pegheads or to replace problematic wooden pegs.
Geared tuning machines are far superior to all friction pegs. they are found on all guitars, and are designed to fit a flat guitar-style peghead. Geared tuners are set up in ratios; for instance, a 14:1 ratio means that 14 revolutions of the tuning button give one revolution of the shaft. This allows for extremely precise adjustment. Aesthetically speaking, these tuners do not go well with traditional scrolled heads, but they can be quite beautiful in a well-thought-out modern design.
Sight down the length of the strings. The fingerboard surface must be level. Its playability depends on its action, -- the distance from strings to fingerboard. A high action will make the strings hard to press down; a very low action may create a buzz over certain frets. A dime should just fit between the strings and the 3rd fret. Poor placement of nut or bridge, or badly seated, uneven frets will also cause buzzes and other playing problems.
The number and spacing of strings on the mountain dulcimer has never been regularized. generally speaking there are from three to eight strings arranged in sets (courses), that contain one or two strings each. Double strings are always pressed down together, but of course there will be one tuner per string.
A three-course arrangement of melody, middle and bass strings seems to be the most common: three single strings; doubled melody string tuned to the same note (unison), one middle, and one bass string; or three double courses. A four course of four equidistant single strings, with this configuration, it is possible to play four-note chords.
Dulcimers are available in a variety of string lengths. String length refers to the distance from nut to bridge. String length affects what you hear in several ways.
Long string lengths are those from 28" to 30" or more. Increase in string length means an increase in string tension. If you use the popular tunings, D-A-D or D-A-A, this means more volume and a brighter high end (treble response).
Longer string lengths tend to sound twangy and nasal, and are especially appropriate for the traditional dronal style of playing.
Dulcimers with shorter string lengths: 25" to 27", have less string tension and do not speak as loudly or as brightly as their long-stringed cousins. However, reaching chords along the fingerboard is easier. If your hands are small, and you plan on playing chords on the dulcimer, consider one with a shorter string length.
Frets are specially shaped lengths of wire seated in the fingerboard at mathematically determined intervals from one another. Frets mark the locations of notes along the musical scale. Traditionally, dulcimers are diatonic instruments: that is, their fret patterns produce a diatonic scale (a major scale similar to the white keys on a piano). Many builders today regularly add an extra fret, # 6 1/2 (or 6+). (Note: The banjo, mandolin and guitar are completely chromatic-- their scale includes all the white and black keys on a piano).
Plucking an open (unfretted) string will sound its lowest note. To go up the scale from the open (0) note, count frets from left to right, pressing firmly just behind (at the left of) each fret with the left index finger.
The dulcimer's overall soundbox size (its open interior) is one significant characteristic that you can actually hear. the larger the area, the more low-end (bass response). The soundbox dimension most affecting low-end is the depth of the sides. The shape of the sound box, hourglass, teardrop, rectangle, ellipse, and so on, doesn't affect the sound of the dulcimer very much, although there is no general agreement on any of these parameters.
Soundhole shapes are highly personal; some builders use them as trademarks. Historic hourglass dulcimers tend to display more hearts; older teardrop and ellipse shapes were more often given circles. Unless a soundhole design removes a majority of the vibrating soundboard, its shape has little audible effect.
The dulcimer is played on one's lap or on a table, with its tuners to one's left and strumming hollow on the right. All you really need are your hands, ears, and a good instrument. Beyond the basics, though, are many playing styles, techniques, and accessories. Picks come in various shapes, sizes, hardnesses, and in varying degrees of flexibility. Strumming styles favor a more flexible pick, whereas some techniques that require the picking of individual strings(flatpicking), favor a harder, less flexible pick.
Finding and buying a mountain dulcimer is a matter of looking and listening carefully: ask around, listen to various players. Look for a solid wood instrument; ask about its finish, request geared tuners, check its action, and sight down the top of the fingerboard to make sure its dead flat. When you take your new dulcimer home, don't ever hang it above a fireplace. Actually, don't hang it on any wall, because there is a temperature/humidity differential between the air next to the wall and the air in the room. I learned this the hard way!
J.C. Rockwell Music
PO Box 79
Guysville, OH 45735-0079