The jcrmusic Mountain Dulcimer FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. How long does it take to make one?

A: This is a question I get ten times a day or more, especially when I've set up my workshop at a festival or fair. It's really not that easy to answer, since it's possible to keep three or four dulcimers going at a time, clamped into various jigs and fixtures; and each model in my line takes a different amount of time to complete. I usually just say "from three days to a week" approximately.

Woodworkers usually mention power tools along with this question.
I don't use power production woodworking machinery (but do have a bending iron with an electrical heating element, and got an electric hand drill a couple of years ago).

My woodworking principles are based on one pair of hands from start to finish, the best hand tools I can find, and a long-term relationship with wood, tools, and music. It's my living--and speaking as a musician, I don't like the noise that power tools make, nor the probability of accidents and hand injuries.

Q2. How does the design or the shape of the dulcimer affect its sound?

A: There are many, many different shapes of mountain dulcimers, but it is not the shape that gives a particular dulcimer its unique indentifying soundprint. Instead, the relative size of a dulcimer has a much more noticeable affect on its sound. Larger dulcimers, especially those with deep sides, tend to be louder and more powerful in the bass register. Smaller dulcimers, which are generally shallower in the side dimension, offer less bass response, but often they have stronger, clearer response in the high-end. Of course, these are sweeping generalizations, and fail to take into account factors such as:

type of woods
wood thickness
string length: nut-to-bridge
string gauge and tension

. . .and many other critical factors

Q3. What type of wood makes the best dulcimer?

A: This is a tough question, and one which will prompt widely varying answers from different craftsmen. In general, walnut and cherry are my favorites for fingerboards, sides, and backs. Spruce is my first choice for soundboards, although butternut and walnut are both excellent alternatives. Depending upon availability, black locust makes a wonderful sides-and-back choice. Its density, hardness, and other properties are VERY similar to Indian rosewood: it has tremendous volume, while also possessing an uncommon richness and fullness of tone.

Q4. Does soundhole design have any effect on the sound of the dulcimer?

A: Again, as in Question 2, it is probably the overall size of the soundhole--rather than the shape--that is more likely to affect the sound of the dulcimer. In a very general sense, HUGE soundholes remove large sections of the vibrating area of the soundboard. This certainly doesn't seem like a great idea, and the large-soundhole dulcimers I've played in the past all had a kind of boomy, echo-ey sound.

Q5a. Why do some 4-string dulcimers have two strings really close to each other, while some have the 4 strings evenly spaced?

A: The 4-string dulcimer with a double-melody string (two strings really close together, meant to be tuned in unison, and always pressed down together-as one) is essentially a 3-string dulcimer with a reinforced melody string. This string configuration is especially useful for the traditional melody-with-drone style, where the melody line is carried up and down the double melody string in a linear fashion, while the middle and bass strings sound a continuous drone. The real advantage here is that the double melody string is twice as loud as a single string; allowing it to sing out loud and clear above the drone.

For the advancing dulcimer player, however, the 4-string equidistant set-up represents a clear departure: a fork in the road where there is an exponential increase in harmonic capabilities, as well as the number of tunings available.

Q5b. How come there are so many different string spacings and number of strings on mountain dulcimers?

A: The 3-string arrangement is probably where it all began, and still where a large percentage of instruction is focused. 5-string dulcimers are usually arranged in three courses: a double melody, a single middle string, and a double bass string (which can be a unison or octave course). Six-string dulcimers are simply 3-course dulcimers with double courses, and the bass course may be a unison or octave pair. An 8-string dulcimer, likewise, is simply a doubling of the 4-string equidistant set-up; again with the optional octave on the bass course.

Q6. How long will it take me to learn to play the dulcimer?

A: This depends largely on your musical background:

whether you play other instruments
your general musical aptitude
your style of learning
your level of desire and inspiration
the level of expectations you hold for yourself

. . .and MANY other factors too numerous to mention here

That being said, it is commonly known that ANYONE, regardless of musical ability, can learn a simple tune like Bile Them Cabbage Down in 15 or 20 minutes. I know this to be true as I have taught this very tune to hundreds of people over the years. Beyond the basics, adventurous souls wishing to explore intricate polyphonic textures or complex jazz arrangements will be faced with an extremely steep learning curve.

Q7. What books do you recommend for beginning students?

A: Larkin's Dulcimer Book, by Larkin Kelley Bryant (which also has an excellent tape to go along with it), is a very solid, comprehensive beginning method.

You Can Teach Yourself Dulcimer, by Maddie MacNeil, with an accompanying recording, is also very good and highly recommended. Maddie also has a book called The Joy of D-A-A which is getting to be my all-time favorite dulcimer book!

To build your repertoire using well-known American folksongs, you might want to try my Beginner's Tunebook: Familiar Folktunes Arranged for Mountain Dulcimer: it has a bunch of melody-with-drone arrangements in the popular D-A-D tuning, as well as the usual D-A-A. The D-A-D tuning is becoming very common these days, but there are precious few--if any--beginner's books out there that have more than a couple of tunes in D-A-D.

Q8. Do I have to learn to read music in order to play the dulcimer?

A: Absolutely not! The dulcimer is a simple folk instrument with deep Appalachian folk roots--meaning that the whole European art music tradition, with its over-reliance on the printed note, has very little relevance. In fact, I like to think of folk music, in general, as something that comes right out of the air.

Folk melody is a very organic phenomenon, in which a person's natural ear for music plays the leading role.

There is a form of written music for the dulcimer (and other stringed instruments as well), known as tablature. Dulcimer tablature consists of fret numbers (pressed by the left hand) on three or four lineswhich graphically represent the three or four strings of the dulcimer exactly as they appear while the instrument sits on your lap.

Try a sample of tablature written only for the melody string (from my Beginner's Tunebook) and another style showing standard music notation (for note readers) with dulcimer tablature (from my book Dulcimer Solos Vol. 2).

Tablature (TAB for short) is very user-friendly and quite easy to get the hang of. But maybe for this very reason, it tends to be addictive. TAB is a great learning tool, but once you get a tune in your heart, you really don't need TAB any more: here's where the true expression begins!

Q9. I'm interested in learning how to build a dulcimer. Do you have any suggestions about where I might find resources like books, wood, and supplies?

A: My favorite book on dulcimer building is entitled Constructing the Mountain Dulcimer by Dean Kimball, and it's available from:

Crying Creek Publishers, PO Box 8, Hwy 32, Cosby, TN 37722

This book will be most useful to those with some woodworking experience, as the author recommends building some fairly elaborate forms and jigs to aid in construction. Two good resources are:

Folkcraft Instruments: 800-433-FOLK

Stewart-Macdonald: 800-848-2273

Q10. I'm having difficulty locating recordings that feature the mountain dulcimer. Do you know of any sources?

A: For recordings featuring the mountain dulcimer, you might want to try:

Elderly Instruments

Q10b. Are there any players that you particularly recommend?

Here is a partial listing of some of the more influential mountain dulcimer players:

Stephen Seifert, Robert Force, Quintin Stephens, Butch Ross, Bing Futch, Molly McCormack, Steven K. Smith, Jean Ritchie, Margaret MacArthur, Lorraine Lee Hammond, Roger Nicholson, Leo Kretzner, David Schnaufer, Lois Hornbostel, Mark Nelson, Rob Brereton, Barb Truex, Larkin Kelley Bryant, Maddie MacNeil, Janita Baker, Neal Hellman, Bonnie Carol, Tull Glazener, Gary Gallier, Hollis Landrum, Larry Conger, Nina Zanetti, Bill Collins, and Lee Rowe are all names to look for for on recordings and in performances and workshops.

In 1991, I wrote two articles for the (now defunct) magazine Dirty Linen, each documenting three leading contemporary mountain dulcimer players. These are basically interviews, in which I asked each musician the following questions:

1) Who or what first attracted you to the mountain dulcimer? Do you see the dulcimer as a unique instrument with its own individual voice? What sets it apart from the steel string guitar?

2) Who are the primary influences on your own music and your playing style?

3) What is the role for tradition and roots? Have these been neglected?

Contemporary Mountain Dulcimers And the people who pick 'em, Part 1. David Schnaufer, Lois Hornbostel, Leo Kretzner. First appeared in Dirty Linen #34 June/July '91

Contemporary Mountain Dulcimers And the people who pick 'em, Part 2. Lorraine Lee, Larkin Kelley Bryant, Barbara Truex. First appeared in Dirty Linen #39 April/May '92

Special thanks go to Paul Hartman, editor of Dirty Linen, for making these articles available online, and for publishing them in the first place.

J.C. Rockwell Music
PO Box 79
Guysville, OH 45735-0079
Phone: 740-818-3911