Folk music became popular again in the Seventies, with groups like Peter, Paul and Mary introducing instruments that were almost obsolete. Due to this re-interest in folk instruments, the Mountain Dulcimer has continued to grow in popularity and has become a very popular instrument, both for it’s beautiful sound and for it’s easy playing.
The Mountain Dulcimer is a long hourglass or teardrop-shaped instrument that is laid across the lap to play. Most are four strings, but some have three and some as many as six. It is played by using a noter, a small piece of wooden dowel, or a finger to hold down the melody strings, while you strum with the other hand using a pick.. It is similar to a guitar but much easier to play.
The Mountain Dulcimer is not to be confused with the Hammered Dulcimer. Lap Dulcimers are large trapezoid-shaped instruments played on a stand with hammers, or mallets. The Mountain Dulcimer is a “cousin” to the German zither. In Appalachia, it was usually handmade by a father or grandfather and the children were taught to play. All members of the family could usually play the dulcimer. Traditionally it was played with a noter, but most dulcimer players today use fingers or a pick.
You do not have to read music to play a dulcimer. Dulcimer music is usually written in tabulature, or “tabs”. The frets on the neck of the dulcimer are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc all the way down the fretboard, and the music will have the number you hold down for that note, not the actually musical notation. Tabs can be copied for free from several online websites (see Resources) or ordered through catalogs. Some guitar stores or larger music stores also carry dulcimer tabs. Many dulcimer players write their own tabs, and most are more than willing to share.
Each dulcimer has a different sound, which dulcimer players often refer to as “its voice”. The name dulcimer actually translates to mean “sweet sound”. The music is soft and mellow. Most dulcimers are not amplified though some can be ordered with amplification as an added accessory. Because the music is soft, dulcimers can be played late at night without disturbing others.
There are several shoppes that specialize in dulcimers. Dulcimers are also made all over the country by luthiers, or makers of stringed instruments. Dulcimer players find the one that has the voice that “speaks to them” and then usually continue to purchase from the same luthier. Dulcimers are made of many different types of wood, which account for some of the difference in sounds. A beginner can purchase a dulcimer made of cardboard rather inexpensively, and they actually have a good sound. If you want a longer lasting instrument, most quality made hardwood dulcimers begin at $200 and go up from there. A good case is a necessity, as is a tuner, and several picks. It’s also a good idea to purchase an extra set of strings.
There are dulcimer festivals year round all across the country. Young and old alike gather to jam, share pot luck dinners, and catch up with old friends. Most dulcimer festivals also have free classes for beginners, but a beginner can also order a video and be playing a song in the first ten minutes of instruction.
Having failed miserably at piano lessons as a child, I desperately wanted to learn to play an instrument, and the dulcimer was the perfect choice for me. It may be for you!