Frequently Asked Questions
About The Hammered Dulcimer
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- General dulcimer questions
- Resources for more information
General Questions about Hammered Dulcimer
- How are the instruments tuned?
- Diatonically. That is to say that notes are organized in the
classic "Do-Re-Mi" scale, but not exactly linearly like on a harp.
Like a guitar or mandolin, notes are grouped by intervals of fourths
or fifths, depending on how you look at the instrument.
- No, I mean... how do you tune it?
- The instrument uses friction tuning pins, much like an autoharp
or piano. A portable electronic tuner is recommended, like the
Korg DT-1 or DT-3.
But if you have an ear for differences in pitch, you can tune it to virtually
any other instrument - piano, flute, pitch pipes, etc. Once you get used
to it, tuning a dulcimer doesn't take more than 5 minutes.
- What do the numbers mean, like 13/12?
- Many dulcimer makers will indicate the size and range of their
dulcimers by the number of "courses" or string groups found on each
bridge. The first number is usually for the treble (center) bridge,
the second for the bass (right side) bridge; and if a third number is
given it means there is a third bridge on the far left of the
instrument. As a general rule, the following is true: 9/8 = two
octave, 12/11 = two 1/2 octave, and 15/14 = three octave range.
- Does a half-octave really make that much difference?
- On paper, you wouldn't think that it would. But once you get to
compare two instruments side-by-side, you can immediately hear a
difference in tone and depth, and after playing for a while a half
octave can be significant because of how many keys you can play in.
Other differences will be in note range (especially if you plan to do
harmonizing), and volume. It seems that most professional players
recommend getting at least a 12/11 as a first instrument.
- Does a dulcimer have chromatics?
- Chromatic notes (e.g. the black keys on a piano) can be found
scattered in different parts of the dulcimer. Not all dulcimers
have all chromatic notes - so check specs carefully to be sure
you're getting what you want. As a side note, many people think
at first that they need a fully chromatic instrument, to find later
that they hardly ever use the chromatic notes. For example, traditional
Irish music rarely requires notes that can't be found on a
standard 12/11 dulcimer.
- I am an absolute beginner. What is the best instrument to get?
- Buying a dulcimer might seem to be an intimidating task. You need to
carefully consider: what you plan to do with it, how much you can
spend, and how your current level of musical expertise will apply to
learning the dulcimer. An important note is that many teachers recommend getting at least a
12/11 sized instrument. For more advice, check out this guide.
- Why buy a dulcimer with a black lacquer finish?
- Under most lighting conditions, bridges and strings can be seen
better over a black lacquer finish. You should consider a dulcimer
with this finish if you plan to use it in a variety of settings. Many
people also prefer the slick appearance of a black lacquer top. The
major disadvantage to a black lacquer finish is sensitivity to full
sunlight - a dulcimer may self-destruct if it gets too hot.
- How often do the strings need to be replaced?
- Only when they break. Unlike fretted instruments where you replace the strings
every few months, dulcimers can keep their strings indefinitely since
they are not played with your fingers. On guitars, dirt and skin oil will
"gum up" their wound strings and dulls the sound. This doesn't happen to
hammer dulcimers because they are played with wooden mallets called "hammers"
Hammer dulcimers do require a little care, but usually not much more than
protecting the strings from moisture and contaminants so they do not
- What do I do if a string breaks?
- First of all, remove and retain all remaining pieces of the
string. You shouldn't re-use a piece of wire that has broken.
Replacement wire can be acquired from the dulcimer manufacturer or from
a local folk instrument store. If neither of these are available,
check your Yellow Pages under "Piano - Repairing" and call some of the
technicians. You will need to know the gauge or thickness of the wire
when you call. If you don't have calipers, you may need to bring the
broken string to a professional for gauging. Replace a dulcimer string only with
the same gauge (and preferably the same material) of wire as the
- Why should I own a pair of double-sided hammers?
- Double-sided hammers are sort of a two-for-one deal, although they are
typically more expensive than their single-sided counterparts. The two
striking surfaces of a double-sided hammer will have different textures
or covering material
(e.g. leather, suede, felt) which produce different sounds. The idea
behind a double-sided hammer is that you should be able to flip it from
one side to another quickly in the middle of a performance. Not all
designs will do this easily, however, so it's a good idea to try before
- Okay, so why own a pair of single-sided hammers?
- Single sided hammers are typically lighter than doubles, offering two
distinct advantages: (1) their lower mass makes playing fast easier;
(2) the lower profile of single-sided hammers make them less
susceptible to drift from crosswinds when playing on a windy day.
As a player, you will have to experiment with both double and single sided
hammers to determine what you are most comfortable playing with.
- Do different hammer woods make different sounds?
- Yes, although the difference is often subtle. Softwoods tend to
have a dampening effect similar to using leather padding, whereas
hardwoods often have a louder, more ringy tone. These differences
will be more apparent in recordings than they will in performance.
- How do I keep my dulcimer clean?
- Dulcimer soundboards are efficient dust collectors and cleaning
them can be a chore. Retailers sell all kinds of toys for cleaning
dulcimers (some even sell a "dulcimer duster" which looks like
an oversized pipe cleaner), but we've found that a long bristled
paint brush works best. Use only a brand new brush, preferably made
from camel hair. The brush should be held perpendicular to the soundboard
and swept parallel with and through the strings.
Resources for More Dulcimer Information
- What else is out there on the World Wide Web and the Internet
that can tell me more about hammered dulcimers?
- We recommend checking out the following sites:
In addition, you can subscribe to the Hammered Dulcimer e-mail list
by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submissions to the list are done by sending mail to email@example.com.
- What are some good books on learning to play dulcimer?
- There are quite a few books available, with more being written all the
time. One of the best I've seen is Striking Out and Winning written
by Lucille Reilly. This is a fairly expensive ($35) but rather thorough
book. Three audio tapes which complement the book are sold separately; I
haven't heard them so I can't advocate them as strongly.
A (relatively) new arrival to the scene is Maddie McNeil's "How To Play
the Hammered Dulcimer" on the Mel Bay label. Maddie's book has been
getting a lot of good reviews. A book & tape, or book &
CD set is an excellent way to start learning the hammered dulcimer.
For learning lots of really good (and frequently played) dulcimer tunes,
check out The Kitchen Musician. These are
low-cost, high quality books written in both standard and numeric
- Where can I find someone to teach me the dulcimer?
- There are many teachers and instructors across the globe.
Check out The Music Teachers' List
for a teacher in your area. Most dulcimer teachers in the United States
are listed here.
- How about dulcimer recordings and bands?
- A very w-i-d-e range of recordings are available from almost every
CD superstore and folk instrument shop... so much so that we couldn't
begin to list all of them. For the most part, dulcimer recordings are
best for building up your repertoire after you've learned to play at
the intermediate level. A select few recordings may actually help you
learn new techniques, if you have a sharp ear and have good hand-ear
coordination. Recordings alone will never show you a technique as
clearly as live one-on-one instruction, but they can give you an idea
to ask instructors "how is this done?"
Below is a list of artists and recordings that I have heard and
recommend either for repertoire or technique, or both.
- Jerry Read Smith
- Strayaway Child
- No Strings Attached
- Take Five
- John McCutcheon
- Dulcimer duets, trios, and quartets
- Lee Spears
- Confluence (highly recommended!)
- Maggie Sansone
- Sounds of the Season
- Dance Upon the Shore
- Subscribing to Dulcimer Player's News
- The Dulcimer Player's News (often called "DPN" on newsgroups
and other Internet forums) is a quarterly publication covering all
aspects of both hammered and mountain dulcimers. It is a "must" for
any serious dulcimer enthusiast.
Dulcimer Players News ($30/year)
PO Box 278
Signal Mountain TN 37377
PO Box 87462
Montgomery Village MD 20886-7462
Last updated: 18-September-2006
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