Appalachian Dulcimer History

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Appalachian Dulcimer - History

This surprisingly charming folk instrument developed in a time and place in which few written records were kept. Its construction and playing traditions seem to have passed from region to region - unnoticed by the outside world. So, while there are people who claim to know exactly how the instrument we know as the Appalachian Dulcimer came to be, the truth is that all "histories" of the Appalachian dulcimer's early development are "educated guesses" at best. Even this one.

Unlike some "experts," I don't totally buy into the theories that it was, say "a poor man's fiddle," or a barely-improved copy of a German-American instrument. Feel free to research and disagree with me as much as you want. If you have facts or sources that I don't seem to be aware of, please let me know by using the contact page.

Possible Precursors? - Folks who have researched this topic say there is no compelling evidence that an instrument similar to the Appalachian dulcimer was being used in Ireland or Scotland at the time of the great Scotch-Irish migrations to America (and thence to Appalachia). In other words, the early Appalachian settlers do not seem to have brought this instrument or its precursors from their homeland.

This 19th century 'zitter,' 'hummer', or 'scheitholt' is representative of the instrument traditions brought by German-speaking immigrants to the Pennsylvania regions three centuries ago.  This particular instrument is in the Yale collection of musical instruments.  This class of instrument is sometimes considered an ancestor of the Appalachian dulcimer.  Click for bigger photo.They do point out that it is quite similar to a German lap zither called a "scheitholt," "zitter," or "hummer." The scheitholt is at least seven centuries old.

Accounts of the German-speaking settlers in the Alleghenies (the so-called "Pennsylvania Dutch) include references to the "zitter." Those hills are also part of the Appalachian highlands. So it's not a stretch to "connect the dots," as many do, and claim that the Appalachian dulcimer is mostly an improvement on an instrument that was brought here by German-speaking immigrants and worked its way south.

I see no evidence to dispute this claim. But I will point out that there have been many historical instruments with similar features. For example, the diatonic fretspacing and drone strings of both instruments goes back many centuries.

A Lack of Skilled Woodworkers? - According to some folks who never spent real time in the hills, the Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia didn't have the requisite skills to make violins (fiddles), so they made these instead. Of course that notion ignores the fact that those same hills have been virtually crawling with fiddles since the earliest settlers. Or that nearly every homeowner had plenty of woodworking skills. After all, they built their own houses, barns, corncribs, and furniture, as well as household items like spoons and buckets. In other words, Appalachia has not lacked for skilled woodworkers.

That said, even in families with a resident fiddle-builder, it was true that anyone who could build, say, a birdhouse, could knock together some sort of dulcimer from scrap wood. Yes, there were improvements over the years, such as the wider bodies allowed by curved side pieces, but using forms to curve slats of wood was another common skill.

About Those Drone Strings - In traditional dulcimer tuning and playing, only one or two of the strings (the "melody strings") are fretted. The other strings, called "drones," are strummed but not fretted - they keep the same note at all times.

You hear a similar sound in bagpipes, which play a constant note or two at the same that the melody is playing. I have heard that the Appalachian settlers didn't have the resources to make bagpipes, so they made dulcimers instead. I doubt very much that is the history. But I can say for sure that the drone strings suited the early Scotch-Irish folk ballads.

Traditionally those songs used virtually no harmony. If other singers or any fiddlers joined in, they sang or played the melody, too. (Listen to the authentic early recordings of Irish and Scotch-Irish Folk musicians if you don't believe me.) So instruments like the Appalachian dulcimer could use drone strings to get a fuller sound without causing too much dissonance no matter how many other singers or instruments joined in.

To be sure, the folks who built the earliest Appalachian dulcimers did not invent the drone strings. Drone strings on instruments like this and the "zitter" go back thousands of years and across multiple continents (think of the sitar). In my opinion, instruments with drone strings caught on among the descendants of the Appalachian settlers because they suited the style of music that most folks there sang in those days.

Modal Scales - Many of the early ballads of the Scotch-Irish who settled in Appalachia used scales that hardly anyone uses today. These are called "modes." You can hear most modes for yourself if you sit at a piano and only play the white keys. If you go from C to C, that's the most common mode today, called Ionian. If you go from D to D, that's the Dorian mode, and so on.

For more information about modes, visit our "Introduction to Scales" article and scroll down until you see the "Modes" header. On a dulcimer, the most common tuning puts G scale into the Ionian mode, A into Dorian mode and so on, but the relationships between tune and mode still stand.

The important thing about modes and dulciers is that many of the old Scotch-Irish ballads that found their way to Appalachia were written in modes that are seldom heard any more, but which are easy to play on the dulcimer. To modern ears, those songs sound odd and many of them sound like they end on the wrong note.

'The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles' is a good look at many collected Appalachian Folk songs with tips for playing them on an Appalachian dulcimer.  Click to see a description on Amazon.Folk ballad collector John Jacob Niles once complained that non-Appalachian musicians who try to sing Appalachian ballads are often so uncomfortable with the modal tunes that they feel compelled to change the entire tune, change the tune of the last line, or repeat the last line with a different tune so they can end on a note that sounds right to them. According to Niles, someone once asked his father why so many Appalachian songs end on the "wrong note." He said, basically, "We sing until the song is over, and then we stop."

Niles' Ballad Book contains songs in several modes, transcribed just as he learned them from people a generation or two older than him, back in the early 1900s. The book contains tips for playing them on Appalachian dulcimer.

As you can see in the book cover, the dulcimer Niles built for himself was huge, but he still played it as a dulcimer, with his left hand coming over the top of the neck to fret the melody strings.

In case you wondered, playing in different modes can require retuning, but with only 3-4 strings, that might not be as big a problem as you might think.

You may not be interested in doing songs that your audience doesn't understand, but a hundred and two-hundred years ago, dulcimers served musicians and audiences who did understand that music.

One of many collections of authentic Folk music published by John Lomax and his son Alan.  Click to see a description on Amazon.Coming to General Attention - In the early 1900s, folks music researchers like John Lomax began collecting as many of old folk songs as they could, often traveling to isolated places with their own musical traditions. John Jacob Niles, who was born in Kentucky, was both a source and a researcher in his own right.

Niles' work received some attention during the early stages of the mid-1900s "Folk Revival." Folks were looking for authentic songs and sounds, and you didn't get much more authentic than Niles.

But the Appalachian dulcimer became far better known when folk music researchers like Alan Lomax (son of John) became acquainted with Jean Ritchie. Jean was a singer steeped in the centuries-old musical traditions of Kentucky's Cumberland mountains. She had learned to play her father's dulcimer as a small child.

Though the dulcimer was not central to her music when she first met and performed with popular Folk musicians at the time, Folk music fans craved to hear more of her dulcimer. Eventually the Appalachian dulcimer became a hallmark of her music performances and recordings. She wrote extensively about learning and building dulcimers. With her husband, photographer George Pickow, she built hundreds for sale.

The photo inset from Ritchie's 'Dulcimer People' book shows Jean surrounded by dulcimers of all shapes and sizes.  Click for a bigger photo.Ritchie's long out-of-print Oak publication Dulcimer People included instructions for building your own dulcimer. Of course, by its publication in 1975, most folks had figured it out.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its cover, which included a photo of Ritchie surrounded by dulcimers of all shapes and sizes, including a couple that look more like antique "zitters" and one with seven strings and guitar tuners. Click on the photo for a blowup.

Entering the Marketplace, Sort Of - The "Folk Revival was - interestingly enough - responsible for bringing several instruments into the forefront of American popular music, and neglecting others. For example the acoustic 6-string guitar (but not the 4-string guitar that was popular in Jazz and used by the Kingston trio), the 5-string banjo (but not the 4-string banjo which had been more popular before the Folk revival started). The poor ukulele, wildly popular early in the century, was completely left behind; the mandolin, nearly so.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cheap banjos and guitars were made to sell to Folk wannabees, starting in the US with brands like Harmony and Kay, then migrating to Japan with brands like Hondo.

A Hondo II dulcimer from the 1960s.  Don't go out of your way to acquire one. Click for bigger photo.The Appalachian dulcimer did earn the honor of having a few cheap imports made, including the Hondo dulcimer I bought my sister in the late 1960s. But dulcimers have never had the impact in the marketplace that imported guitars and banjos have.

A First Act mini-dulcimer, meant for children to start on.  Sadly, it's tone is so weak it doesn't keep their interest for long. Sorry, I don't have a better photo.By the way, you can play these, as well as the more recent "First Act" mini-dulcimers, one of which I keep to offer visiting children who can't keep their hands off my better instruments. But they don't have the rich resonance of well-crafted dulcimers, and the dull tone bores even children quickly.

To this day, all of the better Appalachian Dulcimers you come across are essentially hand-made by regional artisans within North America, even if they are made in "shops" that employ more than one craftsperson.

With the relatively recent rise of dulcimer clubs, a market for cheap dulcimers has re-emerged. At the moment, you can find many instruments labeled "Appalachian dulcimer" for sale from brands like Roosebeck. Those are made in Pakistan, of all places. Some people love them, but the quality control is, shall we say, uneven, so don't buy one unless you have return privileges. Better yet, find an old handcrafted one somewhere.

Seagull's 'Merlin' instrument looks like a mandolin with a long neck.  The fret spacing is the same as a dulcimer, so they classify it as a dulcimer,  though they are strung 'backwardsIn addition, Seagull, a Canadian company whose guitars I respect, has been making instruments with dulcimer fretboards but small bodies. They are strung "backwards," with the melody strings in the opposite position from a standard dulcimer. That way, you can hold them like a guitar, with your left hand coming up from underneath the neck. (Buy a "left-handed" model if you want to play this like a standard dulcimer.) In fact, I would consider these more like "cigar box banjos" than dulcimers. Also, the tone is weak compared to a full-bodied dulcimer, but they're selling well, so what do I know?

Other variations come and go, so don't be surprised if you see something being called a dulcimer that doesn't look like one to you.

Improvements, or at Least Changes - Once the Appalachian dulcimer became popular outside of Appalachia, it was only a matter of time before folks started wanting to use them on songs other than modal ballads. Plus folks who didn't have a lot of stories to tell while they were tuning between songs wanted an easier way to keep them in tune.

The "6 1/2" Fret - A traditional dulcimer in the most common tunings, does not have any good way to play C# on the melody strings. And you need that note to play many songs in the key of D, a popular key among Folk and Country guitarists.

Starting as early as the 1970s, new, non-Appalachian players of Appalachian dulcimer wanted to jam with their guitar-playing friends. So they started demanding a fret that would allow them to play C#. Because the new fret went between the sixth and seventh fret, dulcimer makers and players call it the "6 1/2" fret. Eventually even the most stuck-in-the-mud builders began offering that extra fret as a option, if not as a standard feature.

The photo below shows a dulcimer with the C# (6 1/2 fret). One way to tell quickly if a dulcimer you're looking at has a 6 1/2 fret is to look for four frets close together toward the middle of the instrument. Look at the fret spacing between the B, C, C# and D to see what I mean.

A dulcimer with a 6 1/2 fret to allow you to play a C#, and therefore more songs in D major. Sorry, I don't have a bigger photo of this one.

You could technically add another C# fret just behind the highest fret on this instrument if you wanted to. Builders call this the "13 1/2" fret.

One result of this is you can somewhat tell whether an Appalachian dulcimer is from the dulcimer's first wave of popularity or is more recent by whether it has that extra fret. My one professional dulcimer has both a 6 1/2 and a 13 1/2 fret, indicating that it was probably made within the last forty years (I bought it used, so I have no way of knowing for certain.)

Often, used unnamed (possibly home-made) dulcimers that turn up on auction sites do not have that fret. I have come across some home-made or mom-and-pop dulcimers from that era that are very well made, so that doesn't discourage me from trying or recommending them. In fact, many of those are better than the new, shiny, C#-equipped dulcimers and dulcimer-like instruments that you can order from Pakistan today.

Tuners - The original Appalachian Dulcimers had violin-style tuning pegs. Folks who would rather not fiddle with those (pardon the pun) have requested guitar-style geared tuners. They do make the instrument easier to tune and keep in tune. Some of the best instruments, trying to retain a more traditional appearance, use the same kind of "planetary" tuners that are used on professional banjos. They go straight in, rather than at an angle.

Other Changes - In addition to some of the variations named above, most currently available instruments have a minimum of 4 strings (three-stringers were common a half-century ago). You can get dulcimers with six strings if you want them.

The frets on most early dulcimers ran only under the melody strings. Nearly all dulcimers made since the 1960s have frets running across the fretboard. This make it possible to play chords, which we discuss in a moment.

In addition to the "6 1/2" fret, some players have requested other frets, up to and including full chromatic fretboards such as you see on guitars.

Playing Style Changes - Traditional Appalachian dulcimer players like Jean Ritchie fretted only the melody strings, sometimes using a dowl or other small item to press the strings down. The addition of frets that run the full width of the fretboard made it possible to play chords. Most folks who do so still play the dulcimer in their lap and fret the fingerboard "overhand."

The ability to chord has allowed picking patterns, including fingerpicking, that wouldn't have made much sense with just drone strings. Some of the more advanced players use chord structures that allow them to play the melody on the melody strings at the same time they're playing chords.

That said, no matter how many updates your dulcimer may have, you can still play it in the most traditional manner. As a person who appreciates the sound of the open drone strings more than most, I usually just fret the melody strings myself.

In other words, don't let newfangled stuff like extra frets and fancy tuners "scare you off" a good instrument - unless you're playing in a reenactment, of course. (Even then, I doubt anyone would notice an extra fret or so.)

Other Resources

As we add articles and "vet" other resources that you may find helpful, we will be adding them here.

  • Appalachian Dulcimer - Introduction - A brief overview of the Appalachian dulcimer, including traditional and modern configurations, plus links to other resources.

  • Click to go to our Appalachian Dulcimer buyer's guide page.Appalachian Dulcimer Buyer's Guide - describes features and materials you should consider looking for when shopping for a dulcimer.

    I have to warn you, though, we don't say much about where to get Appalachian dulcimers, as the best ones are all made in private shops that come and go. But there are tips about what to look for in your search.

More to Come

There is much to know about these instruments, and we won't be able to do more than "scratch the surface," but people do keep coming to us with questions. We plan to continue posting answers to the questions that come up most often.

Hope that makes sense.

Stay tuned!

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you come away with some great ideas for "sharing the joy."

And please stay in touch!

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