Appalachian Dulcimer Introduction

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Appalachian Dulcimer - Introduction

A traditional dulcimer, with violin-style tuning pegs and lacking the Sometimes called "mountain" or "lap" dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted stringed instrument that you usually play with it lying in front of you, most often across your legs, though some folks play it standing up, with the thing resting on a special stand.

This instrument evolved in hard-to-reach regions of Appalachia among the Scotch-Irish settlers and their offspring. It is especially suited toward the kind of modal ballads those folks brought with them and continued to keep singing right up until the invasion of the radio.

Jean Ritchie, surrounded by dulcimers from many fellow players and their families, just to show the variety that has been produced. Clicking the photo will take you to our history article.The Appalachian dulcimer became better known to the "outside world" during the American Folk Revival, especially through the efforts of Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky singer whose dulcimer playing caught the Folk world's attention.

At the right, Jean is shown in a cover photo to a book she wrote about dulcimers and people who played them. The dulcimers belong to her, her friends, and her friends' friends, just to show the variety that has been produced.

Since the Appalachian dulcimer was exposed to the "outside world," may fans of traditional and acoustic music have adopted it, though they have also pushed for updates that made them easier to tune, to play in other keys without using modal scales, and to play chords, something Jean never did to speak of.

For a more detailed history of the Appalachian dulcimer, click here.

The following diagram shows the basic parts of a traditional dulcimer.

A traditional, hand-made pre-1970 dulcimer with the parts labeled.  Click for bigger photo.

Note: Many traditional Appalachian Dulcimers have only one melody string. If they have two melody strings, they are tuned to the same note.

The next diagram shows a more modern instrument. The primary differences are:

  • The addition of fancy geared "planetery" tuners (most modern dulcimers use open-geared "guitar-styled tuners, so this is an upgrade), and

  • The addition of frets between frets 6 and 7 and between frets 13 and 14. These give you C# notes, which allow you to play the dulcimer easily in D. If you join a dulcimer club, you'll probably need those frets, because the clubs around me tend to play everything in the key of D. Look for the cluster of four frets close together in the middle and another set closer to the "scoop."

A high-end, traditional, hand-made McSpadden 'hourglass' dulcimer with the parts labeled.  Click for bigger photo.

The "zero fret" is just the way some builders make certain their intonation is sound. It's not, technically a feature.

Again, there is a very detailed explanation of why these changes occurred in our Appalachian Dulcimer - History article.

The following diagram shows another modern dulcimer. This one has a teardrop shape and guitar-style tuners. However it also shares the extra frets with the dulcimer shown just above.

Black Mountain Teardrop Dulcimer. It looks inexpensive but will outplay many fancy-looking imports. Click for bigger photo.

Many other shapes have been tried, but these are the most popular.

Other Resources

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

  • Appalachian Dulcimer - History - Sorts out theories of the Appalachian Dulcimer's pre-20th-century evolution, and goes on to describe how the dulcimer and it's uses have changed since the Folk Revival helped bring it into public notice.

  • 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, so we plan to use this page as a place as an index to future articles.

Stay tuned!


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