The origin of the dulcimer is as elusive as its haunting sound. Two types of instrument stake claim to the name—both have different shapes, different methods of being played, and diverse origins. The fretted dulcimer resembles an elongated violin with a limited number of strings (usually three to five) that can be plucked or bowed. In the United States, the fretted dulcimer is better known as the Appalachian or Mountain dulcimer.
The hammered dulcimer is rectangular or trapezoidal in shape and has sets of multiple strings with a range of up to three octaves. The instrument is played with two light-weight beaters called hammers that are shaped like long-handled spoons and are used to strike the strings.
The history of both dulcimers is confused because they were developed to play folk music and sprang up independently in a number of locations in Europe and the Middle East. It is not known how or if varieties of dulcimers crossed cultural or topographic barriers.
The hammered dulcimer is considered a member of the zither family and may have origins in Iran as the citar or santir, an instrument used to produce the ancient classical music of Persia. The spice and silk trades that criscrossed the Middle East during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may have been responsible for the instrument's presence in Spain by the twelfth century and its appearance in China. In China, it is called the yangqin, yang ch 'in, or foreign zither.
The French version of the hammered zither was called the tympanon, and it's strings were struck with leather-covered hammers. The instrument experienced great popularity from about 1697-1770 due to an inventor named Pantaleon Hebestreit, who constructed a version with 186 strings and named it a pantaleon. The instrument appeared to fade in popularity with the rise of the piano.
By unknown paths of immigration, hammered dulcimers arrived in the United States. The instrument was sufficiently popular to have been carried by both the Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogues in the 1800s and early 1900s. The hammered dulcimer was also reportedly the favorite instrument of Henry Ford and enjoyed a mild revival thanks to his admirers. The harpsichord and pianoforte (or piano) are hammered dulcimers to which keyboards have been attached.
The Appalachian dulcimer or dulcimore is generally hourglass-shaped with three to five strings and frets (low ridges against which the strings are pressed). Its strings are plucked with the fingers, a pick, or a quill, and the player's left hand holds a stick or plectrum on the strings as a stop. Nordic settlers claim to have brought the dulcimer to the New World. The Swedes brought their version called a humle, Icelanders imported the langspil, and Norwegian immigrants brought the langleik. The Germans and Dutch had developed two instruments, the scheitholt and the hummel, which became the folk instrument of Pennsylvania where so many Germans settled. To this mix of variants, the French added their Epinette des Vosges, which is less box-like and more similar in shape to a violin.
Many of the Scotch-Irish who left Ireland in the early 1700s settled first in Pennsylvania before following the frontiersmen to the Appalachian mountains and along the Ohio River. While in Pennsylvania, they may well have heard the scheitholt or humle played by the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German instruments were elongated boxes with frets and a limited number of strings; these either merged with British versions or were developed by the Scotch-Irish settlers to form the hourglass-shaped instrument now known as the Appalachian dulcimer.
As the history of the dulcimer suggests, almost anything goes in selecting the shape of an Appalachian dulcimer. The size and depth of the soundbox must be chosen for the desired sound of the instrument. The deeper and larger boxes produce both louder and lower tones. Perhaps the most eye-catching and apparently ornamental feature of the dulcimer is the sound holes. Some of these are both beautiful and elaborate. The actual shape of the hole does not affect the sound, but the length of slots or elongated holes is important. Like the f holes in a violin, they free longer pieces of the sound-board from the constraining effects of the rigid sides so that the soundboard vibrates more responsively to the strings.
Design of a dulcimer begins with making a pattern and selecting the size of the instrument. Size is determined from the outside in. Strings are available from manufacturers in standard lengths between 25-30 in (63.5-76.2 cm). The soundbar is as long as the strings, but because it is fixed to the sound-box with a nut several inches down from the top of the solid end of the box, the soundbox must be longer than the soundboard. The soundbox is usually 6-8 in (15.2-20.3 cm) wide and up to 2 in (5.08 cm) deep. The maximum measurements have proven to produce the best sound character, including loudness and timbre, or quality of sound.
After the basic dimensions are chosen, a pattern is made on paper or cardboard. One half of the dulcimer is outlined on the paper, which is folded on the axis and cut to produce the mirror image. A form will be made to shape the upper and lower curves of the dulcimer, so before the pattern is cut, a partial pattern is made of this shape so that top and bottom match.
The hammered dulcimer produces a sweet sound. In fact, the word dulcimer is derived from the Greek meaning sweet (dulce) and song (menos). While the Greeks or Persians may have invented it nearly 1,000 years ago, Europeans were likely introduced to the dulcimer during the Crusades. It soon became a favorite at royal court, but musicians complained about the lack of dynamic range of the instrument. The dulcimer's stringed keyboard eventually led to the development of the pianoforte, which did offer a dynamic range, ultimately eclipsing the dulcimer in popularity. While the dulcimer was no longer a court instrument, it remained a great favorite with street musicians, gypsies, and other plain folk.
This trapezoidal-shaped hammered dulcimer was lovingly made at the rurn-of-the-century, Red with gold-painted scrolls and varnished trim, it is proudly emblazed with "Henry Bryant-Maker-Wolfeboro NH 1898." While we don't know much about Henry Bryant, we suspect that he may have been a dulcimer player who typically found it difficult to acquire dulcimers and had to resort to constructing his own instruments. Happily, the sweet song of the hammered dulcimer was rediscovered in the early twentieth century with the revival of early American folk music and interest swelled again in the 1960s. Today, hammered dulcimers are available readily and there is a burgeoning fascination with its soothing sound.
Nancy EV Bryk
Many types of fine wood can be used to make a dulcimer. The outer wood forms the finish and should be selected for its beauty and grain, while the inner wood (usually oak) does not have to be attractive, although the material must respond to steam used to soften and shape the sides. The outer or finish wood used for the soundboard may be walnut, spruce, pine, or yellow poplar and should produce a bright sound due to the presence of hard and soft streaks in the wood. Such striations will give the finished dulcimer visual as well as aural beauty. The body of the dulcimer is usually made of harder wood like cherry, black walnut, or mahogany. The tuning pegs are Brazilian rosewood, although old dulcimers have ebony, rosewood, metal, or crude wooden pegs.
Frets on old dulcimers were also made of a variety of materials including silver, steel, brass, staghorn, ivory, bone, and various woods. Today, commercially-made fretting material is manufactured by specialists in a tee-shaped cross section that is convenient to fit to an instrument. These frets are made of nickel silver or brass. Also made by specialty manufacturers, dulcimer strings are standard, using the same strings as are manufactured for 12-string guitars.
As with all handmade products, quality control is in the hands of the maker. The end result of the dulcimer maker's craftsmanship is considered from the conception of the instrument forward, and many careful hours are spent in achieving a final product that is as beautiful as intended. Quality control may also be in the ear of the beholder; the craftsman's care will be evident in the sound the instrument produces.
Renewed interest in folk music has awakened the interest of hobbyists and musicians in dulcimers. The instrument is easier to play than more sophisticated instruments that require long hours of training and practice. Dulcimer-making kits are available from a number of suppliers.
Alvey, R. Gerald. Dulcimer Maker: The Craft of Homer Ledford. The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
Hines, Chet. How to Make and Play the Dulcimore. Stackpole Books, 1973.
Murphy, Michael. The Appalachian Dulcimer Book. St. Clairsville, Ohio: Folksay Press, 1980.
Ritchie, Jean. The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1974.
Charlie Alm's Hammered Dulcimer Book. www.dcwi.com/dulcimer .
The Dulcimer Factory. www.Instar.com/mallldulcimer/dulcfac2.htm .
The Dulcimer Shop. www.databahn.net/dulcimer .
Frequently Asked Questions About the Hammered Dulcimer. www.dulcimer.com/faq.html .
Hammered Dulcimer Page. www.rtpnet.org/-hdweb/ .
Handcrafted Cimbaloms. www.cimbalom.com .
Joe Zsigray's Mountain Dulcimer Page. www.wcnet.org/-jrz100/mountain-d/ .
Mike's Hammered Dulcimer. www.halcyon.com/riston/home/dulcimer.htm .
— Gillian S. Holmes