Hammered dulcimers come in many varieties. We'll describe the most popular American version here with the traditional fifth-interval tuning. Most instructional materials are designed for this type of dulcimer.
Dulcimer strings are usually small-gauge steel music wire, similar to those on banjos or mandolins. Sometimes other metals (such as phosphor bronze or brass) and wound strings are used. Each dulcimer string is anchored into one pinblock using a hitch pin. The string then passes over a side bridge and the treble or bass bridge, and goes through an opening in the opposite (i.e. bass or treble) bridge. Finally, the string passes over the other side bridge and is anchored to a tuning pin. Often called zither pins, these are smaller versions of piano tuning pins. They have tiny screw threads that hold the pin tightly in the pinblock with friction. Special tuning wrenches fit over the squared heads of the pins for tuning.
Strings are grouped together in courses, with all strings in a course tuned to the same pitch. Some older instruments had three, four, or as many as six strings in each course, which made tuning laborious. Those instruments had to be built quite heavily to prevent collapse under the string tension. Current builders tend toward lighter-weight, more responsive instruments that can produce all the volume a player needs with a very manageable two strings per course.
Note: some instruments have extra-long strings that start at a tuning pin, go all the way across the instrument, wrap around a hitch pin, and come back to the side where they started, so each course of strings is actually made up of one continuous piece of wire. This is an important thing to know when buying strings, as the regular-length loop-end strings may not work. Very early Dusty dulcimers were strung this way, but we have been using loop end strings for a long time now.
The strings that pass over the treble bridge are divided into two separate lengths, so they produce different notes a fifth apart on either side of the bridge. If a string struck on the right side of the bridge is taken as the first note of a major scale (Do), the same string struck on the left side will sound the fifth note of the scale (Sol). This interval sounds like the first two notes in "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." This configuration allows a complete major scale to be played in four courses.
The bass bridge strings are also divided into two lengths by their bridge, but generally only the left, or longer, segment is tuned to a useful music pitch. The bass bridge strings are arranged so that a pattern similar to that used on the treble bridge can be used to play a major scale. The pattern begins on the bass bridge and is completed on the right-hand side of the treble bridge.
The bridges of instruments tuned as described above are usually marked with white bridge caps to show each tonic, or beginning note, of the available major scales. In the diagrams on this page, these notes are indicated by large dots.
Unlike piano players, dulcimer players need to learn how to tune their own instruments. Tuning requirements for hammered dulcimers can vary immensely. Factors that influence an instrument's tuning stability include the integrity of its construction, temperature fluctuations and, to a lesser degree, changes in humidity. A well-built, stable instrument will hold its tune for weeks or longer when kept in a fairly consistent environment such as a home. If you take this instrument from a warm house to a cold car and back again, it will probably need some tuning once it warms up in the new atmosphere. Tuning is not a difficult process. With practice and the help of a chromatic electronic tuner and a clip-on tuner pickup, it may take up to 15 minutes for a complete top-to-bottom retuning.
Hammers are the crucial link between player and instrument. They are usually held loosely between thumb and forefinger, with the thumb on top. The player strikes the strings with a motion similar to what you might use when tapping a pencil on a tabletop. The striking surface of the hammer may be bare wood, or may be covered with a material such as leather or felt to produce a softer sound.
There are lots of different hammer designs, and long-time players often accumulate a collection of different hammers to suit different moods. Hammers vary by length, weight, balance, playing surface (hard or padded), playing sides (single- or double-sided), shape of grip, material, and so on. The most important thing is to find a pair of hammers that feels good to play with and makes your instrument sound its best. Poorly designed hammers can actually impede playing, while balanced and comfortable hammers whose length and striking surface are sized correctly for the instrument can make it much easier. Visit our hammers page for information on the different types of hammers we make.
There is no consensus on the "ideal" sound and response for a hammered dulcimer, and instruments by different makers vary quite a bit. In general, tones range from a bright, chiming bell-like quality through a deeply resonant piano-like sound.
Sustain, or the length of time a string continues to ring after it is struck, is an important consideration for most players. Too much sustain will quickly muddle a tune, while too little will sound stark and thumpy. Adding dampers allows player to adjust the sustain, but the instrument's bracing and construction can also be designed to control the amount of natural sustain.
When a player stands to play the hammered dulcimer, the instrument commonly rests on a specially constructed stand or on a tabletop. When a player sits, the instrument may rest on a stand or on a single leg attachment, with the long side of the dulcimer resting on the player's knees. Visit our stands and legs page for information about the stands we offer.
Many people, even those with no musical background, learn to play the hammered dulcimer on their own. We also carry some very good instructional books and DVDs, and private and group lessons are offered in many areas of the country.
Our Acoustic Music Shop in Seattle offers a large selection of instructional materials, and you can also check our workshop schedule to see when we'll next be offering dulcimer instruction at Dusty Strings.
Pin blocks are commonly made of laminated or solid eastern maple, a very dense wood. Beyond that, there is a wide range of different materials used in building hammered dulcimers. Laminated wood is often used for soundboards and backs, while the finest instruments are made of solid wood. Mahogany, sapele, spruce, cedar and redwood are popular for soundboards. Walnut, mahogany, cherry and maple are often used for the rails. The woods used - especially for the soundboard - have a direct effect on the instrument's tone and sustain. For information on the woods we use, see our Woods & Materials page.
Hammered dulcimers also come in many different sizes and weights, ranging from about 12 to 40 pounds. Older instruments tend to be more massive, partly to support a larger number of strings per course, while modern designs tend toward fewer strings and lighter construction methods. The instrument's range, the spacing of the courses, and the string lengths chosen by the maker all affect the overall dimensions.
The hammered dulcimer is among the easiest of all stringed instruments to play. Most people find that they have the dexterity and coordination required to start making beautiful sounds right away and acquire skill quickly. Playing melodies on the dulcimer is a matter of developing convenient patterns of striking the appropriate strings. Once you work out a basic melody, you can gradually add various embellishments, such as harmonies and chording, drone notes, rolls and other percussive effects. The fact that the dulcimer is fairly simple to learn does not mean that you have to be stuck playing simple melodies forever. For those who get really serious about practicing, there's no limit to how far you can push it. Really skilled hammered dulcimer players can do some incredibly complex things with the instrument.
With the traditional fifth-interval tuning, several notes are repeated in different locations. This happens because many of the available scales have notes in common, and it is useful because the duplicated notes permit a number of alternative patterns for any given melody.
The magic of the dulcimer lies in its ability to give beauty and life to the simplest of melodies - a real attraction for the beginner - and its potential for musical intricacies that can challenge the most skilled player.