Hammered Dulcimer Primer

Both the Hammer (or Hammered) Dulcimer and the Lap or Mountain Dulcimer are different types of Zithers. Both also have a history in, and association with the Appalachian Mountains. They are otherwise unrelated instruments. The Lap, or Mountain Dulcimer is a fretted and plucked instrument which originated in the Appalachian mountains between 150 and 200 years ago. It's arguably (depending on what you think of the Banjo) the only American musical instrument.

A Little History...
The Hammer Dulcimer is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, dating back somewhere between 3000 and 5000 years, and originating in the Middle East, probably in ancient Persia. Because of its ancient origins, the Hammered Dulcimer has traveled to many parts of the world, and has many different forms, tunings, and traditions. It came here with the immigrants, and was relatively popular into the 1920s and early 30s. You could even purchase one through the Sears catalog around the turn of the Century for $16.  After that, it nearly disappeared in this country, surviving primarily in the Appalachian Mountains and parts of Michigan, but has made quite a comeback since the mid to late '60's.

Hammered Dulcimer Design...
The basic design of the Hammer Dulcimer is that of a trapezoidal shaped sound box, with a bridge or bridges standing on the sound board, and strings running across the bridges. The instrument is played by striking the strings with hammers, much like what happens on the inside of the piano.

Musically Speaking...
Today, most American Hammered Dulcimers have two bridges with a tuning scheme based on major scales in several different keys. The first half of the scale (do, re, mi, fa) will be played in ascending order between two position markers, either on the bass bridge, or on the rightMarked Courses side of the treble bridge. The second half of the scale (sol, la, ti, do) is played likewise, between the markers to the left of the first half. Most dulcimers have scales in at least 4 or 5 major keys, depending on the range of the instrument. For example, a typical 2 1/2 octave will have scales in the keys of G, C, D, and F, and can also be played in their relative minors. A three octave usually gains the key of A. Two and a half octave and three octave dulcimers are the most common, but there are smaller ones around, as well as larger ones, up to five octaves or more.

A "course" of strings is a pair or group of strings that are all tuned alike and played together, as if they were a single string. In ancient times some dulcimers had as many as ten strings per course. There are still a few older instruments around with three or even four strings per course, but two is most common now. More strings produce more volume, but they also increase the strain on the structure, and they take longer to tune, so most makers stick to two strings per course, and if players need more volume, they can always amplify.

Hammered Dulcimer Variety...
Hammer Dulcimers come in lots of different sizes. Some people use a ratio like 12/11 to describe the size of a Dulcimer. This means there are 12 courses on the treble bridge and 11 on the bass bridge. A 12/11 or a 13/12 would be a 2 1/2 octave. A 16/15 or a 15/14 would be a 3 octave, an 18/17 or so would be 3 1/2 octaves, etc.

Some Hammered Dulcimers have extra bridges which provide notes that were left out in the normal tuning scheme. They are usually described as chromatic Dulcimers, because they have a full chromatic scale, although the arrangement is still diatonic. There are a few chromatically arranged Dulcimers on the market, but we haven't seen one that seems very practical. It turns out that the "diatonic" scheme is really quite ingenious.  For most people's purposes, the standard arrangement of notes is probably best.

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