What is a Mountain Dulcimer?
Have you taken a vacation in any part of Appalachia and heard an instrument played that you can’t quite identify? Chances are that what you heard was a mountain dulcimer, also called a lap dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer.
The dulcimer is a fretted string instrument, usually either hourglass or teardrop in shape, and has three or four strings.
Although the mountain dulcimer is a uniquely American instrument, it is based on a much earlier German instrument called the scheitholt, brought to North America by early German settlers. As they migrated south, through Virginia and the Carolinas, the instrument traveled with them. By the mid-19th century, the instruments had been enlarged, deepened, and additional frets were added — and it had changed so much, that it had become another instrument entirely, the mountain dulcimer. Scottish, Irish, and British settlers adopted the dulcimer and soon made it their own to help keep alive the music of the countries they left behind when they setled here.
What Does a Dulcimer Sound Like?
The dulcimer is not a particularly loud instrument, but it has a very sweet tone. In fact, the name, dulcimer, is taken from words that mean “sweet sound.” Examples of music played on the mountain dulcimer are easy to find on YouTube.com.
You will be amazed at the different types of music for which the dulcimer is suited — ranging from folk to rock ‘n roll, and from hymns to bluegrass to jazz!
How Do You Play a Dulcimer?
If you are like most people, you will begin by laying the dulcimer across your lap, with the fretboard over your left leg.
In its earliest form, players would slide a noter (a small wooden dowel) up and down the dulcimer fretboard with the left hand, while stumming the strings with the right hand. This created a melody note, but with a strong drone undertone which some have compared to the drone sound of bagpipes. In some areas, especially Galax County in southern Virginia, this is still a favorite way to play the instrument.
However, most dulcimer playing styles have evolved during the past 75 years, and today you are far more likely to find the player creating full chords with the left hand, while either plucking or strumming the strings with the right. Either style of playing is easy to learn, and will provide many happy years of music and enjoyment for anyone.
Could I Learn to Play?
Well, of course you can learn to play! This is one of the very easiest instruments to learn, and there are many resources available. One of the best ways to get started is to come to one of our monthly meetings. We gather to learn and are always willing to help brand new players. You will find that you are having fun and creating friendships, too. Some folks pick up a dulcimer for the first time at one of our meetings — and loaner dulcimers are always available.
You will find there are many other resources available: there are instructional books available online, a number of YouTube videos on learning, etc. But, honestly, nothing beats learning to play the dulcimer with friends. So join us!
Where Can I Buy a Dulcimer?
Early documented dulcimer makers were found primarily in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Today, there are many fine dulcimer builders located all over the country.
Here in Lancaster County, we always tell new players about Divergent Lutherie. And on our Links page, you will find a list of a number of our members’ favorite builders. They all make models in a range of prices, so you will be sure to find an instrument you like and can afford.