More Dulcimer Instrument Appreciation

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Although a fan of dulcimer instruments, writer and down-home musician Marc Bristol often as not chooses to play guitar when performing at local music festivals.
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Diagram shows parts and dimensions for a homemade hammered dulcimer.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.  

When I covered the subject of dulcimers in “Dulcimer Instrument Appreciation,” I thought
it might result in a popular article. Well, the many
responses that you’ve sent to me–and to those folks
in the dulcimer instrument business whom I referred to in the
column–certainly proved me correct on that score, so
I’m plunging right in with some more tidbits I’ve
gathered since that article was written.   

Hammered Dulcimers

Actually, I’m going to start this column with a discussion
of hammered dulcimers: large, many-stringed
musicmakers–played with small stick-like hammers–which are
really quite different instruments from smaller,
three- or four-stringed Appalachian “lap” dulcimers. (Well, the two instruments aren’t
completely different. They do both belong to
the zither family.)

The name “dulcimer” has been associated with the hammered
variety since biblical times, but has been applied to the
smaller, fretted instrument for only around the last 200
years. Since the word literally means “sweet
tune”–and both instruments do, indeed, produce
mellifluous tones–perhaps some old mountaineer
plucked the instrument title out of the Good Book and
attached it to the Appalachian melody-maker.

The large hammered music box is a forerunner of the piano,
but the pounding pieces that strike its strings are held in
the player’s hands instead of being built into the
instrument’s body and mechanically operated. Many countries
throughout Europe and Asia have traditional versions of the
hammered dulcimer–and a great many styles of music
are played on them–but the basic form of ancient
“sweet-tuner” is nothing more than a trapezoidal sound box
that has several groups (or “courses”) of strings passing
over a support (or side bridge) at one end of the
instrument, across an off-center bridge, and over another
support to the other end. (Some dulcimers have two central
bridges, the second being used to carry an extra set
of bass strings.) The midbridge is a distinctive trait of
the hammered dulcimer, and distinguishes the instrument
from its ancestor, the psaltery.

A homemade
hammered dulcimer can be built from scraps of dimensional
lumber and plywood. You will probably need to purchase
tuning pegs (old piano pegs will work fine), a tuning
wrench (a hardware store “tapping chuck” should serve the
purpose), and a supply of No. 7 or No. 8 music wire (it’s
available from most music stores, hobby shops, and mail
order music supply houses). In addition, you can expect to
get superior tone from the finished instrument if you build
its top–the sounding board–from a good piece of

The dulcimer’s top and back are simply secured with a good
wood glue, then nailed in place. (Be sure to avoid putting
any of the metal fasteners where the tuning pegs will later
be installed.) Each string is wrapped three or four times
around a tuning peg, laid over the offcenter bridge, looped
around a hitch pin on the opposite side, and then run back
to another peg on the original side. Every wire
then forms two strings, and each pair will give one note on
the right side of the main bridge and another (a fifth
higher) on the left side of the divider.

One standard tuning for a 12-course hammered
dulcimer–running from low notes at the bottom of the
instrument to high ones at the top–is G#, A, B, C#
(this is the C# just above middle C), D, E, F#, G, A, B, C,
and D on the left side of the bridge, and C#, D, E,
F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G on the right side of the
bridge. You’ll have to adjust the new instrument several
times, over a period of days, before it’ll “settle down”
and stay in tune.

A prominent hammered dulcimerist, Sam Rizzetta, has written a construction guide, “Making a Hammered Dulcimer” and a publication called “Hammer Dulcimer: History and Playing.” Both documents are
available–free for the asking–from the Smithsonian Institution.

Many companies offer kits for building hammered dulcimers,
too. Ray Mooers, of the Dusty Strings Dulcimer Company,
dropped in one day recently and showed me his firm’s two
basic models of sweettuners (one single-bridged and the
other double-bridged). Both are available as kits that need
only sanding, finishing, and stringing. Prices start at
$165, and the package comes complete with an owner’s
guidebook. Additional options can be ordered at extra cost.
For example, a basic kit with a spruce soundboard costs
$195. You can write for a free catalog to Dusty Strings Dulcimer Company.

The Appalachian Dulcimer

Moving back to the lap dulcimers, I’m pleased to report that there was considerable
response to my mention of the cardboard dulcimer kits sold
by David Cross of Backyard Music. David’s moved since I
wrote that column and–judging from some of my
correspondence–not all of his mail has been
forwarded, so here’s his website: Backyard Music.

While resting between sets with the Okie Doke Band at a
local energy fair, I met Hank and Robin Levin of Smoggy
Mountain Dulcimers, which is a company that makes just one
product: an Appalachian dulcimer kit. As you can
imagine, the couple have perfected that item and make every
attempt to be competitive in price and quality with the
other do-it-yourself dulcimer packages on the market. The
Smoggy Mountain kit is called the “Tennessee Teardrop” and
features a cherry body. No special tools or skills are
required to assemble the instrument (the parts are already
cut and bent to shape). The package includes a
simple, well-illustrated instruction sheet. When you’re
done you’ll have a full-sized, four-string mountain
dulcimer for only $48 postpaid, a price that even
includes the glue!

I’m also happy to tell you that Rose LeClere and David
Johnston (at Black Mountain Instruments) have gotten such a
great response to my mention of their lap dulcimer kit that they’ve decided to offer discounts to
the readers of the Homegrown Music column: 25% off a
kit’s price, and 20% off the cost of a case. You can’t beat
a deal like that! Black Mountain’s basic kit–which I listed
before as costing $53–is a bit fancier than Smoggy
Mountain’s (for one thing, it has a spruce top), but it
does produce a smaller instrument. For more information,
contact Black Mountain Instruments.

Another valuable resource for lap dulcimer builders is an
Oak Publication book, Jean Ritchie’s Dulcimer
. Much of the volume is devoted to providing
information about the tradition of the fretted instrument,
as well as about some of the different playing styles in
Jean’s “extended dulcimer-playing family.” It also
includes some instruction provided by Hank Levin (a member
of that family) on how to build an instrument from scratch, which might be of great assistance to anyone
assembling a lap dulcimer kit as well. The entire book is
a fine acquisition for folks interested in the Appalachian
dulcimer. Oak also carries The Hammered Dulcimer.

Miscellany: Performing

Well, once you’ve mastered your dulcimer playing
skills–on either kind of instrument–and you’re
ready to make the whole world sing, where should you head?
My advice is to set out for Winfield, Kansas, which
hosts the annual National Flatpicking Championships.
The event includes separate contests for both hammered and
mountain dulcimers, as well as for fingerpicked guitar,
bluegrass banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and autoharp.

This year’s festival–from September 17 through
20–will be the tenth anniversary of the
championships. Attendance is limited, so advance tickets
are a must.   

A Closing Note

If you like tub bass and washboard playing, western swing,
and/or rockabilly, you might enjoy our long-awaited (well,
by me, at any rate) Okie Doke Band record, a seven-inch LP
that includes “Snake-Charmin’ Baby”, “Coot From Tennessee”,
“Milk Cow Blues”, and “Let’s Boogie.” Our group, by the
way, packages the small disks in the plastic sleeves used
by collectors of old 45’s–and we include an
attractive folded insert–so the well-protected
records now look pretty slick to boot! If you’d like to
see our new mini-album (and, of course, listen to four of
our favorite tunes), you can order the Okie Doke Band
record for $4.00 (postpaid) from King Noodle Records.