Dulcimer Instrument Appreciation

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a dulcimer instrument and its key components look like this.
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Down-home musician and columnist Marc Bristol performing at a local music festival

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. 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?

Dulcimer Instrument Review

Since this column began, I’ve often been asked to cover the
subject of the Appalachian dulcimer. I’ve waited until now
to do so, however, because I wasn’t–until
recently–either a dulcimer owner or player.
Oh sure, I’ve tried the Instrument now and then,
when I ran across one at somebody’s house, but I never
caught the bug.

In spite of that, when David Johnston and Rose LeClere (of
Black Mountain Instruments) wrote and offered to send me
one of their dulcimer-building kits–to help me become
more acquainted with the instrument–I couldn’t pass
up the opportunity.

I’ve since discovered that there’s a steadily growing group
of dulcimer musicians becoming involved in American folk
music today. And many of these “new” artists have been
experimenting with–and stretching the limits
of–the lap dulcimer’s musical capabilities. After
all, plucking simple single-note melodies is a good place
to begin, but chances are that learning such advanced
techniques as chording up the neck and finger-picking may
prove to be even more rewarding.

So if you’ve decided to take up dulcimer playing,
do think of it as an easy place to get started in
string music … but also set your sights on the horizon
and keep truckin’. You’ll find that a lot more is possible
with the uncomplicated instrument than playing “Mary Had a
Little Lamb”!

The Classic Appalachian Dulcimer

The traditional Appalachian dulcimer is also often referred
to as a lap, plucked, or fretted dulcimer. The larger
hammered dulcimer, on the other hand, is a
forerunner of the piano, and was probably the first to bear
the name “dulcimer.” Both, however, are members of the
zither (or harp) family.

The Appalachian dulcimer is traditionally played sitting
down, with the instrument set across the lap. Notes are
fretted either with the fingers of the left hand or with a
“noter stick,” while the right hand strums with a pick (or
perhaps a feather quill). The traditional instrument has
three strings: one that’s used to play the melody, and
two drones. (More modern versions sometimes have
two melody strings.) Some of today’s dulcimer
players add a neck strap to the instrument and play it
standing up. And many accomplished pickers now fret whole
chords, fingering all of the strings in the process.

Most common lap dulcimers are either “hourglass” or
“teardrop” shaped. Other designs are possible.
though, and occasionally you’ll see a “courting dulcimer,”
which is actually two musicmakers in one. (The man and
woman play facing each other, with the instrument across
both their laps.)

The Amazing Cardboard Dulcimer

Although dulcimers are usually constructed of wood, I
recently received one made from corrugated cardboard. And
here’s the kicker: It has a remarkably
good sound!

So, with the help of the folks at Black Mountain
Instruments and the editor of Dulcimer Players
I located David Cross … the man who makes
the cardboard dulcimers.

David designed the instrument as a demonstration project
for the children in his third grade class. He wanted to
show the youngsters how folks tucked way back up in the
hills might put an instrument together out of whatever
materials they could find. The frets on his dulcimers, for
instance, are simply finishing nails, each one bent 90°
at the tip and pounded into a small drilled hole at the end
of a slot designed to hold the “fret” in place. The slot
isn’t any wider than a saw blade (use a miter saw, with a
cutting edge 1/10″ across, if you want to duplicate Dave’s

To simplify things even further, David used inexpensive
guitar tuning pegs instead of the “friction” pegs more
commonly found in the traditional mountain instruments. So
if you’re scrounging to find parts, your nearest junkyard
or salvage shop may be able to provide you with an
inexpensive old guitar… whose tuners can be used for
two traditional dulcimers.

David is now producing three-string model kits that range
in price from $7.50 (you find your own cardboard and wood)
to $14.50 (all parts are supplied, and the wood and
cardboard are pre-cut). He also produces four-string kits for
about a dollar more, and finished four-string
instruments that cost $22.50 postpaid.

Dave has even written a do-it-yourself manual called
GroupsBuilding Dulcimers, which comes
free with orders for five or more kits (or you can purchase
a copy for $2.00 plus 60¢ postage). There are bulk
ordering discounts as well … for those of you who have
groups of friends who might be interested in building
dulcimers together.

Finally, if you’d like a set of David’s do-it-yourself
instructions (and are planning to scrounge or purchase your
own “parts”), just order his booklet, Make Your Own
Dulcimer Using Common Materials
, for $2.50 plus
60¢ postage.

The Traditional Wooden Dulcimer

Folks who’d like to build a fine wood dulcimer
would be well advised to contact Black Mountain
Instruments. The firm’s Kit No. 56K, which
the owners sent me, sells for $53. It consists of pre-cut
parts–including mahogany sides, back, and fretboard, plus
a spruce top–and all the sound holes are predrilled. The
fret board is already assembled, and (according to the
instructions) the kit can be put together in three or four
evenings. No special tools are required, but white glue or
masking tape (used for securing clamps) will be needed.

The wood used in this kit is very beautiful, and would
certainly inspire any builder to be meticulous in finishing
his or her creation. And any extra time spent on the
“dressing up” process will certainly not be wasted, since
you’ll likely be all the more satisfied with your
instrument as a result of such care.

Black Mountain products also include cherry wood and walnut
dulcimer kits, as well as finished instruments: The
firm’s top-of-the-line spruce and walnut model sells for
$125. (Ready-to-play units, however, are sold only
with a case … which will cost an additional
$16.) If you’re interested, write to the company and tell
the folks there that MOTHER EARTH NEWS sent you!

Dulcimer Players News

Those of you who’d like more information about this
old-timey instrument might want to pick up a copy of
DulcimerPlayers News. This quarterly
40-page publication carries everything from festival
reports to instructional articles on both hammered and lap
dulcimers … plus songs, interviews, and book and record
reviews. The subscription price is $6.00 a year, and back
issues are available for $1.50 each. (The magazine’s editor, Maddie MacNeil, also manages
the Blue Ridge Dulcimer Shop, a mail order service
through which you can purchase how-to books, kits, and
finished instruments.)   

Still More Sources

While attending the 1980 Musical Saw Festival in Santa
Cruz, California (it was a wonderful festival,
definitely a “don’t miss” for saw players or anyone
who’s in the right area during September), I stopped
in at the CapriTaurus Folk Music booth and put myself on
the firm’s mailing list.

Not long after doing so, I received a catalog containing a
large selection of dulcimers, kits, cases, books, and
records … including some items I hadn’t seen in other
listings. For $3.00 you can have not only the CapriTaurus
catalog, but a regular newsletter and a subscription to
Folk Music Almanac. 

During my stay in California I also talked with several
people from Kicking Mule Records, who subsequently sent
me a copy of the latest album from Robert Force and Albert
d’Ossché. The record, entitled Cross Over,
brings the dulcimer down out of the hills and into the
realm of many different kinds of music.

The influences of Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, Iceland,
India, modern folk, jazz, and rock are easily heard in this
album. My favorite cut is “Paradise Boy (Hush Your Eyes),”
a calypso accompanied by steel drums, congas, and several

I also received an album by Mark Nelson called Fiddle
Tunes on Dulcimer.
The music is all instrumental, and
features three different types of dulcimers as well as
fiddle, mandolin, and bodhran.

All of Kicking Mule’s LP’s are available with instructions
or tablature materials, for a small extra cost.

Speaking of Records …

Are you wondering what happened to that Homegrown Music
record I was talking about a few issues back? Well, it’s
still in the works … and, when ready, will be
accompanied by a book featuring the arrangements to the
recorded songs.

One of the projects that got in the way of that album just
happened to be another recording effort (which
will have born fruit by the time you read this), featuring
the sounds of (among other musicians) the four dudes you’ve
seen in the photo accompanying past columns. The disk is recorded by the Okie Doke
Band, and centers on western swing. Copies can be obtained,
for $4.00 postpaid, from King Noodle Records.

I’ll be doing a bit of touring with Okie Doke in 1981, too.
So if you happen to hear we’re going to be in your area,
come on out. I’d like to have a chance to meet the
people I write to! 

Finally, many thanks to David Johnston, Rose LeClere,
David Cross, and Maddie MacNeil for the help they’ve given
me in preparing this column. You’ll be reading more about
dulcimers here in the future!

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