About Dulcimers
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What is a dulcimer?
The dulcimer is a 3 (or 4) string instrument, with frets arranged for a major (do-re-mi...) scale. Modern dulcimers are usually tuned to open D or G, so that a simple chord is available at every fret. 

What kinds of dulcimers are there?
(1) Traditional Appalachian Mountain dulcimer : a sound box, often in a teardrop or hour-glass shape, topped with a fret board. It's played horizontally on a table or on the player's lap.

(2) Stick Dulcimer: guitar-like shape, i.e., fret board on a narrow neck that opens into a small sound box. Smaller and lighter than a mountain dulcimer, it's held like a guitar for playing.

Another instrument, called a Hammered Dulcimer, is a very distant cousin. It has one string for each note, and it's played by striking the strings with small hammers. It's a historical accident that they're called dulcimers.

How does a stick dulcimer compare to a guitar or ukulele?
A dulcimer typically has fewer strings than a guitar or ukulele. More importantly dulcimers have fewer frets--basically only the white keys of a piano.   Dulcimers are open tuned for effortless chords. As a result, the dulcimer is much easier than other string instruments to play.

Why do some dulcimers have four strings?
Four-string dulcimers usually have just three string courses, i.e., two of the strings are tuned identically and run next to each other.

How are dulcimers played?
Since it's a folk instrument, there are no rules about playing a dulcimer. Two basic styles, however, are common.

(1) Traditional Note-and-Drone play. In this style, a melody is played on the highest string while the other two strings create a droning accompaniment. Early mountain dulcimers often were not even fretted under the drone strings. Most players start out with this style, and many never move away from it.

(2) Chordal play. In this style, chords are formed much like those on a guitar or ukulele. Chord charts for stick dulcimers are readily available, including here .

Of course many variations are common--that's part of the fun!

How does wood choice affect an instrument's sound?
Tonewoods are always controversial among players and builders! Preferences are subjective and differences are subtle, but here are my observations based on over 200 instruments built:

       Cherry - rich, mellow
       Maple - bright, clear
       Padauk - bright, lively
       Walnut - rounded, mellow

       Aspen - rich, rounded
       Cedar - crisp, lively

The outside woods, have most influence on the sound in about this order: Top, Sides, Back.

Why is the small wood piece near the sound hole slanted?
The wood piece is called the saddle, perhaps because the strings ride on it. Its placement is critical: too low and the instrument will be flat, too high and it will be sharp.

Because the strings are different thicknesses, they need to be at slightly different distances from the nut. The saddle is slanted to bring the thinnest string slightly closer to the nut. The correct slant is individual to each instrument and is determined by trial and error.

How do you change the strings?
The strings are attached to small brass pins set at an angle in drilled holes at the instrument's tail. To change a string:
1. Cut the string (or loosen it at the tuning peg).
2. Pull out the pin with a pliers: regular slip-joint pliers are fine,
     (Remember that the pins are angled slightly downward.)
3. Place the pin through the new string's loop.
4. Tap the pin into place.
5. Attach the string's free end to the tuning peg and tighten.

Note that the saddle is spot-glued to the instrument top, so it shouldn't fall off. If you want to re-adjust the intonation, just tap the saddle and it will pop free.

For help in choosing or finding strings, contact us.