About Dulcimers
About Us
What is a dulcimer?
A dulcimer is a 3 (or 4) string instrument set up for a simple (do-re-mi...) scale using an open tuning. At heart the dulcimer is a folk instrument, with close cousins in many world cultures.

How are stick dulcimers different from guitars and ukuleles?
Dulcimers have fewer strings and, more importantly, fewer frets than a guitar or ukulele.  They employ open tunings that make dulcimers much easier to learn and play.

What kind of music can be played on a dulcimer?
Although the dulcimer grows out of the folk tradition, nearly any kind of music can be played, including pop, blues, country, show tunes, ...

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!


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, usually 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.


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

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:

   NECK AND BACK WOODS
       Cherry - rich, mellow
       Maple - bright, clear
       Padauk - bright, lively
       Walnut - rounded, mellow

   TOP WOODS
       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. If the saddle is loose, mark its position with a light pencil line or a bit of masking tape.
2. Cut the string (or loosen it at the tuning peg).
3. Pull out the pin with a pliers: ordinary slip-joint pliers work well,
     (Remember that the pins are angled slightly downward.)
4. Place the pin through the new string's loop.
5. Tap the pin into place.
6. Attach the string's free end to the tuning peg and tighten slightly.

7. If necessary, return the saddle to the correct position.
8. Tune the instrument.

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.