By Liam McCabe
Aside from their last names, the mountain dulcimer and hammered dulcimer share only a few traits. They’re both a type of zither—an instrument with strings that extend only to the ends of the soundboard—and they’re both folk instruments not often heard in modern popular music.
Beyond that, the two dulcimers differ in looks, tone, playing style, and origin. Nobody is quite sure why they ended up with the same name. Regardless, neither type of dulcimer player gets enough love from the music-making or music-appreciating public, so let’s take a look at these instruments.
The hammered dulcimer was around long before America was even a glimmer in George Washington’s eye. To most people around the world, this is the real dulcimer. It appeared 5,000 years ago in the cradle of civilization. Multiple references to the instrument appear in the Bible. Evidence suggests that it even inspired the design of the piano.
Variations on the instrument appear all around the world, including the Middle East, China, and Southeast Asia, parts of Great Britain, and Central Europe. Though it’s not as popular in the US as the mountain dulcimer, it has a follow-ing among folk musicians, particularly in Michigan.
The playing technique is like any other percussion instrument. The trapezoid-shaped dulcimer rests on a stand angled towards the player, who uses small wood-en, metal, or plastic hammers to strike the courses (sets of strings). It has two bridges running down the body—the treble bridge to the left and the bass bridge to the right. The number of courses depends on the size of the dulcimer, but most have a range somewhere between two and three octaves. The bass courses are struck to the left of the bass bridge, while the treble courses can be struck on either side of the treble bridge for different notes. Though chromatic dulcimers are not uncommon, the courses are usually arranged diatonically (see sidebar).
A hammered dulcimer is quite a dynamic instrument and has the potential for a wide variety of musical applications—not just street performances and novelty acts. It’s stuck around for thousands of years and probably has thousands more in it.
Where you can hear it:
- John Lennon & Yoko Ono: “Watching the Wheels”
- Rush: “Resist”
- Billy Bennington: “The Bells of St. Mary’s”
- Paul van Arsdale: “Fern’s Waltz”
- Jimmy Cooper: “The Harry Lime Theme”
The mountain dulcimer is as American as bacon burgers, the Second Amendment, and tackle football. Also known as the plucked dulcimer or, fittingly, the Appalachian dulcimer, it’s a folk instrument from the southern Appalachian mountains. It was adopted by the region’s Scottish-Irish settlers in the early 1700s, but didn’t appear nationwide until the late 1800s. The mountain dulcimer is often associated with a romanticized, old-timey view of Appalachian culture, but modern-day greats like Stephen Seifert and Gary Gallier are changing that perception.
By the time of the urban folk music revival in the 1940s, the mountain dulcimer’s design was standardized: between two-and-a half and three feet long, shaped like an hourglass or teardrop, fretted, and equipped with three strings (sometimes four if the highest-pitched “melody” string is doubled).
The playing technique is a mish-mash of techniques from other fretted string instruments. Like guitarists, mountain dulcimer players usually use their right hand for picking and left hand for fingering. (Sometimes with a dowel, for a twangier tone.) Like a lap steel guitar, the instrument sits in the player’s lap or on a table. And like a hurdy-gurdy, it’s diatonic (see sidebar) and traditionally played as a drone instrument, meaning that the bottom two strings resonate continuously throughout the song, while the top string carries the melody.
In recent years, more mountain players are exploring a chordal style, using all the strings for melodies and chord formation. New mountain dulcimer designs have popped up to accommodate the shift, such as chromatic models or models with four single-course strings. Overall, it’s a charming instrument, a slice of Americana, easy to learn, but with plenty of potential for advanced study.
Where you can hear it:
- Rolling Stones: “Lady Jane”
- Aerosmith: “Dulcimer Stomp”
- Joni Mitchell: “Blue”
- Stephen Seifert: “Westphalia Waltz”
- Jean Ritchie: “Gypsy Laddie”
- Mohave: “Big Alligator”