Mountain Dulcimer FAQs
On this page we look at frequently asked questions about the mountain dulcimer.
What is a Mountain Dulcimer?
The mountain dulcimer is a folk instrument derived in the late 18th century from various European fretted zithers carried by settlers into the Applachian mountain regions of North America. The mountain dulcimer could be constructed from local woods by any craftsman with cabinet making tools and a musical ear, so it became a pragmatic and popular way of making music in the isolated, rural settlements of the Appalachians. Different communities developed different stlyes of mountain dulcimer, some oval, some boat shaped and some hourglass shaped. Some folk used the instrument for accompanying ballads, some to play hymns at church meetings and some to play the popular fiddle dance tunes of the time.
How do you play a Mountain Dulcimer?
Traditionally, the mountain dulcimer would have 3 strings (or 3 courses of strings as some could be doubled like on a mandolin). The instrument would be placed on the player's lap or a table and a melody played by fretting the closest string to the player either with fingers or a piece of wood called a "noter". The other two string courses would be allowed to ring freely as "drones". The strings would be strummed with a goose quill or plectrum made from any suitable material to hand. This old method of playing the mountain dulcimer known as the "melody/drone" or "noter/drone" style is undergoing a resurgence amongst folk musicians today.
Originally, the frets would have been made from broom wire or fence staples and only been placed under the melody strings on the instrument. But as the building of mountain dulcimers developed, and the supplies of proper instrument fretwire became more widely available, the frets were placed all the way across the fretboard under all 3 string courses. During the folk revival of the 1960s musicians began to explore playing chords on the mountain dulcimer by fretting the other strings as well as the melody strings, and this modern chord/melody style of playing has developed into the primary playing style in use on the mountain dulcimer today.
However you choose to play the mountain dulcimer the diatonic fretboard layout and the instrument's sweet lyrical voice make playing highly intuitive and a real joy! The mountain dulcimer is one of the simplest string instruments you could possibly learn to play and it is ideal as a "first" stringed instrument for any age group. Despite its simplicity the mountain dulcimer also has the voice, musical complexity and touch responsiveness that any professional musican would love to explore.
What is a diatonic fretboard?
The spacing between the frets on a mountain dulcimer is different from the spacing on a guitar, banjo or mandolin. On most fretted instruments the frets are spaced in semi-tones or half notes. On the mountain dulcimer the frets are spaced to play a musical scale; like just playing the white keys on a piano. This makes playing the mountain dulcimer very intuitive; and the diatonic layout helps greatly when finding notes, harmonies and chords to fit a tune. Contemporary mountain dulcimers are fitted with an extra fret on the diatonic scale. This is called the 6 1/2 fret as it comes between the 6th and 7th frets of the traditional layout. The 6 1/2 fret enables two major scales to be played on the mountain dulcimer fretboard and it is a very useful addition for chord/melody style playing.
A contemporary mountain dulcimer fretboard
How is a mountain dulcimer tuned?
There are many possible tunings that you can use on a mountain dulcimer to enable different playing styles, different keys and different modes (scales). There are however two popular starting points and those are the tunings of D,A,d (or 1-5-8) which is used as a basis for playing chord/melody style and D,A,A (or 1-5-5) which is used as a basis for playing the more traditional melody/drone style.