different keys frequently requires retuning. A more recent development is the
chromatic dulcimer, with the frets spaced
at half steps, allowing the playing of any
key in the repertoire.
Tuning the dulcimer is determined to
some extent by the particular selection to
be played. The most common tunings are
DAA or DAD. The first note designates
the tuning for the lowest string (often
a wrapped string), located the farthest
away from the player. The second note
is the middle string and is above the first
string in pitch. The third note is on the
string closest to the player and is an octave above the first note. Often, a four-string dulcimer is used; the extra string
provides additional volume. In this case,
the third and fourth strings are tuned in
unison. The convention for writing tunings uses capital letters for the first and
second strings since they are in the same
octave, with a lower-case letter for the
third (or the melody string). Properly, the
tuning of DAA would be written DAa,
and the tuning for a double-stringed
DAD would be DAdd.
Playing the Dulcimer
There are three major ways to play the
dulcimer: noter-drone, strumming with
chords, and finger-picking.
The noter-drone approach is the easi-
est and most traditional. The melody
string is fretted with a “noter”—usu-
ally a short, rounded piece of wood. All
the strings are then strummed, and the
two lower strings provide a drone-like
sound, similar in some respects to a bag-
pipe. Since many of the early settlers to
the Appalachian region of the U.S. were
Scottish and Irish immigrants, this may
explain (at least, in part) the enjoyment
of the drone sound. Strumming was orig-
inally done with a goose quill (and still is
by some very traditionally minded folks.)
Nowadays, a plastic pick of some sort,
like a guitar pick, is commonly used.
Here is Amazing Grace played noter-drone style.
At some point, probably in the early
twentieth century, the use of chords on
the dulcimer was developed. This approach involved fingering all the strings
during the playing of a song. Strumming
was accomplished either with a pick or
fingers. Advanced players then developed more complex approaches to playing by using finger-picking to play both
melody and harmony.
Here is Amazing Grace played chord
A number of videos are available on
YouTube and elsewhere that illustrate
dulcimer playing. Both lessons and examples can be found to show the variety
of styles and the music of the dulcimer.
Music for the Dulcimer
Playing the dulcimer originally was an
accompaniment for singing ballads, and
doing so often still serves that function.
The dulcimer repertoire today has expanded greatly and encompasses a wide
variety of music. Many dulcimer pieces
are instrumentals, either original compositions or adaptations of fiddle tunes,
hymns, or sometimes even popular music. Hymns and gospel songs are available
from a variety of sources, either in print
or on the Internet.
Most music for the dulcimer is scored
in tablature form to show the fingering of
the individual strings. Illustrated above
are the opening bars of Amazing Grace.
DAD indicates the tuning of the three
strings with the melody line (highest
note) on the bottom. The notes at the top
show the vocal part while the tablature
designates which strings are fingered and
at what fret.
The dulcimer is indeed a sweet sound—
easy for beginners to play, yet versatile
enough for advanced musicians. This
instrument is an inexpensive investment
that has contributed to the musical enjoyment of many people.
Donald F. Calbreath (Ph.D. in biochemistry) has been involved with homeschool
science education for several years, writing
materials, working with local groups, and
teaching online science courses. He bought
his first guitar in 1959 and developed a
lifelong interest that eventually focused on
bluegrass, old time string band, and gospel
music. His first dulcimer was purchased in
1970, his second was a gift, and his third
was purchased on his thirtieth wedding
Photo: Two dulcimers owned
by the author
History of the mountain dulcimer.
Sources of Dulcimer Tablature:
• Western North Carolina Dulcimer
• Everything Dulcimer
Online dulcimer groups can be found.
Look, particularly, for one called
Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer.
The opening bars of Amazing Grace
Playing the dulcimer originally was an
accompaniment for singing ballads and
often still serves that function.