Frequently Asked Hammered Dulcimer Questions

I live in eastern Massachusetts and I'm often asked questions about the Hammered Dulcimer from people in the area who are interested in acquiring, and/or learning to play the instrument.

Here then are the questions I'm most frequently asked, along with my opinions and answers. I've also included links to other pages or email addresses where more information is available. I hope this provides a good starting point if you are interested in this beautiful and fascinating instrument.

Towards the bottom of this page are dulcimer-related questions I often get from more advanced players.

Last updated: 2/19/2017

What do I need to get started playing the Hammered Dulcimer?

Figure on buying (and spending) the following:

Where can I buy a Hammered Dulcimer?

Unfortunately there are no local places in eastern Mass to buy instruments anymore that I know of.

Here are some places (listed alphabetically) that are within a days drive, have catalogs and/or do mail order. If you go to visit them be sure to call first to make sure they will be open on the day of your trip:

Most people these days probably buy their instruments directly from a builder or from a vendor at a dulcimer festival.

What types of instruments are there?

Dulcimers tend to be classified by size, type of construction, and diatonic or chromatic.

Standard dulcimer sizes are 12/11 and 16/15. These numbers indicate the number of courses (sets of strings that are tuned to the same note(s)) on the treble and bass bridges. Numbers larger than this usually indicate an extended range dulcimer and/or one with the addition of chromatic notes (that don't appear in any of the diatonic scales nearby on the instrument). If you see an instrument that has more than two numbers (like 17/16/8) this indicates there is a third bridge (the 8 in this example) which is usually has extended bass notes and/or bass chromatic notes.

Diatonic instruments contain multiple 8 note diatonic scales (do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do) in different keys, allowing you to easily play most tunes and songs in those keys. Chromatic instruments add notes above and/or below the standard bridges with notes not found in the nearby diatonic scales. These additional notes can enable you to play more complex tunes (ie. classical and jazz) and traditional tunes that have accidental notes in them. However to play these notes often requires inconvenient long reaches and other hammer gymnastics.

There are generally two types of dulcimer construction: unibody (my term) or glued-soundboard, and floating soundboard. As with a lot of other things in dulcimer-land, one type of construction is not inherently better than the other (although some people might argue this point). They have different characteristics and can have different types of sound. Even within each type the character and sound of different instruments can vary widely - the type of wood used for the soundboard probably more influences the sound. It's just a matter of what you prefer...

Pictures of each type and description appear below. You can click on each picture for a more detailed enlargement. I've owned several of each type and so will offer my observations.

Also note that some builders make or have made instruments of both types.

Unibody/Glued-Soundboard Construction

Dusty Strings D500 picture (Shown: Dusty Strings D500B)

Probably most dulcimers made today are of this type. These feature a clean look since the soundboard extends to the edge of the instrument covering the pinblocks. Most (if not all) have two strings per course on both the bass and treble bridges.

Builders of this type of dulcimer include Sam Rizetta, Dusty Strings, James Jones, Folkcraft Instruments, Masterworks/Russel Cook, Jerry Reed Smith, and many others.

In my experience these instruments often have a very sweet, mellow, sometimes pianistic sound (although this is not always true), and often weigh less than a comparable instrument of the other type (but not always). They can be more sensitive to temperature and humidity changes since they must expand and contract as a unit. For the same reason they seem more prone to develop cracked soundboards in the winter if allowed to dry out (ie. no humidification in the room)

Floating Soundboard Construction

RL Tack Pro*3 picture (Shown: R.L. Tack Pro*3)

With this style of instrument the sound board sits inside of a frame, which includes the pinblocks which is usually exposed. The soundboard is held in place by the tension of the strings on the bridges and is free to expand and contract. Proponents of this type claim that the sound is "better" since the soundboard is not constrained as much as with unibody/glued-soundboard construction.

Builders of this type include Russell Cook (Masterworks), David Lindsay (David's Dulcimers) Michael Allen (Cloud Nine).

These instrument can come with 2 or 3 strings per treble course (the instrument in the picture above has 3 strings), and most have 2 strings on the bass courses.

I've found that they indeed can be louder (but not always), and do seem less susceptible to going out of tune due to temperature and humidity changes. Depending upon the type of wood used for the soundboard, many have a sharper sound that I find "comes through" better when playing with other instruments (especially fiddles).

What size/type of instrument should I buy?

I'm assuming you are a beginner looking to purchase your first instrument on which to learn. Here are your basic choices and my recommendations:
  1. Rent one - great in theory but difficult to find in practice. Very few teachers have extra instruments they offer to rent to their students. I don't know of any store that rents dulcimers.

  2. Purchase a used instrument - used instruments can be hard to come by. If you can find one and can have someone who knows something about dulcimers check it out for you, this can be a good, less expensive way to get your feet wet. Festivals are often a good place to find and try out used instruments. Be careful of instruments with non-standard (i.e. not 5th interval) tuning, or structural problems (cracked soundboards or pinblocks, etc).

  3. Buy a 12/11 model - this is how I got started. These instruments are smaller, lighter, and have fewer strings to tune. Models can range from inexpensive beginner models to rather good sounding ones that you'll be pleased with after you've become proficient. Figure on spending about $500-800 for an instrument with a case and a stand.

    If you're looking at the Dusty Strings models I recommend spending the extra money (if you can afford it) for the D10 over the Prelude or Apprentice (which is what I did for my first instrument, and I'm glad I did). If you get a Dusty Strings see the note above about humidity and cracked soundboards...

  4. Buy a 16/15 model (if you can afford it) - this 3 octave instrument will provide you with more playing options, has a fuller sound, and will probably be the size instrument you'll want after you've learned to play on a 12/11 instrument. Prices start around $600-800 for beginner non-chromatic models, and some packages include cases and stands.

    I used to recommend NOT starting out with this type of instrument because they were much more expensive than the 12/11 ones. My rationale was that after you've learned to play and started listening to other instruments, you'd probably discover a particular instrument or builder or model whose sound you really liked. You'd then be in a much better position to move up to a 16/15 you'd be happier with for a long term relationship, and could better decide whether you wanted or needed a chromatic instrument (even more $$$).

    However given the small price difference these days and the number of good beginner 15/14 or 16/15 instruments and packages, I now recommend starting out with one of these larger instruments. It will sound better, you won't soon outgrow it, and it will have better resale value should you later find an instrument whose sound you fall in love with (or you decide you want a chromatic instrument).

Do I need to read music to play the dulcimer?

No, but (I think) it helps, especially in learning new tunes. Keep in mind that picking out the notes of a tune on the strings is important, but so is playing fluidly and rhythmically.

Where can I get lessons in the area?

There are a couple of people in the area who give lessons. Contact them individually re: prices, availability, teaching methods, etc.

Are they any regular hammered dulcimer clubs/gatherings in the area?

There used to be one but it seems to have faded away. Any takers?

Are there any dulcimer festivals or camps in the area?

Nearby festivals I'm aware of are:

The best place to find out about these and other festivals is...

Are there any publications for dulcimer players?

Why yes there are! The granddaddy hammered (and fretted) dulcimer publication is Dulcimer Player News. It's published quarterly, and a year's subscription is currently (2012) $30. Their snail mail address is:

Another publication is Dulcimer Times. Their address is:

Upcreek Productions, Inc.
1513 Upcreek Rd.
Bidwell, OH 45614

What other Hammered Dulcimer resources are on the internet?

Check out

Google: Hammered Dulcimer - there's lots out there...

There is or was a usenet newsgroup:

Advanced Questions/Topics...

How do you change a broken loop-end string?

Tools you'll need:

There are a couple of methods to put on a new string, but here's how I do it (which does not require any special tools). It's simpler than it may seem from these detailed instructions. I suggest first reading thru all these steps once before starting the process, and then following each step in order:

  1. Using the needle-nose pliers remove any remains of the broken wire from the tuning and hitch pins
  2. Unwind (counter clockwise) the now bare tuning pin 3 1/2 turns so that the hole in the pin (for the string) is parallel to the bottom or top rail of the dulcimer
  3. Put the loop end of the new string on its hitch pin. Hold it in place (from popping off) with a clothespin or binder clip as a third hand, or ask someone else to hold it on for you
  4. Thread the other end of the string along it's path over and through the bridges and thru the hole in the tuning pin
  5. Using the wire cutter in the needle-nose pliers, cut the end of the string sticking out of the tuning pin about 1.5 inches from the tuning pin (so there is 1.5 inches of it sticking out of the pin)
  6. Optional: with your needle-nose pliers make a 90 degree bend at the very end of the string - approximately 1/8 inch long
  7. Push the end of the string back into the tuning pin so the end of it is flush with outside edge of pin (ie. does not stick out of the hole). If you had put a bend in the end of the string it should be flat against the outside surface of the tuning pin so it can't get pulled thru the pin hole
  8. Put your tuning wrench on the tuning pin. While holding the string taught against the other side (inside) of the tuning pin with one hand, turn the wrench and pin (clockwise) with your other hand so the string wraps around the outside of the tuning pin downwards towards dulcimer. Which hand to use for holding and turning will depend upon which side of your dulcimer the tuning pin is on. Continue holding the windings against the outside of the pin to maintain tension on the string as you are turning/tightening it. Keep the windings taught and prevent the string from pulling through the tuning pin hole
  9. Make sure windings go downwards on the tuning pin (i.e. towards the dulcimer). They should never reach or touch the soundboard if they are kept tight (ie. close together) on the tuning pin
  10. As the string begins to tighten make sure it is following it's proper path across and through the bridges - make sure it's not crossing another string or caught on a bridge pedestal
  11. When it's tight enough so that the windings on the pin will not loosen, you can let go of the windings on the side of the tuning pin. Continue turning the tuning pin and tune the string to pitch
The new string will stretch a little for a while as you play it (going flat), so you'll need to check it and periodically tune it back up to pitch until it stabilizes. This is normal.

I notice you don't use a microphone when you perform on stage. What kind of pickups do you use and how did you install them in your Hammered Dulcimer?

I use Pick-up-the-World or Schatten Design stereo HD pickups in my hammered dulcimers. Here's a document with everything you need to know about how I use them and how to install them if you are considering installing pickups in/on your instrument.

I recently purchased a newly built hammered dulcimer. How should I "break it in" and how long will it take until it loosens up and sounds better/fuller/more resonant?

Under normal circumstances it usually takes anywhere from 6 to 18 months of playing to break in a new dulcimer. Once broken in the instrument will sound fuller, louder and more resonant, and the strings will not feel so "tight".

Here's a way to significantly speed up this process: attach a percussive massager with a variable speed control to your instrument for a week, and each day (preferabley several times a day) vary the speed/frequency so you end up vibrating all frequencies of the dulcimer.

I've used this technique on both of my JRS dulcimers with great success, and in both cases it literally took many months off the break-in time. Here is a picture of what this looked like on my most recent one.

Here are some helpful hints if you wish to do this with your dulcimer: