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: 5/8/2019

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.

There is one place within a days drive that sells dulcimers (or used to). If you go to visit them be sure to call first to make sure they still sell dulcimers and will be open on the day of your trip:

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

Sometimes you can find used instruments for sale on your local Craigslist. If you have a dulcimer player to accompany you when you check then out in person that will help you avoid instruments with problems.

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 still own and play one of each type) and 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 can feature a clean look when the soundboard extends to the edge of the instrument covering the pinblocks. Some designs (Masterworks, Jerry Read Smith) have angled and exposed pinblocks, but the soundboard is still glued to the frame. 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, Jerry Read Smith, James Jones, Folkcraft Instruments, Masterworks/Russel Cook, Songbird (Chris Foss), David Lindsay (David's Dulcimers), 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 exposed pinblocks. 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 David Lindsay (David's Dulcimers) Michael Allen (Cloud Nine), and Bob Tack.

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. If you don't currently read music it is not difficult to learn.

Where can I get lessons in the area?

I seem to be the only person left in the area who gives lessons. See my Lessons page re: prices, availability, teaching methods, etc.

So the only teacher in the area seems to be:

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 am 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?

There is an active Hammered Dulcimer Players Facebook page you can subscribe to

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 a popular standard method which is what I use (and 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. You can click on any of the pictures below for an enlarged image.

NOTE that on this dulcimer a single string is used for both strings per course, so breaking one string affects both courses. Here we're replacing one note's single steel string with two individual loop-end wound strings.

And, a recommendation: unlike the example below, if you are changing both strings on a course I recommend doing the bottom-most string first and the top-most string second. Otherwise the top string will interfere with your holding the bottom string against the tuning pin when it comes time to tighten up the bottom string tension.

Click on any of the pictures below to see them enlarged.

      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 2 1/2 to 3 turns (for heavier or wound strings) or 3 to 3 1/2 turns (for lighter, non-wound strings) so that the hole in the pin (for the string) is parallel to the bottom and top rail of your dulcimer
      3 Put the loop end of the new string on its hitch pin. Hold it in place (from popping off) with the binder clip or clothespin 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 to 2 inches from the tuning pin (so there is that much of it sticking out of the pin)
      6   For lighter weight strings use your needle-nose pliers to make a 90 degree bend at the very end of the string - approximately 1/8 inch long. This will help keep the string from pulling back thru the tuning pin as you wind it down. This step is not needed for heavier or wound strings.

In the pictures above you'll notice that this has been done to the strings in the adjacent tuning pins on this dulcimer. We're not going to do it to the new wound string we're installing here
      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 side 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 with the windings going downward towards dulcimer.
          NOTE that it would have been easier and better to have done the bottom string of the pair first to allow for more room for my finger to hold the string against the side of the tuning pin. With the little room that I have I'm holding the string as close to the pin as I can and using the bent string as it goes around the outside of the tuning pin to maintain as much pressure as I can on the side of the tuning pin.
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 and remove the hold-down on the hitch pin. Continue turning the tuning pin and tune the string up 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: