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By Jerry L. Wright member of the North Harris County Dulcimer Society; Houston, Texas and Davy Crockett Dulcimer Society; Crockett, Texas --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The fretted dulcimer is one of America's major contributions to the world of music. It has been handed down to us anonymously by the people of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It has been called the Appalachian dulcimer, lap dulcimer and mountain dulcimer. It does not exist as we know it in any other folk culture in the world.

The hand crafted instrument belongs to the family of instruments known as the plucked zither. The oldest direct ancestor seems to have been the German "Schelitholt" or "log zither". Ralph Lee Smith has done much research on the mountain dulcimer. He believes the scheitholt was mounted to the top of a sound box, thus becoming the mountain dulcimer.

During the early years of settlement in the country, virtually the only musical instruments on the frontier were fiddles and scheitholts. The dulcimer seems to have originated in the late eighteenth century. The banjo appeared after the civil war and the guitar came into the picture about 1900.

The usual traditional method for playing the dulcimer was to place it on one's lap and strum across the three or four strings with the finger or a small willow switch or a feather. The player created the tune by depressing the nearest string with a finger or a small stick, and sliding it up and down the fret board, while the other strings sounded as continuous drones. The drone sound is also very much like the sound of bagpipes. Sometimes the instrument was bowed.

Music performed by traditional players included old fiddle tunes, dance tunes, ballads and religious music of the English and Scottish traditions. There was no hint in the traditional player's music of tunes from any other fold, heritage or culture.

The dulcimer is diatonically fretted and will reproduce with perfect accuracy the scales of all seven traditional musical modes by simply starting the first note of the scale at the correct fret. The word 'dulcimer' means 'sweet song' from the Latin 'dulce' sweet and Greek 'melos' song or sound.

It seems the dulcimer was for ones own enjoyment and not used in dances or for public gatherings. Since it is not a loud instrument, it is easily drowned out by the guitar, fiddle and banjo. It is probably because of this, the little instrument nearly faded away into American History. Then in the 1950ís and 60ís, there was a renewed interest in the instrument. Among the most acclaimed of those responsible for reviving the dulcimer was Jean Ritchie, the youngest girl of twelve children, from near the eastern Kentucky village of Viper. When Jean went to New York she took her dulcimer with her, was discovered, and soon became known throughout the country. Folks like David Schnaufer and Steve Seifert later took the dulcimer to new heights. We are now part of a growing sub-culture sweeping the country. It attracts the attention of folks from all ages and backgrounds but it seems to have the most appeal to the person who has never played a musical instrument but always wanted to play one. Dulcimer clubs have started all over the country with festivals somewhere in the United States almost every weekend.

More history

To learn more about the history of the mountain dulcimer, you may want to read Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions by Ralph Lee Smith. Jean Ritchie has also written some very fine books. -----------------------


First of all, there are no rules, do what pleases you and what sounds good. Find a simple tune and play it over and over until you are familiar with the fret board.

Should beginners start by learning to play in DAA or DAD? In DAA, you don't have to note the middle string. In the scale, Do starts at three so there are three more notes lower than Do. In DAD, Do starts at 0 so to get the three notes lower than Do, you have to move to the middle string. The bottom line is, if you really want to learn to play the dulcimer, you need to learn your fret board and will want to change modes. Later you will want to play in DAD, DAA and DGD and even use the capo. If you are learning to play with a noter, you will want to play in DAA. If you are in East Texas you probably should start in DAD.

At first, you may want to just pick the melody strings until you learn your fret board better. Then pick up the other two drone strings. After that, you can learn to chord.

NOTE: Be aware that you can get into a lot of music theory - which most of us don't need. The music terms Mixolydian and Ionian are old modal tunings. Generally speaking, when you say Mixolydian, you are speaking of DAD tuning. Ionian refers to DAA. These modal titles were particularly used before the addition of the six and a half fret. Most tunes played in DAD really aren't Mixolydian tunes. Old Joe Clark is a real Mixolydian tune. In fact it can't be played in DAA unless you change a note.

In DAD tuning, the top or bass string is tuned to D. The middle string is tuned to A and the bottom string(s) to D (but octave higher that the D on top).

Most folks in and around East Texas who jam together play in DAD and DGD even though lately they are using the capo in DAD and going to A.

Just be aware of this. Here in East Texas we write DAD. You may also see DD-A-D. It is the same thing - just written differently. DD-A-D means the two small strings are in D, the middle string is in A and the bass string is in D.



4th fret on bass string is same pitch of middle string

7th fret on bass string is same pitch of melody string

NOTE: For a point of reference, if you have a piano, the D on the bass string is below Middle C. Don't forget to count the 6+ fret. DAA 4th fret on bass string is same pitch of middle and melody strings DGD 3rd fret on bass string is same pitch of middle string