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  Hammer Dulcimer: History and Playing
 
 

History

"...everyman that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship...."

Daniel III:10

It is no wonder that King Nebuchadnezzar's decree was opposed, for the sound of the dulcimer makes one feel much more like dancing than "worshipping." In fact, the modest revival of dulcimer playing in America seems due in large measure to the delightful manner in which dance tunes can be played on it. The hammer dulcimer is capable of a range of tones from a sort of music-box sound to powerful and percussive piano-like effects which can stand out in any band.

Although the plucked dulcimer (also called Appalachian or mountain dulcimer) shares the same name, the two instruments differ considerably in form, sound, evolution, and manner of playing. Both have strings stretched across a neckless soundbox, which identifies them in certain classification schemes as belonging to the zither form. The plucked dulcimer relies on the shortening (fretting or stopping) of strings to produce many pitches with one or few strings. Guitars, banjos, and fiddles work in this way. The alternative is to have one string or course of strings tuned to each desired pitch, as in the harps, piano, psaltery, and hammer dulcimer.

The name dulcimer comes from the Latin and Greek works dulce and melos, which combine to mean "sweet tune." The meaning and the biblical connections no doubt made the word attractive to those who named the Appalachian dulcimer. All evidence seems to indicate that the Appalachian dulcimer dates back no more than 200 years and that Bibles refer to the hammered type.

The true hammer dulcimer is a close relative to the psaltery, the chief difference being that the psaltery is usually plucked and the dulcimer is usually struck. Early varieties were rather simple, having relatively few strings which passed over bridges only at the sides.

The versatility of the dulcimer was greatly increased by clever placement of additional bridges. Treble courses pass over the side bridges and also over a treble bridge usually placed between the side bridges so that the vibrating lengths of the strings are divided in the ratio 2:3. This results in two notes from each string in the ratio of a perfect fifth interval. Other ratios have occasionally been used. Many dulcimers have another bridge added near the right side to carry bass courses. The bass courses pass high over the bass bridge and low through holes or interruptions in the treble bridge. Likewise, the treble strings are raised at the treble bridge and pass low through the bass bridge. Thus, the treble strings may be struck near the treble bridge without danger of hitting bass strings, and bass courses can be played near the bass bridge without running afoul of treble strings. This arrangement triples the number of notes possible without any increase of size or consequent increase in distance from the player. Dulcimers of this sort began appearing in Europe during the 16th century and remained rather popular to the 18th.

The ancient origins of the dulcimer are undoubtedly in the Near East, where instruments of this type have been made and played for perhaps 5000 years. Santir and psanterim were names early applied to such instruments and are probably derived from the Greek psalterion. Today the dulcimer is known as the santouri in Greece and as the santur in India.

From the Near East the instrument traveled both east and west. Arabs took it to Spain where a dulcimer-like instrument is depicted on a cathedral relief from 1184 A.D. Introduction into the Orient came much later. The Chinese version is still known as the yang ch'in, or foreign zither. Though its use in China is reported to date from about the beginning of the 19th century, Korean tradition claims association with the hammer dulcimer from about 1725.

Although the early keyboard string instruments could have been derived from either psaltery or dulcimer, it seems logical that the dulcimer provided much of the inspiration for the piano. The dulcimer is capable of considerable dynamic nuance; a wide range of effects from loud to soft can be achieved, depending on the manner in which the player strikes the strings. Harpsichords were quite limited in this quality of expressiveness and the clavichord was severely limited in volume. The pianoforte was the result of attempts to overcome these restraints, and the solution was to excite the strings with leather or felt hammers as on the dulcimer. One early form of the piano even bears the name of a 17th-century Prussian dulcimer, the pantaleon.

The most elaborate of dulcimers is certainly the cimbalom, developed around the end of the 19th century in Hungary. This instrument is a mainstay in the music of the Hungarian gypsies and is used as a concert instrument. The cimbalom is equipped with a damper mechanism and has a range of four chromatic octaves. Most other dulcimers are tuned to a diatonic scale with ranges of two to three octaves.

Dulcimers were reasonably common domestic and concert instruments in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt they were first brought to the colonies from England where they were used in the street music of the time. Portability and simplicity made the dulcimer much more practical than the piano for many settlers. These attributes probably led to its association with the lumber camps of Maine and Michigan. It is still referred to as a "lumberjack's piano" in the North. As names for the dulcimer go, however, the American appellation "whamadiddle" must be ranked as most colorful, with a close second in the German term "hackbrett," literally "chopping board!"

It is interesting that in this era of folk instrument revivals the Appalachian dulcimer, which never had a very widespread distribution in the past, is getting considerable attention from urban performers, while the once well-known hammer dulcimer has faded into relative obscurity. Occasionally, old dulcimers can be found in the Appalachians, Maine, New York, and in various parts of the Midwest.

Several dulcimer factories were thriving in western New York during the 1850s and 1860s. They employed salesmen who played and sold their instruments as far away as Missouri and into the southern states. Michigan has continued to nourish a persistent tradition of dulcimer hammering, and a club of players has been organized there. One Michigander, Chet Parker, has been recorded, and his fine playing of old dance and popular tunes is well worth hearing (Folkways Records FA 02381).

 

Figure 1 - Arrangement of bridges and strings on dulcimer with bass

Playing

The hammer dulcimer is an instrument easily played by ear. Once the tuning is understood, finding melodies is not at all difficult. Playing a rapid tune up to speed may require some practice, however. The key to playing fast passages is to strike one note with one hand and the next note with the other hand, and so on. Give some thought to which hand will be used for which note. You must change from one side of the bridge to the other many times in most tunes. You will want to do this without getting your hands crossed. Try to determine the easiest way to play a tune when starting to learn it. This may help avoid having to relearn the hammering pattern as you attempt to play more rapidly.

Many things have been used for hammers. Bent pieces of cane or curved sticks are perhaps the simplest. Most hammers consist of thin handles with knobs on one end. Handles may be made from tortoiseshell, whalebone, spring metal, wood, and old corset stays. The knobs or hammer heads are usually wood, sometimes with a covering of leather or felt. Sticks with felt pads for hammers give a soft sound but can be hardened by dipping in thinned lacquer or shellac for a loud, crisp tone. Try making different kinds to discover what feels best to you.

Hammers are usually held between thumb and forefinger or between the forefinger and long finger on each hand. Hold them lightly but firmly so that they bounce easily on the strings.

Dulcimers are usually tuned with a fifth interval between notes on either side of the treble bridge, the left side being higher. The bass bridge, when present, carries longer strings and lower notes. Figure 2, a tuning diagram for a D-G-C dulcimer with 12 treble and 11 bass courses, shows a rather common tuning scheme and is the one referred to in this section on playing.

Figure 2

Let us identify pitch locations this way: /2 equals right side treble course #2 (second string from low end); 2/ equals left treble course #2; 2 equals bass course #2; and so on. Starting at the second treble course on the right (/2) a major scale in D can be played in the following way:

You will also find major scales for G and C starting at /5 and /8 respectively. Play them.

The relationship between the bass courses and the right treble courses is the same as that between left treble and right treble courses. Try playing a G scale one octave lower than before using bass courses:

By exploring a little you will find about 2 1/2 octaves in A, D, G, and C, with only an occasional note missing here and there.

Minor scales of Am, Bm, and Em are also present.

For Em: /3 /4 /5 /6 /7 /8 /9 /10

Here are some tunes to try. L and R indicate whether a note is struck with the left or right hand:
Turkey in the Straw, Flowers of Edinburgh, Soldier's Joy, Fisher's Hornpipe.

Here are a few chords to try. You can easily find additional ones as needed.

D - /2 /4 2/
G - /2 /5 /2
A7 - /1 /3 /5 2/

G - /5 /7 5/
C - /5 /8 6/
D7 - /4 /6 /8 5/

Am - /6 /8 6/
Dm - /9 /11 9/
Em - /3 /5 3/
Bm - 3/ 5/ 7/

Because of its volume the dulcimer works well as a lead instrument in a band. Try it in combinations with other instruments. You will also find it easy to play chords for back-up and rhythm. Listen to tunes you like and then try to hammer them out by ear. If you read music get a book of dance tunes and get to work!

Have fun!

Authored by Sam Rizzetta

 

More about dulcimers:

Prepared by the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment,
in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

PIMS/AH19-9/81B
updated 10/97

 

 
 

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