If you're listening to the beautiful sounds of someone in Appalachia playing a stringed instrument, chances are it may not be a guitar. What instrument could it be? It could be a banjo, a mandolin, or maybe a fiddle. Or it might be a dulcimer!
Developed in the early 19th century in the mountains of Appalachia, the dulcimer is a simple stringed instrument that's part of the zither family of instruments. Some historians believe it might trace its roots all the way back to the ancient lyre.
Its name comes from words that mean “sweet sound," and that phrase accurately describes the lovely notes you'll hear played on a dulcimer. Although some people might believe a dulcimer looks a bit like a guitar, it's actually a very different instrument that's played on the lap.
There are older, European instruments known as hammer dulcimers that sit on a stand and are played with small hammers rather than plucking the strings. We're going to concentrate on the smaller version played on the lap that's known commonly as the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer.
The dulcimer is shaped like an hourglass. It comes in several different varieties that have anywhere from three to eight strings. The strings can be picked like guitar strings. For different sounds, some dulcimer players fingerpick the strings or even play them with a bow like a violin.
The dulcimer's range makes it a good instrument for many different types of music. You'll hear dulcimers in folk, classical, jazz, blues, ragtime, Cajun, gospel, and even rock and roll. Some areas even have special festivals dedicated to dulcimer music, such as the annual Mardi Gras dulcimer music festival.
To hold a dulcimer correctly, you should find a low, comfortable chair with no arms. Position the dulcimer in your lap, so that the peg head is on your left with the peg side toward the left knee. The bridge end should be on your right, close to your body. Make sure the dulcimer is well balanced, so that pressing or strumming the strings does not cause the instrument to tilt.
Dulcimers are hand-crafted instruments. Looking at a dulcimer, it's easy to see why many people consider each dulcimer an individual work of art. The sound holes that exist in the soundbox are often made to resemble various objects, such as flowers or animals.