A cool instrument with an even cooler name, you’ve probably heard a dulcimer played, even if you don’t know what it is. The refined cousin of the banjo, Appalachian dulcimer is sometimes called mountain dulcimer because that’s where it was invented.
We’ve got loads of information coming up on the history of the mountain dulcimer, its role in folk music, and so much more. Keep reading to learn a little more about this awesome piece of history.
Appalachian dulcimer history
The history of Appalachian dulcimer plays a big part in the musical history of the Northeastern United States. There are some instruments you just can’t leave out when you talk about folk music. One of them is the dulcimer. The word in Latin means, “a sweet song”.
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Appalachian dulcimers were originally made from whatever was available. Artists that create dulcimers today like to keep it authentic by using sassafras, black walnut, cherry, and other woods native to the Northeast. They were made by people who wanted to make music and relied on available resources.
Because most instruments wouldn’t survive the journey over the mountains to get to Appalachia, musicians needed to create their own instruments. Also, instruments were expensive for most people in the early days of America. Appalachia, specifically, is and has always been a relatively poor region. They needed something simple yet effective, and thus the mountain dulcimer was born.
Appalachian dulcimers can come in all shapes and sizes. However, most will be long and narrow with anywhere from one to twelve strings. Most have three strings traditionally, but a very popular style is one with a set of frets so you can play with a partner.
Watch this awesome video from America’s Heartland to hear more about the history of Appalachian dulcimer and hear a little playing, too!
Mountain dulcimer vs hammered dulcimer
When you run a search for the mountain dulcimer, you’re also going to get a lot of hammered dulcimer results in the mix. The instruments are as close as brothers, and modern-day folk musicians use both when paying homage to the past.
The main difference between the mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer is how they are played. Traditional mountain dulcimers are parlor instruments meant to be played by hand. This means that they’re more narrow, fit on your lap, and are played by plucking. Hammered dulcimers sit upright and are played with mallets.
Mountain dulcimers retain that folky sound while being much, much more portable. And, as we said before, they’re often much simpler and more cheaply made. The hammered dulcimer is the fancy, refined older brother, and it’s a joy to listen to.
Dulcimers in folk music
Indie folk is one of the most incredible genres we have today for so many reasons, but for traditional folk instruments like the dulcimer, it’s a lifeline. Even genres like chamber pop benefit from its use. Getting people interested in the history of music is how folk music stays alive.
You’ll obviously see heavy use of dulcimers in country music. But, go ahead and run a search for #indiefolk and #dulcimer on YouTube or TikTok, and you’ll see tons of amateur and professional artists playing their dulcimers. There are also a lot of fantasy-inspired songs being played as well as traditional homage. Both are awesome to see and hear.
For the genre to survive, it needs to be adopted and innovated. Some purists might take an issue with this. But, to me, to get younger generations interested in and curious about folk art and Americana, there’s no better way than covering Final Fantasy songs on the dulcimer.
How to play the mountain dulcimer
One of the best things about Appalachian dulcimer is how easy it is to get started! Playing Appalachian dulcimer is so easy, you can get started in an afternoon.
The Appalachian dulcimer is played by holding the instrument in the lap and plucking with the right hand while strumming or fretting with the left. You can produce chords by fretting, and you can accompany yourself while you pick out the melody in your dominant hand. This is the most popular way to play the dulcimer.
Jerry Rockwell does a thorough analysis of Appalachian dulcimer playing for Tedx. If you want a deeper dive into dulcimer technique, start here.
Appalachian dulcimer tuning
Most dulcimers were tuned to D-A-A traditionally, so that’s the tuning you’ll need to play traditional folk music, but thanks to the awesome world of covers and indie folk, you can use all kinds of tunings.
Who plays the Appalachian mountain dulcimer?
You’re definitely wondering now how many people play the mountain dulcimer. How many tracks have you listened to and heard a dulcimer, but you just weren’t aware of it?
The Appalachian dulcimer has been played by some pretty famous acts. Joni Mitchell plays mountain dulcimer beautifully in many songs. The Rolling Stones used it for “Lady Jane”, to give another example. There are many dedicated indie folk musicians today who work to keep the instrument alive.
Bing and the Mohave Group
Bing Futch is a huge name in Appalachian dulcimer playing. He primarily composes for film and TV scores, but he has an extensive library of original and traditional folk music you should check out on YouTube for a taste of what modern indie folk sounds like on the mountain dulcimer.
Stephen Seifert is an internationally-known mountain dulcimer player who has worked at universities like Vanderbilt as well as hit the road to spread the knowledge and love of folk music. His band, The Steve Seifert Project, is made up of musicians all sharing his name!
Check out him and Bing doing a duet together of a really popular folk song, Red River Valley.
Who plays hammered dulcimer?
We have to give love to the hammered dulcimer, as well. Appalachian dulcimer and hammered dulcimer very much go hand in hand, and folk music doesn’t discriminate which instrument it’s played on. Some of the most important Pennsylvania Dutch folk performances I’ve seen were played on hammered dulcimer.
Ted Yoder Band
Ted Yoder is one of the most famous hammered dulcimer players out there today. His cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World has been viewed millions of times on YouTube and helped introduce a lot of people to the sound of the dulcimer. His band is incredible, with marimba, percussion, and upright bass rounding out the sound.
Joshua Messick does a ton of work in the world of classical and folk music. He has nine studio albums and works on film scores. Primarily a composer, he also tours with his original music and his dulcimer. If you’re in the area, try to catch him at the New Mexico Dulcimer Festival in Albuquerque.
An incredible indie artist from Australia who has done so much work both as a solo artist and with her band Dead Can Dance. She’s won a lot of awards in the film space, as well, since her music lends itself really well to being used in scores. You don’t want to miss Lisa Gerrard, so check out Dead Can Dance and see for yourself what the hype is about.
Here are a couple of frequently asked questions about the mountain dulcimer.
What does a mountain dulcimer sound like?
A mountain dulcimer sounds most like a fiddle, but depending on its construction, it can also sound like a banjo or a guitar. Hammered dulcimer is more like a zither.
Is the mountain dulcimer easy to learn?
The mountain dulcimer is really easy to learn since it has so few strings, and traditional folk music tends to have simple, easy-to-learn melodies.
Is dulcimer easier than guitar?
The dulcimer is easier to learn than the guitar or any other instrument with more than three strings. Seriously, aside from the autoharp, it’s probably one of the easiest stringed folk instruments to play.
How often should you change dulcimer strings?
Replace your dulcimer strings once a year to keep them from breaking while you play.
Mountain dulcimer – Final thoughts
People from Appalachia are proud of their heritage, and as someone from the Anthracite region, it’s awesome to see the mountain dulcimer having its time in the sun. Keeping Americana alive any way we can is important to preserving our history. That’s why I play the autoharp.
Have you ever been interested in traditional folk instruments from your home? You should try to play your part in preserving your own history if you can!