The Hammered Dulcimer is easy to play and can reward a beginner right away! To sound the notes you use little curved wooden strikers (called "hammers," hence the name). Or use your fingernails to pluck the strings; or use both methods. You can refer to the illustration to see how to play a (regular) major scale. Start on any marked string pair (called a "course") - usually indicated by a single bar sitting on the bridge between groups of two. Play the first four notes of the scale, and then go over to the left, to the marker parallel to the one where you started (to the treble bridge, or if you've started on the right side of the treble bridge cross over to the left side of the treble bridge) and play the rest of the scale. It's easy! This is the secret of beginning to play on the dulcimer - knowing where to start. (And isn't this also true of life?)

 

Most dulcimers are made in small shops by one craftsperson, although there are a few operations involving more people. The modern instrument has been improved by experimenting with the interior bracing scheme, by gluing the soundboard to the frame of the instrument, by the use of laminated wood for the pin blocks (where the tuning pins are) and by the addition of dampers. David James' instrument, made by Nick Blanton of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was the first modern American dulcimer with dampers. They are gaining popularity as a means of expressing staccato notes and ornaments.

 

Hammered dulcimers these days are usually made to span about three octaves - ranging from "D" below "middle C" up to "E" or "F three octaves higher. Smaller instruments start at "G" below "middle C."

 

Makers sometimes add more strings on the left side of the instrument on auxiliary bridges to get greater range or add some of the notes that the regular tuning scheme has left out.

 

Musicologists figure that the instrument has been around for about five thousand years. The first "dulcimer," and probably the first "harp" and "lyre," were probably devised when a musically-minded hunter twanged the string on his or her hunting bow, then added more strings toward the middle of it, then someone discovered that resting the thing on a box or drum made it louder. The instrument spread from the eastern Mediterranean lands eastward and northwestward. It has many names in many lands: Dulcimer comes from old French "dulce melos," meaning "sweet sound", Yang Chin (China) - means "foreign instrument"), Hackbräde (Swedish) means "chopping board", Cimbalom (Hungarian) - from the word meaning "to strike", Psalterion (French) and Santur (Greek) from "psallo," to "pluck." The Irish Gaelic word for the instrument is Tiompán, probably borrowed from the ancient Greek word, also meaning to "strike."

 

Dulcimers reached the British Isles by about the late Thirteen Hundreds, and modern investigations may push this date back. It became an integral part of gypsy bands in Hungary, and is considered a "classical" instrument in the Far East. The Scots, English, Irish, northern Germans and Scandinavians brought their instruments over to the United States and they became most prevalent in the Appalachians, in New England and in Michigan. There are many players In Michigan (perhaps more per capita than any other state) and families there have dulcimers dating back to the Seventeen Hundreds!

 

 

David James

Tiompán Alley Music

South Bend, Indiana

574-276-7822

djames@tiompanalley.com

 

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