What do I need to know about the hammered dulcimer?
October 18, 2008 9:07 AM   Subscribe

I'm very curious about learning to play a hammered dulcimer. What do I need to know?

About 25 years ago I saw a wonderful solo hammered dulcimer player at a pub in southern England (I have the record somewhere) and have been idly intrigued by the instrument ever since.

I'm looking for a new hobby. I have no musical experience whatsoever. Should I even consider this instrument as something to learn?

If so, what do I need to know?

Some specific questions, though any information would be appreciated:

- How much would an instrument suitable for a beginner cost?

- And where would I find one? (Online? I'm in Ottawa, Canada ... I asked about hammered dulcimers some time ago at the Folklore Centre and they weren't even sure what I was talking about.)

- Learning resources? (Books / CDs / DVDs?)

- Tuning? If I have no musical knowledge, how do I know when it's out of tune?! Guitar tuner?

What else should I be thinking of?
posted by valleys to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There is a guy who plays a hammered dulcimer in central park in NYC. He actually made his instrument himself so if your handy you could do it yourself.

He told me hammered dulcimers basically went the way of the dodo when pianos and stuff got more popular.

I must say it looked like a pain to tune though. I think he used a whistle of some kind and tuned the strings to it.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:59 AM on October 18, 2008

I also found this website which seems like they sell them.


One of these days i will buy one and learn it. I had the central park guy (his name was arlen olsen) play green sleeves on it and it was beautifull.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:07 AM on October 18, 2008

Seconding elderlyinstruments as a resource for all things stringy--I get my banjo supplies there and shipping is super fast and they've always been really helpful. They should have some dulcimer books, too, which will tell you how to tune each string, and if you don't want to buy an electronic tuner or a tuning fork or some such, you can probably find a tuner online to start with.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:21 AM on October 18, 2008

You might want to look into the folk/traditional music scene near you. When I was a kid my parents were involved with the local folk music organization which is where I first saw a hammered dulcimer. I built one from a kit and learned to play it a little bit, after which I lost interest. There is a definitely an active community of people who play them and you can get books to teach you how to play it. Unfortunately it was so long ago that I picked it up that I no longer remember what books I had and so forth, but googling turns up a lot of links. In particular, this page looks like a good place to start.

If you have no musical experience you'll probably want to learn to read sheet music, though this isn't strictly necessary.
posted by pombe at 11:51 AM on October 18, 2008

(I know a bit about this instrument because my dad, who is a very skilled woodworker as a hobby, built one years ago, and I spent quite a bit of time with it and also have talked with him about it many times).

You will be unlikely to find a full size instrument under $300 unless you got a remarkable steal used - and the $300 area would be quite low-end. I'd say look at around $400-700 for entry level instruments. You could easily go over $2,000 depending on the materials and craftsmanship. If you are crafty you could look for a kit, but even full kits run around $300 (but you'd end up, if you manufactured it carefully, with a much nicer instrument than if you'd paid $300 for a premanufactured instrument). You can find plans in the $30-40 range, in which case you could probably bring it in for a couple hundred dollars. It is not a super difficult build as stringed instruments go, but you would need solid woodworking skills, and it is an awful lot of tuning pegs to set (honestly, a kit would probably be the bottom you would want to risk - if you knew enough about making instruments to put one together from scratch, you probably wouldn't be asking this question - and even then you would need a respectable workshop and be a genuine woodworking hobbyist to tackle it).

There are tons of them online if you search for them. Make sure you search the phrase "hammered dulcimer" as the mountain dulcimer (a small, generally hourglass-shaped instrument which is played with a pick and slide) is a less expensive and very common instrument. Unfortunately I can't give any advice on specifics of buying online.

Make sure you know before you purchase that strings and a tuning tool are included, or track those down and consider the cost before you buy. A full set of strings runs from $40 to over $100 so this is a serious consideration.

Here is a tutorial on tuning that looks about right to me. The process is no joke but once a set of strings settles in it's a pretty stable instrument. It has neither the tension nor the aggressive playing of say a guitar, so as long as you take good care of it (keep it out of excessive temperature extremes, keep it in a humidity moderated environment, keep the strings clean and corrosion free) you will not need to tune or change strings very often. If I owned one and had access to a traditional instrument store I would definitely consider having a pro handle the occasional tune-up, just as I would a piano.

It is quite easy to play in the sense that you just strike the strings with the mallets, you don't have to learn any tricky hand positions or anything like playing the guitar. You hit the string and get the note you hit. It is somewhat similar to a very compact xylophone in terms of how you play it. If you have no music theory and can't read music, though, mastering it will be very hard - basically you will have to learn everything by rote. I always found it pleasing to fool around with, but never got very far. Although it is a very different instrument in every way, I would actually suggest considering the mountain dulcimer, which is quite a bit more accessible to the untrained musician.
posted by nanojath at 11:55 AM on October 18, 2008

Hammered dulcimer plus mellotron choir = win.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:51 PM on October 18, 2008

a good friend of mine has one that largely goes unused, because they're kind of a pain to tune. While any-odd tuner can do a good job, I recommend the Intellitouch for any stringed instrument...
posted by zachxman at 1:52 PM on October 18, 2008

Check out Lark in the Morning for how tos and instruments for sale. Entry level instrument is $295.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:53 PM on October 18, 2008

You could also consider a software sampler/rompler dulcimer, and some sort of percussion controller to play it with. I don't have specific ideas, but someone at sound on sound forum may know.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:11 AM on October 20, 2008

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