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dholeton

Mountain Dulcimer Frequently Asked Questions

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Maybe we can use this topic as a place to store Mountain Dulcimer questions that are frequently asked by people who are new to the dulcimer.

Dave

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Question 1.  What is a mountain dulcimer?

Answer:  A mountain dulcimer is classified as a zither, which is a music instrument with frets and the strings extend most or all the way across the sound box.  It is said to be an instrument that evolved in the USA from the zithers brought over mostly from Germany.  The German zithers are sometimes called scheitholts.  The mountain dulcimer is sometimes called a lap dulcimer and/or an Appalachian dulcimer.  The traditional mountain dulcimer had a diatonic fretboard (sometimes called a dulcimore, among other names), but many modern dulcimers are made with extra frets usually called half frets.  Some dulcimers have all of the frets and are called chromatic dulcimers.  A diatonic dulcimer just has frets to match the do re mi fa so la ti do scale and usually the scale starts at the third fret.  The mountain dulcimer has been played in all forms of music (folk, old time, country, rock and roll, classical, etc.).  Mountain dulcimers are constructed in various shapes with the hourglass shape, the teardrop shape, the elliptical shape, and the box shape being common.  Attached are pictures of an hourglass dulcimer and a teardrop dulcimer.

Dave

 

McSpadden_Brochure_Hourglass.jpg

McSpadden_Brochure_Teardrop.jpg

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Question 2.  How many strings are on a mountain dulcimer?

Answer:  The most common arrangement for strings on a mountain dulcimer is 3 or 4 strings.  Usually, the bass string is a wound string and the middle and melody string(s) are unwound strings.  The dulcimers with 4 strings can be arranged with either two strings as double melody strings (similar to a mandolin or 12-string guitar) or with 4 strings equal distant from each.  Common tunings for mountain dulcimers today are DAD tuning and DAA tuning.  DAD tuning has the bass string tuned to D, the middle string tuned to A, and the melody string(s) tuned to D an octave above the bass string.  DAA tuning has the bass string tuned to D, the middle string and the melody strings are tuned to A.  Often, the bass string on a mountain dulcimer can be a wound string anywhere between .020 and .024 gauge.  The middle strings often are anywhere between .010 and .014 gauge.  The melody string(s) on a dulcimer tuned DAD are often anywhere between .008 and .012 gauge.  The melody string(s) on a dulcimer tuned DAA are often anywhere between .012 and .014 gauge.

Dave

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It depends on your definition of "nice" I guess. An entry level McSpadden dulcimer costs around $500 and a Folkcraft around $700. You can purchase instruments from individual builders for a lot less which are as good or better than the big companies. I would avoid the inexpensive dulcimers made in Eastern Europe or Asia unless you have the skill to tweak them in to playing shape.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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17 hours ago, Fiddler said:

Recommendations for dulcimer? How much should one expect to pay for a nice dulcimer.

I was asking the same question a couple years ago.  It's hard to find good info on all the different builders. There's a lot out there and the price range varies by builder, features, and how fancy the instrument is.  Prussia Valley's store page can give you an idea of some of the different makers/prices.  This is just a starting point for you to browse and get some information:

http://prussiavalley.com/catalog/index.php?cPath=21

I'd spend some time searching and looking at different shops/builders to see what suits you.  In general, features like ebony fret boards or fancy/exotic woods are options that will tend to push the price of an instrument up.

You might also take a look at the builder's page.  It's in development and the info on the page is incomplete/just for testing, but the ones on there currently are actual shops and builders:

https://everythingdulcimer.com/builders.php

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For those players that would like to play contemporary music on their dulcimers, a chromatic dulcimer would solve that problem; however, there is an easier solution. If you have a 1½ fret added to your instrument, you will be able to play in additional keys. I have found that with the added 1½ fret and the bending (for half tones)of one or more strings in a song, you will be able to play almost any song. My experience is that most contemporary and classical songs usually require the bending of no more than 1-2 strings throughout the song.

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Another question: What is a baritone mountain dulcimer?

A baritone mountain dulcimer is usually a larger dulcimer with strings that are heavier (larger in diameter) than regular dulcimers.  The heavier strings allow the baritone dulcimer to be tuned lower, most often to AEA tuning.  With the heavier strings on the baritone dulcimer, it most likely can't be tuned to DAA or DAD without breaking strings.

Dave

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Quote

The bracing inside a baritone dulcimer is different than a standard one. The length of the strings is also different. This allows the tuning to AEA; however, it can also be tuned to DAD without much fear of breaking the strings. I use the following strings on my baritone dulcimer: .014, .022W, .036W(the W is wound). I have been playing my baritone for 15 years and have not broken a string (yet). I would give this caveat: A baritone dulcimer can be overwhelming among just a few dulcimers. It is normally an ensemble instrument, although some songs lend themselves to a baritone solo.

 

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Carolina

Thanks for the update.  I was basing my string breaking remark based on my experience trying to tune the melody strings on one of my dulcimers to d.  It probably has a shorter VSL than a baritone and I use .016 strings on the melody strings.  I built it just to improve the sound where the melody strings are tuned to G or lower notes.

Dave

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Question:

Where can I find information on modes and modal tunings?

Answer:

A great place to start learning about modes and modal tunings is Roger Nicholson's article in the 1996 Dulcimer Players News.  The link to the archived DPN issues is below.

 

In an effort to keep it simple, here are some notes about modes on a dulcimer with "D" tunings with no extra frets.

D Mixolydian

DAD tuning

Frets and notes in mode:

0    1    2    3    4    5    6     7

D   E    F#  G    A    B   C#  D

---------------------------------------------------------------

D Aeolian

DAC tuning

Frets and notes in the mode:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8

D    E    F    G    A   Bb  C    D

----------------------------------------------------------------

D Locrian

D A# A# (seldom used and tunings vary among players)

Frets and notes in the mode:

2   3    4    5    6     7    8    9

D  D#  F    G   G#  A#  C   D

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

D Ionian

DAA tuning

Frets and notes in the mode:

3   4    5     6    7   8    9   10

D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#   D

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

D Dorian

DAG tuning

Frets and notes in the mode:

4    5     6    7   8    9   10  11

D    E     F   G   A    B   C     D

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

D Phrygian

DAF tuning

Frets and notes in the mode:

5     6    7   8    9     10   11   12

D    D#   F   G   A     A#   C     D

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

D Lydian

DAE Tuning

Frets and notes in the mode:

6    7    8     9     10   11   12      13

D    E   F#   G#   A     B     C#     D

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dave

1996 Dulcimer Players News

 

 

Edited by dholeton

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Ken Hulme wrote an article several years ago called The Uncontrite Modal Folker that was a good overview of Modes, Modal Tunings, and how they apply to the dulcimer.  It was on the original Everything Dulcimer.  You can find him on Facebook.  If you ask, he'll probably give you a copy.  

Edited by NoterMan

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Painted dulcimers: why? Was it because the wood was nothing special, maybe? (I’m obsessed at the moment with this black Ed Thomas replica ...)

 

A dulcimer maker many years ago told me that wood grain wasn't attractive to some people in certain areas. He said:

"Many old dulcimers were crudely cut and finished. Paint was a favorite finish. To understand the reason for this, we must place ourselves in the mental frame of the Appalachian mountaineer. He regarded the grain of wood as ugly, since it was so commonplace. Almost everything that he owned was made of wood. The dulcimer was so much work to build that he didn't want this ordinary, ugly wood grain to show, so he would paint it with any available paint."

I think the Thomas dulcimers were more refined than the example mentioned above, so I don't know if Uncle Ed's motivation for using paint was because his customers wanted paint or if it was just his choice by design.

 

Dave

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The Thomas dulcimer I own is not painted. It is all walnut. I have seen a few Thomas dulcimers that were painted. My guess is that some were painted to make them more appealing to the customer. C.N. Prichard dulcimers were almost always painted; some very elaborately and some to resemble wood grain.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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Oil based paint should provide good protection for wood.  If some type of clear finish wasn't available or too expensive, paint's a good option.  Ed Thomas could have done it for aesthetic reasons, or maybe just due to cost/availability of material.

Through some twist of fate, the few Thomas dulcimers I've encountered in person were all unpainted ones. 

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Question:

How are you able to play songs without tab in front of you?  When I want to play outside I take sheet music/tablature and a stand and if it is windy the pages flip and i am lost etc.

Answer:

Is playing from tablature causing just playing the right notes without any awareness of the sound? For example, a person named Dorothy needs to have a letter typed but Dorothy does not have a typewriter. Dorothy knows the content of the letter. She has a friend named Mary who has a typewriter and she asks Mary to type the letter for her. Mary begins typing the letter and she can type the letter without knowing the content of the letter. As Mary types, words in the letter are recognized and maybe Mary goes a little faster on some of the words. After typing the letter, Mary might proof read the letter to make sure all of the words are spelled correctly and the spaces, commas, and other punctuation are correct. Maybe Mary compares the typed letter to the original for accuracy. During the proof reading, the typist learns the content and meaning of the letter. While typing the letter, the typist is just like a machine looking at the letters and words and punctuation and reacting with the correct fingers on the keyboard. So, something to consider is if you know the melody of a song in your head, you can try finding the notes on the melody or middle strings without tablature. You've started to write the letter. Listen for the sound of the song, maybe even hum along. Once you've found the melody of the song, maybe you can start playing chords at times. If your dulcimer is tuned DAD and the melody lands on the melody string 4th fret, the song likely will need one of three chords, a D (432), an F#m (422), or an A (401 or 421 or 444). Find the chord that sounds correct for the song and for you. Learning what the song should sound like has helped me play many songs without tablature.

 

Dave

 

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What has helped me to learn a song is that if I am unfamiliar with the melody, I try to find a MIDI, WAV, MP3, etc. file and listen to it until it stays in my head. Yes, it is difficult to look at a page of tab and then to your dulcimer and back again. It is easy to get lost. Might I suggest that you read my two articles on how to become a better dulcimer player. They might help. Be patient with yourself. One does not master the dulcimer overnight.

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