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Introductions - How did you start playing a dulcimer? What do you enjoy about it?

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I think my journey with the dulcimer is best summed up in a description I heard at a workshop:  "The mountain dulcimer is the last best hope to play a musical instrument." 😂

I'd tried to learn a few instruments over the years including violin, ukulele, and guitar.  With guitar and ukulele I felt like I was doing contortions to get chord shapes and never became comfortable with them.  Violin was a little better in that it was only one note at a time, but I had a lot of trouble hearing if I was on pitch.  My teacher was always having me move my finger a little bit and I couldn't hear the difference.  I learned some songs and a bit of music theory, but I never felt comfortable playing the instrument or that I was doing well.

One day, a friend asked me if I'd heard of the dulcimer.  I hadn't.  She told me it was easy to play and I could probably do it.  I was skeptical to say the least, but I watched some Youtube videos.  I wasn't familiar with a lot of the songs, but I liked listening to them and they reminded me of my grandparents and their country roots.  I searched for some workshops and found one not too far from me in September 2017.  In a couple hours the instructor took a class of complete beginners who'd never touched the instrument from Boil 'em Cabbage to Ode to Joy and Southwind.  Playing on one string, with drones?  I can do this!

I had to get a dulcimer.  Someone at the workshop mentioned the old EverythingDulcimer.  I joined, got some great advice and ended up buying my first dulcimer.  There aren't too many instructors / workshops near me, but I was able to teach myself drone melody style from tabs and videos.  Eventually I got a little adventurous an played a few chords. 😁  I found I enjoyed learning songs and finally felt some success in learning to play an instrument.  

I took a bit of a break for the second half of 2018 to move and focus on some other things, but I still enjoyed sitting and playing.  In 2019 I decided to go to a festival and signed up for Kentucky Music week.  I didn't really know any of the instructors so I signed up for classes based on descriptions alone.  As it was a few months before KMW, I looked for other festivals and found the Crooked Road Dulcimer Festival that was not too far from me in Virginia, so i signed up for that too.

Crooked Road was great!  I met a lot of great people and dulcimer players are a very welcoming community.  Everyone was just there to learn, participate, and enjoy themselves.  Don Pedi gave a history class one morning on his journey with the dulcimer and playing in the drone-melody style.  That really spoke to me and just by chance I'd signed up for one of his classes at KMW.  That class was the first time I left DAD tuning, and things like major and minor scales suddenly clicked.  I was hooked and I loved the old songs, especially fiddle tunes.

I took some other classes for flat picking, rhythm, and chord-melody and enjoyed learning about them, but I still need a lot of practice. 😁  At the end of the day it's a lot of fun and very relaxing to sit down and be able to play a couple songs.  If it weren't for the mountain dulcimer (and the amazing diatonic fretboard) I don't think I would ever have learned an instrument.   Now I can't imagine not playing one!

I would love to hear how others got started!

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Forty some years ago I was wandering around Manitou Springs, Colorado one summer's day and heard this AMAZING music.  Followed my ears to Cripple Creek Dulcimer Company -- Bud & Donna Ford as a young hippy couple building and playing dulcimers.  It was love at first listen, because I was attracted to the sort of Celtic bagpipe nature of the drones.

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I kinda' started playing a guitar around 1975 but wasn't making a lot of progress.  I obtained a dulcimer from Lynn McSpadden in 1978.  I joined the dulcimer club in Omaha (Wildwood Dulcimer Club) and started going somewhere.  We moved to Denver in 1981.  I trended back toward the guitar until I joined the Colorado Dulcimer Society, a club in Denver lead by Connie North, around 1982.  For whatever reason, interest waned in the late 80's and club participation reduced and/or the club went away.  I obtained a bowed psaltery around 1994-1995.  In the early 90's the Rocky Mountain Dulcimer Club formed and I joined and continued to be a member until we moved to Tennessee in 1997.  Now I'm a member of the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club.

    I obtained music editing software around 1999, so I've learned to write dulcimer tablature and have shared tablature files in various places on the internet.  It's something I can do with my schedule as it is.  I also play the dulcimer in many different tunings.  Many of my dulcimers are tuned to something other than DAD and when I want to play a song in a given tuning, I pick up the dulcimer with that given tuning. 

Dave

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I grew up in New Jersey across the river from NYC. My grandfather lived with us and spent hours sitting in the living room listening to radio. He often tuned in to WNYC (I think those were the call letters). One day I heard Oscar Brands show whose guest was Jean Ritchie. She was playing an instrument called a dulcimer. I really liked the sound of the instrument, but the only information I could find described a hammered dulcimer. I kept that sound in the back of mind, graduated high school, and college. In 1971 while working in Shenandoah National Part I heard that sound again in the campground at Loft Mountain. A woman was playing an Appalachian dulcimer. In 1974 I built my first Appalachian dulcimer. I became acquainted with Maddie MacNeil which working in Shenandoah and eventual hooked up with her again as a columnist for Dulcimer Players News. I met Ralph Lee Smith in 1974 at a coffee house in Washington, D.C. Living in DC at that time I met quite a few dulcimer players and builders. I've been on this dulcimer journey a long time.

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When I was a child I always wanted to play the guitar. My mother finally gave in and bought me a guitar which was as big as I was.  I dragged it up and down the streets for one entire summer taking lessons from a college student who I know now was not someone who should have been teaching. His lack of patients and good instruction left me totally frustrated with learning how to play it. Moving on to the late sixties after giving up the guitar I went to visit my family in the hills of Kentucky where I heard the most beautiful song played by the Phipps Family on a mountain dulcimer. The song was Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. I was totally fascinated with the instrument and didn't have any idea what it was. A short time later I went to a presentation at the local college and they featured a native Kentuckian whose name was Jean Ritchie. I was hooked on her story about how she grew up in the mountains with her large family and her love of old mountain songs. When she started to play and sing I got chills. I had heard some of these old melodies and songs growing up too. My dad would often sing  or hum them while working around the house. My mother came from a family of fifteen children and my dad from eleven. Like Jean's family there were a lot of kids.  They were both born in the mountains but left with the great southern migration north to find work. I was a kid who went back back and forth from Motown to country and old mountain music. I became bi-lingual and it just came naturally to switch between the two cultures.  I started talking to Jean Ritchie and found out she was related to the Hall family. At the time I knew my dad's grandmother had been a Hall but that was all I knew about her. We tried to figure out if there was a connection but I was no help without knowing more about dad's family. 

Once Jean Ritchie started singing and playing I was totally lost. Those old tunes that  just took me away to some place that seemed so familiar yet so unknown and mysterious. The moaning of the minor keys just touched my soul deep inside somewhere. I was becoming hooked like an addict sitting there and didn't know what was happening at the time. When I left at the end of her performance I knew I had to have one of those sweet instruments. I needed it. I secretly said to myself , you will never learn to play that instrument.  My  past guitar teacher had told me I was tone deaf and never had the talent to be able to master a stringed instrument.   I thought I could always just hang the dulcimer on the wall if all else failed and use it as a conversation starter.  Jean had said it was easy to play and somehow that's all it took. She was sincere and the college student not so much.  So thanks to Jean Ritchie I went on a mission to buy my first dulcimer.. That was many dulcimers ago. I can honestly say that I play halfway decently and really don't care about what my first music teacher said anymore. Playing the dulcimer is a lot easier than playing a guitar. As long as you are having fun and enjoying the thing, just play it. 

 

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Hi Folks, I'm glad this website is up! I did enjoy the original ED.com for years, and I was sad to see it go. I am so glad the domain name is being used for a similar forum. Thank you, @Marc Mathieu for inviting me to join!

I had my first lesson as a 10 minute sales pitch in a dulcimer shop in Gatlinburg, TN, in the 1980's. My first real lessons were at a Memphis Dulcimer Festival with Larkin Bryant. I was hooked on the beautiful sound. I loved learning to play Aura Lee in DAA on the dulcimer. I was in Memphis, and I was playing Aura Lee by TAB, but I was hearing Elvis's Love Me Tender!  I learned to play the dulcimer by using tablature and a cassette tape, although I could read music after playing the clarinet in high school and the piano in elementary school.

Today I love playing the dulcimer with my husband, Adrian Kosky. We don't read or write music together, as we play by ear and make it up as we go along....but somehow it works. :classic_smile:

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We are a 4H family. Every year we would go to the fair for 4H day and I would wonder around and always ended up in the tent where the mountain dulcimer group was playing. My family would find me when they were done. We would leave and I would say I was going to get a dulcimer. For years I never did but one spring I did and now I have been playing for over 15 years. 

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Welcome to the dulcimer world Tim!  If you have any questions, ask away.  There're aren't any dumb questions, just ones you don't ask.  

 

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Hello to all and thank you for reviving this beautiful dulcimer site! I have been playing dulcimer since about 1994.  With some long stretches of not playing due to raising children.  I started playing noter-drone style in DAA with the Larkin book using the cassette tape that accompanied the book.  After about a decade I found a nearish dulcimer group to play with,  they played DAD chord-melody style, so I switched to that.  About a decade later I had David Mckinney build me a chromatic 3 string dulcimer with a 25 inch VSL - I love it!  I tune it to DAE.  

 

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Hi, folks. I'm new here, and Noterman asked me to introduce myself.

I was born and raised in Canada, and fell in love with acoustic music in the '60s. I learned to play guitar at the age of 13, and although I don't recall the exact moment I first heard a mountain dulcimer, I'm sure it was from Jean Ritchie. I continued to play guitar and sing through high school and college, but pretty much gave up as I entered graduate school and started a family.

Fast forward... my family and I moved to the US in 1994. I began to play again, and joined an informal band in Rockford, IL that included a couple who played harp and hammered dulcimer. I also rediscovered my deep love for traditional Celtic music, and played in a couple of Irish bands. My late wife and I built a mountain dulcimer from a kit, but it was all laminated woods and sounded pretty bad. I ended up buying a Folkcraft dulcimer, but rarely played it.

Fast forward again... we moved to Lake County, IL in 2014 and I got involved with the Lake County Folk Club (thelakecountyfolkclub.org), both as a performer at Open Stage and Song Circle events, and as one of the people responsible for running the sound system. About a month ago during a Song Circle (now virtual, using Zoom, in these trying times) I dusted off the dulcimer and played Stan Rogers' "The Jeannie C". People seemed to enjoy it, so I'm now rekindling my love for dulcimer and old-time music in general. Besides guitar and dulcimer, I also play (or try to play) clawhammer banjo, mandolin and octave mandolin.

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Welcome "back" to dulcimer!    Sounds like you've got a good "support" group there, I wish we had something like that where I live.  I play mostly Celtic -- Scottish Border Ballads mostly -- at local Open Mics and similar performance venues.  If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!

 

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Posted (edited)

I am a classical pianist by training (since the tender age of 7) but find myself overseeing with my wife her family's farm in the middle of the Ozarks.  I wanted to find an instrument I could play alone or with others but was not that drawn to the standard ones, e.g., guitar, banjo or violin/fiddle.  My wife was acquainted with the mountain dulcimer through the Ozark festivals in town she had attended.  Its similarity to the lute, to my ear, was very attractive!  I could play so much: Elizabethan tunes, hymns, Bach, traditional folk tunes, etc.  AND the instrument has untapped potentials, can be played in so many ways:  noter-drone style, chordal style, with 3- or 4-string set-ups and a variety of tunings.  That there are ergonomic challenges (longer fretboards having a different tonal quality than the shorter ones, generally speaking) and the varying designs that allow the soundboard to vibrate more freely add to its appeal.  There is so much to discover!

Edited by Nuthin Nu
grammar
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12 hours ago, Nuthin Nu said:

Its similarity to the lute, to my ear, was very attractive! 

This is one of my favorite things about the mountain dulcimer!  When I first became interested in learning music and learning, the Lute was the instrument I wanted to learn.  Turned out there were only a few Lute teachers in the US and I couldn't get in contact with the one near me.  (This was before online video lessons had started to take off.)  So I decided on something that they're lots of teachers for: violin.  Oops!  When I switched to Baritone Ukulele the first thing I bought were a few books of Lute music that had been arranged to for the Uke.  It quickly got too difficult for a beginner, but I loved the sound.

I get some of that with slower pieces on the Dulcimer, which is great. 

12 hours ago, Nuthin Nu said:

I could play so much: Elizabethan tunes

Coincidentally I just got a few books of Elizabethan tunes for dulcimer last week.  The only problem is the tunings are things I haven't seen before and I'll need to set up an instrument specifically for them.  For example Gdd where the G is one step below the A in DAd.  They recommended .012 gauge for the G and .009 for the D strings on a 27 inch scale.  I'm curious to hear how it will sound.

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Who published those books of Elizabethan tunes?  How did you get them?  For my tuning regimen (DAdb), with .014 for the A and .012 for the d and b, I'd just tune up or down a few.  I'm very curious myself about these tunes, if you wouldn't mind sharing more information about them.  Would you be playing on a Blue Lion?  To me, some dulcimers seem better for lute type music than others.

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The ones I have are:

  • Renaissance Ayres Arrangements for Dulcimer Written for Dilettanti Book I by P. B. Dickerman
  • An Elizabethan Songbook With Arrangements for the Appalachian Dulcimer by Lorraine A. Lee
  • Nonesuch for Dulcimer by Roger Nicholson
  • Musicks Delight on the Dulcimer or the New Elizabethan by Roger Nicholson

I picked all of these up on eBay. 

I'm sure these would work in other tunings.  I just found it interesting that they seem to mostly call for a middle string and 2 melody stings.  They don't call for a low bass string though I'm sure it would be fine with one.  I could probably also figure out another tuning that would work, but it would be neat to play/hear them as they're written.

Blue Lions are nice instruments.  I've heard a few but haven't had a chance to play one myself yet.  Hopefully when festivals start up again I'll get a chance to try one.  I've mostly been going between a Folkroots and a McCafferty lately. 

 

 

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Those are interesting!  Looked at Ebay and didn't see most of them for sale (have another book by Lorraine Lee Hammond (formerly Lorraine Lee)) but will keep looking.  Maybe you'd like Steven K. Smith's sheet music, too?  His books are available here:  https://sksmithmusic.com/books

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Not sure what you mean about those tunings calling for a middle string and two melody strings, Admin.  The Gdd tuning you mentioned above is a standard key of G 1-5-5 tuning with bass of G plus middle drone d and melody string d.  Gauges of 12 and 9 for G and d on 27" VSL are VERY light indeed.  The Strothers String Calculator recommends 15 and 10.

Those books could be recommending non-wound bass strings -- very common among traditional dulcimer players as it helps give that 'high silvery' sound we love so much.  Fat wound bass strings add a 'mushiness' to the sound of a string which is common and accepted by most as part of "mellow", but not what traditionalists like to hear.  

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39 minutes ago, NoterMan said:

Not sure what you mean about those tunings calling for a middle string and two melody strings, Admin.

I just meant in terms of the string gauges on a "standard" dulcimer, though they're on the very light side even for that.  Gdd is 1-5-5 as you mentioned and these could be played in DAA, but it would be like playing something for a standard dulcimer on a baritone.  The tuning they call for is tuned up to where a ginger dulcimer would sit, but on a 27 inch scale length. You're right that it's asking for an unwound bass string of 0.012 tuned to G and the middle and melody strings being 0.009 tuned to d.

This is from "An Elizabethan Songbook" by Lorraine Lee.  She dedicated 7 pages at the front of the book going into detail on how to setup the dulcimer for these songs, techniques for playing them and her notation.  It's nice that it's there.

I read through that section a bit and there's 4 tuning in total it uses.  Gdd, Gdc, Add, and Adc, all with those thing gauge strings.

The Renaissance Ayres book uses the same tunings, but it doesn't have any explanation on the setup.  It actually spends a page basically saying "you're on your own"
😂 An actual quote from the intro: "Diagrams of dulcimer parts, and elementary books on how to play the dulcimer are easily available; however, since this little book is not intended to be a book of instructions, they are intentionally omitted.  I am also leaving out the musical staff, key and time signatures, etc."  It's just tabs with note names and that's all there is.

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10 hours ago, Nuthin Nu said:

Those are interesting!  Looked at Ebay and didn't see most of them for sale (have another book by Lorraine Lee Hammond (formerly Lorraine Lee)) but will keep looking.  Maybe you'd like Steven K. Smith's sheet music, too?  His books are available here:  https://sksmithmusic.com/books

I saw a copy of An Elizabethan Songbook by Lorraine Lee up there if you're looking for that one.  I couldn't find the others again, but they're sure to come back up. 

Thanks for pointing me to Steve's site, I hadn't seen those before.  I may have to pick up a couple of those.  I love this style of music.

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Not being a collector of Tab books (I play by ear), I know of Lorraine and her reputation as a performer and writer.  That she spends time helping the budding Renaissance player get set up correctly says a lot for the quality of her work.   The other book I've not seen either, but from what you say I don't think I'd trust it.  The author is doing a great dis-service to his(er) audience by not explaining what's going on. 

Playing with thin, unwound strings isn't as uncommon as many dulcimer players think.  If you know of Phyllis Gaskins and the Galax style dulcimer, that's what she uses, and the tradition there is to use all 9 or 10 gauge strings and tune ddd or ccc.   

I think I would split the difference between what Lorraine is suggesting, and what the Strothers Calculator says -- perhaps a 13 or 14 bass string and 10 for the middle drone and melody.

It does sound as if you need/want a dulcimer specifically set up for Renaissance music.  Using modern gauges and tunings will certainly render a different sound than the music intended.    Personally I would build a round-backed, deep-bodied, extreme-teardrop dulcimer, to mimic, more or less, the shape of a lute but without a neck. 

Hmmmm... Now where'd I put those wide 1/8" planks....

 

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Posted (edited)

Yeah, the other book (Renaissance Ayres) doesn't go into set up or technique. The intro was probably a bit of an unnecessary turn off. It's essentially just a book of tab, which themselves seem ok, but it's pretty barebones otherwise. 

I unfortunately haven't met Phyllis. I signed up for her Galax class last year, but her husband was ill and she wasn't able to make it. We did get to try out Galax dulcimers, but it was just a brief intro without her there.

Yep, with a couple books using these tunings I'll probably set up a dulcimer for it the next time I need to restring.  I would like to hear how it's intended to sound since Lorraine went into such detail in her book.

That would be great to see a lute style dulcimer. One book I came across (I think Robert Force's) listed the lute style as a major type along with hourglass, tear drop, etc. I believe there was a picture, but I've never seen actually seen one.

Edited by Admin
fixed typo in book name

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The "trick" of a Lute shaped dulcimer is to not cross the line into a stick instrument with a neck.  I would make it a real "teardrop", wide and deep, with a true rounded tail end.  Then I'd add a steeply down-angled peg box.   It would have to be relatively short scaled, so that body would not be too 'stretched' looking.

Hmmm,  I'm in the middle of another project just now, but I'll start looking through my scrap pile and see what wide planks I can come up with...

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