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Never a dull moment with dulcimers

Vathsala V P, May 12, 2013, DHNS :

Strumming away

Stringed: Appalachian dulcimer.

Musical instruments from around the world never fail to amaze music lovers. Though the function of all musical instruments is to produce pleasant musical notes, the kind of music that each one of them produces changes with the way they are built, and played.

Be it didgeridoo from Australia or ukulele from Hawaii, each has a distinct musical note emanating from it, and also has rich history behind it, telling interesting tales about the lives of people in the past. Another such interesting musical instrument is the Appalachian dulcimer or mountain dulcimer.

This fretted string instrument from the Appalachian region of the United States produces a pleasant sound, very similar to that produced by our violin. According to researchers who were trying to reconstruct the history of this musical instrument, early settlers were unable to make violins owing to the lack of tools, and hence ended up making something simpler and similar, though not equal. The sound volume produced by this musical instrument is very modest, hence considered best suited for small gatherings, especially at home.


Appalachian dulcimer is quite popular as it is relatively easy to play. In fact, it is regarded as one of the easiest string instruments to learn, as there are only three to four strings. However, very little is known about the origin of this simple musical instrument. It is believed that it has come to America with settlers from Ireland and Scotland, though the instrument could not be traced there.

Played by either placing it on the lap or on a wooden board, and strumming the strings, this musical instrument has undergone many changes in its design, over the years, to suit the needs of contemporary musicians and music. These modern dulcimers, in turn, have become very versatile, lending themselves to a variety of musical genres, from traditional folk music to popular and experimental forms.

Australian musician and busker Lindsay Buckland has popularised the use of electric dulcimer, which he always plays by suspending it from his neck. So have other musicians like Quintin Stephens, Bing Futch, Jean Ritchie and Butch Ross. Quintin Stephens, who loves to play the mountain dulcimer, has aptly said this about the instrument — it’s the meeting of traditional sensibilities with dynamic creativity.

This is not all. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones has played the electric dulcimer on several Rolling Stones recordings, as also during the band’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The fact that Cyndi Lauper is also a mountain dulcimer player comes as a revelation. In fact, she has played this instrument on her ninth studio album, The Body Acoustic.

Dulcimers are now available in a variety of shapes, depending on their fret patterns, body shapes, materials used for their construction, and uses. There are many variants to the original dulcimer too, like the guitar dulcimer, banjo dulcimer, resonator dulcimer, stick dulcimer, and so on. Since these dulcimers can be made with cardboard too, they are being increasingly used in schools owing to the low cost of its production.

Originally, these dulcimers were only made by individual craftsmen in the Appalachian region of America. But now, they are being made even in countries like China, Pakistan and Romania. Owing to the dulcimer’s fast growing popularity across the world, dulcimer festivals are regularly held in the UK, US, Canada and Ireland.

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