Mountain Dulcimer FAQ

  1. How difficult is it to learn? The dulcimer is generally regarded as one of the easiest string instruments to learn.
  2. Do I have to read music to play? No. Most written music for the dulcimer is written in tablature form. Dulcimer tablature consists of fret numbers on three or four lines which represent the three or four strings of the dulcimer exactly as they appear while the instrument sits on your lap. Simply read the numbers from the music sheet and fret the corresponding number on your dulcimer.
  3. How is it played? The traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and pluck or strum the strings with the right hand, while fretting with the left. Sometimes players will use a specially constructed stand or place the dulcimer on a wooden table to boost volume. The instrument is generally strung with the melody string (or string pair) on the player's side of the instrument, and the bass string on the outside.In traditional style of playing, fretting is achieved with your finger or thumb or a “noter” — typically a short length of dowel or a fancier made version — on the melody course, while the middle and bass strings act as unfretted drones. This melody-with-drone style, where the melody line is carried up and down the double melody string in a linear fashion, is considered the easiest way to learn.Advancing beyond the traditional style, it has become increasingly popular to play in the chordal style. Here you use thumb and fingers from your left hand to press down on different frets as indicated in the music. It takes longer to learn to make chords because you have to keep track of where more fingers are placed on the fretboard but with continued practice your fingers become more adept at placing them where they should be. There are advantages to both styles of playing and one is not inherently better than the other.
  4. What are the differences in tunings? The two major tunings are the DAA and the DAD. There are other tuning commonly used but the majority of tunes are in these two. The DAA tuning is an Ionian tuning and well suited to the melody with drone style. The DAD is a Mixolydian tuning and is increasingly used by dulcimer teachers and in group settings. DAD songs are usually written in the chordal style.Historically the Appalachian dulcimer was usually tuned to DAA in a 1- 5-5 relationship. That is, the key note is on the bass string and the middle and melody strings are at an interval of a perfect fifth above it. The melody string is tuned so that the tonic is at the third fret. This facilitates playing melodies in the Ionian mode. In the DAD tuning the scale starts on the open (unfretted) string.
  5. How does the type of wood affect the tone? The wood used for the top is one of the factors affecting tone. But first realize that a dulcimer's voice changes over the first few weeks of playing. A second important point is that there is no “best” wood. What sounds good to one person is not necessarily what sounds good to another. That being said, in general terms some of the recognized preferred tone woods are walnut, cherry, poplar, maple, sassafras and others. But even 2 identically built dulcimers using the same kind of wood often have differences in tone due to the individual characteristics of the source of that wood. When in doubt about a wood, go with the wood that appeals to you visually. Unless you line up dozens of different dulcimers and try them out, it's usually a difficult process to choose a best wood for you.