The hammered dulcimer is a stringed percussion instrument with strings stretched over a trapezoidal resonating soundboard. The hammered dulcimer is placed in front of the player, who may sit cross-legged on the floor in more traditional ways or stand or sit at wooden support with legs in more modern styles. It can produce a wide range of tones, from a music-box sound too strong and percussive piano-like sounds that can make any brand stand out.

Due to its Latin and Greek origins, dulcimer’s name translates to “sweet tune”. The Appalachian Dulcimer’s name was chosen because of the biblical connotations. As far as we know, Appalachian dulcimers have been around for little more than 200 years, with Bibles making mention to hammered dulcimers. The genuine hammer dulcimer is a close relative of the psaltery, with the main distinction being that the dulcimer is generally pounded rather than plucked. Early variations were quite basic, only a few strings passing across bridges on the sides. The dulcimer’s origins are unquestionably in the Near East. Similar instruments have been produced and performed for approximately 5000 years. Early names for these instruments were santir and Psanterim, which are likely derived from the Greek Psalterion.

Hammered Dulcimer History

In Greece, the dulcimer is known as the Santouri, while in India, it is known as the santur. The instrument moved east and west from the Near East. Arabs brought it to Spain, who represented a dulcimer-like instrument on a church relief dated 1184 A.D. It was much later that it was introduced to the Orient. The yang Ch’in, or foreign zither, is the Chinese name for it. Its use in China is said to have started around the turn of the century. Korean folklore claims a relationship with the hammer dulcimer as early as 1725. Dulcimers were reasonably common domestic and concert instruments in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt they were first brought to the colonies from England where they were used in the street music of the time.

How does hammered dulcimer work

A dulcimer contains a bass bridge on the right side and a treble bridge on the left. Bass strings are played to the left of the bridge, and the bass bridge backs them up. Both sides of the treble bridge can be used to play the treble strings. Playing them on the left side of the bridge produces a fifth higher note than playing on the right side. The hammered dulcimer’s strings are frequently tuned in a circle of fifths pattern. The lowest note (usually a G or D) is played on the instrument’s lower right-hand side, close to the left of the right-hand (bass) bridge. A player ascends in a repeated pattern of two whole steps and a half step as they strike the courses above in order. With this tuning, a diatonic scale is broken into two tetrachords or groups of four notes.

The instrument is referred to as “hammered” about the small mallets (referred to as hammers) that players use to strike the strings. Hammers are usually made of wood (most likely hardwoods such as maple, cherry, padauk, oak, walnut, or any other hardwood). It can also be made from any other material including metal and plastic. Hammers are usually held between thumb and forefinger or between the forefinger and long finger on each hand. The performer would hold them lightly but firmly so that they bounce easily on the strings.