The Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer
This uniquely eastern American musical instrument had it roots in the German Scheitholt, and has evolved several variants as a folk instrument from the 1700s to the present day. Emanating from Scots immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley and apparently based on the scheitholt and several other European and Scandinavian instruments: the French epinettes des vosges, and the Swedish hummel and Norwegian langeleik. Likely, it emerged as a synthesis of these from the mingling of early immigrants in the 1700s and the rural craftsmanship of the day. Several principal variations are known from the mountains – hourglass, teardrop, and the boat-shaped Galax variant with a double bottom, named for the region around Galax, Virginia. Instrumentally, the mountain dulcimers are related to the zithers, and are characterised by having the fretboard contained entirely overtop the soundbox.
A four-stringed diatonic instrument (though chromatic variants are now made), and like most folk instruments, crafted to be an accompaniment for sing-a-longs and small local festivals. Church music and hymns were popular on it. Two of the strings are paired as the melody strings with the other two as drones, although that, again varies with the artist. Typical tunings are ddAA and ddAD.
While California makers and enthusiasts like to take credit for its resurgence in the counter counterculture of the ’70s (see youtube video below), it did not establish outside of the west coast scene to any great degree, remaining truer to its eastern folk roots.
Electrified and modernized, like all instruments, it can be found in a variety of settings, although like so many esoteric folk instruments, it remains closer to its origins than others, like the banjo.
This is my favourite dulcimer video: an incredibly astute blend of very modern technology and ancient musicality (the beat device he’s tapping on is a “Korg Kaosillator” – a digital sound effects generator that allows you to create and stack background rhythms. I have one, they are quite unique, a little tricky to program, but fun). To add insult to injury here, he’s playing the dulcimer upside down:
Dave Sewell’s Interlude, written by Will Fly as a tribute to his custom dulcimer builder Dave Sewell, the versatility of the instrument is easily shown:
And for a treat right out of history, Kimberley on her Galax dulcimer, in costume and with the traditional turkey quill plectrum, and fingering stick, used as a slide:
I have two, a custom-made teardrop (“the wicked nun”) with Galax (double) bottom made of curly cherry, spruce and purpleheart,
by Mary Matarainen of Laurel Mountain Instruments (pictured in her Galax bottom dulcimer gallery), and a Walnut Creek hourglass (made of all walnut, naturally :) that has matured into a beautiful sounding instrument. The “nun” is bright and brash with a bit of bite, whereas the Walnut Creek is more mellow and sonorous. I’ll post a picture of the Walnut Creek as soon as I find it – its quite attractive.
Easy instruments to learn to play (as music instruments go), there are many fine makers out there keeping alive a unique musical treasure.
More in keeping with traditional zithers, this instrument, below, also a dulcimer, is quite unlike the lap dulcimer above. Hammered dulcimers have their own uniqueness, history and aesthetic. I’ll do a post one day on these too.