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The Hammered Dulcimer: Ancient, Wonderful, and Still Evolving

The Hammered Dulcimer: Ancient, Wonderful, and Still Evolving

by Sam Rizzetta

from his 1984 GAL Convention lecture

previously published in American Lutherie #10, 1987 and The Big Red Book, Volume 1, 2000

The dulcimer has been a strange, fascinating, and unique instrument in my life. I remember sitting at the knees of my uncle when I was three years old, listening to him play the banjo. That was just the most wonderful thing in the whole world. My mother lost a lot of pots and pans and other hardware to experimental childish banjos. I don’t remember if any of them actually yielded beautiful music, but they were a lot of fun. I couldn’t afford musical instruments, so if I wanted to play a banjo or guitar or whatever, I had to go down in the basement and knock one together. And that grew into a living building those things. When I finally heard a hammered dulcimer about twenty years ago, that was it; that was the most magical sound I’d heard in my life. It’s been downhill ever since.

Although the dulcimer is very ancient in its history, it never really reached a peak of fixed design as did the violin and, to a lesser extent, the guitar. Any good violin serves any purpose that you would want to put a violin to. A guitar is a bit less universal, with the many varieties such as classical, flamenco, jazz, and flattop. Still, there is a certain uniformity to them, and they’re usually tuned identically. Not so with the dulcimer. Although it is well known and loved in many cultures, there’s a great diversity in the tuning, construction, and tone.

There’s a lot of confusion over the name “dulcimer.” It really relates to the large trap­ezoidal instrument. The fretted instrument that many of us in recent times have called “dulcimer” truly is not a dulcimer at all but is related to the Pennsylvania German instrument called zitter (or zither) which in turn is related to the German scheitholdt. We are now very certain that all of the small plucked fretted “dulcimers” come direc­tly from those. These fretted instruments are often called Appalachian dulcimer or mountain dulcimer or plucked dulcimer or lap dulcimer, but all those names apply to both instruments. In fact, in the Appalachians, the hammered dulcimer was a little more common than the fretted one, which was just revived by folklorists a little earlier. The fretted instrument is sometimes struck with straws or beaters, or it may even be bowed. The hammered instrument in many cultures is only plucked but it is still called a dulcimer. These days, to make the distinction clear we’re calling the smaller instrument a fretted dulcimer and the larger trapezoidal one a dulcimer, the term that has referred to it through history.

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