So you have heard a dulcimer recording, seen a dulcimer on TV or maybe even live, and decided you want to learn to play one. What now? These random musings are to give you some information and things to think about in making your decision.
Hammered dulcimers are by and large made by individual builders, with individual designs, and differences in sound - both volume and timbre. You can find a lot of information on what instruments are available from different dulcimer makers by perusing the "stores" page on this website, or the geographical stores list. Check the links to dulcimer builders and stores. You can also check the ads in Dulcimer Players News. This will give you a an idea of the various instruments available and what they cost. Check most or all of this before you run down to the music store in the nearest mall.
If you wonder whether you can learn to play, remember - you just hold a hammer in each hand and hit it. If you'd feel more comfortable with more info, get a copy of the Square One No. 1, the hammered dulcimer book for absolute beginners. If you are wondering what to play, check our "books" pages.
There's no substitute for trying or at least hearing the real thing live. If you can get to a large dulcimer festival, you can compare instruments from several different vendors, and talk to dulcimer makers and to dulcimer players. Different people like or dislike different instruments for different reasons - sometimes diametrically opposed reasons.
If you can't get to festivals to see several instruments, check with other dulcimer players, either live or on-line. There are two internet hammered dulcimer mailing lists. There are also listings of dulcimer teachers, dulcimer players and dulcimer clubs on the World Wide Web. Information is on the "links" page. Dulcimer players are a pretty friendly bunch of folks, whether on-line or off.
Remember: There are some dulcimer builders, including some "masters" who are not listed, aren't on the web, and who don't advertise. You'll find out about them by word of mouth.
There is also other advice on the web. Check the guide for buying hammered dulcimers on the House of Musical Traditions site for more perspective.
Beginner's Instrument or Better Instrument First Time Out -
There are some quite decent beginner or entry level instruments available at very low prices.
Points in favor of starting with a beginner instrument:
If you don't have experience already, you can learn on the beginner instrument. When you know how to play, you are in a better position to try out other instruments, and can make better choices when trying out more expensive instruments. (Rental and some lessons, if available, may be an option.)
You can sell the beginner's instrument when you are ready to move up.
Points on the other side:
Starting with a better instrument (better sound, more range, stays in tune better) may help you learn faster.
Your first dulcimer may last you a long, long time.
Beginner's instruments may be hard to resell if there are no beginners around.
12/11 or 15/14 or ... In dulcimer nomenclature, the number of courses of strings on the treble and bass bridges is written with two numbers and a slash (/). Of the two most common in the USA, 12/11 refers to 12 treble courses and 11 bass courses; 15/14 refers to 15 treble and 14 bass courses. Since both sides of the treble bridge are played, four courses give you one diatonic octave. A 12/11 generally has the D, G and C major scales; the 15/14 adds an A major scale below the D. Since the top course in each octave is the bottom course of the next, you usually have some extra notes at the top and bottom.
In addition, there are chromatic dulcimers with additional "missing notes" (B flats, F naturals, E flats, etc.) on separate bridges or other arrangements on the instrument, and there are bigger instruments with additional sets of courses.
Which to get... Depends. Before you decide that "bigger is better", consider:
Although a 15/14 gives you the notes to play in A major with exactly the same playing patterns you would use in D or G, the A course plays an octave lower than much of the music is written (down below middle C on a piano). You can play in A major and above middle C on either a 12/11 or a 15/14.
Bigger is heavier. Are you going to carry this instrument out a lot, walking to jam sessions and workshops at festivals?
Bigger is bigger. How big are you relative to your new dulcimer? Will you have to lean way over the A course to play in the other common keys of D, G and C? Will the dulcimer fit in the back seat of your BMW Roadster? Your Geo Metro?
(Humungous is really big - Pantaleon Heibenstreit, the dulcimist that inspired the first pianos in the 1700's, played one that was 9 feet long and had over 200 strings. Thanks to Pantaleon, there are now some really large 88 course keyed dulcimers with damper pedals and mechanized hammers made by companies like Steinway, Baldwin, Bosendorfer and Kawai, to name a few. They are not portable and won't fit in the back seat of your car.)
Octave Bass or Fifth Tuned Bass
Though fifth tuned bass dulcimers are more common today, there are octave bass instruments, many in Michigan or from Michigan builders, even some (rare regional alternative bass tunings). Hackbretts and cymbaloms and yang qins have different tunings. Sam Rizzetta has designed a "piano dulcimer" that allows playing in more keys using similar patterns.
Build or Buy - My own recommendation is to buy from an experienced builder. But then, the woodworking tools I use most often are a chain saw and a maul. If you have some experience, talent and good tools, a kit or plans may suit you. Several sources are included on the "stores" page and on the "links" page.
Points to Consider:
This is a musical instrument, sound quality and playability are important.
With all those wire strings, the tension on the instrument is quite high. Safety in construction and strength of the finished product is a factor. Don't cut corners.
The internet hammered dulcimer mailing lists include several builders, both professionals and others. Ask for some advice from people who have built dulcimers.