The Mountain Dulcimer
December 30, 2014 5:39 PM   Subscribe

From the mountains of Western Maryland and West Virginia comes a series of short films about Appalachian traditions in our changing world. This one is about the Appalachian dulcimer.
posted by winna (21 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
My father, who was a talented hobbyist woodworker, built several mountain dulcimers throughout his life (the first ones from these kits, later ones from scratch). It's a relatively accessible instrument for a reasonably equipped woodworker who wants to go beyond the cigar box banjo type projects in instrument building.

It's a lovely unique instrument that deserves more exposure (you can buy one assembled for substantially less than those kits, beautiful as they are). Lots of great video on Youtube.
posted by nanojath at 6:06 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what the connection is, because as far as I know we don't have any family in Appalachia, but one of these things came out at every reunion that my family in northern Minnesota had.

they sound pretty neat.

I got a little thrown off when I tried to find out more about them because there are also apparently dulcimers that are played with little hammers and they are more well known?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2014

ArgentCorvid, yes the dulcimer (dulcimer is a very old word that probably basically comes from a phrase meaning "sweet melody") is an older, more ubiquitous instrument with many versions (that may be plucked or played with a plectrum as well as hammers) throughout global music. As far as I can tell the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer was invented in America though I guess it has some likely antecedents in other fretted instruments and is of quite recent origin relatively (not gaining mainstream presence until the late 1800s).
posted by nanojath at 6:22 PM on December 30, 2014

ArgentCorvid: "I got a little thrown off when I tried to find out more about them because there are also apparently dulcimers that are played with little hammers and they are more well known?"

The "hammers" are like little piano-string strikers, not hammer-hammers. I had an uncle who got suuuuuuuper into Appalachian hammered dulcimer after he retired and actually even put out a couple albums of it (not him in the video), so we all got to learn a lot about dulcimers. Anyway, have some Ashokan's Farewell.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:35 PM on December 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

"It was an Abysssinian Maid, And on her Dulcimer she play'd" most probably a Cimbalon, which is kinda like a small open piano tapped by hand-held mallets, and I think should probably not to be confused with the Appalachian Dulcimer. There's a swell book by Michael Murphy if you're interested in these fascinating instruments.
posted by ovvl at 6:46 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Over the Waterfall is also a great tune on hammer dulcimer.

The first time I ran into the dulcimer as an instrument was on Aerosmith's Pump. I thought "Dulcimer Stomp" was the name of the tune, and it was a guitar thingy. Little did I know.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:15 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

A national hammer dulcimer champion used small crescent-shaped bows in competition to sound the strings. I'm pretty sure he is Jamie Janover, and he won the title in 2002.
posted by key_of_z at 8:15 PM on December 30, 2014

Though the folk purists love Jean Ritchie, the real dulcimer deal for me is Robert Force (here playing Wellyn). He co-wrote the book that got people playing the dulcimer again (In Search of the Wild Dulcimer, available for free download from his site).

Lap dulcimers have bloody awful ergonomics (awkward tuning setup, weird cramped strum). This is fixed in more recent revisions, such as the Strumstick and the Seagull Merlin.

Fun dulcimer-related fact: Ricky Wilson, original guitarist for The B-52's, used to play an electric guitar strung with four strings. The treble strings were usually tuned in unison, and the overall tuning(s) similar to a mountain dulcimer. So yeah: Rock Lobster? Basically played on a dulcimer.
posted by scruss at 8:53 PM on December 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Can't watch. Heart will break.
posted by clarknova at 9:15 PM on December 30, 2014

There was a dulcimer shop in the little craft boutique in the Village of Stone Mountain when we lived there in the late '70s/early '80s, and Dad fell in love with the instrument. I rarely get it out anymore, but I learned to play it around age 10 and could probably get down "Wildwood Flower" if you gave me a minute to dink around with it. Although in looking for a video of someone actually playing, this guy blew my mind with his fingerpicking take on the song.

Thanks for posting this, winna.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:17 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here. Have a music ethnolocologist who's made Appalachian music his life's work.
posted by clarknova at 9:21 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The strumstick mentioned above by scruss is an instrument I have been playing for the past seven years or so, first in the diatonic versions, whose fretboards are set up like the traditional Appalachian mountain dulcimer, and then, in the past three or four years, in the chromatic version. Since the term *strumstick* at this point pretty much means the diatonic fretboard instrument, I have started calling the chromatic one that I play a "three-string guitar", which is, well, basically what it is.

Before I stopped posting my music to the Metafilter Music subsite, I tagged many of my tunes there with strumstick, so if anyone would like to check any of that stuff out, please do.

I would recommend the instrument, in either the diatonic or chromatic versions, to anyone who wants to get into playing a string instrument but is perhaps a bit intimidated by the six string guitar. It is also extremely light and portable, which is a plus.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:02 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Um, actually, this link works better for strumstick entries at Metafilter Music.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:09 PM on December 30, 2014

Joni Mitchell is a fan of the dulcimer as well...
posted by jim in austin at 10:50 PM on December 30, 2014

Indeed, jim in austin, Joni made use of various tunings to get brilliant musical results from the instrument. Some of those songs she wrote on dulcimer remain some of my top favorite songs of hers.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:04 PM on December 30, 2014

I've been playing a strum stick a style instrument that my daughter and I built about 10 years ago. Playing it quite a bit lately, actually. And as I started looking up similar ideas on the internet, I think I'm coming to the conclusion that it's really no longer a Appalachian dulcimer type instrument anymore. It's really evolved into a guitar-first/dulcimer hybrid, mostly because of the way it's approached-by people who are guitar players first. And think of it as more of a cigar box guitar/diddley bow. Even if the hybrid instrument idea goes back at least to instrument maker Homer Ledford's dulcitar in the 70s. It's popularity seems to have really taken off in the last few year . Even Lasido/Seagull has introduced a well made, inexpensive dulcitar/strumstick type instrument that I think will make it even more accessible to guitar players all over.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:55 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Eastern TN, Kingsport, and from grades 1-8 they would always trot out a hammer dulcimer player at some point in the school year. Until I moved to Middle TN I didn't realize that they weren't totally common instruments that people played all the time.
posted by josher71 at 2:32 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chris Colvin is a DC-area performer who does great things with the Appalachian dulcimer (and other instruments). I couldn't find any video, but there are a couple of tracks on
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:42 AM on December 31, 2014

I actually built a dulcimer years ago (from a kit) and it was a really enjoyable project. Sounds great too. Everyone should try it.
posted by sidereal at 8:44 AM on December 31, 2014

Hammer dulcimers are pretty cool, unless you are the guy trying to tune one: a gazillion strings and three floating bridges. Then the banjo player tells you that your tuner was somehow set to 443.

Mountain dulcimers, though, have a most delicate, sweet tone. Under the right hands it can make you weep.

Also: Stephen Seifert... wow.
posted by mule98J at 10:33 AM on December 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Great find. Thanks, winna.
posted by homunculus at 5:56 PM on January 3, 2015

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