The Appalachian mountain dulcimer is one of the most beautiful and popular of the folk instruments, easy for children and beginner adult musicians to learn. Ron Gibson calls it “a true American folk instrument developed by the people of the Appalachian Mountains.” The word dulcimer comes from the Greek word dulce and the Latin word melos, which translates as “sweet song.” The instrument is essentially a fretted lap zither with a soundbox beneath, which the musician plays with or without a pick.
Appalachian Dulcimer, photo by Charles Prichard
Courtesy of the Metorpolitan Museum of Art, Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889
Since the dulcimer is associated with folk music from the British Isles, many people believe that immigrants to the Appalachian mountains brought the mountain dulcimer with them or made them when they arrived. According to an article at Gardner’s Dulcimer Shop, however, the ancestor of the mountain dulcimer is a German instrument called a Scheitholtz, which translates as “piece of wood.”
Because of its soft, resonant sound, the mountain dulcimer is particularly suited to be accompanied by voice, and it was popularized in modern music by Jean Ritchie during the folk music revival of the late 50s and early 60s . You can find a beautiful rendition of the traditional Appalachian folk song Shady Grove sung by Ritchie here.
Charles Maxson, a luthier from West Virginia, speculates that the Appalachian settlers made the dulcimer for entertainment rather than the violin, or fiddle, because it was more complex, and they did not have the proper tools or the time. Whatever the reason, the mountain dulcimer was usually crafted from one kind of wood easily found where the builder lived. Today, the body of the dulcimer is usually made from a hard wood like poplar, walnut, or cherry.
Along with the autoharp, the mountain dulcimer is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play. It is usually played on your lap or on a table with the tuning pegs to your left. The frets are placed on the dulcimer so that it can only play a major or minor scale depending on the tuning. If you compare the frets on the dulcimer to those on a guitar, you will find that the dulcimer has fewer frets. This makes it easier to play, but also makes more complex songs which use the chromatic scale impossible. The chromatic scale includes all the keys of the piano, both black and white. The string closest to the player is for producing the melody to the song, while the middle and bass strings are called drones. The steady, repeated tone of the drone strings played against the changing melody string is what gives the dulcimer such an evocative, folksy sound.
The Appalachian mountain dulcimer is likely the first instrument to be made in America by German immigrants to Pennsylvania, and later developed by the Scots-Irish in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. Thanks to folk song musicologists like John Jacob Niles and musicians like Jean Ritchie, the mountain dulcimer has truly become a symbol of Appalachian culture and history.