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New Hobby: Hammered Dulcimer!

For a long, long time, I’ve admired the sound of the hammered dulcimer.  I don’t even know for certain when I first heard the instrument or learned what it was, but I used to associate it with the Appalachian Mountains.  (More on that later…)  Maybe they were playing a CD in one of the souvenir shops we visited… Or maybe I just made that up. 😉 In any case, I liked the way it sounded, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one being played in person.  It’s not a particularly common instrument, around here— not like a guitar or marching band instrument or even something slightly more niche, like a banjo or Dobro.  

Fast-forward to now:  Donald very sweetly built me a hammered dulcimer as a surprise for Christmas 2022!  He used a plan from the same place where he bought the kit for the harp he built a few years back— a place called “MusicMakers“.   He also bought the dulcimer’s hardware from them, but he sourced his own wood for this project.  (With the harp, he ordered the kit, because he was less experienced at that point.)  

It’s a beautiful instrument, and he even customized the rosettes to feature the image of an American Eskimo Dog!  😂 It makes me laugh, thinking of some time in the future, long after we’ve all gone to our reward (as they say)… Maybe this hammered dulcimer will still be hanging around, and whoever owns it will wonder why there are dogs in the rosette designs.  It’s a fairly distinctive and unusual choice, I think.  Most of the ones you see are Celtic knots or crosses, botanical/organic patterns, or something of that type.  Here we have a love for the Eskie immortalized in a musical instrument (however “immortal” a piece of wood can be)!

Click here to visit Donald’s post about the hammered dulcimer, on his luthier blog!  (All the photos in this blog post are borrowed from that linked blog entry.)

He’s also made a couple sets of dulcimer hammers and an adjustable stand to go with it.  The original hammers he made are lovely to look at, but after researching a bit, it seems they’re a little on the heavy side of what some expert performers suggest.  (Apparently you can knock the strings out of tune with too-heavy hammers, and that’s something you want to avoid.  Tuning all those strings takes a while to do.)  So he quickly whipped up a lighter pair of hammers that I’m using, instead.  

We were originally playing it with the instrument just sitting on a table, but that wasn’t a comfortable height or angle.  The stand makes it much easier, and we noticed that it sounds louder and the note hangs in the air longer when we use the stand.  (Maybe a longer “sustain” isn’t always a good thing in this instrument… Some people use dampers to actively limit that— but I’m just a beginner playing on my own, so it’s not really an issue for us.)

This is getting long, but I was also going to mention that while I’d always associated the hammered dulcimer with the Appalachian region and Celtic music, maybe that’s not completely accurate!  

There are two types of dulcimers— the hammered dulcimer and the mountain dulcimer— and they really don’t seem to have that much in common, apart from the name and the fact that both have strings.  The mountain dulcimer apparently originated in the Appalachians.  (The clue’s in the name, I guess! 😅)  It is sometimes even called “the Appalachian dulcimer”!  It’s a smaller, fretted instrument that looks like a strangely shaped guitar or rustic version of a violin, but instead of hanging it around your neck by a strap or tucking it under your chin, I think you hold it in your lap.  It has fewer strings than a hammered dulcimer, and they’re usually plucked instead of “hammered”.  

The hammered dulcimer has been around much, much longer than the mountain dulcimer and has a more confusing history.  This instrument has existed in some form for so long that it’s impossible to trace definitively.  There’s a mention of a dulcimer in the Bible, but modern scholars say that was a translation error, possibly due in part to the popularity of the hammered dulcimer during the time that the King James Version of the Bible came to be.  

I’ve read that the instrument has its origins in the Near East, but there are a few different theories.  In any case, it’s now considered a traditional instrument in many parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  It has a fairly simple design (despite how complicated it looks, with all those strings).  As it traveled around over time, it was adapted into slightly different forms and tunings.  There are even at least two different ways of holding the “hammers”.  The mallets themselves vary by region/tradition, with some being rigid and others extremely thin and flexible.  

These days, you can find chromatic dulcimers, which have more notes than the traditional ones do, or no “missing” notes.  The dulcimer Donald made is a traditional diatonic version. Most notes are there, but not all.  Dulcimers also come in a variety of sizes.  Ours is a big ‘un— a 17/16.  The numbers refer to the number of strings on the instrument.  The more strings, the more notes are available (and the larger the dulcimer will be).  

Evidently, the hammered dulcimer experienced a revival in popularity in the U.S. toward the end of the 20th century, coinciding with the trendiness of Irish/Celtic music and culture. (Remember Riverdance and all of that?)  That is probably where I got the idea that the hammered dulcimer was somehow traditionally Celtic.  And it kind of is; It’s just that some version of it has been used in many, many places before and since.  I guess it’s not that easy to pin down to one specific place!  I’m interested in learning more.

As far as learning to play it goes, I’m starting from scratch, of course.  There are some helpful videos available for free on YouTube, as well as books for beginners.  So far, I’ve watched only a few free videos, really, and I’m mostly just playing it by ear— quite literally!  😂  

Though I try to play at least a little every day, I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Between all the other things that need to be done in a day, not to mention my other hobbies and interests, it can be hard to make time to learn something new.  But that’s okay.  It’s not something you should expect to master in a month or two, and as long as you’re having fun with it, that’s all that matters.  I don’t expect I’ll ever be singing for my supper, so this is strictly for my own entertainment!

Welcome!

I’m Michael (a female Michael, to remove any doubt).  I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast with my husband, Donald, and our crazy American Eskimo Dogs. 

I love to fill my spare time with various crafts and other hobbies, and this blog is where I share photos, record my progress, and ramble endlessly.

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