Q. How hard is it to play a hammered dulcimer?
A. It is quite simple to learn to play simply, and it sounds so beautiful that even a single-note melody is lovely. As you become more familiar with the instrument, you can start adding some harmonies and fills. However, there are techniques that are quite difficult if you want to make your style more complex.
Q. How much should I spend on a dulcimer?
A. Hammered dulcimers start at around $250 and go up into the thousands of dollars. Most people in the know recommend that you buy the best dulcimer your budget will allow. Don’t forget to budget in other necessities, such as a case, a stand, an electronic tuner, and a good pair of hammers.
Q. How do I choose the right hammered dulcimer?
A. If at all possible, go to a dulcimer festival and listen to and play on as many dulcimers as possible. You may be surprised at the differences in the sound of the instruments, to say nothing of the variety of sizes, options, weights, and woods available. Talk to hammered dulcimer owners – they’ll tell you why they chose the particular hammered dulcimer model they did.
Q. I’m petite. Do I have to have a small hammered dulcimer?
A. Not at all. In fact, some of the dulcimers that have a smaller footprint actually have more notes than some hammered dulcimers that are larger. This is because of string spacing and/or design of the instrument. There are also larger dulcimers that are lighter weight. All hammered dulcimer cases come with shoulder straps, and there are all kinds of innovative ways to transport a hammered dulcimer.
Q. How do I choose the right pair of dulcimer hammers?
A. This is such a personal choice that only by trying several pairs will you know what you like. A pair will be included with your hammered dulcimer, and most are ok for starters. Once again, a dulcimer festival is the best place to try out different hammers.
Q. I’m left-handed. Is there such a thing as a left-handed hammered dulcimer?
A. Left-handers actually have an advantage over right-handers, because much of the melody is played with the left hand. Many right-handed people choose to play with a left-hand lead to capitalize on the layout of the hammered dulcimer. Because of the way the hammered dulcimer is designed, the same tune – and the same exact notes – can be played more than one way, which makes it the ideal instrument for either right- or left-handed people.
Q. Should I begin with a lap dulcimer before trying a hammered dulcimer?
A. Even though they have the same last name, those two instruments are as different as a folk harp and a mouth harp. Knowing how to play one won’t translate into knowing how to play the other. They are both beautiful instruments – start with the one to which you feel the most drawn. You may decide to learn the other one later. Or not.
Q. How often does a hammered dulcimer need to be tuned?
A. It will depend on the weather, the humidity, and the instrument itself. Sometimes when you are practicing alone you may not need to tune it for many days. That being said, however, you will develop a much better ear if you tune frequently. It will also become quicker and easier to tune the more often you tune it. However, if you have only 15 minutes available, my recommendation is to spend those minutes playing, rather than tuning.
Q. I can’t read music. Can I still learn to play the dulcimer?
A. Oh yes! The dulcimer is a very visual instrument, and it’s actually more difficult to have to look up at music and then down at your hands to make sure they are where you want them to be. There are handy little shapes and patterns you will learn that make playing the hammered dulcimer fairly simple.
Q. I can’t play by ear. Can I still learn to play the dulcimer?
A. Oh yes! (Have I said that before?). When I teach, I typically do not give out the printed music until after the basic tune is learned because almost everyone can learn by ear.
Q. Is there hammered dulcimer music out there somewhere?
A. There are many books written just for hammered dulcimer. Piano music in certain keys can also be adapted. And with the simple software available, it isn’t difficult to transpose a tune in any key to a dulcimer-friendly key.
Q. All those strings – how often would I need to change them?
A. Very few people change the strings on their hammered dulcimers unless they break one. Some may change the wound strings, found on the lower part of some hammered dulcimers, once every year or two.
Q. Any other suggestions before I spend my hard-earned money?
A. Talk to as many dulcimer players as possible. Check out Dulcimer Players News, a wonderful quarterly for hammered and mountain dulcimer players. Rent a dulcimer if possible before buying. Then just go for it. I don’t know any dulcimer player who believes the perfect hammered dulcimer has been built yet, so find the one that is the best fit for you and come join the fun!
There’s more information on dulcimers at the Dulcimer Player’s News WEB site.