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About the Hammered Dulcimer, and Me


There have been many false sightings of hammered dulcimers, from Assyria circa 1000 BC to simply "lost in the mists of time". Looking at evidence of people actually playing them, though, the dulcimer was invented at the waning of the Middle Ages. It seems to have grown out of the discovery of a way to make inexpensive, strong metal strings, probably around 1300, somewhere in what's now the Netherlands or  Germany. For much of its history it has been a folk instrument. 

There are few early records of the instrument in the US. Likely, it was rarely heard in the 1700's. By the mid-19th century it had become almost popular in some regions, such as Michigan, Upstate New York, and West Virginia. By the early 20th century the American dulcimer had again become scarce, and only recently, since the traditional music revival of the 1970's, has it rocketed to relative obscurity. 

Sometime in the mid 19th century, in the Appalachians, the fretted folk zither related to the German sheitholt was christened "dulcimer", perhaps because of a reference in the King James Bible. When ballad hunters of the 1920's brought the Appalachian dulcimer down from the hills, the name stuck. Logically, the names should be "Appalachian dulcimer" and "dulcimer", but today most h.d. players resign themselves to saying "hammered dulcimer". 

The hammered dulcimer is different from many musical instruments, in that there have been substantial improvements in the traditional design over the past 40 years. It was once a heavy beast of 30 pounds or more, but with typically only 12 treble courses and sometimes only 9 bass courses. It was hard to tune, hard to keep in tune, hard to carry far, and likely not many people heard one that had all its strings at the right pitch. They were usually heavily strung, and were hit pretty hard by hammers that were also pretty hard. You could get music out of them, but it was a labor of love. 

The modern ones are working better. Modern glues and a better notion of how to get improved tone and stability have resulted in something that's much easier to use. Electronic tuners have also greatly eased the burden of keeping one at pitch. 

I began playing and building in 1977, and began building full-time in 1981.

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