Criteria for Purchasing a Hammered Dulcimer
by Steve Eulberg & Linda Ratcliff
We are fortunate to live in the midst of a sustained dulcimer revival!
Today, not only are there kits available for you to build your own, there are a good number of quality builders who have refined the process and are able to make instruments that are reliably good from instrument to instrument and who stand behind their work.
In addition, there are also a good number craft or artisan builders who focus on building to order or one-of-a-kind instruments.
Finally, there is an active re-selling market from people who are trading up, trading down or simply desirous of others playing the instruments.
Here are the criteria I use and suggest to my students when they ask me what they should look for in purchasing a hammered dulcimer.
1. Beware of DSOs! (Dulcimer-Shaped-Objects)
At the beginning of the dulcimer revival in the late 1960s and 1970s many people began building instruments that were shaped like dulcimers but were ultimately unplayable. How can you be sure you DON’T have one of these?
a. The soundboard isn’t warped or cracked.
b. The tuning pins are not stuck and can actually change the pitches of the strings, so the instrument is tunable.
c. Even more importantly: The tuning pins can hold the strings in tune. If an instrument cannot stay in tune, or requires you to re-tune it every few minutes will be one you will not play.
If these criteria are met and you have some other issues, they are probably easy and inexpensive fixes. Sometimes you can find an old treasure, but remember that you might have to sift through several that are better used as wall art than as musical instruments to find these.
Our next piece of advice is to purchase as much dulcimer as you can afford. Consider more than price alone. You don’t want to get an instrument that you’ll grow out of too quickly.
The next criteria have to do with construction and design:
2. Floating or Fixed Soundboard?
The soundboard is the piece of wood upon which the bridges rest and which transfer the vibrations of the strings to the rest of the instrument. In the hammered dulcimer world there are two primary designs for this piece of the instrument.
A Floating Soundboard sits on top of the box which is the rest of the instrument and when the strings are removed, can be lifted off.
A Fixed Soundboard is glued to the body of the instrument and cannot be removed.
What is the difference? Some builders and players say the Floating Soundboard results in a shorter length of sustain when the notes are played which helps with clarity for faster tunes. I have played both kinds of don’t have an opinion on this design difference.
3. Solid wood or laminate top?
A solid wood soundboard (or top) will improve the tone of the instrument with age and playing. A laminate (plywood) top will have the same tone from the day it is built. There is cost savings when using a laminate for the soundboard.
There are many words to describe the tone or timbre of an instrument, but in many cases they are used imprecisely. The type of wood chosen for the sound board, coupled with the wood choice for sides and back and internal bracing will be instrumental (no pun intended) in determining the tone. I have heard people use these words to describe the tone of different instruments: bright, dark, warm, sweet, muddy, thick, clear, thin, tinny, rich.
In our opinion, this is the single most important criteria in choosing an instrument.
Hammered dulcimers are known for their sustain, or how long the notes ring after they are struck. This is in part due to the sympathetic vibration of all the other strings of the same pitch, but is compounded by the sympathetic vibrations of the overtones of each pitch.
The type of soundboard, the design (floating or fixed soundboard), the internal bracing, the choice of hammers and the choice of tune type all have an effect on the amount sustain you will prefer. In general, slow airs and hymns can sound wonderful on and instrument with more sustain, and faster fiddle tunes, jigs and reels will sound more wonderful with less sustain. Rick Thum has focused on building instruments for this criteria.
[Note: Some people add the option of dampers to their instrument to be able to have more control over sustain while playing.]
6. Number of notes/Strings per Course
7. String Spacing?
Another factor to consider is the spacing between the courses. Some builders build with a broader spacing (e.g. David Lindsey), some with a tighter spacing (e.g. James Jones). The tighter spacing usually requires hammers with smaller heads in order to be more accurate. The broader spacing can be more forigiving, but generally adds more size the the box of the instrument.
The weight of the instrument is a definite consideration, depending upon the size and stature of the player, whether or not this will be a “parlour” or stay-at-home instrument or one which travels to lessons and festivals and vacations. The larger the instrument (which gives you more notes to play) usually the heavier the instrument is. Some builders have been pioneering lighter and lighter instruments, (Masterworks is an example of a builder who is doing this) so shop around.
9. Tuning Scheme
In the United States we have encountered the following Tune Schemes: 5th Tuned, Octave Bass, Piano Dulcimer, and Chord-Based tunings.
5th-Tuned is by far the most common at this point in history across much of the USA. The relationship of the notes between and across the bridges is is the interval of a 5th.
Octave Bass is more common in Michigan. Bill Webster builds a lot of these instruments. The Treble bridge is 5th tuned but the Bass Bridge has notes an octave lower than those on the right side of the Treble Bridge.
The Piano Dulcimer is one of two chromatic tunings that is gaining a foothold. Sam Rizzetta designed this style (built by Dusty Strings.) The bridge caps match the white and black keys of a piano and the tuning is chromatic in a linear fashion.
The Linear Chromatic (designed and built by James Jones) seeks to achieve a similar purpose, but is designed like a 5th-Tuned instrument with the chromatic notes included between the expected diatonic ones.
Chord-Based Tunings are those used by our teachers Linda Thomas and Bill Robinson, where the Bass bridge is tuned to notes that help with playing certain chords.
These are several of the criteria to balance when choosing an instrument.
We suggest that you play as many instruments from different builders that you can. Festivals are an excellent chance to see the instruments from many builders. Talk with every hammered dulcimer player there. Ask them:
“What do you love and not love about your instrument?”
“Which instrument do you dream about and why?”
“Can I play yours please?”
In our experience, dulcimer players LOVE to talk about their instruments and allow other players to try them out.
In the end, you’ll need to save your shekels and purchase the instrument that can help you play the sweet music in your soul. If we can help, let us know!