While many stringed instruments can trace their origins to ancient Greece or Rome, the Hammered Dulcimer is thought to originate in the Middle East and/or Medieval Europe between 1300 and 1400 AD. This time frame coincides with advancements in metal wire making that created wire that could take greater tension and harder use. The Hammered Dulcimer was most likely developed from simpler stringed instruments that were strummed or plucked, just as the piano was developed from the Hammered Dulcimer. The Hammered Dulcimer remained popular even after the invention of the piano because of its portability. You couldn't transport a piano to lumber camps in the 1800's, but you could carry your Hammered Dulcimer, also known as the Lumberjack Piano, for entertainment. (Please check our inventory page for models in stock.)
All the information on this page and more can be downloaded in booklet form.
Do: keep covered with a towel when not using to prevent dust buildup (use a dry pipe cleaner to dust in small places like between pins and under bridges)
Don't: spray pledge/endust/etc. on your soundboard or the pin blocks (any wax/lubricant will cause the tuning pins to slip, your tuning will not hold!)
Do: tune on a regular basis (it should only take minor adjusting, depending on temperature and humidity)
Don't: over loosen or over tighten strings (this will cause weak areas in the strings and may lead to string breakage)
Do: keep your strings clean (just wipe with a dry cloth)
Don't: allow buildup of dirt/oils on your strings or spray strings with pledge/endust (this will lessen the ability of the strings to vibrate, and lessen the sound quality and volume)
Do: allow your dulcimer to adjust to temperature and humidity changes before playing and tuning and when moving it
Don't: keep your dulcimer in direct sunlight and temperature extremes when playing (temperature and humidity changes cause the wood to expand or contract which will change your tuning)
Strings do not need to be changed on a Hammered Dulcimer unless they break. (I can be contacted for replacement strings and instructions if this occurs.)
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How to Tune
For best results you should have a chromatic electronic tuner.
Tune sets of strings at the same time (meaning both strings that are at the same location on the dulcimer). First tune one (I usually start with the upper string), then the other. Compare them with each other. When the strings are struck with a hammer there should be one clear tone. If there is a buzzing noise, then one string is tuned slightly higher or lower than the other. If you pluck one string, wait 2 seconds, then pluck the other string it should sound the same. If they are out of tune with each other you will be able to hear louder and softer variations in the tone. This is where the sound waves are out of synch with each other. Don't be discouraged if you can't hear this, it takes a while to train your ear. One way to train your ear to recognize this variation in tone volume is to pluck one string, then the other, and then tighten or loosen the second string (with your tuning wrench) while both are still vibrating. You will hear the variations in tone and volume changing as you turn your tuning wrench.
Do not tune the strings from top to bottom (or bottom to top). You should tune the sets of strings randomly on the dulcimer, or in a pattern that jumps around. The reason for this is: tuning straight up or down will "squeeze" the dulcimer. This will cause uneven pressure on the wood, and the strings are already exerting several hundred pounds of pressure.
Two common patterns are:
Tuning all A's, then B's, then C's etc. until all are done.
Begin your tuning at the upper "dot" on the treble bridge, then the next lower "dot" etc. and moving over to the upper "dot" on the bass bridge and working your way down. Next you would go back to the treble bridge and tune the strings one course below the "dot" etc. until all those are done, then tune all strings one course above the "dot." (I prefer this pattern.)
When tuning the strings on the treble bridge you need to tune both "sides" at the same time. The strings do slide slightly over the bridge. The treble bridge has been carefully placed so that all strings are able to be tuned properly at the same time. Sometimes one "side" will be in tune, and the other "side" too high or too low. One reason for this happening is that over time the strings can cut small groves in the delrin rod. The string can then sometimes stick in that grove. Place your fingers under the course of strings and pull up equally on both sides until the string just comes off the delrin rod. This allows the tension to spread equally through the string. Minor corrections may still be needed after this. To make these minor corrections you can push down with your thumb or finger on the "side" of the string that is currently "higher" than the other side. For example: the bottom course of strings has D# on the left and G# on the right. The G# is in tune, but the D# is too low. In that case you would press down on the G# which would raise the D# slightly and lower the G# slightly. You would then re-tune the G# to the correct pitch, and the D# should also then also be at the correct pitch. It may take several tries to even out the tuning on a set of strings, but tuning regularly should minimize the need to push on the strings. All dulcimers are unique, hand-crafted works of art, and will each have their own distinctive characteristics when it comes to tuning.
Floating Soundboard Hammered Dulcimer
A "floating soundboard" is one that is not permanently attached to the rest of the Hammered Dulcimer. The soundboard is bent over two steel rods, and held in place by the bridges and the strings. This allows more of the soundboard to vibrate in comparison to a traditional "fixed soundboard" Hammered Dulcimer. This creates an instrument with a longer sustain and more volume. Since sound waves travel with the grain of the wood changing the shape of the instrument will change the sustain. So, instruments can be made with longer or shorter sustain by changing the shape.
How Sound Travels through a Hammered Dulcimer
When a set of strings is struck with a hammer this, of course, causes the strings to vibrate. This vibration is carried down the bridge (the wooden support underneath the strings) to the soundboard. The soundboard, being made of a more flexible wood, will vibrate easily. The vibration of the soundboard causes the air inside the dulcimer to vibrate, and this in turn causes the back of the instrument to vibrate. The more vibration that occurs, the louder the instrument; and the longer the vibration continues, the longer you will hear each note (that is called the instruments' sustain). An instrument with short sustain will have a crisp tone, and fast music sounds very clear. Having a short sustain can also be an opportunity to creatively fill in longer "pauses" in slower music. An instrument with a longer sustain works very well when playing slower pieces, you can simply let the sustain fill in any "pauses" in the music. You also have the chance to add in other notes and let them build on one another (similar to playing a chord on the piano). Faster songs can also sound great on a dulcimer with a longer sustain. You can have a problem of the music sounding "muddy" when you have too many different notes sounding at the same time, but simply damping the strings with your hands can eliminate that.
With a little editing of the music any difficulty can be solved. You can remove some of the notes while still playing the melody, making the piece easier to play. You can pause between verses or phrases to give the sound time to fade. You can add harmony or supporting notes between verses or phrases. You can play the melody line with simple, or more complicated harmony to back it up. It all depends on the sound you want to create. All of these techniques do take time to develop, and playing a piece of music several different ways will let you decide how you like it the best.
Hammered Dulcimer Note Guides
We have been asked about selling the transparent note guides for hammered dulcimer that are included on each instrument we make. We do not make them for other hammered dulcimers because each manufacturer has a different bridge, and our note guides would not necessarily fit any other instrument. So, here are directions for those who are interested.
How to make your own hammered dulcimer note guides on a computer using a Lotus or Excel spreadsheet:
If you would like a copy of the Excel file that was used to make this note guide you may download it here.
- Type in the note letters (whatever font and size you choose), going down the spreadsheet. Include Treble and Bass labels at the top. Your note guides should be about two pages long. If your hammered dulcimer has a very long bridge it may take three sheets.
- Put an outline around each guide, this will aid in cutting it out. Don't forget an extra blank section for the right side of the bass bridge to hold the note guide on.
- Print out note guides, cut out and tape together. See how they fit your instrument. (At this point you will want to type whatever letter is at the bottom of the first page on the top of the second page. This is your guide for lining up the spacing on your note guides between pages.)
- Make adjustments to your spreadsheet until the note guides do fit your instrument. (letters further apart, closer together, etc.) You will have to cut out and tape together each one to be sure of fit. Use the identical letters at the bottom of the first page and top of the second page to line up the spacing correctly.
- Once your note guides fit your instrument you are ready to print it onto transparency sheets. Make sure the type of transparency sheets you buy will work in your printer. You can also take your paper copy (before cutting out) to a copy shop and have them copy it onto transparency sheets for you.
- Glue your note guides together before you cut them out, this will help keep them straight. Place a small drop of superglue above and below the top letter on the second page, line up the identical letters (bottom of first page and top of second page) and outlines, place identical letters together. You can shift the two portions of the note guides for several seconds before the glue starts to set. Cut out your note guides just inside the outlines after the glue has completely dried. You do not want to place the superglue directly on the identical letter, as this will smear it.
Here is an example of a note guide before assembly.
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