Dulcimer Guitar! Your Sure-Fire Means to Cool.
If you’re deep into music of all genres, perhaps you’ve once stumbled across Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” in which she plays an Appalachian mountain dulcimer. At first blush you might mistake it for a guitar in an odd tuning, or maybe a mandolin of some type. It’s a unique sound, but an obscure instrument. Until now. And if you’re about to look it up, you may judge it as a “lesser” instrument, so wait… give me a minute here.
Here’s the thing, I know when you head out to a jam session or a recording studio gig -- assuming you’re into that kind of thing -- or even when you’re just sitting around the campfire, you want to sound good. You want to sound good, but you want to be different. Differentiate yourself while still leading the moment. Here’s a nifty way to get there.
The Dulcimer Guitar’s Older Sibling
First, let’s orient you to this baby brother of the mountain dulcimer, which organically developed during and through the early 19th century in the Appalachian Mountains (for those of you outside the US, those are the ones nestled between Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virgina. Eastern Coast-ish). They are also commonly known as lap dulcimers due to being played on a flat surface such as a table or lap. Appalachian dulcimers are generally hourglass or teardrop in shape, with a relatively long scale length that allows for around 2 full octaves of frets. Where acoustic guitars generally feature singular soundholes centered in the middle of the top, most lap dulcimers utilize longer lines or f-style soundholes ("f-holes").
Two of the defining characteristics of any dulcimer are the fretting and stringing setups. First, dulcimers are diatonic instruments - meaning their frets are spaced to be in only one key. By contrast, guitars, ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, etc, are chromatically fretted, meaning every fret is a note in the full 12-tone western scale. Second, they are strung to be in a root, fifth, octave configuration (scale tones: 1, 5, 8), giving them a naturally open and pleasing sound. Dulcimers are some of the most easy to play acoustic instruments on planet Earth. Nope, not overstating that. (BTW, if you are already playing mountain dulcimers, and want a top-notch teacher, our buddy Stephen Seifert has mountain dulcimer lessons you should check out. PSA over. ;-)
Dulcimer Building Materials & Construction
The Appalachian dulcimer later evolved into many different new types of dulcimer, due to the ease of building and commonly found materials. Early “dulcimores” and mountain dulcimers were made from scrap woods as well as fine woods. Really anything that could hold strings and make a note ring out was fair game to build a musical instrument.
As time has passed mountain dulcimers have developed into very sophisticated instruments made across the country in small shops by a few of those sticking to hand building, as well as those pioneering beautiful and unique designs with the assistance of CNC machines.
Enter the dulcimer guitar, an instrument which borrows the diatonic scale fret spacing and stringing of a mountain dulcimer, but flips everything around into a handheld instrument, in the manner of - you guessed it - a guitar. Inspired by the dulcimer, early dulcimer guitars were constructed in a “stick” like manner using materials such as poplar, maple, cherry, and walnut, which are all very accessible throughout the USA. The Godin guitar company in Canada makes the Seagull Merlin dulcimer with a Canadian rock maple body and spruce top, with an optional mahogany top. Modern builders like the Woodrow company in Asheville, Apple Creek, and Inglewood Instruments in Nashville, have introduced more exotic woods like purpleheart, bubinga, ebony, and zebra wood. And while most builders have stuck with traditional wood materials to use in bridge construction, Godin has introduced the Tusq (Graphtech) bridge / bridge saddle, which is made from composite materials.
As yet, there are no dulcimer guitars that feature a traditional fretboard in the style of an acoustic guitar (though there is rumor that Inglewood Instruments will be releasing a river dulcimer with that construction in 2021... maybe a baritone version). Most builders have opted to slot the frets straight into the neck rather than utilize a separate piece of wood. This style of building keeps the production and luthier work to a minimum by simply bypassing the typical fingerboard construction.
Strumstick and pickin' stick dulcimers use mandolin style tuners, which are all one unit, and grouped on one side of the instrument, while the Seagull M4 and Woodrow instruments have elected for the symmetrical two tuners per side. This is because both companies have taken the construction route of a 4-string setup, rather than three, where the 4th string is a doubled high string. Different brands and models may utilize mandolin strings or guitar strings.
Why’s It a Nice Addition to the Jam?
While still a very unknown instrument, as it has evolved and spread, it’s been introduced into a wide variety of different types of music around the world, including folk, blues, Americana, and folk music. Because of the dulcimer guitar’s versatility, and completely unique and good sound, it adds a certain “flavor” to so many types of music.
Its rich and full sound, due to the stringing configuration, and may often be used to play melodies, harmonies, chords, or rhythms. Because of the versatility, the dulcimer guitar can be easily added to any jam. While it works great with an acoustic guitar, we've found it blends even better as the solo acoustic instrument on an electric guitar driven track, or when it's counterbalanced by the resonance of a cello.
As with the mountain dulcimer, pretty much all dulcimer guitars have at least three strings, but some have four, with the fourth being a doubled high string (melody string). The doubling increases volume and adds a certain tonal quality that’s referred to as “chorusing.” This effect is what you will most commonly mistake for the mandolin or 12-string guitar. What you end up with is something that sounds like a “guitar mandolin.” The number of strings is just one of many ways you can change up the style and sound of your jam additions.
What If I Can’t Learn It?
You can. It’s incredibly easy. There are plenty of YouTube videos and channels that can walk you through the basics, even if you’ve never played an instrument before. But if you have familiarity with stringed instruments all you’ll need to do is pick it up and start strumming. Run your index finger up the neck on the melody strings and you’ll quickly find interesting directions to explore. Give yourself an hour and you’ll have a variety of chords learned and ready to go. So, no matter what your musical ability, the dulcimer guitar is an easy - and fun - learn. If you need a little running start, we have a great Dulcimer Guitar Chord Guide.
Ok, What’s One Drawback of a Dulcimer Guitar?
Good question. The clearest one is that they’re generally tuned to just one key. They can be tuned up or down by a few half steps, but string tensions will prevent you from doing too much variance. Many serious dulcimer guitar players will typically own at least two: one tuned to D-A-D and the other tuned to G-D-G, as those are the farthest points from one another on a western scale. Between the two tunings you would be able to tune up or down to most keys.
But as a point of note, however, this minor hindrance can also provide opportunities to practice your other musical skills, such as changing keys (transposing), playing by ear, and improvisation. Learning to play melodies, for instance, in a more natural and vocally phrased manner can be an excellent opportunity to expand musicality. Try to learn the melody on the higher string, then transfer it to the bass string, or double it in octaves at the same time.
The other primary drawback is the lack of music made exclusively for the dulcimer guitar. For a trained musician this would be less of a concern as any existing music can be transferred over (a melody is a melody, and a chord is a chord, after all!), but for those still getting into playing music this can present a challenge. One that is easily overcome by a little practice and plumbing the depths of YouTube, and websites that feature mountain dulcimer TABs or even dulcimer guitar music. Really any string instrument music should be a fairly easy transition, especially if using just chord symbols or melody lines.
So, really, what’s holding you back? Want to be the first in your recording session or jam group to turn some heads? Go on, check out a dulcimer guitar. You’ll thank us.
To put images with words, here’s a lovely video walking through the differences of a dulcimer guitar and a regular guitar. Note the mention of a chromatic stick dulcimer guitar, as well.
Sometimes video tells the story better... so here's one that was filmed at Forty-One Fifteen, an East Nashville recording studio, by the live music video company Music City Content Kings and Ford Photography. Those guys were a huge to help to us in making this, as well as a string of dulcimer guitar lesson videos. Hopefully you find them as helpful as we intended them to be!