A (Brief) History of Stick Dulcimers
Mountain or Appalachian Dulcimer
The stick dulcimer owes its existence to the mountain dulcimer, also known as the Appalachian dulcimer, lap dulcimer, plucked dulcimer, and Kentucky dulcimer. Local nicknames include delcumer, dulcymore, hog fiddle, mountain zither, harmonium, harmony box, and music box. The mountain dulcimer dates back to early 19thcentury in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia. Before showing up in North America, the mountain dulcimer found its origins in fretted lap zithers from Western Europe: Langeleik from Norway, Swedish Hummel, French Epinette, and German Scheitholtz, the forefather of modern dulcimer
The Scheitholtz was brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants. Soon, it came down south to Virginia, where it was placed on a larger sound box and simplified, stepping its way to the modern dulcimer. These Virgina dulcimers were teardrop shaped with two drone strings (that were constantly played) and two melody strings. They were easily-made instruments and seem to have been largely made by isolated, individual makers.
After the American Civil War (1861-1865), the mountain dulcimer traveled to Kentucky and West Virginia, eventually also landing in the Carolinas and Tennessee. The West Virginia dulcimer was hour-glass shaped with 3 strings. Different makers created different sound hold patterns.
Despite the fact that there was never an instrument like the dulcimer in the British Isles, the British, Scottish, and Irish settlers of the Appalachian Mountains claimed the dulcimer as their own and created a huge body of songs, including dance tunes, British balladry and hymnody, and play/party songs. These immigrants called the instrument a “dulcimore”, coming from Greek and Latin, meaning “sweet song”. Because of its gentle sound, the dulcimer was probably mostly played as an accompaniment to singing or instrumental solos, but it was also used in instrumental duets and string bands as a melody instrument or played as a rhythm instrument by the hitting of the pick against the strings.
Dulcimers were made from easily accessible woods, like poplar, cherry and walnut, and were usually painted. Frets were often made from the same wire used for staples and brooms. The dulcimer player laid the instrument horizontally across a table or lap, strumming the strings with a turkey feather or pic and fretting with a finger or “noter” made from a twig or rounded stick. Most of the strings acted as drones while the melody was played on the first string, making a sound like bagpipe music.
Stephen Seifert demonstrates a Tennessee "music box" played with a "noter."
Near the end of the 1800’s the dulcimer began to be noticed outside of the Appalachian Mountains, soon becoming a romanticized symbol of Appalachian culture. In the 1900’s scholars and folk music lovers further popularized the dulcimer within the United States. Since the folk revival 1950’s, the dulcimer has gained popularity beyond the Appalachian Mountains, played by professional and amateur musicians. Folk music singer and songwriter “Mother of Folk” Jean Ritchie brought the mountain dulcimer from small-town Appalachia to public prominence in the United States. Dulcimer music has now found its way into blues, gospel, and commercial hillbilly music.
The late 20th century has seen further refinement of the dulcimer into new instruments, like the cardboard dulcimer, the dulcerine (fretboard without a soundbox), an electric dulcimer, the dulcitar, the Strumstick, and the strumalong, all of which are known by the broader term “stick dulcimer.” In 1976, luthier and musician Homer Ledford (1927-2006) trademarked his creation, the “dulcitar”, combination guitar and dulcimer. Ledford was known for his prolific creation and playing of stringed instruments. A few of his instruments, including the dulcitar, are displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
In 1980, Bob McNally patented his “backpacker guitar” (which he sold to the Martin Guitar company), and in 1981, started tinkering with the backpacker guitar to make a new instrument called the stringed pennywhistle, accessible to non-musicians and smaller than the backpacker guitar. Like the dulcimer, the stringed pennywhistle combined diatonic fretting with strings tuned to a drone, being held like a guitar. In an effort to further simplify these instruments, McNally created the first Strumstick, a single-stringed instrument effective for playing melodies. He soon added strings for a 3-string Strumstick with a larger soundbox than the pennywhistle, allowing for melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and chords to be played.
And then in the late 90's The Woodrow company sprang up in Asheville, NC, making a more diminutive sized (1 octave) version, which is most characterized by its 4-string (doubled top string) construction. This construction and size design was picked up in the early 2010's by Canadian guitar company Godin Guitars, under their Seagull brand, called a Seagull Merlin. The M4 model comes in D-tuned and G-tuned models, and is the most mass-produced and widely available version of a stick dulcimer available today.
And the dulcimer family continues to expand, Ledford created the dulcijo (banjo and dulcimer) and McNally the dulcilele (ukelele and dulcimer). In fact, we at StickDulcimer.com have been slowly chipping away at a new version on the stick dulcimer guitar theme we hope to have available in late-2021. Because of its versatility and simplicity, the dulcimer will continue to inspire the imaginations of instrument players and makers, professional and amateur alike. Construction designs are now readily available in books and online, opening the way for more creativity and innovation in dulcimer-making. As the dulcimer marches on its path of history, it is sure to find new identities in the minds and hands of artists, woodworkers, and musicians.