Hammered Dulcimer: An American Tradition
A Little About Hammered Dulcimers
The hammered dulcimer in America is a traditional stringed instrument that been in revival over the last 30 years. It can now be heard in contemporary music, seen at folk festivals, and bought over the Internet. For those new to the instrument, it is typically trapezoidal in shape with many strings running over two long bridges, the treble bridge and the bass bridge. The instrument is mostly played with two small, wooden hammers that are used to strike the strings.
Someone once used the following poetic phrase to describe the magical sound of the hammered dulcimer:
"At once the flutter of Angel's wings and the crashing of symbols."
Indeed, the hammered dulcimer is a curious and ungainly combination of subtlety and brashness, of the outrageous and the sublime, of beautiful lines and an awkward shape. Yet, as a solo instrument, its emotive range is such that a hammered dulcimer can be played in celebration at a wedding and in sorrow at a funeral. It revels in the square dance and is somber in the dirge. Like its younger cousin, the piano, it can find a place in a choir-filled sanctuary, the modern recording studio, and the small, quiet parlor of a home. In short, as a musical instrument it is delightfully flexible and interestingly complex.
The dulcimer can also be played in a variety of ways: it can be gently plucked with the fingers, crudely dampened with duct tape, played with hammers that ring brightly or that soften the blow in bell-like tones.
A Little About Dulcimer Players
Dulcimer players themselves are sometimes an odd lot. As the world chases the newest fad in music, and pushes to the next extreme, dulcimer players sometimes look over their shoulders. They look for the value in a rich and deep tradition of a music that always tells a story - often with outrageous humor and a twinkle in the eye. In a sense, theirs is a path, in the words of folk musicians Aileen and Elkin Thomas, for those who can't walk straight, else why would they veer into a retro-culture of a century and more ago.
The dulcimer player is almost always a communal person because the dulcimer is such a communal instrument. And because the dulcimer is not usually amplified, it draws people unto itself, into a close circle of raucous and entertaining melody.
The dulcimer player celebrates that time in our American history, and in our world, when, from here at least, things looked simpler and happier and slower. While the dulcimer plays, things are even so.
The act of playing a dulcimer is a solid, experiential link to a time when people made their own, well, just about everything. The dulcimer enjoyed a good part of its history not as a factory instrument, but as an instrument crafted by the musician. The hands that played it made it.
Today, during its revival, the hammered dulcimer is still handcrafted around the country by a variety of luthiers; but it is also being manufactured by companies intent on making it lighter, smaller and more portable.
Hammered vs. Mountain
In America two instruments are called "dulcimer": the hammered dulcimer and the mountain dulcimer. They are two completely different instruments, but often found and played in the same circles. The hammered dulcimer, as previously stated, is trapezoidal with many strings, and is played with small, wooden "hammers." The mountain dulcimer is small, often hour-glass or tear-drop shaped, has four fretted strings, and is usually played on one's lap by strumming somewhat like a guitar.
The hammered dulcimer has a long tradition in American history. Here are some little-known but interesting facts about it.
Hammered Dulcimer Trivia
* The earliest record of a hammered dulcimer in America is from May 23, 1717 in Medford, Mass. where it was played in the home of the Rev. Aaron Porter, a graduate of Harvard College.
* Alexander Hamilton (not the statesman), playing the cello, accompanied the hammered dulcimer on November 21, 1752 at The Tuesday Club in Annapolis, MD.
* The first professional hammered dulcimer player (unnamed) mentioned in American history was promoted by one Richard Brickell in 1752 in New York.
* The word "dulcimer" was often spelled dulcimore, dulcemer, dolsemor.
* The oldest hammered dulcimer now existing in America may only date to 1800, and was probably made in Seneca, New York.
* Sometime in the 1830s or '40s, hammered dulcimer-maker Richard Vernon of Stokes County, North Carolina once shipped 75 dulcimers to New Orleans on a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Early American hammered dulcimers were often rectangular.
* The earliest recorded value of a hammered dulcimer (1844) may have only been $1.00! It was part of the estate of one William Moon, Madison County, Alabama.
* The tuning pins of early hammered dulcimers were hand-forged.
* The first instruction book for the hammered dulcimer was published in 1848 by C. Haight under the title Complete System for the Dulcimer.
* In the Great Lakes Region the hammered dulcimer was sometimes called the "lumberjack's piano"!
* Montgomery Ward, in his 1894-1895 catalog, sold hammered dulcimers. Sears and Roebuck followed in 1897 and sold them for $24.90!
* Early hammered dulcimer soundboards were often made of common woods like pine or hemlock. Today they are usually made of Redwood, Western Red Cedar, Mahogany, or Sitka Spruce.
* Common configurations for 19-century hammered dulcimers were 9/0, 10/7, 11/6, 11/7, 12/3, and 12/11. (The left number indicates the number of treble courses; the right number indicates the number of bass courses. A "course" is a set of one or more strings tuned to the same note on the musical scale.)
* 19th-century hammers typically had whalebone shafts.
* Among the earliest recording of any variety of American vernacular music is that of the hammered dulcimer! Performed by Roy Gibson at the Edison studio in 1910.
* A hammered dulcimer was part of Henry Ford's orchestra in 1925!
If you have any questions about this wonderful musical instrument, please feel free to contact me at my Web site: http://www.ardiesdulcimers.com
This article was posted on September 23, 2005