The Hammered Dulcimer

This page contains a brief history of the hammered dulcimer.
From here, you may use the Dulcimer WebRing to travel to other sites related to Hammered and Mountain Dulcimers.

This site is a member of WebRing. To browse visit here.

or the Folk Music and Bluegrass WebRings page of my site.

If You have arrived here via the Web Ring, or a search for "hammered dulcimer history"
you are at the homesite of Brian the Folksinger.
You can either go to the main index page

to check out the whole story of my life, my music, my dulcimers, and my travels and adventures as a folksinger who 30 years ago took up the hammered dulcimer to replace the guitar and piano as my main accompaniment instrument, taking it in totally new directions from the traditional styles.

Or you may follow the links below to specifically reach the hammered dulcimer related pages of my site, including building hammered dulcimers, my personal story as a hammered dulcimer builder and creating unique 5.5 octave acoustic dulcimers, and finally, designing and building the first 5 octave solid-body electric hammered dulcimers.


The Hammered Dulcimer is essentially the oldest known stringed instrument, actually prehistoric.

This is my personal conception of the prehistoric origins of the dulcimer, and I make no attempt to defend its validity with any evidence except my own imagination and sense of the obvious.
It was one of the few neolithic instruments, a product of the first great tool, string. Even just to bind the first rock to a wood or bone handle, or spearhead to shaft, strong chord was essential. As neolithic people developed longer and stronger cords, they had fishline and could make nets, better clothes, more tools, and then bow and arrows. Even a relatively short cord can be tied around a piece of wood or bone, with another chunk of bone, wood or stone for a "bridge", both to hold the string up so it could be struck or plucked, and to control the note since moving the "bridge" changed the length of the string and thus the note. This would have not been difficult, and in easily discovered accidentally when tying up lots of things with chord. Neolithic peoples were most likely using percussion and voice for a long time, drumming and chanting, singing and exploring harmonies between voices. It would have been much easier to make a steady and full tone from the string by striking it with a stick than by plucking, especially if drumming was more familiar to you than plucking, and if you wanted to do it for a while. They discovered that strings could sing. Then that they could drum it. The first dulcimers would have been single stringed, moving the one bridge to change the note. A group of people tapping in time, each with a stick on a tuned string, could create harmonies, like chanting and drumming mixed. Individuals moving their single bridge to find a note that fit in the chord. It is an instrument that could be made in a moment and then all the parts save the chord left where they found them and a new one built at the next resting place. It would have been beautiful and a pleasant way to pass time, then as it is now, playing or listening while you worked. I doubt that our deep appreciation and affinity for music is a recent development. finally someone, perhaps particularly interested in music and alone at the time, had the idea to place several strings on one piece of wood, so they could play sevral mnotes, whole chords, by themselves. Perhaps it arose from the simple practical reality of cutting the gut of an animal into many long strips, which were then stretched to dry, with a chunk of something to hold them aloft so they did not stick and dried round, not flat.

We will never know for certain where it originated. I won't try to guess "where" it came from, though it seems pretty obvious how it evolved, possibly in many places, a inevitable result of our natural musical ability, and the invention of string (tell me where that was invented!). By the time history began, the hammered dulcimer had already developed into a very complex instrument, a very complex tool, for the time. It is mentioned in the oldest histories of the oldest civilizations, like India, Persia (modern Iran) and Iraq, whose history we have but glimpses of. It is found from China to Ireland, from the Arctic to Africa, and has many names in many languages: santur, santoor, sandouri, qanoon, gusli, yang chin, kim, yanggum, hackbrett, kim, kocle, cimbal, tsymbaly, and more (these are even only approximate phonetic english spelling). It is hammered and plucked. There are three basic variations in shape and layout, though the underlying principles are exactly the same, and it remains remarkably unchanged world-wide. All we know for sure is that it is one of the most ancient instruments, and is a traditional instrument across much of the world. It was one of the only instruments for much of our history, and continued so when more modern instruments were made by a few master craftsmen and beyond the reach of most people.

By historic times, the dulcimer had grown to ten to twenty courses (10 to 20 notes), single or dual bridges (20 to 40 notes), often several strings for each course, two to four (40 to 160 notes) or more, built upon a resonating box. The dulcimer inspired the invention of the harp in Greek times, much later evolved into the modern piano in the 1600's, with a hammer for every string and a key for every hammer. That's why the Piano is still considered a percussion instrument. The bridge and string construction of the dulcimer is still used in even necked string instruments, such as violins and guitars. Its reflection of the natural order within music is so specific and direct, that when I was asked to tune a traditional one from China, and used the Chinese instructions for tuning it, I discovered it was tuned almost exactly the same as mine, the version used in the American Appalachian Mountains.

It is a simple reflection of the fact that music is still based upon harmonics, which are universal properties of physics, and so music truly is our universal language. The dulcimer, in its perfect simplicity merely reflects that. It is actually likely that the dulcimer is the foundation and inspiration our understanding of music, and mathematics, science, physics, and philosophy, as much as the sun and other celestial objects. Much of our understanding of music is derived from the dulcimer, as its natural structure and tuning (D to A, A to E (above D), E to B (above A) etc) reveals the essential natural pattern of harmonics, a "fabric of fifths", where every note, sharps and flats, can be derived from this progression of fifths. It is no coincidence that it influenced the earliest scientific philosophy, when mathematics was a mystical and spiritual discipline. I won't get distracted by philosophy, mysticism, or science just now, though, but for those interested, I'm adding another section on that concept: The Hammered Dulcimer, the instrument behind "The Music of the Spheres".

The Hammered Dulcimer remained the common instrument throughout much of the world, including America, till very recently. Primarily because it was easy to build out of common materials with basic tools and no exceptional skill, and that's what most people had to do if they wanted something. Compared to a guitar or violin, it is more like furniture, and even more important, it could be made to approximate dimensions, then tuned perfectly by ear by adjusting the location of the bridges and end-rails the strings actually rested on. You didn't need to be a fine woodworker to build one, you only had to have the musical ability to be able to tune it. The old "fiddle tunes" are actually hammered dulcimer tunes that were adapted to the fiddle when it became available. The fact was, when the violin was invented, they weren't giving them away to poor people. It is easy to see when you play them how the old traditional "fiddle" tunes evolved out of patterns that are natural on the dulcimer, not the fiddle. Modern fiddle tunes are often just the opposite. What is even more interesting is that the same is true world-wide, where the truly traditional tunes reveal themselves in their relationship to the natural patterns of playing the dulcimer. With the spread and finally mass production of violins, guitars, and other stringed instruments, people moved to those quite practical instruments which were much easier to tune and to carry. Though in many places, the dulcimer remained the primary instrument till quite recently. The guitar only entered the mainstream of American music in the late 1800's, and was actually considered a spanish or more actually, a Mexican instrument, while American Bars still had someone playing piano. Yet some folks were and are still crazy enough to play the dulcimer. As people in America turned to other instruments, dulcimers became rarer and associated with the traditional instrumental music, celtic and appalachian, which it excelled at, since it's styles originated in the instrument. The dulcimer experienced a resurgence in the 1970's (where I came on board) along with the renewed poplarity and commercial attention to traditional music and instruments, yet it also suffered from that very association, as it became boxed into the status quo, as an instrument for traditional fiddle tunes and nothing else. Or perhaps it was the simple fact that those who experienced the instrument and decided to play it did so in the settting of traditional music, and that is hwat drew them to it, and the music they wished to play.

Though I play the hammered dulcimer, I'm not a hammered dulcimer player. I'm really a singer who took up the dulcimer in place of guitar and piano. I play everything, from the oldest ballads to Pink Floyd and The Dead. I was a singer who played piano and guitar, but also congas and marimbas, and my style was one that contained a rhythmic complexity and interplay between accompaniment and vocals. Though I started with classical piano and chorus, I decided young that singing was what I wanted to do, not play an instruent. So I was never an instrumentalist, but always played "rhythm style" on any instrument I played, if I played at all. I was lucky to be exposed to the hammered dulcimer when I was 13, over thirty years ago, when I was already a performing vocalist in my own right. I thought the dulcimer had such a beautiful sound and potential that there had to be a way to use it. Though I learned and played piano and guitar first, the idea stayed with me, and eventually I built my own. I saw it as a percussion instrument, a piano I could play like a drum, or a tuned drum with 64 to 100 or more drumheads (all needing to be tuned constantly but who's counting!). It is also resonating instrument, where the undamped strings keep ringing and resonating sympathetically with each new strike, creating a true "wall of sound". I soon modified the instrument for rhythm and vocals, adding more bridges and more and different strings to increase the range from the two and a half octaves of the standard modern dulcimer, to four and a half octaves, to over 5.5 octaves finally. The first thing I realized was I needed the wider and especially the lower ranges that compliment the human voice. That almost 25 years ago, now. Since then I've build alot of dulcimers, though I'm not a dulcimer builder, I just build my own and maybe did a few more at the same time. Each dulcimer seems to have gotten bigger as I tried to achieve the range I needed to accompany vocals and modern music rather than play instrumental music as is traditional. Eventually I designed and built the first solid-body electric hammered dulcimers and and presently perform only using them, that's a whole story in itself, the 21st century E-dulcimers. My present model has over a hundred strings and covers over 5.5 octaves in all keys. Though with the invention of the electric dulcimer I have decided that I will have to be a dulcimer builder, now, to produce and possibly spread this unique instrument I have created. I have also been experimenting with midi-dulcimers. In my dreams I play a dulcimer that never needs to be tuned!