The Hammered Dulcimer
Playing Basics


This isn't an entire set of dulcimer lessons, but more the basic steps to getting started, and the basic pronciples that you need to keep in mind whatever you do. The style I have develped is certainly different from traditional styles, but these basics apply no matter what style you apply them to. Like most instruments, it is easier to show you something than tell you. There are video dulcimer lessons available, and I plan to make one of my own for my particular style.
I taught myself, but it was not my first instrument. I tell people, the first instrument you learn is the hardest, because you are learning to play musi, and all about music, at the same time you are learning the instrument. Still, it is not hard to teach yourself if you take the time.For traditional styles you need a book of fiddle tunes, though I would suggest one for mandolin rather than fiddle so you don't encounter as many slides as a fiddle book might have.


The first step in playing the dulcimer is tuning. It is main drawback of the instrument and what probably accounts for how many people get dulcimers but end up not playing them. If you are going to seriously play the dulcimer, you have to learn to tune quickly and accurately without being irritated by the time and trouble it takes.

The most important point I want to make is that tuning is a learned skill, just like playing, and only practice will make you fast, accurate, and able to do the job without a lot of effort or focused concentration, just like playing. It doesn't start out easy. It takes practice to develop the ear, no matter what level of talent you have. It is unfortunate that many musicians, especially on instruments that don't require tuning, never really train their ear. It always compromises what they can do musically. No danger of that with the dulcimer!

Beyond the simple mechanical explaination of tuning included in the building instructions, I can offer a few suggestions:

Sometimes I have said that I do not know if I am tuning the dulcimer or tuning myself. Sometimes I can tune effortlessly and accurately, sometimes I can't tune no matter how hard I try, and I have learned that it is useless to keep trying when I can't. Perhaps it is because tuning is some higher faculty that is lost when I am too tired or troubled in mind, or distracted, or frustrated, and cannot focus. It is as if, as I said, I must tune myself first, then tuning the dulcimer is easy, when I can listen, and what is right is obvious. So accept that it will take time and practice to achieve the skill, and do not try to force it when it will not come naturally. Since am a pro, I carry an electric tuner in case I can't, butthe fact is, I am more accurate and faster than the electric tuner when I am able.

Another thing is to not get caught up in tuning single notes and strings, always keep tuning the dulcimer to itself, and don't worry if a single string or note doesn't seem to want to come in easy, move to the next. There are some many points of reference you can use. You can drift slightly with each note and end up untuning the dulcimer instead of tuning it. You can get lost in the harmonics. You think you are hearing the one string you are tuning but you are hearing the harmonics off all the other strings, and it is one of them that is not in tune, not the one you are tuning. Finally, since the dulcimer is the sum of its harmonics, if there are a few strings that aren't perfect, and sound out of tne played alone, yet the dulcimer will sound ok when the whole instrument is rolling, as the harmonics overwhelm any out of tune bits. In fact, it is almost a given that every note on the dulcimer cannot be in tune at one point in time, but it doesn't seem to matter. In fact, there have been many times when I thought the dulcimer was so out of tune I couldn't stand it, yet people still thought it sounded great when I was playing. Dulcimers were also built with many strings per note because part of its unique sound was the harmonic "shimmer" caused by the strings being slightly out of tune with each other.

I often tune in "levels". Since all the strings interact with each other, it is difficult to tune any string if the whole instrument is not in tune. So I start with an initial general tuning if it is totally out. Then I go to a fine tuning level, which brings it to real playability. Then I can tune again, this using and tuning tothe harmonics.. either by "tuning to the harmonic ring, as I describe above, or tuning again using harmonics to tune with. The harmonic nodes you use on the dulcimer are either near the bridge or about where the string cross each other between the bridges. You can use the harmonics to tune the fifths/fourths relationship.

Finally, if you are going to play, you are going to have to tune basically constantly. When I would be in playing mode, I would get up and be tuning the dulcimer in the morning as I drank coffee, like some strange symbiosis, where tuning the dulcimer is part of waking up. All day, whenever I stop, I'll be casually even unconciously tuning the dulcimer. When I am actively playing, and I'm sitting at the dulcimer, any moment between songs, my hands are unconciously wandering over the instrument plucking strings, absentmindedly searching for an out-of-tune note, fine-tuning constantly till it is time to play again.


OK, now about actually playing.

The first step and primary skill is hammer technique. The dulcimer is played with the hammers, and every sound and style you get comes from how you handle the hammers. That's why I stress making different types of hammers and finding what feels comfortable and facilitates your style and the sounds you want to make. The dulcimer is a percussion instrument, and to play it you have to be a percussionist, a drummer. So it is not just hammer technique, you have to think like a drummer, have the skills of a drummer. That means being able to keep a steady solid rhythm, temo, and beat. Pkysically, the dulcmer is like hand-drumming, so one of the best places to start is by doing some hand-drumming if you haven't already. When I am starting on a song, the first thing I decide on is the rhythm, what tempo and what beat I'm going to use for that song. Its more than just a beat, as well. It is a crafting a rhythnic line for the whole song, one that supports and excentuates the mood and story of the song, the other instruments, with both a solid foundation and dynamics that often shape the entire mood of the song, at each moment and for the entire song. The same two hand rhythms on the dulci that you use with a hand drum, though you use the rolls you get from using sticks, though you can practice as well with the hammers on a hand-drum. In fact, I often used to start figuring out a song by drumming it with the hammers on the wood of the dulcimer, figuring out the beat, before I ever tuched a string or chose a key or chord.

Back to the hammers. You want to have a super light grip on the hammers, so that it floats on your finger, held down by the thumb, like the rubber pencil trick. You drop the hammer, not swing it, so it falls staying parallel to the instrument, and your hand drops with it. You want the hammers to float on the dulcimer so thay are free to bounce. It isn't your fingers that move the hammers, it is your whole body. Remember that you have to be relaxed when you play, so you can move easily and naturally, and play without getting tired or straining. If you hold out the hammer relaxed and naturally on a bent arm, then tap your heel, so that your whole body moves, and the hammer moves too. It is your body that moves the hammer, your leg and back and shoulder create the basic beat that moves the hammers. Your wrist and arm adds to that basic motion to create the syncopations and back beats, rolls and lifts, but should stay relaxed and extended, flexible, but not swinging the hammer. From these motion of your body, the hammer pivots up and down on your fingers, with no need to be swung. You lift is, or press it down to extend a roll, but you don;t have to swing it. Your fingers control the subtle motions and especially, by how tight you hold the hammer, the speed it bounces, the tempo of the rolls. And it should bounce, that is how you are playing, rolling the hammers on the strings, bouncing from string to string. If you lift your thumb, the hammer should bounce off the dulci and away. The feeling of playing isn't swinging the hammer, but lifting the hammer's handle to stay with the head as it bounces catching it as it bounces so that it floats. The final result is a combination of the roll you make with your fingertip and thumb and the beat you make with your body.

In actual practice, start by just learning to keep a steady beat with the hammers, and rolling them as well, controlling the lenth and speed of the roll you use with each beat of the hammer. Sometimes you'll just want individual beats without rolls, most often you will use some combination. Drum the hammers, on one string, till you can keep up a continuous beat, and a steady roll going with the hammers, relaxed, to whatever beat you are making with your body. Your muscles have to be smooth and relaxed, or you will get sore and tired playing, or even risk tendonitis. Back to the roll, that is the sound of the dulcimer. People always try to move their arms fast, not realizing that the hands can move fairly slow, while the hammers are bouncing fast, rolling. The dulcimer is a resonant instrument, strings without dampers, so that the sound of the instrument is the sound of all the strings. The rolling drumbeat keeps adding energy till the entire instrument is ringing, the sound deepening and getting louder as the energy extends from the one string you are hitting to the rest of the strings, till the entire instrument is ringing. It is the sound of the dulcimer, and nothing like the sound of one string being struck once. You have to both maintain a steady underlying basic beat while letting the hammers roll steadily as well.

A very important point here is abut "muscle memory" and neural tracking. The basic concept aplies to many things, from martial arts to music. It means to practice a motion as slow as is nescessary to do it perfectly and no faster, tracking this perfect motion into your muscles and your mind. The mistake is to go so fast that you make mistakes, which means you are practicing making mistakes. If you practice doing it perfectly, the muscles actually grow to make that motion and nothing else, so that it actually becomes difficult to make a mistake, your muscles don't want to and your mind doesn't know how. If you start with a slow, repetetive movement, it can echo quickly, and quite soon you can go faster and faster in a steady accelleration till you can go incredibly fast. This works for the first rolls and everything that follows. To be able to make the physical motions relaxed and effortless, you track the perfect motions in your mind and muscles, so you can do them without thinking,It means you are only focusing on critical points in the music, ie, you look at the note you choose to start a pattern, but the entire passage happens without thought, maybe faster than you can see, even. Like many skills, a series of motions turns into a single motion, triggered by a single thought, no matter how complicated and difficult originally it was to program into the mind and muscles. That is why it is so important to start out perfectly, no matter how slow you have to go to manage it, and continue always perfectly, repetitively. The actual physical playing of the individual notes eventually slips from concious awareness, like being aware of where your toes are when you are walking. When you can play without thinking, without effort, you can put your energy into feeling and expression, your awareness is on the entire wall of harmonic prgressions, the music, the interwoven pattern of melodies, harmonies and rhythms that is the music, and the emotions and energy that give power and meaning, the images and feeling of the story you are telling.

Once you have the hammers rolling steadily, practice moving one hammer while keeping the other in place. Start with a continuous beat and roll on a single string with both hammers, then walking the right hammer (if you are right handed) down or up a few strings and back, while keeping the left hammer in place, maintaining a steady beat. The Dulcmer is all about repitition, so whatever you do, you want to be able to repeat it in a steady pattern.

Print or copy out several copies of the tuning diagram of the strings, or draw it out on a pieces of paper, the fabric of fifths. You need to study the nature of the fabric of fifths to understand how to play the dulcimer, and a good deal about music itself. But that is another section. Here is just the practical application. Take colored markers and mark out the geometric shapes that make a chord. Then mark out several related chords for a certain key (three majors, two minors) using different colors for different chords. What you want to do is see the patterns that make chords, and how those chord patterns interweave in a key. Every instrument has its own patterns. These are the patterns you will use to drum on the dulci.
You can even place a piece of paper under the strings of the dulci and mark the patterns on it. The same way you practiced maintaing rolls and beats perfectly, then started walking the hammers while maintaing your beat and roll, you want to practice these patterns perfectly, till they are ingrained in the muscles and the mind. The basic patterns of one key repeat, more or less, for every key. You should also note the alternative patterns, since often you have the choice of going up or going across a bridge, or over to the other bridge, to find the same note in a pattern. Again, you want to start with a steady roll on one string, then start adding other strings to make a chord pattern, always maintaining a steady repetition of the pattern, just like drumming.
The patterns you identify and practice are repaeated all over the instrument to make different chords or keys, just like piano or guitar. There are two basic styles. One is simple arpeggios, scales, or combinations of the two, with hammers falling alternately, sounding like piano or guitar. Sometimes you keep one hammer on a single note, like a drone, while walking the arpegio or scale with the other hammer. The other is using drum rolls, where both hammers drop together, with the right hand double timing on the left, mixing straight or syncopated beats with rolls and runs, like a drum. Even when playing meodies, you will find the traditional tunes are often built out of these patterns, just like more modern melodies are built ou tof the patterns of fiddles, guitars, and keyboards. In fact, one way to tell that a melody is really old is if it uses dulcimer patterns.

My style is definitely like drumming. I have a set of drumheads from bass to high tones and create patterns and variations based on the primary beat. I might have 8 to 16 "drumheads" for a specific chord, then I switch to a new and probably overlapping set to move to the next chord. It is like playing rhythm guitar or piano, where you need to maintain a steady rhythm while changing chords, maybe throwing in a few melodic notes for transitions or effect. You can create an effect melodically or rythmically, or both. But every instrument has its unique character and ability, and for the dulcimer that is a rhythmic control and complexity of a true percussion instrument. When I play, I feel that I am composing or improvising rhythmically rather than melodically, as a singer playing a rhythum instrument. While this is my style, the principles I have outlined above apply to melodic playing as well, because the melodies will be made of and from the patterns I've talked about, and the characteristic sound of the dulcimer is rhythmic, even if played melodically, so mastering hammer technique is still the first essential, and learning to drum the patterns of chords and scales is the first step to playing melodies, just as it is in any instrument.

Beyond this, you have to get into specific songs and styles. But I'll add a few final suggestions:

If you want to play traditional "fiddle tunes" you can adapt most basic sheetmusic to learn from. Though the dulcimer can play incedibly fast single line melodies, or add more alternating notes between a basic melody, but it won't play three strings simultaineously and is clumsy playing two at a time, easy on a fiddle or mandolin. In fact, it is easy to tell the older traditional "fiddle tunes" because they were written on the hammered dulcimer (they didn't have fiddles yet) using natural dulcimer licks, while more modern fiddle tunes use natural fiddle licks. So be ready to adapt the basic melody to suit the instrument, adding or subtracting, as they did when they moved the old melodied from the dulcimer to the fiddle. With the dulcimer you really have to understand what is the true heart of the melody and play it using the style and ability of the dulcimer, not trying to sound like the melody played on a guitar or fiddle or anything else. All instruments are meant to be themselves, and are always poor or limited imitations of another instrument's style and sound. Use the dulcimer to voice the melody, while embellishing it in the way the dulcimer can, just like you would with any instrument.

One of the critical aspects of playing the dulcimer is always that it is a percussion instrument and because of that, whatever style of music you are playing it is the beat that must come first, that defines the music you are playing, not the melody you play within it, and the dulcimer is driven by the beat more than the melody you play. Use the dulcimer's percussive abilities to play melodies as they can only come out of the dulcimer, more powerful because of the dulcimers unique abilities. Also, even if you are focused on playing melodically, if you ever play with other people, you have to be able to sit back and give them space, and rather than not playing, or just tunking out two note chords, a good rhythmic style gives them support for their turn at the melody.

Finally, always remember that you are playing a song, telling a story, and it is not just a melody, or hot riffs, or sheer speed, or complex changes, or driving powerful passages that make great music. It is the sum total of everything, whether it is solo or as a group, whatever music you are playing. It the the experience you give your audience, the ride you take them on, and not just the ride you take them on, but even more, the feeling you leave them with, what they take with them from the experience. Flash and fire are cool, but it takes more to really move people, to make music into the deep emotional experience it can be. It is the difference between what is impressive and what is memorable, and the difference between what people will remember when the song is over, and what they will remember all their lives.

good luck!