The mountain dulcimer is a folk instrument originating in the Appalachian Mountains. Because it is a folk instrument, it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. In general, the mountain dulcimer is an oblong stringed instrument with a short end section to hold the tuning pegs, rather than a neck. Dulcimers can be strung with one to four strings, and were traditionally played with goose quills.
The mountain dulcimer, so-named as to not confuse it with the hammered dulcimer, is similar to several European instruments, including the French Epinette des Vosges, the German Scheitholt and Celtic zithers. The earliest dulcimers date to a period sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. The name may have derived from the words Doulce-de-mer, which is French for softness of the sea.
The dulcimer consists of a hollow, elongated soundbox with a stubby neck that is just long enough to hold the tuning pegs at one end of the elipsoid. Shapes include teardrop, narrow triangle, hourglass and violin-like. The face has decorative sound holes cut one either side of the string area. It can have one to four strings.
Skills Needed for Construction
Making the soundbox from wood requires extensive woodworking skills but it is possible to construct a cardboard soundbox using basic craft skills. You will need a piece of wood to go across the face of the soundboard to hold the frets and to properly stretch the strings. You can download complete plans for hourglass dulcimers from companies such as Harpkit.
Playing the Mountain Dulcimer
The mountain dulcimer is often used to accompany ballads and other folk music. It can be plucked or strummed. Traditionally, a goose quill was used to pluck the strings, but a plain guitar pick will do the job. It has a sweet voice, and is easy to play. Luthiers, the people who make stringed instruments, have a lot of fun with making different shapes for dulcimers -- including one that has a banjo worked into the face!
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