About Dulcimers

Little is known about the hammered dulcimer before the mid 1400's. The earliest known depiction is on a Byzantium ivory book cover from 1131.

From The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians: "The Dulcimer's history is well documented from the mid 15th century. The instrument has been used in popular folk and art music of the West. It is widespread in eastern Europe, North Africa, Central Asia, India, Korea and China and holds an eminent position in the classical music of Iran. The name dulcimer was used occasionally in the King James version of the Bible for the nebel, but the ancient Hebrews evidently did not have a dulcimer."

Cousins to the American hammered dulcimer are found all around the world. Dulcimers in Other Countries include:

  • hackbrett - Germany
  • cimbalom - Hungary, Rumania, Ukraine
  • dulce melos - Netherlands, Belgium
  • santur - Turkey, Iran, Greece
  • yangqin - China
  • chang - Tibet
  • salterio - Italy

Here are some other unique items about the dulcimer:

  • Reportedly, the first hammered dulcimer in America was sent to Jamestown in 1609.
  • Through the mid-ninteenth century, hammered dulcimers were sold door-to-door by traveling salesmen and by mail-order from the Sears Catalog.
  • From 1924, Henry Ford sponsored The Early American Orchestra (fiddle, dulcimer, cimbalom, and bass) that broadcasted and recorded regularly.
  • In 1964 Michigan dulcimer players Chet Parker and Elgia Hickok performed at the Newport Folk Festival. This was the spark that ignited the current hammered dulcimer revival.
  • In western classical music, the cimbalom is used as an orchestral instrument by composers Liszt, Kodaly, Bartok, and other Hungarian composers. Others who wrote for the cimbalom include Igor Stravinsky, Karl Orff, Heinz Holliger, Pierre Boulez.
  • Today this unique instrument is well known by folk musicians for its bright tone and versatility as a solo and accompanying instrument.
  • The hammered dulcimer should not be confused with the unrelated musical instrument, the Appalachian dulcimer or mountain dulcimer, that is held in the lap and strummed.

History Of the Hammered Dulcimer

by Paul Gifford

The hammered dulcimer has a history in the United States going back three hundred years. Almost extinct forty years ago, it has witnessed an amazing comeback. In its current revived form, however, there is little connection with the older tradition. This little article attempts to explain that tradition.

The instrument seems to have appeared independently during the 15th century, probably as a result of technological advances in the process of drawing wire. The availability of affordable tempered brass wire allowed experiments to be made which created the clavichord and caused changes to instruments already in existence. In France, the Latin/Greek word dulce melos (or in French, doulcemèr) was applied to several instruments, but the one that stuck was the metal-strung psaltery usually struck with two sticks. In Germany, someone applied four double courses of metal strings and a bridge to the "string drum," a long box with two heavy gut strings struck with one or two rods and used as a droning rhythm instrument, and created the Hackbrett ("chopping block"). In distant Persia, the santur, probably related to the already existing kanun (a plucked instrument, related to the European psaltery), appeared during this century. By the early 16th century, the form of the European dulcimer as we know it----a trapezoidal box with courses of multiple wire strings resting over a bridge or bridge, one of which divides the length of the strings into the ratio of 2:3----had evolved.

In its early years, the instrument was chiefly played as a pastime by aristocratic ladies (France and England) and by more middle-class city dwellers (Switzerland and Germany), but minstrels soon adopted it and spread it further. Under the Latin-Greek name cymbalum Hungarian clergy and students played it, and by 1600, minstrels were using it there and in Poland and Russia. It seems to have entered England during the 15th century through aristocratic connections with French courts, but in the 16th century entered a slight decline. At this time, the word was also applied to an end-blown flute or a double-reed instrument, and it was in this sense that translators of the Bible used the word "dulcimer" in the third chapter of Daniel. A renewed interest in the metal-strung dulcimer seems to have developed after 1660 in England. In this period it was very common in taverns in London, sometimes accompanying violins, and it also became a kind of cheap harpsichord as well, found in the homes of gentry and more prosperous city dwellers.

It was in this second social setting that the dulcimer spread from England to its Atlantic colonies by the early 18th century. References to it suggest it found a place in wealthier homes in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City, and Philadelphia, though a professional player made a tour in 1752 through most of the colonies. It is also certain that Germans immigrating to Pennsylvania in this period brought the Hackbrett, which accompanied the violin at dances, as it had in Germany. Immigrants from Ireland probably also brought it to America. After independence, the instrument moved with the population to the newer settlements in the interior. Surviving instruments and literary references suggest that it was an instrument used in the parlors of wealthier families, at least before 1830. Unlike the more prestigious and desirable piano, it was cheaper and did not require a music master to learn it.

The makers of the dulcimer also tended to live in the interior, rather than on the seaboard cities, where manufacturers of pianos and other instruments tended to operate. Among the earliest known dulcimer manufacturers were Richard Vernon, of Jefferson County, Indiana, who shipped flatboat loads of his products down to New Orleans in the 1830s, and Philander Cogswell, of Steuben County, New York, active at the same time. By 1848, when the unknown C. Haight wrote and published a method, commercial production was fully underway. In the latter 1850s, two factories, producing hundreds of dulcimers per year, were located around Sherman, New York. Both located second factories on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River and had agents as far west as Missouri. Between 1850 and 1880, traveling salesmen and makers themselves sold thousands of instruments all over the country. The nature of manufacture and distribution was different from that of the piano, banjo, or guitar. Dulcimer makers and manufacturers were located in rural areas, rather than urban areas, and sold them directly or through salesman, rather than through catalogs and music retailers. Most of the purchasers were probably farmers who bought them for their children to play alone or to participate in family music making.

One common use of the instrument was as accompaniment to the fiddle. This style was prevalent in an area stretching from western New York State and northern Pennsylvania westward through northern Ohio and Indiana, parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and probably elsewhere, including Utah. There were few players in this region who played more than a few tunes on it; most played "chords" in four keys (A, D, G, and C major) and three rhythms (2/4, 3/4, and 6/8). This was adequate for most informal rural dance music, which was the instrument's main venue. Elsewhere, the dulcimer was mostly played as a solo instrument, although sometimes with other instruments, but "chording" was unknown. These areas included northern West Virginia, Tennessee, New England, and probably other areas. As reed organs and then pianos became affordable, the interest in the dulcimer declined, and by 1920 it was rare. Here and there, individuals continued to play it at square dances, family reunions, and neighborhood parties, and for their own amusement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a revival of the instrument began to take place, and it has continued unabated since. 

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