The Mountain Dulcimer

By Kathy Olson

The mountain dulcimer originated in the Appalachian Mountains of North America, making it a true American folk instrument. Its origins may be traced to the German zither which is narrower and does not have a fret board so the frets are directly on the sound board.

Settlers arriving in America created the dulcimer in the late 1700s. Wanting and needing to create music, these early settlers used wood from the trees found in the surrounding mountains. The instruments were made by hand, and bent nails were used as simple frets under the melody string. The strings were often made from screen door wire and the instrument was played with a noter, which is a flat or rounded piece of wood that is moved along the fret board. Goose quills were used as picks to pluck and strum the strings.

Life in the mountains was very difficult and this was reflected in the songs of the era. Folks also recalled the music of their European past, so many traditional songs reflect the music of the British Isles and Germany. As other instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, and guitar became mass produced, the dulcimer faded from popularity due to its quiet sound.

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a renewed interest as folk music became popular with college students and singing groups such as The Carter Family, Pete Seeger, and Doc Watson. Jean Ritchie is often credited with bringing the dulcimer back to popularity.

Dulcimer groups often include the hammered dulcimer which is an entirely different instrument. It is related to the santoor which is played in India and many other similar instruments in mid-eastern countries. It is a percussion, stringed instrument played with specially designed mallet hammers which are used to hit the strings. This is similar to the strings in a piano being hit by mallets.

It is relatively easy to learn to play the mountain dulcimer, but it takes years and years of practice to learn to play it well. Dulcimer festivals are held throughout the United States and in Europe. This February, the Central Florida Dulcimer Festival will be held in Mt. Dora. There are also area dulcimer groups including ones in New Smyrna Beach, Sanford, The Villages and Melrose. For more information about learning to play the mountain dulcimer you can contact  Molly Gardner or Kathy Olson.