Q: What is the mountain dulcimer?
The Mountain Dulcimer ( or Appalachian Dulcimer, Fretted Dulcimer, Lap Dulcimer) was first developed in the South Appalachian Mountains in the early-to-mid 1800's. It is presumed that this unique American instrument was derived from examples of Scheitholt brought to this country by early German and Northern European settlers.
The earliest examples of the dulcimer were generally oval in shape and came from the Virginia region. In later years. the more familiar hourglass shape was developed in what become Kentucky and West Virginia. Dulcimer building is still very much an individual craft and there is a very wide variation in size, shape and material used.
The dulcimer is a diatonically fretted zither and is similar to other European instruments such as the German Scheitholt, the Sweden Hummel, the Norwegian Langeleik, and the French Epinette des Vosges. Interestingly, it appears that no equivalent instrument was ever developed in the British Isles. In its traditional form, the dulcimer has three stings: a melody string that was fretted with a small stick or the thumb and two drones. The instrument was played by strumming across the melody and the two drone strings. The Ionian scale and a DAA tunning were most commonly used play traditional music.
Modern dulcimers (usually hourglass or teardrop shape) are played either by strumming, by finger picking or by flat picking. Versions of the dulcimer with three to six strings are available. Numerous tunings are now used and the repertoire has expanded to include Celtic music, blues, ragtime and jazz in addition to traditional music.
A final note; the Mountain Dulcimer has no geographic or historic relationship with the similarly name Hammer Dulcimer, a trapezoidal instrument played by beating multiple strings with wooden hammers.