Dulcimers

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Meet the Friendly Dulcimer Options and Decisions for Dulcimer Buyers

What is a dulcimer?

The lap dulcimer is a stringed folk instrument that evolved in the Appalachian mountains in the 1800s.  Dulcimers are the easiest stringed instrument for beginners to play, ideal for children and non-musicians who want to play tunes or accompany singing.   Dulcimers are a relatively quiet instrument.  Their sweet quiet sound is well-suited to personal relaxation or playing in a cozy environment. 
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Why are dulcimers easy to play?

Dulcimers are easy to play for many reasons:  
  • Dulcimers have only three or four strings to keep in tune, and these are usually tuned to an open chord (so the dulcimer makes a pleasant sound if you merely strum all the strings). 
  • Melodies can by played by fingering only one string while the other strings provide a drone harmony.
  • Like guitars and banjos, dulcimers have frets so exact finger placement is not required. 
  • Dulcimer frets play a “white key” or diatonic scale (no sharps and flats) so it is easy to play familiar folk tunes by ear.
  • Dulcimers lie flat in front of the player (on the lap, table, or floor), so you can see what your fingers are doing.  

 

 

I have never [before]   made music so fast on someting new

 - Jennnifer Wolf
   CT student

 

 

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At what age can people start playing?

Toddlers cannot hurt a cardboard-soundbox dulcimer and it cannot hurt them.  So there is no harm in mixing the two.  By age 3 or 4, children can strum with pick or fingers, or bounce chopsticks on the strings.  5-7 year olds can learn to play tunes with some patient instruction, and third graders are delighted to discover they can play tunes right away.  We generally recommend dulcimers for would-be musicians aged 8 to 108.  Our instruments are used in schools, churches, colleges, community classes, summer recreation programs, elder hostels, and hospice programs.  

Dulcimers are fun for musicians and non-musicians alike.  If you play piano, violin, or French horn, you will quickly take to an instrument you can master with little practice, and take with you to the beach without worrying about it.
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What kind of music can be played on the dulcimer?

Most players use dulcimers to play relatively simple tunes and to accompany singing.  You can play melodies, harmonies, and chords.  It is much easier to play chords on the dulcimer than on the guitar! Advanced players can finger-pick complex arrangements including some classical music pieces and Beatles songs.  You can even play some rock and roll riffs.
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What do dulcimers cost?

Compared to most musical instruments, dulcimers are inexpensive.  Good-quality instruments with all-wood construction are available for $125-$300. 

At Backyard Music, we cut materials cost and building time by using extra-strong corrugated cardboard for the sound box.  The result is a rugged beginners’ instrument with a low price and decent sound (you’ll find a cone of cardboard making the sound inside your stereo speakers!).  To lower the price further, we offer dulcimer kits (all parts pre-cut) that can easily be assembled with Elmer’s glue, a Phillips head screwdriver, and a hammer.
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What's involved in assembling a Backyard Music dulcimer kit?

It takes most first-time individual builders about two hours of total time on task to paint and assemble a Backyard Music Simplicity dulcimer. (In a school setting, seven 40 minute classes should suffice. In a group workshop, 2-3 hours.) No sharp or unusual tools are needed because all parts are pre-cut. 
The steps are:

  1. Paint the soundbox on both sides with latex semigloss paint, with 10-15 minutes of drying time between sides. Paint or decoupage protect the cardboard soundbox from moisture, dirt, and grease.
  2. (Optional) sand and stain and/or wax the wooden fretboard. Frets are already installed.
  3. Using a Phillips head screwdriver, screw in 6 tiny screws to mount the tuning gears in pre-drilled holes. You will need a small drill bit or small nail to make starting holes for the screws.
  4. Hammer in 3 or 4 string anchor nails (little brads) to hold the strings.
  5. Insert the pre-cut plastic nut and bridge into pre-sawn slots.
  6. Fold up the pre-cut soundbox and using Elmer's white glue, carefully glue the fretboard onto the soundbox. Weigh it down for 20 minutes or more with some books.
  7. Put on the strings. Clip off the extra string length with a pinch nose plier or wire clipper.

Our kits include photo-illustrated directions and extra strings. You furnish the paint, stain, wax, and tools. If painting is a hassle for you, we can prepaint your soundbox(es) for a modest additional charge: barn red, Shaker green, or royal blue.
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Do I need to understand all these options?

No. You do not need to read or understand all the options described below. Most people who order dulcimers from us are buying an inexpensive instrument for children, music classrooms, or for self-taught adult beginners. For all these customers we strongly recommend ordering our best-selling model, the 3-string Simplicity dulcimer, either as a ready-to play-instrument or a pre-cut kit (See photograph to right) . The options described below may be of interest to advanced players, accomplished musicians, or persons buying their second dulcimer.  

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Wooden or cardboard soundbox?

The soundbox is the hollow chamber underneath the fretboard (the piece of wood that carries the strings).  This hollow box amplifies the sound of the strings.  Traditional dulcimers are made with a wooden soundbox.  If you buy a dulcimer with a wooden soundbox, we recommend that the top panel of the soundbox be made of spruce or cedar because these long-grained woods are accoustically responsive.  Avoid dulcimers where this top panel is plywood, because it deadens sound.  Fortunately, cardboard has good accoustical properities, which is why you will find a cardboard cone around the electromagnet in your stereo speakers! Our Backyard Music beginner's dulcimers have soundboxes of durable 250 lb strength corrugated cardboard, painted for protection against moisture and dirt.  These cardboard soundboxes have several advantages:

  • Cardboard is inexpensive compared to wood
  • Cardboard soundboxes are pre-cut, easy to assemble, and easy to paint.  This reduces the time needed to assemble a dulcimer from a kit.  (Wooden kits take at least 10 hours to assemble and finish.  Cardboard kits take less than 2 hours.)
  • Cardboard soundboxes are very durable (wooden soundboxes require more loving care, since they may crack if struck, dropped or exposed to temperature extremes)
  • Cardboard soundboxes can easily be replaced with another cardboard soundbox or with a wooden upgrade. (We have teachers who have used our cardboard dulcimers in elementary schools and junior highs for ten or more years, and have then refurbished their instruments by ordering replacement cardboard soundboxes.)

For all these reasons, we recommend dulcimers with cardboard soundboxes for children, for adults trying dulcimer for the first time, for families and schools on a tight budget, and for anyone who wants an instrument they can take to be beach or strap on their pack without worrying about it.  Several grandparents who play dulcimer have ordered our cardboard dulcimers for their grandchildren, partly to encourage the youngsters's musicianship, and partly to keep their own prized wooden dulcimer out of the hands of babes.  
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What shape of soundbox is best?

Because the dulcimer has a full length fretboard that carries the string tension, builders are free to attach virtually any shape of soundbox below the fretboard.  Therefore, dulcimers are made in many different shapes. The shape of the soundbox has little consequence for sound quality.  (Sound quality is more affected by the size and depth of the soundbox, and the material used for its top panel.)

Dulcimer soundboxes are often shaped like an hourglass with a thin "waist" and a double curve in each side, yielding the feminine outline of a slimmed-down guitar.  Another popular shape has a single curve on each side, creating an instrument shaped like a fish, beech leaf, or teardrop.  The first dulcimers were made for home use in the Appalachians in the 1800s, and many of these were simple boxes with straight sides.

We offer pre-cut cardboard soundboxes in two shapes:  the straight-sided, tapered "Simplicity", and the double-curved hourglass. The Simplicity shape is less expensive, much quicker to assemble and its edges are much more durable. Therefore we recommend the straight-sided Simplicity model for most children, schools, and church groups. At an extra cost we offer the cardboard hourglass soundbox (only as a kit) for people who want to spend more time on the building process and end up with a fancier looking (though less durable) instrument.
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How many strings, 3 or 4?

We recommend 3 string dulcimers to most of our customers, but offer the option of 4 strings to those who want extra volume.  Three-string dulcimers work well for youngsters and beginning players of all ages, whose small or tender fingers have difficulty pressing down a doubled melody strong.
Three-string dulcimers are easier to tune and play.

The dulcimer is essentially a 3-stringed instrument. Its strings are generally tuned to at most 3 different pitches. Some builders and many music stores sell models with 4 strings. Usually the 4th string doubles the melody string, so you still play and tune as if there were only 3 strings. Virtually all dulcimer instruction books assume your dulcimer has 3 strings, or 2 single strings and a doubled melody string.

A few performers use 4 equally distant strings, but there are few instruction books supporting this way of playing. The major advantage of a 4 string dulcimer is a bit more volume. If you own a 4-string dulcimer, you always have the option of removing the 4th string or pulling it off to the side.     

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Simple white-key scale, or add the "extra" fret?

The frets on the dulcimer play a diatonic scale- the scale you hear when you play only the white keys on the piano. Because sharps and flats are omitted, it is easy to play most familiar tunes by ear. You cannot play a sharp or flat by mistake, because they simply aren't there. We recommend this traditional white key scale for non-musicians young and old, and for most school music classes (where teachers may use the dulcimer to teach scale theory and modes).

However, most dulcimer performers and many adult players prefer to add one or more "extra" frets to their dulcimers. This greatly increases the instrument's versatility and its ability to play with other instruments. (It also confuses non-musicians, who suddenly encounter an F# as they slide along an otherwise perfectly predictable white key scale.) If you play another musical instrument and you understand scales and sharps, then we recommend that you purchase a dulcimer with the optional "6 and a half" fret added. You know enough that it will not confuse you, and you'll appreciate it sometime.

All our dulcimers and kits are available with the "6 and a half" fret for a small extra charge. If you are buying an instrument for a youngster with limited musical experience, we strongly recommend buying a dulcimer with the plain diatonic scale. This will increase the odds of their experiencing early success. Should they become an accomplished player in time, it is easy to add the extra fret later, and by then they will likely have bought a fancier instrument anyway. 
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Just or even-tempered scale?

Unless you specifically request an even-tempered scale, Backyard Music dulcimers and dulcimer kits have a "just" or pure interval scale. We recommend this sweet-sounding scale for people who will play the dulcimer mostly by themselves or with other Backyard dulcimers.

As an option that you may request at no extra cost, we also offer dulcimers with the more common "even tempered" scale. (Bach invented this scale, fudging the pure intervals to avoid retuning his harpsichord when he changed keys.) An even-tempered scale is advised if you will play frequently with other instruments, or wish to play in several different keys without retuning your dulcimer.        
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If you have additional questions, please write us at .  Please include your telephone number and a good time to call.

                                                         
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Backyard Music
PO Box 9047
New Haven, CT 06532

Phone: (203) 281-4515    Call for Fax Number