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Dulcimer Buying Checklist
Carolyn A. Scheppner

It took me a while to realize it, but my first mountain dulcimer had some bad problems. The action was excessively high, the string spacing was unsuitable for fingerstyle play (the melody strings were so widely gapped that my finger went between them), and it had a non-moveable bridge which was out of position by over 1/8". This caused it to play out-of-tune. In addition, the instrument was made from cheap plywood that caught on my clothes and gave me splinters! I bought a better dulcimer just one month later.

I thought prospective dulcimer buyers would find it useful to have information on what to look for in a good quality dulcimer and what kinds of checks and tests can be used to help evaluate a dulcimer (keeping in mind that a non-player probably can't pluck harmonics!).

Before you go shopping, you should find out as much as you can about different types and brands of mountain dulcimers. Search the web. Get a copy of Dulcimer Player's News, read the ads, and order catalogs.

If you have a local dulcimer club, attend a meeting to see and hear the members' dulcimers. Ask club members to play for you and tell you about their instruments. Listen to dulcimer recordings to hear the sounds of different dulcimers. Attend a music festival where dulcimer builders sell their instruments.

Call all of the music stores in a wide area. Which ones have mountain dulcimers? Who are the makers of these instruments? Try to find stores that specialize in folk instruments or carry more than one builder's dulcimers. If you can't find a good selection of dulcimers nearby, consider traveling to buy one, or buying from a highly respected luthier or music shop by mail. You may also want to check internet auctions for used instruments by respected builders.

In other words, find out as much as you possibly can about mountain dulcimers before you buy one. Please read other dulcimer buying guides. Look for guides by dulcimer luthiers such as Jerry Rockwell, Dwain Wilder, and John Stockard.

Even if you buy an inexpensive instrument as your first dulcimer, buy one that plays well and has good construction and proper intonation! You can always use it as a spare or travel instrument later, or you could give it as a gift to a relative or a friend.

I hope this list will help you evaluate the dulcimers you see, and make your first purchase a happy one.

A Short Glossary of the Mountain Dulcimer
6 1/2 or 6+ fret - an extra fret before the 7 (octave) fret.
Action - the distance between the strings and the fretboard.
Bass string - the thick string positioned farthest away from you.
Bottom or back - the flat side of your dulcimer (the side that rests on your lap).
Bridge - slotted piece near the tail for spacing the strings.
Capo - a clamp for the strings which changes the duclimer's key and tuning.
DAA, DAaa - popular tuning for fretting melodies on 1 string (pair); D is the bass string.
DAD, DAdd - popular tuning for fingerstyle/chording; first D is the bass string.
Fretboard, fingerboard - the long metal-fretted wood board under the strings.
Frets - the metal bars on the fretboard (press to the left of the fret, strum to the right).
Head, peghead - the part of the dulcimer with tuners.
Hourglass - the shape of a dulcimer that narrows in the middle.
Intonation - the correctness of the tuning of strings at each fret position.
Luthier - An acoustic stringed instrument maker.
Melody/treble string(s) - thin single or closely-spaced pair of strings closest to you.
Noter - a wooden stick that may be used to fret the melody string(s).
Nut - slotted piece near the head for spacing the strings.
Scale length - distance from nut to bridge.
Soundboard - the top of the instrument to which the fretboard is attached.
Soundholes - the holes in the soundboard.
Strum hollow - scooped-out fretless part of the fretboard, near the tail.
Tail - the end without tuners, opposite from the head.
Teardrop - a dulcimer shape that is narrow at the head and wider near the tail.
Tuners - the pegs or machines that are turned to stretch/loosen the strings to proper pitch.
Tuner (electronic) - a battery-powered device that shows when tuning is correct.
Zero Fret - some dulcimers have this fret, very close to the nut, on which all strings rest.

Parts of a Dulcimer

Buyer's Checklist
1. Solid wood or plywood? Look at exposed edges of wood pieces such as the soundboard (top) and the bottom. If the edges are smooth with the same wood grain as the rest of that piece of wood, it's probably solid wood. If the edges are rough and/or visibly composed of layers and/or noticeably darker or lighter, it's probably laminated or plywood of some type.

In general, better quality instruments are made with solid woods. Solid woods usually look and sound better. However, some thin high-quality plywoods can sound very good, especially with a solid spruce top.

What kind of wood? Some common woods are walnut or cherry, or walnut or cherry with a spruce, cedar or redwood top. Different woods sound different. Listen to different dulcimers, woods, sizes, and shapes.

Cardboard and all-plywood dulcimers -- If you can only spend $50-$100, you might consider a well-made cardboard or all-plywood dulcimer with a solid wood fretboard. But be especially careful to check for quality construction, good sound, good action, proper intonation, and all of the other things in this checklist.

Dulcimer Kits -- There are kits available for solid wood, plywood, and cardboard dulcimers. In addition, plans and books can be found for building dulcimers from scratch. If you are handy and patient and already have tools and supplies, a kit may be an option for you.

2. Quality of construction. Are the wood joints all tight, without gaps or glue showing? Are parts centered and symmetrical (unless it's an unusual art dulcimer)? Is the wood free from cracks and finished smoothly? Are the nut and bridge well-crafted of hard materials? Do the strings have a smooth path to the tuners and tail without sharp angles or chafing?

3. Type of tuners. Tapered wooden pegs are very traditional and aesthetically nice, but they will probably be more difficult to tune and may slip if they don't fit perfectly. If you get a dulcimer with wooden pegs, look for good-fitting well-made wooden pegs with additional fine-tuners at the tail.

Straight-line, metal-shaft tuners with no can-shaped bulge on the outer shaft are probably modern friction tuners. These are a little easier to maintain than wooden pegs, but still difficult to tune, and they may slip. They will be easier to tune if there are additional fine-tuners at the tail end.

Straight-line, metal-shaft tuners with metal can-shaped bulges on the outer shaft against the wood, are probably planetary geared tuners. These are higher quality tuners that turn the winding shaft once for every 2 or 4 revolutions of the knob, making it easier to fine-tune.

Guitar-style tuners are tuners whose outer knob shafts are all at ninety degree angles to their winding shafts (rather than straight-line). They are usually less expensive and look less traditional, but they are very easy to tune since they usually have high gear ratios, and they generally don't slip. Better guitar tuners usually have metal covers over their gears.

Make sure the tuners all turn firmly and smoothly and hold their positions. Tuned strings should remain tuned. Note: If you are unfamiliar with tuners, do not turn them tighter or you may break a string. Look how the string is wound, and test tuners by first turning to loosen the string, then retuning it back up.

4. Fret spacing and scale length. Is there a 6+ (6 1/2) fret? If you plan to use the DAD tuning popular for fingerstyle arrangements, make sure the dulcimer has a 6+ (6 1/2) fret. Look near the middle of the fretboard for four closely-spaced frets in a row (i.e. making three sequential spaces between frets all about 3/4-1" wide). If the frets are arranged that way, there is a 6+ fret. Note: A 6+ fret can also be added by a luthier.

Is the scale length suited to your hand size? Standard dulcimers can have a scale length (distance from nut to bridge, i.e. vibrating string length) from around 25 1/2 to 29 inches. If your hand is small, you may need a scale length in the shorter part of the range so the frets will be closer to each other.

5. String spacing. Can you fret the melody pair? If the dulcimer has double melody strings, make sure they are close enough so you can easily press the two strings down using one finger. If the gap between the two strings is more than 1/8", your finger may tend to miss one or go between them. Note: This can be fixed by a luthier.

Is there enough space between the outer strings and the fretboard edge? If they are closer than 1/8" to the edge, it will be harder to fret and slide. If they are too far from the edges, the string spacing may be cramped. Note: This can be fixed by a luthier.

Do the nut and bridge have extra slots? Many dulcimers have extra slots in the nut and bridge so the instrument can be strung for either a close melody pair plus two other strings or as four equidistant strings. This is irrelevant if you don't intend to ever try a four-equidistant setup. If the fretboard is wide enough for four equidistant strings, a luthier could add the extra two slots (so the middle two strings may be repositioned).

Is the fret board at least 1 3/8" wide? If narrower, it may be a little cramped for chording and fingerstyle playing. If it's wider than 1 3/4", it may be a stretch for small hands when chording. A common fretboard width is 1 1/2".

6. Check for warp/bow and fret problems. Look at the frets. Do they look like they were put in carefully? Or do the frets look smashed or crooked or very heavily filed? Have the tops of the ends of the frets been nicely smoothed? Or are they sharp and rough to run your finger across?

Check for a straight neck and level frets. Holding the tail of the dulcimer towards you at eye level, tilt the dulcimer up/down until you get a very shallow angle where the frets appear stacked above each other. They should all look straight and even.

Use a string to check for fretboard flatness . Press one of the strings to the fretboard wood between the nut (or zero-fret) and at first fret (at the tuner end of the dulcimer), and while holding it there, use your other hand to press the same string to the fretboard at the last fret. The string should contact all of the frets at about the same time. Make sure the string does not contact the middle frets before the last frets. A very small gap (less than 1/32") between the middle frets and the fully depressed string is probably okay and may even be intentional to provide vibrating space for a low action, but it could also mean that the fretboard is warping or being bowed up by the tension of the strings. Check with the seller or builder if you are not sure.

7. Check the intonation. Does the instrument play in tune? How to hold and fret a dulcimer: First make sure you have no metal zippers or other clothing items that could scratch the instrument. Sit down with your knees separated and place the dulcimer flat on your lap with the head (tuner end) to your left, positioning the first (left-most) fret over your left leg, and the other half of the dulcimer centered over your right leg. Strum or pluck the strings near the strum hollow. To fret a dulcimer string to get different notes, press the string down to the wood of the fretboard, just to the left of a metal fret. Note: Some dulcimers have a zero fret that all strings rest on near the nut. You cannot fret at this position and should not count a zero fret as fret 1 when counting frets.

Get in tune. Tune the dulcimer tuned to DAdd or have someone do this for you. I think it's easier to check for intonation problems in DAdd. When tuned, the bass string fretted at the 4th fret should sound the same note as the middle string open, and the middle string fretted at the 3rd fret should sound like the melody pair (and the melody pair should sound an octave higher than the bass string). Note: If there's no electronic tuner available but there are guitars, the fatter of a guitar's two middle strings is usually D. And if you are tuning the dulcimer up to DAdd from DAaa yourself, be aware that a string could break, especially if the melody pair strings are not thinner than the middle string.

When strummed the dulcimer should sound pleasing. Remember, the word dulcimer means sweet sound.

Check the octaves. Fretting each string at the 7th fret (this will be the 8th fret if there is a 6+ fret), should sound an octave higher than the same string unfretted. In DAdd tuning the bass string fretted at 7 should sound like the open melody pair. Note: If you play another fretted instrument and know how to play harmonics, a string fretted at fret 7 should play the same note as a harmonic at fret 7.

If the octaves don't sound right, first make sure you are fretting in the correct place! Try the frets to either side. If you are sure you are fretting in the right place and the octaves sound flat or sharp, see if the bridge of the dulcimer is movable (i.e. see if the slotted string spacer near the tail sits on top of the instrument, rather than being fitted in a routed channel). If the bridge is movable, ask the seller to reposition it so the fretted octaves are correct. If the octaves cannot be made correct, then nothing else will be right.

Check some chords . If the dulcimer is tuned properly and fretted octaves are correct, then make sure chords like the following example chords sound good. If a dulcimer has a misplaced nut or frets, some simple chords can sound slightly out-of-tune on a correctly tuned dulcimer. Note: If the dulcimer has a zero fret, skip that fret when counting frets. If the dulcimer has a 6+ (6 1/2) fret, remember fret 7 will be the 8th fret. In the following chords, 0 means that the string is played open (unfretted). The fretting positions for each chord are shown as bass string on top, then middle, then melody string(s). Unison means all strings will sound the same note (the bass string will sound an octave lower in the DAdd unison chord).

Here are some chords to try on a DAdd-tuned dulcimer:
            Unison    D Chords      G chords      A chords
D(bass)       0      0  0  0  2    0  3  3  0    1  1  1  4
A(middle)     3      0  0  0  3    1  1  3  6    0  2  2  2
dd(melody)    0      0  2  7  4    3  0  5  5    1  1  4  1
Here are some chords to try on a DAaa-tuned dulcimer:
            Unison    D chords      G chords      A chords
D(bass)       4      0  2  0  4    0  3  0  0    1  1  1  4    
A(middle)     0      0  0  3  3    1  1  3  3    0  2  0  2
aa(melody)    0      3  3  5  5    3  3  3  1    0  0  2  4

Try some scales . Play a scale up each string by playing every position on the string, and make sure each note sounds correct and clear. (Note: Fret 6 is not part of the familiar major scale.) If possible, use an electronic tuner to check if each fretted note is in tune. Make sure each individual string sounds good both open and fretted. And make sure strings do not buzz against any other frets to the right as you fret and strum at each position.

8. How is the action? Action is the height of the strings above the fretboard. If the action is too high it will be too hard to fret the strings and do hammer-ons. If the action is too low, the strings may buzz against the frets and you may have lower volume and less full tone. A good quality dulcimer generally has a reasonable action. It might be a little higher than what is described below, allowing for future adjustment to individual taste, but it should not be a lot higher.

Check the string height at the nut. Fretting a string at the first fret should be no harder than fretting it at the second fret while holding it down at the first fret.

Check the overall action. Luthiers guidelines include: 1) The string height over the 17th fret should be 1/8" for low action, and 1/64 higher (9/64") for medium action. 2) The string height above the 7th should be about the thickness of a nickel. Note: As long as the fretboard is flat with even fret height, the action can be adjusted by a luthier. Some dulcimers have a removeable nut and bridge, and the builder may sell spares. If this is the case and you are handy, buy spare nuts and bridges so you can keep the originals unchanged and experiment with others.

9. How does the instrument sound? If the music shop has a variety of dulcimers compare their sounds. Every dulcimer sounds different. The woods, the body size and depth, and many other factors will contribute to the dulcimer's sound. Some have more bass, some more treble. Some people like a more guitar-like sound, and some like a more plaintive dulcimer-type sound.

Strum and play individual notes, fretted and open, with your fingers and with a pick. Try some slides. Slide your fretting finger up a fret or two after plucking a fretted note. And try hammer-ons/pull-offs if you know how to do them. Strum some simple chords or try to pick out a familiar tune. If this is too hard, just hold down the melody pair to the left of any fret and strum. Now try another fret. Play both softly and loudly to hear how the dulcimer sounds at different volumes.

If there is a dulcimer player handy, ask them to demonstrate the instrument for you. Remember that a good player will make an instrument sound better, and a poor player will make an instrument sound worse. It may be helpful to tape-record dulcimers at different stores so you can compare their sound. Bring along a musician friend with a good ear to give you his impressions. But the most important thing is that you like how it sounds and how it looks and how it feels.

10. The practicalities. Ask about special sales or deals (such as a lower price if you also buy a case or another item). Ask if the instrument has a warranty. Find out about the dealer's return/exchange policy.

11. Accessories. Case -- Even a cheap chipboard or padded soft case ($30) will help protect your dulcimer in your car trunk. It will also protect your dulcimer from the inevitable dings that come from carrying it around uncased, and it will give you a place to store your picks, capo, and tuner.

Strings -- Get a spare set of strings with the correct ends. Some dulcimers use ball ends (little metal beads on one end of the string), and some use loop ends. If you plan to tune to DAdd, look for a string set that has the melody pair in a lighter gauge (a lower number) than the middle string.

Instruction books, cassettes, videos -- Some dulcimer books can be difficult for a beginner with lots of different tunings or heavy use of 3-finger chords in positions all over the fretboard. You can check this before you buy a book. Maybe you would like to try lots of different tunings right away, but many people find this confusing in the beginning. To check what tunings a book uses, look near the title or top left edge of each musical piece in the book. Most books mark each piece as DAD, DAA, DGD, etc. If a piece says "Capo", a capo will be required to play it. You should get a capo, but capo'd pieces can be confusing for a beginner.

Most dulcimer music has tablature (tab) that represents the three strings as three horizontal lines (bass on top, then middle, then melody). The numbers on or above each line specify where to fret that string. As a broad generalization, if you want a book with easy tunes to be played mostly on the melody string(s), look for lots of DAA pieces with mostly 0's or blanks on the top two lines of the tab and mostly numbers on the bottom line. If you want a book with easy tunes in chording or fingerstyle (playing melody and chords by fretting any/all of the strings), look for DAD pieces with lots of 0's, mostly low fret numbers, and few places where all three strings must be fretted at once.

Cassettes accompanying instruction books can be helpful, but videos and watching others play in person are better. Note: Some videos are more advanced than beginner level.

Capo -- You'll need one eventually. Use it behind the first fret for a nice minor sound, and behind the third fret to play in the key of G. Note: A dulcimer requires a dulcimer capo. A guitar capo won't work.

Picks -- Some popular picks are Herdim tri-corner dulcimer picks, Dunlop nylon guitar picks with raised lettering, big triangle picks, and the "Golden Gate" pick (a small rounded pick). Collar stays, pieces cut from flimsy microwave dishes, and credit cards can work in a pinch.

Electronic Tuner -- Unless you have a really good ear, plan to get a battery-powered electronic tuner to help you get in tune. A decent low-priced tuner can be found for under $30. Look for one that can clamp or lay on the instrument or one with an input jack for use with an optional wired tuning pickup. A tuning pickup can be clamped to one of your tuning pegs for tuning in noisy environments. Try before you buy. Some are slow and/or too forgiving. Others are great. Test the tuner. Make sure it responds quickly and surely and it can decisively display out of tune for a string that is just slightly out of tune. A good feature is auto-off so you don't drain the battery.

Some Other Useful Items -- Music stand (a local favorite is one that can be set very low, with a tiltable top). Webbed no-slip material (used for shelves and rugs) to place on your lap to keep the dulcimer from sliding. A noter (small wooden stick) will allow you to play noter-style by fretting and sliding on the melody string(s) with the noter. String cleaner. A stand so you can keep your dulcimer out and play it often (a very tall guitar stand can often be modified to hold a dulcimer by placing a cloth bag or sling over the bottom prongs).

A Short Checklist
Here's a short version of this checklist. Print it and take it with you when you shop so you won't get distracted by pretty soundholes!

1. Wood -- solid or plywood? If plywood, solid wood top?
2. Construction -- strong; no glue spots, gaps, or cracks; nice nut, bridge, finish.
3. Tuners -- quality, smooth moving, geared or with fine tuners.
4. Fret spacing -- 6+ fret? Good scale length for the size of your hand?
5. String spacing -- frettable pair, some room at edges, spaced well, extra slots.
6. Fretboard flatness -- examine frets, flat string test, sight down fretboard.
7. Intonation -- get in tune (DAdd or DAaa); octaves (7), chords, scales.
8. Action -- about a nickel high above fret 7, nut slots close to fret height.
9. Sound -- does it have a nice sound, soft and loud, fretted and unfretted?
10. The practical side -- any special deals, return/exchange policy, warranty?
11. Accessories -- case, strings, easy DAA/DAD book, cassette, video, pick, capo, noter.

Here are some chords to try on a DAdd-tuned dulcimer:
            Unison    D Chords      G chords      A chords
D(bass)       0      0  0  0  2    0  3  3  0    1  1  1  4
A(middle)     3      0  0  0  3    1  1  3  6    0  2  2  2
dd(melody)    0      0  2  7  4    3  0  5  5    1  1  4  1
Here are some chords to try on a DAaa-tuned dulcimer:
            Unison    D chords      G chords      A chords
D(bass)       4      0  2  0  4    0  3  0  0    1  1  1  4    
A(middle)     0      0  0  3  3    1  1  3  3    0  2  0  2
aa(melody)    0      3  3  5  5    3  3  3  1    0  0  2  4

Carolyn Scheppner is a computer programmer and amateur musician living in Pennsylvania. Do you have comments or questions about this article? Contact Ms. Scheppner directly by e-mail. To learn more about her see the Contributors section of Sweet Music Index.

A website of interest:
dulcimer player's news
The essential periodical for the mountain dulcimer player.