Starting to Play
The mountain dulcimer can be simple for a beginner to play, yet expert players find it a rewarding and challenging musical instrument. Here are some fundamental pointers to get you started.
1. Know the parts of your dulcimer - the peghead, strum hollow, frets, bridge, nut. (Click here to view a diagram of a mountain dulcimer.)
2. Know the names of your strings. On the typical dulcimer the heavy wound string is the bass string. Next is the middle string. The string or pair of strings nearest you are called melody or treble strings.
3. Learn to tune (see Tricks for Tuning). Begin with one tuning, either DAA or DAD.
4. For playing, choose a stool or a chair without arms that is low enough so you can sit with a flat lap. Sit back straight, shoulders relaxed. If you are right-handed hold the dulcimer on your lap with the tuning pegs to the left and the strum hollow to the right. (There are other ways to hold a dulcimer, but this is a good way to start.) This sets you up to fret the notes with your left hand and pick or strum with your right hand. If your dulcimer slips, try putting a piece of non-skid cloth, like a towel, a chamois, or Rubbermaid shelf liner, beneath it.
5. Use a medium-weight plastic flat-pick and practice strumming with your right hand. The more you play the more comfortable with this you will be until it becomes second nature. Let your wrist bend freely and combine this with a little bit of arm movement. Let your arm hang easily from your shoulder. No chicken wings! Try different rhythms.
6. Now start to use your left hand by running your index finger up and down the fretboard. Press the string at every note just to the left of each fret. Notice "landmark" frets. For instance, memorize where the third, seventh and tenth frets are.
7. Play scales, think of a tune you like, or make up a tune and try to play it by ear. Find the notes on the melody string with your left hand and strum across all the strings with your right.
8. Get an instructional book for mountain dulcimer and use it to learn to read tablature. Tablature or "tab" is a diagram of your dulcimer's strings with fret numbers added which enable you to play a song without reading staff music. However, staff music is usually provided for each song for the benefit of those who read music or wish to learn. There are many books of tablature available for the mountain dulcimer. Usually tab appears as three lines, the top line represents the bass string, the middle line is the middle string, and the bottom line is the melody string(s). On these lines are numbers which represent a fret number. Use your left hand to press the string at the designated fret number, strum across the strings with your right hand, and your instrument will produce the proper note (sweet music!). Start by playing familiar tunes which only have numbers on the bottom line (the melody string).
Now take a look at the other sections of Mountain Dulcimer 101, and be sure to browse through Sweet Music Index.
Welcome to the world of the mountain dulcimer!
Heidi Muller is a musician and performer living in Seattle, Washington. Do you have comments or questions about her article? Contact Ms. Muller directly by e-mail. To learn more about her, see the Contributors section of Sweet Music Index.