Appalachian dulcimer

Also:       Kentucky dulcimer      mountain dulcimer      lap dulcimer      plucked dulcimer      

Title: Child Ballads in America, v.1--Hangman; Jean Ritchie, voice and Appalachian dulcimer. Label: Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: F-2301. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The Appalachian dulcimer is a strummed box-zither chordophone of the United States. During the 19th century the dulcimer was found widely distributed throughout rural Appalachia, where, along with the violin, it was used to accompany ballads and dancing amongst immigrant settlers. Up until the 1950s its use was restricted to the music making in these remote rural communities, although a few folk music enthusiasts carried out studies and encouraged players to preserve their tradition. In the 1950s, during the folk revival movement, American folk singers introduced the Appalachian dulcimer to a wider and more urban audience, triggering an interest in the making of dulcimers by hobbyists across the country. Given the number of strings on and the shape of the dulcimer pictured here, it is probably a folk revival period instrument inspired by ones that historically are associated with the state of Virginia.


The elongated oval-shaped resonator is constructed from four pieces of thinly shaven soft wood glued together. The soundboard and back are flat, the two sides gently bent over their length. All these pieces come together at and are glued to internal blocks at the top and bottom ends of the resonator. A diamond-shaped soundhole is cut into the soundboard. Over much of the length of the soundboard there is a narrow raised fretboard  (21 inches long, 1.1 inches wide) with shallow grooves cut across it to accept fourteen brass wire frets. A high bridge is glued to the soundboard an inch from its bottom end, and an equally high nut is glued near its opposite end at the end of the fretboard. A thin but solid pegblock is joined to the top resonator block and is outfitted with a four-unit metal machine head on its backside with lateral tuning buttons. Each of the four metal strings has a noose at one end which is looped around one of two wooden tail pins imbedded in the side of the bottom resonator block. The strings then pass through slots in the bridge and continue over in a parallel plane the fretboard until they pass through slots in the nut. They then are threaded through and wound around the capstan of their machine head, which is used to adjust the string tension. All strings have a vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 27.8 inches.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The instrument rests horizontally on a table or the player’s lap, the pegblock to the player’s left and the soundboard facing upward. The player strums the strings with a pick or quill held in her/his right hand, and presses the nearest one or two strings against the fretboard with the fingers of the left hand or with a wooden rod slider, called a noter, held in that hand. Like most Appalachian dulcimers, the instrument pictured here is fretted diatonically to produce a two-octave mixolydian scale on its melody string/s. The other strings, even though they pass over frets, are used only at their full vibrational length to produce drones. Many different tuning patterns are used, with the mode of the tune being played a major factor in the tuning selection. Dynamically, it is a soft sounding instrument most appropriate for accompanying its player’s singing.


Most likely created by European immigrants living in rural southwestern Pennsylvania during the 18th century from Old World instruments such as the German Scheitholt, the Appalachian dulcimer probably took on its current form in the first half of the 19th century. The oldest extant dulcimer was made in Virginia in 1832, though estate records dating to the 1810s suggest that the instrument was already in existence before then. Most subsequent design changes (such as using machine heads) have taken place since the folk revival movement of the 1950s.

Bibliographic Citations

Rimmer, Joan. 1984. NGDMI v.1: 66.

Long, Lucy M. n.d. “Appalachian Dulcimer” in Grove Music Online, accessed November 3, 2014:

Smith, Ralph Lee. 2010. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. 2nd ed. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

314.122 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - board

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to pressure bridge

String tension control: machine head

Method of sounding: strumming

Pitches per string course: one and multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


36.9 in. length 6 in. width 1.6 in. depth of resonator

Primary Materials

metal machine heads
string - wire

Entry Author

Roger Vetter