hammered dulcimer

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Title: A Victorian Christmas--Jacob’s Ladder (reprise); Robin Petrie, hammered dulcimer. Label: Gourd Music. Format: CD. Catalogue#: GM 125. Track: 13.

Contextual Associations

The hammered dulcimer is a struck box-zither chordophone found widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and North America; the instrument pictured here is representative of hammered dulcimer design as it has developed in the United States. Throughout its history in the United States (the hammered dulcimer was first brought to this country in the early 17th century) it has been associated with ‘folk’ rather than ‘high’ culture, and the manufacturer of the instrument pictured here (Dusty Strings) markets the instrument as appropriate for accompanying traditional fiddle tunes and playing old-time, bluegrass, and dance music. Training on how to play the hammered dulcimer has never been institutionalized; instead, performance knowledge has been passed on informally largely within families, communities, and informal networks of enthusiasts. Many other varieties of hammered dulcimers were brought to and can still be found today in the United States by waves of European and Asian immigrants; however, the remainder of this article will focus on describing the particular instrument pictured in the gallery. 


The resonator box of this hammered dulcimer is trapezoid-shaped and constructed from wood. Soundboard and backboard are made from thin boards of quarter-sawn sapele wood. The trapezoidal frame (the sides of the box) is made from four pieces of wood joined together: the slanted pin-block sides from sold maple, the parallel top and bottom side rails of sapele. Two soundholes are drilled in the soundboard. Inside the resonator, pinched between the soundboard and the backboard, are two support bars that are located directly below the two center bridges on the soundboard. There are a total of four bridges on the soundboard, two high partitioning bridges called the treble bridge (left center in the image) and bass bridge (right center), and two low side bridges, functioning as nuts, one each located just inside the rows of hitch pins (left side) and the tuning pins (right side). The partitioning bridges have a series of plateaus and valleys carved into them, their bottom face glued to the surface of the soundboard.  The side bridges/nuts are lengths of half-rounded wood with their bottom faces also glued to the soundboard. All the bridges are capped with a rod of a hard material; the caps on the partitioning bridges are segmented and found only on the plateaus, while the caps on the side bridges are continuous. Forty-six steel wire strings of varying gauges (from .016 to .022 of an inch) are organized into twenty-three double courses. Each string has a noose at one end that is looped around a hitch pin along the left side of the soundboard. Each string then makes contact with the cap of the left side bridge, then with a cap on the plateau of either the treble or the bass bridge (but not both), and makes contact with the cap of the right side bridge before being threaded through and wound around a tuning pin that is securely imbedded in the pinblock beneath the right end of the soundboard. Every other string course starting with the lowest one (nearest the camera) runs over the treble bridge and is divided into two useable segments in the ratio of 2:3 (left of treble bridge : right of treble bridge). For example, the vibrating length of the lowest string (nearest the camera) is 32.5 inches (distance between the two side bridges); it is divided by the treble bridge into segments of 13 inches and 19.5 inches, which can be reduced to the ratio of 2:3. The other string courses pass over the bass bridge, which divides them but not into simple proportional segments; only the longer segment to the left of the bridge of each of these courses is used. Four planes of strings result, none of which are perfectly parallel with the soundboard. Because the bass bridge is slightly out of alignment with the treble bridge, the stings contacting one bridge never collide with those contacting the other bridge but pass through the ‘valleys’ of the other bridge. The hammers for the instrument are made out of thin pieces of wood and are somewhat spoon-shaped.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The hammered dulcimer is laid flat on the player’s lap or on a tabletop with the strings facing upwards and the longer edge nearest the performer (as seen in the photo). One hammer is held in each hand, its end pinched between the thumb and index finger. The other end of the hammer is thrust against the strings using a staccato wrist movement. The sound of a struck string dies away quickly, so to sustain a note the tremolo technique is used. The string segments are only struck with the beaters and are not otherwise manipulated, resulting in just one pitch per string segment. Single line melodies are most often performed on this instrument, although simple two-voice passages are possible. The intended tuning of this dulcimer is as follows: left side of treble bridge G-sharp4 - A4 - B4 - C-sharp5 - D5 - E5 - F-sharp5 - G5 - A5 - B5 - C6 - D6; right side of treble bridge C-sharp4 - D4 - E4 - F-sharp4 - G4 - A4 - B4 - C5 - D5 - E5 - F5 - G5; left side of bass bridge G3 - A3 - B3 - C4 - D4 - E4 - F4 - G4 - A4 - B-flat4 - C5. The pitches on the opposite sides of the treble bridge are a perfect fifth apart (e.g., for the first course G-sharp4 to the left, C-sharp4 to the right). The lowest sounding note is G3, the highest D6, giving the instrument a range of two octaves and a fifth. This tuning pattern is not fully chromatic, but it is more than diatonic. It allows a performer to play diatonic music in a number of major keys (G, D, C, and A) and their relative minor keys. The instrument has a fairly wide dynamic range controlled by the forcefulness of the hammering action.


Speculations as to the origin of the hammered dulcimer, based mostly on the interpretation of iconographic sources, have produced conflicting theories. Some situate the instrument’s beginning in the Middle East, others in Europe. At the present time, the arguments for Europe, and in particular Germany and France, as the point of origin seem most convincing, but interpretations are always based on scanty evidence. The instrument, as a generic form, clearly existed in many regions of Europe by the end of the 15th century, and in subsequent centuries proof of its introduction to other parts of the world become evident. As for the precursors of the American ‘folk’ hammered dulcimer pictured and discussed here, regional European forms of the instrument started to appear in North America possibly as early as the 17th century, though there is scant evidence to prove that even in the middle of the 18th century the instrument had much of a presence in the Colonies. 19th-century immigrants from many regions of Europe to the United States introduced numerous varieties of hammered dulcimers to North America, and there is evidence that dulcimers started to be built in America in the early 19th century (the oldest surviving American-made hammered dulcimer was made in upstate New York sometime between 1800 and 1805). Whether carried to America by immigrants or manufactured by American makers, dulcimers were never standardized instruments. Their size, number and coursing of strings, number and location of bridges, and tuning patterns varied greatly, making it impossible to identify at any given historical moment a standard instrument. The hammered dulcimer pictured and described here is not a copy of an extant, quintessentially American instrument; its design is, however, informed by the design features of previous instruments and by the musical practices of its potential users.

Bibliographic Citations

Dusty Strings Harp and Hammered Dulcimer Makers. “Hammered Dulcimer Models, D10,” accessed October 29, 2014: http://manufacturing.dustystrings.com/hammered-dulcimers/models/d10/

Gifford, Paul M. 2001. The Hammered Dulcimer, A History. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Kettlewell, David. 1984. "Dulcimer," NGDMI v.1: 620-632.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

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: double at unison

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: striking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one and two (with partitioning bridge)


38.3 in. length (near edge) 20 in. length (far edge) 14.9 in. width (near edge to far edge) 2.3 in. depth of resonator box

Primary Materials

string - wire


Dusty Strings



Entry Author

Roger Vetter