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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

Buyer's Guide for Appalachian Dulcimer - From Riverboat Music(tm),

Unlike most of the other instruments featured on this site, the Appalachian Dulcimer has not been supported by many major musical instrument manufacturers. As a result, we don't have many options to present. The main choices are:

  • Choosing an imported dulcimer based on limited information, and getting something that is mass-produced with very limited quality control made by people who don't really understand the instrument.
  • Finding a regional craftsperson who makes them more-or-less by hand and:
    • Choosing from the dulcimers he's built on "spec," or
    • Ordering the options you want.
  • Finding a used dulcimer in your area at an affordable price.

We're always in favor of shopping the local used market for the instruments we discuss on these page, but the Appalachian Dulcimer is the one where we really recommend you start looking for used instruments first. You'll see why as you read the rest of this page.

We are also trying to find more specific resources to recommend, so please check back. In the meantime, we're publishing these notes as a way to help you get started.

What is an Appalachian Dulcimer?

Sometimes called "mountain" or "lap" dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted stringed instrument that you usually play with it lying in front of you, most often across your legs, though some folks play it standing up, with the thing resting on a special stand. Though its popularity in the United States can be traced to the Scott-Irish settlers of Appalachia, it seems to be related to a German lap zither called a scheitholt that has a much older history. That said, commercial manufacturing of Appalachian dulcimers in North America was almost nonexistant until the mid-1900s "Folk Revival," which brought this instrument and its advocates, like John Jacob Niles and Jean Ritchie, into public consciousness. To this day, all of the better Appalachian Dulcimers you come across are essentially hand-made by regional artisans, even if they are made in "shops" that employ more than one craftsperson.
A high-end, traditional, hand-made McSpadden 'hourglass' dulcimer with the parts labeled.  Click for bigger photo.

Traditional instruments tend to have four strings, and a fretboard that typically plays only the notes of a G scale without accidentals. This is called "diatonic" spacing. It's similar to playing only the white keys on a piano (except that the piano is in C instead of G). As a result, the frets seem to be unevenly spaced compared to, say, a guitar fretboard. Closest to the player's belly is a pair of strings that are tuned the same, and which the player frets to play the melody. The other two strings are drone strings. At least one is tuned a fourth or a fifth from the melody strings.

To both Niles and Ritchie, you played an Appalachian dulcimer by fretting only the melody strings. The irregular spacing of the frets actually helped them play old mountain tunes that were written in different kinds of scales (called modes) that are seldom heard today. Most modern dulcimer builders put in one extra fret called the 6 1/2 fret to make it possible to play a modern D major scale. Some purists think that's "cheating."

A typical Appalacian Dulcimer fret spacing.  The 6 1/2 fret does not appear on older dulcimers. Click for bigger picture.

Many modern players will fret other strings to provide chords. A few modern dulcimers have evenly spaced frets on at least part of the fretboard to make chord-playing easier. This is a rare setup only seen on custom instruments. Again, to some purists, it defeats the purpose of having a dulcimer, but if you gave me one like this, I wouldn't kick it to the curb. I include it only because you may see a dulcimer equipped like this or hear people discussing it.

An Appalachian dulcimer fretboard with extra frets under the 'drone strings' to make playing chords easier.

My own dulcimer playing is restricted to traditional fretting-one note technique, because the dulcimers I grew up with only had frets under the melody strings. In fact, when I choose to add a dulcimer to an arrangement it's because of the drone effect of open strings playing the same note throughout the song. If I want to play chords, I have banjos, guitars, and mandolins at my disposal. But you may want the option, so consider that when you choose or order your own.

Cosmetic and Usability Options

Certain cosmetic and usability features of Appalachian dulcimers have changed over the decades.

  • Head - The original handmade mountain instruments tended to have a scrolled head like a violin with hand-carved pegs. When demand for instruments grew, some builders simplified the scroll to a slotted head - like a classical guitar with one slot, and then to a "plank-style" head (like a ukelele), although scrolled heads are still available on high-end units.

  • Pegs - The hand-carved pegs were replaced with geared tuners, like a guitar's, for more reliable tuning. On some of the best custom instruments, the tuners are replaced with "planetary" tuners - a sort of straight tuner with all the gearing inside, the same thing you see on high-end banjos.

  • Frets - Where the frets go today, there used to be staples (yes, like from a staple-gun). That worked fine when folks only fretted the melody strings. When builders started replacing the staples with frets like a guitar's, they stretched the frets all the way across the fingerboard, enabling chord playing, which you couldn't do before.

  • Sound Holes - With modern computer-driven cutting technologies, it's possible for dulcimer manufacturers to cut ridiculously ornate sound holes into the face of the instrument in a few minutes - designs that would have taken a craftsperson with a scroll saw hours in the "old days." Again, there's nothing wrong with fancy sound holes (as long as they don't reduce the instrument's structural integrity), but they don't necessarily add to the sound of the thing, just the appearance. Let's face it, if "looking cool" is a priority to you, you're playing the wrong instrument anyway.

Here's the fun part: Although my favorite options include full-width frets and a scrolled, slotted head with planetary tuners, none of the options described above affect the sound of the dulcimer at all. The sound depends on the quality of materials, the quality of design, and the quality of construction. So you may find a primitive, stapled, plank head, carved tuning-peg dulcimer that sounds both louder and sweeter than a lot of fancy-looking modern dulcimers with all the "bells and whistles."

About the "Zero Fret" - By the way, I labeled the "0 fret" on the pictures, not because it's important, but because it sometimes confuses people. On guitars and banjos, the nut not only separates the strings by the right distance, it also establishes the "baseline" from which all the fret distances are calculated. On some Appalachian dulcimers, the nut separates the strings, but then there is a fret that actually sets the baseline. Having or not having a "0 fret" doesn't affect the quality if the instrument, it's just something people ask about, so I figured I'd explain it.

Structural Options

The dulcimer's face must be solid. Using laminated back and sides has relatively little effect on the sound. So if that takes $100 off the cost of the instrument, don't feel bad, as long as the top is solid. If the top is laminated, see if you can get the dulcimer for free, because that's about what it's worth.

Choice of wood for the top is important, too. Cedar is the most sensitive (giving a richer sound than other woods), but also the most fragile, so it's usually only available by special order. Spruce is probably my favorite for volume. But many craftspersons striving for authenticity use the hardwoods that were easily available to Appalachian craftspersons a century ago, inclucing cherry, walnut, and sometimes maple. A well-designed walnut-topped dulcimer, like the brown McSpadden instrument near the top of this page will outplay a badly-designed spruce-topped one, after all.

The fingerboard should be very hard since it takes a lot of wear and tear. Also it should be moisture-resistant if possible. So mahogany and rosewood are popular choices. But, again, if you see a walnut or cherry dulcimer and the fingerboard is also walnut or cherry, that doesn't mean you should reject it out of hand.

Shape also plays a role. The most obvious differences you'll usually see is the difference between the "hourglass" shape (like the walnut dulcimer near the top of the page) and the "teardrop shape," like the Black Mountain dulcimer below this paragraph. It so happens that the hourglass shape is a little harder to make than a teardrop shape. And all other things being equal, it's usually a little louder. So if you're looking at a single builders' line, you'll probably see teardrop instruments near the bottom of the price range, and the hourglass shapes near the top. But a well-made teardrop will blow a cheaply-built hourglass out of the water every time.

Black Mountain Teardrop Dulcimer. Click for bigger photo.

Construction is the most important - and often the most invisible - feature of a well-made dulcimer. You can't always tell from the photos that the craft instrument's joints were all carefully hand-aligned, while the third-world instrument were aligned in a jig with an sixteenth-of an inch or more "leeway" in every direction. You can't always tell from photos that the craft instrument used a slow-drying but strong wood glue, and that each glue joint was clamped together overnight, then examined and cleaned before the next stage of assembly, while the third-world instrument used cheap quick-drying glue and was thrown into the case with some of the glue joints still tacky. You can't always tell from the photos that the stain and finish of the craft instrument were hand-rubbed in, while the third-world instrument got a quick spray tan and a pass with a hair dryer. You can't tell from the photos that, after the craft instrument was "done," a team member checked it over closely for defects, waited until all the glue and finish was dry, strung it and tuned it, played it and tuned it again, then loosened the strings for shipping, while the third-world instrument went into the box uninspected, with a quick-and-dirty tuning by an underpaid assembly person who couldn't play the thing if his or her life depended on it.

And here's the final irony - because our regional dulcimer craftspeople build these things as a labor of love, most of them charge far less than their labor and talent is worth, so that the price of a handmade, heirloom quality Appalachian dulcimer is often very close to the price of a mail-order third-world wall decoration.

Buying Used

Depending on where you live, you may be able to fine a nice hand-made unit for half of the price of a new one just by checking Craigs' list or the equivalent in your region. Most of the dulcimers I see on the used market near my home in Ohio tend to be offered by people who saw one at Black Mountain or Pigeon Forge or some place, fell in love with the sound, and thought, "I could play that." Then they got it home and never played it. Such people's misplaced optimism could be your gain. If you decide to shop for one used, see if you can take someone who plays fretted instruments along with you to look the thing over. You may or may not be able to tell if it's hand-crafted by regional artists, or slammed together in a third-world sweatshop. Taking someone who knows stringed instruments along when you go to look at it may help you make a good evaluation.

As an aside, I just searched for "dulcimer" in the Dayton, Ohio area Craig's List and found not one, but seven US-made Appalachian dulcimers within a 100-mile radius of my Springfield, Ohio home. (I found three hammered dulcimers as well, but you can't search for "Appalachian dulcimer," since most people leave out the word "Appalachian" or call it something else altogether.) Four of them are far better bets than any of the third-world dulcimers I've seen online. And one was a professional model, for about the same price as the best third-world model I've seen online. Is it about fifty miles away? Yes. Is it better than ordering online and crossing your fingers? Yes.

Buying Online

99% of the Appalachian dulcimers I would want to own were handmade by craftspeople in this country. I am VERY hesitant about recommending any of the third-world dulcimers listed by online companies like Amazon. I post a lot of Amazon links for other instruments; they just don't list many Appalachian-dulcimer-influenced instruments that I trust.

The fact that Appalachian dulcimers are relatively simple to build means that a lot of folks try to get in on the act, and some are not interested on the musicality of the thing. Lately there's been a flood of third-world imports that cost nearly as much as a good handmade-in-the-US model.

When I order a third-world instrument in the mail, my odds of getting a useable instrument the first time are about 35%. (Yes, I know that bucks the apparent trend of online reviews, but, unlike all the first-timers who post five stars the moment it comes out of the box, I know the difference between "usable" and "shiny.") I have never ordered a third-world Appalachian dulcimer online, but I don't see why the odds would be any different. Buyers have reported things like wrong fret placement, so you can't play the thing in tune no matter what you do, loose glue joints, poor finishes, and missing string pegs. Not to mention the shipping damage that can occur.

Yes, some of the third-world instruments get to the end customer without any of those problems, but you are taking a chance. If you do wind up shopping for an imported Appalacian dulcimer online, make certain you have someone check it out as soon as it arrives. That way if it has poor quality or has been damaged in shipping, you'll have time to return it. If you get one that's messed up, you might even try reordering the same thing. Because their quality is so uneven, the next one might be inexcusably well made. But it's a gamble nevertheless.

Also, pay attention to the length of the cheap dulcimers being sold. A 25-27" string length is fairly standard, allowing the thing to be tuned to what they call D-A-D tuning. Anything much shorter may have to be tuned to another key, which would make playing with other dulcimer players just about impossible for a beginner.

Dulcimer Influenced ObjectsAt the moment, the Roosebeck line is also advertising several things that they call dulcimers that aren't dulcimers by anyone else's definition. These "Dulcimer-Influenced Objects" may be fun to play; they even may be catching on in Pakistan, where Roosebecks are made. But your foray into the world of Appalachian dulcimer will probably be more successful if your first instrument is actually an Appalachian dulcimer. And, whatever you buy, make absolutely certain to get a string player to look it over when you get it in your hot little hands.

The table below is not to sell these items per se, but to give you an idea of what the imported dulcimers that might be worth getting out of the box look like. Again, before you make a decision, check the custom vendors described below, or the Elderly Music link below that one.

Model
Illustration
Where Made
Where Available
Roosebeck DMARSH4
A Pakistani-built full-sized dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
Pakistan
Click to see this dulcimer's availability on Amazon.
Applecreek ACD200
A Romanian-built full-sized dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
Romania?
Click to see this dulcimer's availability on Amazon.

Buying from Builders

Dulcimer players who want authentic, well-made instruments usually shop from craftsmen who still make dulcimers by hand. No, they're not all cheap, but they will be worth playing thirty years from now, which I can't say about many of the third-world dulcimers I've seen so far.

To find a builder near you, try the following link on the Everything Dulcimer Mountain Dulcimer Builders Search Page:

To get a general idea of the kind of dulcimers US craftspersons make, you might check the following pages:

I'm not recommending any of those guys specifically - for one thing, shops sometimes change hands and the products change. But the point is that you can often get a quality regionally-made beginner dulcimer for about the cost of a third-world import with similar features. Depending on the features you want, you can get a professional-quality regionally-made dulcimer that none of the imports match.

Meeting Builders at Festivals - A friend reminded me that many dulcimer-builders take their ware to festivals, where folks can try them out. In fact, folks who can't play can usually find someone who can, so they can compare the sound. To find festivals near you, try the following link on the Everything Dulcimer Mountain Dulcimer Builders Search Page:

Shopping Through Music Stores that Understand Dulcimers - Alternatively, there are a few stores that actually know what these things are and make sure to stock good ones. For example, several of my favorite builders' products are available through Elderly Music's Appalachian Dulcimer pages at http://elderly.com/new_instruments/cats/150N.htm. In addition to being handmade in this country, each instrument is examined and set up by Elderly technicians before it goes back in the box - as opposed to the instruments that come sealed in a box to you straight from a third-world country.

I will list a few Appalachian Dulcimers that Elderly has as of January, 2015. If you click on a link and nothing happens, just click here and keep shopping - handmade instruments come and go.

Model
Illustration
Where Made
Where Available
Black Mountain 58 Deluxe
A US-built full-sized dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
North Carolina
Elderly
McSpadden M4SHCC
A US-built full-sized professional dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
Arkansas
Elderly
Folkcraft Teardrop FSH Hickory
A US-built full-sized professional dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
USA
Click to see this dulcimer's availability on Amazon.
Folkcraft Hourglass
A US-built full-sized professional dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
USA
>Click to see this dulcimer's availability on Amazon.
Folkcraft Teardrop Custom
A US-built full-sized professional dulcimer with solid top.  Click for bigger photo.
USA
Click to see this dulcimer's availability on Amazon.

Sticking With It

Here's the big problem with Appalachian dulcimer - most people don't know what it is and what it does, and you may find out after you get the thing that you're the only person in your county who even cares what it does. Many regions have an Appalachian dulcimer society who encourage each other and learn together. But most folks who bring a dulcimer home from a trip to the mountains never get in touch with such groups. What happens most of the time is that the instrument comes home, comes out of the box a few times, and winds up staying longer and longer in the closet. Yes, it's easy to pick out melodies on one, but you can pick out melodies on a $50 Casio keyboard, and how long is that fun if you're doing it by yourself? Even lessons can only take you so far, if they don't bring you into the path of likeminded and encouraging people.

Unless you're an unusually bullheaded person, the best way to stick with this instrument is to find opportunities to make music with other people who understand what it's good for, and who will be patient with you while you learn your way around it.

The Everything Dulcimer page includes a search feature to find regional dulcimer clubs. Click the following link to get there:

It also helps if you can learn to play songs you like on the thing. And you sing along. Yes, it came into public notice with songs like "Barbara Allen" and "Pretty Polly." But when Cindi Lauper plays "True Colors" or "Time After Time" on the thing, the instrument actually helps her bring a new depth of meaning to the song. Some pop songs can't be played convincingly on the thing, but many can.

The short version is that bringing even the best instrument home in a box doesn't guarantee you'll have enough fun with it to make learning it a priority. Having like-minded people around can help with that. Learning to sing along and put on a convincing performance will really help with that.

Conclusion

However you chose to acquire the instrument coming into your household, we wish you the best, and we'll answer your questions if we can.


Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*

Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.

Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.


*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or didn't check his purchase out as soon as it got to to the house, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't remember where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.

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