Most mountain dulcimer players can remember when they first saw and picked up a dulcimer. Although these instruments are easy to play and incredibly rewarding, they are still not part of the mainstream musical world. They seem to be America’s best keep secret! Most folks can tell an interesting story about when they first saw a dulcimer as well as when they purchased their first dulcimer and how they learned to play it. Here is one of my first dulcimers; purchased in 2001 at the Bayou Dulcimer Festival from luthier Joe Brown of Kansas. It has a walnut back with a beautiful tiger maple front (the same wood which is often used in violin necks). It is a small, quiet dulcimer — and is not for playing in a noisy jam session; but works well when playing alone at night. I decided to think back to when I first learned the dulcimer — on my own — and write down some playing tips to help new dulcimer players.
Learning to play the dulcimer
In 2001, there were not as many dulcimer instructional books and recourses available for beginning dulcimer players as there now. I remember that a dulcimer musician by the name of Larkin Bryant from Memphis, Tennessee, came to that Bayou Dulcimer Festival that year and taught several beginning dulcimer tunes. I was “wowed” by her playing ability. She had written a dulcimer instructional book which I purchased. I studied the book from front to back as it covered all the topics which a new to intermediate dulcimer player needed to know — strumming techniques, tuning the dulcimer, fingerpicking, music “modes,” tunes and several thorough chord charts. Although the book was written in 1982 with a tenth printing in 1990, it is still just as relevant today as when it was first published. The cover dates the book — but this is part of the heritage of this instrument.
Tips for Beginning Dulcimer Players
With many Covid-19 restrictions lifted and in-person meetings allowed, I decided to teach a series of introductory dulcimer lessons again. It is time that we get out into the community and share our music. Since it has been awhile since I taught these classes, I decided to sit down and write up “Tips for Beginning Dulcimer Players.” These tips are things which I have learned over the years. They are intended to help dulcimer players who are picking up this instrument to play for the very first time.
- The dulcimer is really a “rhythm” instrument; the strum and beat carry the “sound” and make the music come alive. So, the most important tip in playing the dulcimer is to practice the strum with your right hand, playing to the “beat” of the music.
- Practice strumming outward (or inward if you strum in to your body) on each music beat in a consistent pattern. Always strum in the same direction on each beat of the music, strum from your stomach outward. Practice talking and strumming at the same time, so that you can strum without thinking about it. Strum across all the strings, not just the melody string. Use your wrist and lower arm to strum.
- In addition to strumming in an outward manner, remember that there are two sides to a dulcimer pick. You can also strum inwards — towards your body — as the pick returns to your stomach. These “back and forth” strums are very useful as they can greatly increase the speed and efficiency of your playing.
- Hold the dulcimer on your lap with your legs spaced out, pull the right end of the dulcimer in towards your body. See where your arms fall, strum in this location rather than “torqueing” your shoulder and elbow out to reach the strum hollow. Look at the photo of Larkin Bryant. If you are a short person, finding a small foot stool to elevate your lap is very useful.
- Learn the “fret” numbers by studying and memorizing the fret pattern on the dulcimer, rather than taping numbers to the frets. For example, the third fret space is smaller in width. The six, six-and-a-half and the seventh frets are three small frets spaces in a row.
- With your left hand, hold your index finger just behind the fret, keep your finger pressed down, like you are “squashing a mosquito” until you are ready to play the next note. The strings on the dulcimer stop vibrating when you let up your fingers and the sound stops, so hold the fret down until you change to the next one.
- When you are first beginning, playing songs with your index finger only is fine. As you begin to learn more tunes, it is good to play the frets on the melody string with several fingers. Use your ring or pinky finger as “placeholders” and reach higher frets with your index finger. Many dulcimer players use their thumb extensively, especially when playing chords. This is another style of playing.
Here are a couple of other “pearls” of wisdom, which I have learned over the years.
- Playing the dulcimer takes practice like any other new skill. Put the dulcimer in a place where it is obnoxiously in the way — like on your kitchen table — rather than in its dulcimer bag in the closet. That way you will be reminded to practice it daily. Practice a short time daily — 15 or 20 minutes — until you develop callus on your fingers and to avoid overstretching arm muscles. Practicing makes a monumental difference. Playing the dulcimer begins to become “fun” rather than frustrating.
- Play songs which you are familiar with and/or play the same song over and over until you learn it. Listen to compact disks of dulcimer music or You-Tube videos to learn the tunes. I included the children’s tune, “This Old Man,” at the end of this post. This a tune which we can all sing. The tablature includes both outward strums and “out and back” strums on the faster eighth notes. Plus, it helps you learn the lower frets on the dulcimer as the melody moves up and down the fretboard.
- Spend some time early in your playing to learn a few chords to play on the dulcimer — this opens up an entirely new world of musical possibilities.
- Try to play with a group of other dulcimer players, whenever possible. It help you “keep on track” when playing a tune and can be a good avenue for learning songs. Find a “jam” group.
- Invest in an inexpensive tuner. On the internet, you can purchase a chromatic “Snark” brand tuner for under $20. You don’t need an expensive $50 to $75 tuner. Alternatively, have someone else tune the dulcimer for you when first starting out.
- Remember that there are as many styles of playing the dulcimer as there are dulcimer players. Don’t ever let someone tell you that there is a “right” way or “wrong” way to play the dulcimer. What works for one person may not work for someone else — especially with fingering patterns for chords. In my classes, if I give specific instructions — such as to strum both back and forth — or to make a “barre” chord with the pinky, ring and middle finger — it is usually because this technique builds on something else later. In summary, try to keep an open mind about playing this instrument.
Playing music is rewarding on many levels. It is great to play music with others. Here’s one of our weekly jam sessions. The dulcimer is easy to learn and relaxing. Now that the pandemic is over, let’s get out our dulcimers and start playing again with others.
Giving performances for others is a good way for new dulcimer players to get involved. This is one of my favorite gig memories from when our group was first getting started. We were invited to play at the Sinclair Sugar Plantation in Brusly, Louisiana, in Cajun country as part of a sugar cane festival. We were all beginners, but were excited to perform anyway. Charlie Leblanc — the person responsible for getting our fetes started at the West Baton Rouge Community Center — joined us for this gig.
Here’s the children’s tune, “This Old Man.” The song is played entirely on the melody string, but strum across all the strings, with “back and forth” strums on the eighth notes. It is a song which your whole family can sing along while you play. Enjoy!
Here’s the PDF version to download and play: