How to Choose a Hammered Dulcimer


Criteria for Purchasing a Hammered Dulcimer

by Steve Eulberg & Linda Ratcliff

SteveHDAndyOrdination Steve playing a Prelude for an Ordination service. We are fortunate to live in the midst of a sustained dulcimer revival! Today, not only are there kits available for you to build your own, there are a good number of quality builders who have refined the process and are able to make instruments that are reliably good from instrument to instrument and who stand behind their work. In addition, there are also a good number craft or artisan builders who focus on building to order or one-of-a-kind instruments. Finally, there is an active re-selling market from people who are trading up, trading down or simply desirous of others playing the instruments. Here are the criteria I use and suggest to my students when they ask me what they should look for in purchasing a hammered dulcimer.

1.  Beware of DSOs!  (Dulcimer-Shaped-Objects)

At the beginning of the dulcimer revival in the late 1960s and 1970s many people began building instruments that were shaped like dulcimers but were ultimately unplayable.  How can you be sure you DON’T have one of these? a.  The soundboard isn't warped or cracked. b.  The tuning pins are not stuck and can actually change the pitches of the strings, so the instrument is tunable. c.  Even more importantly:  The tuning pins can hold the strings in tune.  If an instrument cannot stay in tune, or requires you to re-tune it every few minutes will be one you will not play. If these criteria are met and you have some other issues, they are probably easy and inexpensive fixes.  Sometimes you can find an old treasure, but remember that you might have to sift through several that are better used as wall art than as musical instruments to find these. LindaRatcliffHDButterflyPalace Linda playing at the Butterfly Palace Our next piece of advice is to purchase as much dulcimer as you can afford.  Consider more than price alone.  You don't want to get an instrument that you'll grow out of too quickly. The next criteria have to do with construction and design:

2.  Floating or Fixed Soundboard?

The soundboard is the piece of wood upon which the bridges rest and which transfer the vibrations of the strings to the rest of the instrument.  In the hammered dulcimer world there are two primary designs for this piece of the instrument. A Floating Soundboard sits on top of the box which is the rest of the instrument and when the strings are removed, can be lifted off. A Fixed Soundboard is glued to the body of the instrument and cannot be removed. What is the difference?  Some builders and players say the Floating Soundboard results in a shorter length of sustain when the notes are played which helps with clarity for faster tunes.  I have played both kinds of don't have an opinion on this design difference.

3.  Solid wood or laminate top?

A solid wood soundboard (or top) will improve the tone of the instrument with age and playing.  A laminate (plywood) top will have the same tone from the day it is built.  There is cost savings when using a laminate for the soundboard.

4.  Tone

There are many words to describe the tone or timbre of an instrument, but in many cases they are used imprecisely.  The type of wood chosen for the sound board, coupled with the wood choice for sides and back and internal bracing will be instrumental (no pun intended) in determining the tone.  I have heard people use these words to describe the tone of different instruments:  bright, dark, warm, sweet, muddy, thick, clear, thin, tinny, rich.   In our opinion, this is the single most important criteria in choosing an instrument.

5.  Sustain

Hammered dulcimers are known for their sustain, or how long the notes ring after they are struck.  This is in part due to the sympathetic vibration of all the other strings of the same pitch, but is compounded by the sympathetic vibrations of the overtones of each pitch. The type of soundboard, the design (floating or fixed soundboard), the internal bracing, the choice of hammers and the choice of tune type all have an effect on the amount sustain you will prefer.  In general, slow airs and hymns can sound wonderful on and instrument with more sustain, and faster fiddle tunes, jigs and reels will sound more wonderful with less sustain. Rick Thum has focused on building instruments for this criteria. [Note:  Some people add the option of dampers to their instrument to be able to have more control over sustain while playing.]

6.  Number of notes/Strings per Course

The next thing that determines price is size:  how many courses of strings does it have (courses are sets of strings that are tuned to the same pitch. We have seen instruments that have between 1-4 strings per course.)

A smaller instrument will have 12 or 13 on the Treble (left) bridge and 11 0r 12 on the Bass (right) bridge.  That will give you about 2-1/2 octaves of the keys of G and A.  This is called a 12/11 or 13/12.

That Standard Sizes are 15/14 or 16/15 which give you about 3 octaves of the keys of D and E.

Then there are instruments that are called chromatic which have some bridge adjustments in the higher register to be fully chromatic for a longer range.

Finally, there are instruments that have 4 and more octaves which have a larger body size and have super bass bridges for the lower notes.

7.  String Spacing?

Another factor to consider is the spacing between the courses.  Some builders build with a broader spacing (e.g. David Lindsey), some with a tighter spacing (e.g. James Jones).  The tighter spacing usually requires hammers with smaller heads in order to be more accurate.  The broader spacing can be more forigiving, but generally adds more size the the box of the instrument.

8.  Weight/Heft

The weight of the instrument is a definite consideration, depending upon the size and stature of the player, whether or not this will be a "parlour" or stay-at-home instrument or one which travels to lessons and festivals and vacations.  The larger the instrument (which gives you more notes to play) usually the heavier the instrument is.  Some builders have been pioneering lighter and lighter instruments, (Masterworks is an example of a builder who is doing this) so shop around.

9. Tuning Scheme

In the United States we have encountered the following Tune Schemes:  5th Tuned, Octave Bass, Piano Dulcimer, and Chord-Based tunings. 5th-Tuned is by far the most common at this point in history across much of the USA.  The relationship of the notes between and across the bridges is is the interval of a 5th. Octave Bass is more common in Michigan.  Bill Webster builds a lot of these instruments.  The Treble bridge is 5th tuned but the Bass Bridge has notes an octave lower than those on the right side of the Treble Bridge. The Piano Dulcimer is one of two chromatic tunings that is gaining a foothold.  Sam Rizzetta designed this style (built by Dusty Strings.)  The bridge caps match the white and black keys of a piano and the tuning is chromatic in a linear fashion. The Linear Chromatic (designed and built by James Jones) seeks to achieve a similar purpose, but is designed like a 5th-Tuned instrument with the chromatic notes included between the expected diatonic ones. Chord-Based Tunings are those used by our teachers Linda Thomas and Bill Robinson, where the Bass bridge is tuned to notes that help with playing certain chords.


These are several of the criteria to balance when choosing an instrument. LindaHDBlueMorphButterflyWe suggest that you play as many instruments from different builders that you can.  Festivals are an excellent chance to see the instruments from many builders.  Talk with every hammered dulcimer player there.  Ask them: "What do you love and not love about your instrument?" "Which instrument do you dream about and why?" "Can I play yours please?" In our experience, dulcimer players LOVE to talk about their instruments and allow other players to try them out. In the end, you'll need to save your shekels and purchase the instrument that can help you play the sweet music in your soul.  If we can help, let us know!




where do you advise me to go to purchase a hammer dulcimer ?
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Steve Eulberg

Hi Bob, I (Steve) am a Dusty Strings Dealer and can help you choose the model you wish if you are interested in their dulcimers. The links in the blog post to the other dealers' websites can help you if you are shopping online. has a classified section if you are looking for a used instrument. Why don't you write me at steve@dulcimercrossing about where you are located and I can give you further tips about physical stores which might be in your neck of the woods? Steve
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Steve, my wife is currently taking class for mountain dulcimer, but originally she wanted to learn hammered dulcimers. what kind of hammered dulcimer would you recommend & what instructional book? She currently play piano, guitar, Mountain dulcimer & reads music notes.
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Hi Steve, I'm am looking into learning to play the Dulcimer. But the clincher is I'm an amputee. I only have my right hand. I'm wondering if I can somehow attach a hammer to my left forearm, if it could give me the flexibility needed to use a hammer. What is your opinion on this. I did play the violin, cello, and melodica prior to losing my hand. I am located in New Port Richey, Florida. I'm looking for a smaller unit tat is transportable because I travel. Any suggestions? You can email me at Thanks, Madison
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Steve Eulberg

Madison, thanks for your question! If you have a prosthesis for your left forearm which can accept attachments (or which can be fabricated to do so), I am certain that you could accomplish this! I love to use Sam Rizzetta's flexible shaft carbon fiber hammers and I believe these would give you the flexibility that could give you the broadest range of timbre as you play. Typical hammer motions includes all the joints: shoulder, elbow and wrist. Please let me know how I can assist you further! Sincerely, Steve
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Steve Eulberg

HI Mike, so sorry that I missed your comment until now! I am a Dusty Strings dealer, so know those instruments best. Many of my students have Maddie MacNeal's "You Can Teach Yourself Dulcimer" by Mel Bay, but (caveat) many of them also want the assistance of a teacher to help is all make sense. has got a great set of Absolute Beginner lessons for hammered dulcimer, too, which I recommend. I hope this helps!
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