Dulcimer makers and dulcimer players build and play an instrument that has little standardization of design and playing technique. Opinions as to what constitutes a good sounding and playable dulcimer vary from builder to builder and player to player.
The final stage of preparing a dulcimer (or any fretted instrument) for the player is referred to as “the setup.” For most luthiers the final setup consists of leveling and dressing the frets, adjusting the height of the strings at the nut and bridge, compensating the bridge for accurate intonation, making sure the strings are seated properly at the nut and bridge, etc.
What constitutes a dulcimer being easy to play depends on the taste and technique of the player. Here are some general guidelines of setups for different playing styles but these are by no means definitive.
For fingerpicking many players prefer to play with lighter gauge strings with slightly high action. The lighter gauge strings will be more responsive to a delicate touch.
If a player is an aggressive strummer heavier strings are often preferred. Heavier strings produce more volume when strummed and are more taught than light strings so the action can be set lower without buzzes and rattles.
Flatpickers usually prefer heavier strings because they produce more volume and the higher string tension is more responsive to the attack of the pick.
Here is an interesting example of personal preferences for setup. Stephen Seifert recently played and taught in town and we had some time to visit and play together. He mentioned that when he had tried my dulcimers at festivals he found the action too low for the way he plays.
I had a dulcimer I had just finished but had not yet given a final setup. I had planned on significantly lowering the action and in its current state I found it uncomfortable to play.
Stephen tried the dulcimer and said, “This is perfect!.”
The setup can be easily changed. Think of it as similar to putting different tires on a car.
I am always happy to adjust the setup of my dulcimers to meet a players needs. If a dulcimer player plays in a variety of styles or is unsure of what will suit them I offer a standard setup that is quite versatile.