Hammered Dulcimer – Keeping It Simple

When I first began playing hammered dulcimer around 1975 the most common instruments had 12 courses over the treble or center bridge and 11 courses over the bass or left bridge. Hammered dulcimers are often described by the number of courses over the various bridges. The dulcimer described previously would be referred to as a 12/11.

I first learned on a 12/11 and it proved to be a versatile and intuitive instrument. phdulcimerThe lowest note was G below middle C and it played easily in D, G, C, F, A and all the modes and relative minor keys based on those scales. The various scales offered enough notes that could be borrowed to get most of the accidentals I needed and in a pinch I could retune one or two courses to give me a note outside the usual pattern.

I played a number of 12/11 dulcimers through the mid 1980’s. During this time most other professional players were playing dulcimers that were 15/14, 17/16 and the various chromatic dulcimers that often had a few extra bridges.

I began to follow the trend and played a 17ChBlkH&Swonderful Cloud Nine 15/14 for a few years. Then Michael Allen of Cloud Nine made me a fully chromatic dulcimer that went down to G an octave below middle C. I loved the extra bass notes and these instruments inspired new directions in my playing.

Over the years I have developed some back problems that are aggravated by playing the hammered dulcimer. In my search for ways to overcome this I occasionally would play a smaller dulcimer, usually a 13/12.

At first I missed the lower notes but I soon found a physical and musical comfort that had escaped me for a cimbalomwhile. Playing a smaller dulcimer had an ease and familiarity that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The lack of lower range caused me to be more creative with harmony and chord voicing. There is an intimacy I feel with the instrument that escaped me when playing a large dulcimer; there is less distance, in a manner of speaking, between myself and the instrument.

I also appreciate having less strings to keep in tune and less weight to haul around.

2 thoughts on “Hammered Dulcimer – Keeping It Simple

  1. Hi Jack,

    Thanks for the information. Interesting to hear that the octave bass tuning is used in Scotland. I have a small 13/12 I use fairly often. That extra course at the top makes it possible for me to play most of my repertoire thought I do have to transpose the key on some pieces

    All the best,


  2. Hi Doug, I know you wrote this a while back but I thought I’d tell you my solution. I play a 12/12 and like the smaller size and weight. I wanted some lower notes, so I tried changing to the old octave bass tuning. That’s what was used in Scotland and I think you probably know it as “Michigan tuning”. This gives me a low note of C below middle C and three octaves in D. It felt a bit strange at first but only really took a few weeks to get used to. It’s not for everyone but it works for me.
    I also bought a small Rick Thum Wren (13/12) as it is small and light, and retuned the bass on it. Works fine.

Comments are closed.