Dulcimers, Pickups, And Microphones

Mabel prepares to hook her dulcimer up to an amplifier but does no know if she should use a pickup or a microphone.


There are commonly two types of pickups used on acoustic mountain dulcimers; a soundboard pickup and a bridge pickup.

A soundboard pickup is a piezoelectric sensor that adheres to the soundboard of the dulcimer. This type of pickup translates the vibrations of the wood into a signal that can be run through an amplifier. These pickups are either temporarily mounted to the outside of the dulcimer or permanently installed inside the dulcimer. These pickups will transmit any sound that resonates through the dulcimer including finger-noise, pick noise, or a shirt button brushing against the instrument. For some styles of playing they work well, for others they can pick up a lot of extraneous noise.

The simplest and least expensive option is a removable, external soundboard pickup. These are applied with a putty or double-stick tape that comes with the pickup and requires no modification to your dulcimer. One does need to be careful when removing the pickup to avoid damaging the finish.

If you like the sound of a soundboard pickup you can also have one permanently installed in your dulcimer and wired to an end pin jack. An end pin jack is a strap button that also receives the cord going from the pickup to the amplifier.

A bridge pickup is piezoelectric sensor that replaces the bridge of the dulcimer; the bridge itself becomes the pickup. A bridge pickup transmits the vibrations of the strings and avoids the extraneous noises that may occur when using soundboard pickups. In my opinion bridge pickups are a better choice if you plan on running your dulcimer through effects pedals.

A bridge pickup must be installed on the dulcimer. Depending on the construction of your dulcimer this procedure may require having a slot cut in your fretboard to receive the bridge pickup. If your dulcimer already has a bridge mounted in a slot the slot may or may not be of the right dimensions so again some modification may be necessary. The bridge pickup will also be wired to an end pin jack.

With either type of piezoelectric pickup the sound can be enhanced by using a preamp. The preamp allows for control of tone and volume and can help give the pickup a more natural sound.

Pickups make it easy to get a lot of volume but I prefer the natural sound achieved by using a microphone. A microphone “listens” to the air set in vibration by the dulcimer in a similar manner to an ear.

When performing solo I simply use a microphone on a stand. When performing in small ensembles I have used a small microphone mounted on the dulcimer near a sound hole and have been happy with the results.

There are many opinions about which pickups, microphones, preamps and combinations of pickups, microphones and preamps work best. What is important is to find what works best for you.


Dulcimers, Action And Playability


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.

Body Symettry for Dulcimer Players and Woodworkers

Physical therapy is a wonderful thing. It has helped me continue to play dulcimer and hammered dulcimer as well as standing at the bench and working with hand tools.

I have a chronic physical challenge I have to deal with but many aging musicians, woodworkers and luthiers face a similar issue; doing something you love causes or aggravates physical discomfort.

symettrical dulcimer playingWorking with a good physical therapist taught me how to use my body in ways that work better. At times the learning curve was frustrating. The switch from playing hammered dulcimer standing up to sitting down and having the instrument at a steep angle was awkward at first. Over time I found I can play longer and with less pain.

I’m still experimenting with the height of my workbench.

My style of playing slower tunes on the hammered dulcimer often involves using my hands independently. As a result my left arm is extended more than the right. The muscles in my left arm and shoulder work much harder than those in my right arm.hammered dulcimer symettry

When hand planing wood I have the opposite problem. My right arm gets a wonderful workout but the left arm does not.

A physical therpaist will evaluate and treat each person’s unique situation as needed. A common theme is to help people use their bodies symmetrically.

One exercise I do is to simply reverse the way I do things so the other overworked side of my body gets to relax while the weaker side gains some strength.

At the hammered dulcimer I have worked up some pieces and exercises where I lead with the right hand instead of the left.

At the bench I have been learning to do some left handed planing (I’m right handed). I would not do anything critical at the bench leading with my non-dominant hand at this point. I have found planing scrap lumber left handed entertaining, amusing, humiliating and a great work out for the weak muscles on the left side of my body.Symettrical planing

Give it a try!

Dulcimers – Three, Four or More Strings?

play dulcimer with three separate strings. Many dulcimer players use a doubled top string and a single middle and bass string.

I have assumed that the doubled top string probably came about to give the melody more volume against the drones when playing in the traditional style.

mouthbow As dulcimer playing evolved and melody and chords were played using all three strings I think the doubled top string remained as a vestige of the traditional style. If playing the melody solely on the top string I think the doubled string makes sense.

I prefer the ease of action and evenness of sound from string to string that three separate strings provides.

I have heard many players do wonderful things with four separate strings.

And six strings (three courses of 2 strings) is always fun.

Any opinions? What do you prefer?

As an instrument maker I offer all string arrangements.

Exercises for Hammered Dulcimer Players


Musicians spend a lot of time with their bodies in postures specific to playing their instrument. This can cause a number of physical problems such as stiffness, fatigue, cramping and chronic pain.

If a musician has a physical condition that exhibits similar symptoms the side effects of playing an instrument can exacerbate the symptoms making it much harder to comfortably play. This has been my situation for quite a few years.

doughdI find it difficult to play the hammered dulcimer for an extended period of time; it aggravates some physical problems I must deal with.

Since I was determined to keep playing I have found a number of things that are very helpful.

I’d like to share some exercises that have made a world of difference for me. I have shared them with musicians and friends who have found them helpful as well.

I use these three exercises before I play and during breaks. It makes a world of difference!

This exercise helps keep my upper back and shoulders loose. It really helps with some of the aches from having my arms out in front of me when playing hammered dulcimer.

back exercise1

This exercise stretches my entire back. It especially takes some of the edge off of my hips and lower back

exercise 3

I do this exercise before and after a session of playing. It gives my entire body a bit of a work out and gives the muscles I don’t use when playing something to think about!

back exercise 2

I found these and several more exercises on a page I highly recommend for anyone with back trouble. It can be found here.