UK's No 1 Hammer Dulcimer Maker Tim Manning
 

 

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One of my early Dulcimers (from about 1994).

If you really want to know about Dulcimers in the UK. The best source is David Kettlewells website. David Kettlewell' s doctoral thesis was 'The Dulcimer' (1976, now with updates!) It's so good remember to come back here afterwards. It also has lots of pictures of old Dulcimers.

Compared to David Kettlewell the informaton presented here is insignificant and academically, probably completly flawed. All I do is make the things and i've learned a few bits and pieces along the way.

History

My understanding is that the invention of the Dulcimer is usually attributed to the Ancient Persians whose empire included some areas now occupied by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we cannot be very clear but it seems to have come from somewhere in that area. The earliest visual representation of a Dulcimer is in a 12th century manuscript made in Byzantium. The instrument was introduced into Western Europe in the 15th century. Because of the versatility of the instrument, it’s ease of adaptation to different musical scales, it’s portability, and the explosion of travel. it spread to many different cultures and became a very popular instrument throughout many areas of the world.

This one is from about 1996 or 97

The Hammer Dulcimer is a member of the Zither family of instruments, instruments having strings stretched over a box type frame but without a keyboard. Other members of the Zither family are Psaltery, Auto-harp, Qanun(North Africa) and Koto (Japan).

Nomenclature

The name Dulcimer comes from Greek and Latin dulce-melos meaning sweet sound but this name for the instrument is only used in English speaking countries. Interestingly, in Greece the word Santuri, (the instrument played by Zorba, in the book ‘Zorba the Greek’) is apparantly related to the Ancient Greek word psallo (to pluck). In Iran the name of instrument is Santur >and in India, Santoor, (same name different spelling). Yang-ch’in meaning foreign string instrument) is used in China, in Central Europe, Hungary Etc., Cimbalom and derivatives of that name are used. In Germany the instrument is named Hackbrett which is also the name for a butchers chopping board, the look of someone playing a Hackbrett resembles someone, chopping at a chopping board. 

Dulcimer type instruments exist in many areas of the world and usually consist of a trapezoid box, whose strings, in courses (sets) of 2 to 6 are usually divided by a bridge. The bridge splits the strings into two portions, on some instruments both sides of both bridges are playable, although more usually, the left (or treble) bridge is playable both sides. The Bass bridge is played to the left, and to the right side of this bridge are a set of unplayable notes, because they are often out of tune with the instrument.

The essential difference between Dulcimers of different countries is the way the instruments are made and tuned, this combination is what gives each member of the family a different voice. While this is true, it is also possable with minor amendments to technique and minimal adjustments to the instrument to create passable attempts at sounding culturally different.

In this country the interval between the left and right portions of the strings passing over the treble is usually a fifth. In other countries they may be tuned anything between a semitone and an octave apart. Strings passing over the bass bridge are frequently only played on the left side. On Music Magic Dulcimers, the bass bridge can be played either side, the interval across the bridge being two octaves. The advantage of this is that the sympathetic vibrations, which are an essential element of the Dulcimer sound, are more harmonious, being musically related. Previously, these strings had sounded, high pitched, slightly random notes that were only useful for special effects!

On Dulcimers, the treble bridge is to the left of centre, the bass bridge to the right. The lowest sounding strings, as on most musical instruments, are the longest. The longest strings are those to the left of the bass bridge and closest to the player.

 

Generally, the higher pitched notes are those furthest away. The highest sounding strings are the strings to the right of the bass bridge and furthest away from the player. Strings pass over one bridge and under the other. The usual method of playing is to hit the strings with small wooden sticks. These are the hammers. A variety of different hammer techniques like drumming techniques are used to produce chords, arpeggios, rolls and single notes.  Non traditional techniques, such as brushing the instrument with things, or plucking the strings with the fingers, or a plectrum, produce interesting and pleasing results.

 

 

The name Dulcimer (sweet sound) could feasibly be applied to any musical instruments, although perhaps on reflection not a Digeridoo. Over time confusion has arisen. A completely unrelated instrument which is played by strumming the strings has unfortunately, and confusingly, also acquired the name Dulcimer! This other Dulcimer imposter is really a development from the French and Belgian instruments Eppinett des Vosges. Other similar instruments exist which were originally of Northern European origin. To avoid confusion this other instrument is usually given a prefix such as ‘Mountain’ or ‘Appalachian’.

Epinettes des vosges manufactured by Christophe Toussaint

One of my Appalachians, you can see the similarity.

Metamorphosis

The Psaltery, an instrument designed for plucking had become the instrument upon which the Harpsichord was based. When the keys of the keyboard are depressed a mechanism automatically plucks the strings allowing very full chords, and contributing to the development of the keyboard layout. Unfortunatly, this method of note production did not allow for an expressive instrument like the Dulcimer. Of course composers and instrument makers did their best to overcome the lack of expression in the Harpschord but eventually the piano became the most important instrument in the history of music.

 J F Schröter the inventor of the early piano was a friend of Pantaleon Hebenstreit who designed a large Dulcimer (and whose name Pantaleon was given to that particular instrument). Pantaleons instrument had very long, and wound, bass strings. The general effect of the size on the instrument coupled with the long strings must have produced a very full sounding instrument.  J F Schröter's greatest achievement was in designing a key mechanism that struck the strings like a Dulcimer and had a damping mechanism that prevented all the strings sound sympathetically. Schroter cited Pantaleon Hebenstreit as his influence for his Pianoforte. The name Pianoforte (quiet, loud) shows what an effect the instrument had on music making, and expression, the ability to play loud and quiet must surely be one of the most important elements in music making. 

The Piano became such a successful instrument that its forbear the Dulcimer became very much a forgotten instrument. In fact, in England today surprisingly few people are even aware of the instrument, despite the fact that the sound of the dulcimer is still around them. The instruments are used frequently on television adverts and in background music for television plays and films. My ears are probably highly sensitively tuned to pick up the sound of dulcimer family, but I am constantly surprised at the frequency of use of Dulcimers when the general awareness of the instrument is so low. People alway seem to be so enthralled when they watch a Dulcimer Player.

 Now

Certain areas of the world still retain the Dulcimer as a very popular instrument, in particular Iran where there are daily broadcasts of Santur Classical music. In India, the Santoor player Shiv Kumar Sharmer led the way to classical acceptance for the instrument. whereas previously it had only been regarded as a Folk instrument. His method of playing allowed the instrument to be played in the classical style. He uses the instrument to play Ragas; where, in the tradition of Indian Classical music the instrument imitates the human voice.

In Indian pop music the instrument is used frequently alongside other modern sounds. The instrument has also been popular with film composers such as John Barry and Lalo Schrifrin for use in TV and Film music scores. I think my first experience of the Dulcimer was its use in John Barry’s theme tune to the 70’s TV drama The Persuaders. I have heard Dulcimer family sounds used by Rap and Hip-Hop musicians such as ‘Dr. Dre’ and ‘The Herbaliser’ and even pop diva Britney Spears. ‘Portishead’ the Trip-Hop band from Bristol had a huge hit with what was essentially a simple Dulcimer sample (originally composed by Lalo Schrifrin composer the original sound track to mission impossible) with their song ‘Ghosts’. Musician and Composer Geoff Smith recently received an award for his compositions for Dulcimer.

Dulcimer Hammers

The sticks used to play the instrument are refered to as Hammers and can vary a great deal. Some of the variables are ;- the amount of bounce they have, how long they are, whether they have felt or leather on the bottom, how heavy they are etc. Dulcimer-family players of different countries use extraordinarily different types of hammers.   

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