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|Other names||Mountain dulcimer, lap dulcimer, fretted dulcimer,|
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|Other names||Mountain dulcimer, lap dulcimer, fretted dulcimer,|
The Appalachian dulcimer (or mountain dulcimer) is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. Its origins are in the Appalachian region of the United States. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and its fretting is generally diatonic.
Although the Appalachian dulcimer first appeared in the early 19th century among Scotch-Irish immigrant communities in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or Scotland. However, several diatonic fretted zithers exist in Continental Europe that have a strong similarity to the dulcimer. Jean Ritchie and others have speculated the Appalachian dulcimer is related to similar European instruments like the langeleik, scheitholt and épinette des Vosges.
Dr. Lucy M. Long cites in her well-regarded dissertation, "A History of the Mountain Dulcimer": "Because few historical records of the dulcimer exist, the origins of the instrument were open to speculation until recently when Ralph Lee Smith and L. Alan Smith reconstructed the instrument's history by analyzing older dulcimers. The organological development of the dulcimer divides into three periods: transitional (1700 to mid-1800's), pre-revival or traditional (mid-1800's to 1940), and revival or contemporary (after 1940)."
Charles Maxson, an Appalachian luthier from Volga, WV, speculated that early settlers were unable to make the more complex violin in the early days because of lack of tools and time. This was one of the factors which led to the building of the dulcimer, which has less dramatic curves. He too cited the langeleik, scheitholt and épinette des Vosges as ancestor instruments.
Few true specimens of the mountain dulcimer exist from earlier than about 1880, when J. Edward Thomas of Knott County, Kentucky, began building and selling them. The instrument became used as something of a parlor instrument, as its modest sound volume is best-suited to small home gatherings. But for the first half of the 20th century the mountain dulcimer was rare, with a handful of makers supplying players in scattered pockets of Appalachia. Virtually no audio recordings of the instrument exist from earlier than the late 1930s.
The Appalachian dulcimer achieved a renaissance in the 1950s urban folk music revival in the United States through the work of Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky musician who introduced the instrument to New York City audiences.  In the early 1960s, Ritchie and her partner George Pickow began distributing dulcimers made by her Kentucky relative Jethro Amburgey, then the woodworking instructor at the Hindman Settlement School. They eventually began producing their own instruments in New York City. Meanwhile, the American folk musician Richard Fariña (1937–1966) was also bringing the Appalachian dulcimer to a much wider audience, and by 1965 the instrument was a familiar presence in folk music circles.
In addition to Amburgey, by then winding down his production, influential builders of mid-1960s included Homer Ledford, Lynn McSpadden, A. W. Jeffreys and Joellen Lapidus. In 1969 Michael and Howard Rugg formed a company called Capritaurus. As well as being the first to mass-produce the instrument, they made design changes to make the instrument easier to produce and to play. The body was made larger, and they installed geared tuners, rather than traditional wooden pegs, to make tuning easier for players.
With only three or four strings and a simple diatonic fret pattern, the Appalachian dulcimer is generally regarded as one of the easiest string instruments to learn. The traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and pluck or strum the strings with the right hand, while fretting with the left. Alternatively, the dulcimer may also be placed on a wooden table, which can boost volume. The instrument is generally strung with the melody string (or string pair) on the player's side of the instrument, and the bass string on the outside.
In traditional play, fretting is achieved with a "noter" — typically a short length of dowel or bamboo (see photo at left) — on the melody course, while the middle and bass strings ring as unfretted drones. This style of play is now referred to as "noter-drone" play. In some traditions, players use a feather quill with the barbs removed to strum the instrument. The frets on early mountain dulcimers were usually simple wire staples spanning only half-way across the fingerboard, meaning only the melody string course could be fretted. By the early 1960s, many dulcimer makers had abandoned staples in favour of manufactured fret wire extending across the entire width of the fingerboard. This enabled players to fret all the strings, allowing for chording and an expanded melodic range. A variety of new, "noter-less" playing styles emerged now collectively referred to as "chord-melody" play. The emergence of full-width frets also compelled makers to fret their instruments in equal temperament. The fret patterns on the older half-width-fret instruments rarely adhered to equal temperament, and intonation varied from builder to builder. With a simple melody played against the drone, these idiosyncratic scales could add warmth and a distinctive flavour to the music, but the old non-standard fret patterns often produce unacceptable dissonance when chorded.
Using modern dulcimers with full-width frets arranged for equal temperament, contemporary players have borrowed from chord theory and imported technique from other stringed instruments to greatly expand the versatility of the instrument. But a wide variety of playing styles have long been used. Jean Ritchie's The Dulcimer Book has an old photograph of Mrs. Leah Smith of Big Laurel, Kentucky, playing the dulcimer with a bow instead of a pick, with the tail of the dulcimer held in the player's lap, and the headstock resting on a table pointing away from her. In their book In Search of the Wild dulcimer, Robert Force and Al d'Ossché describe their preferred method as "guitar style": The dulcimer hangs from a strap around the neck, and the instrument is fretted and strummed like a guitar. They also describe playing "autoharp style" where "the dulcimer is held vertically with the headstock over the shoulder." Lynn McSpadden, in his book Four and Twenty Songs for the Mountain Dulcimer, states that some players "tilt the dulcimer up sideways on their laps and strum in a guitar style." Still other dulcimer players use a fingerstyle technique, fingering chord positions with the fretting hand and rhythmically plucking individual strings with the strumming hand, creating delicate arpeggios.
The frets of the Appalachian dulcimer are typically arranged in a diatonic scale. Traditionally, the Appalachian dulcimer was usually tuned to CGG or DAA in a I V V relationship. That is, the key note is on the bass string and the middle and melody strings are at an interval of a perfect fifth above it. The melody string is tuned so that the tonic is at the third (diatonic) fret. This facilitates playing melodies in the Ionian mode (the major scale). The melody is played on the top string (or string pair) only, with the unfretted drone strings providing a simple harmony, giving the instrument its distinctive traditional sound. To play in a different key, or in a different mode, a traditional player would have to retune the instrument. For example, to play a minor mode melody the instrument might be tuned to DAC. This facilitates playing the Aeolian mode (the natural minor scale), where the scale begins at the first fret.
Modern instruments usually include at least one additional fret, usually the so-called "six and a half" fret a whole step below the octave. This enables one to play in the Ionian mode when tuned to DAd, the traditional tuning for the Mixolydian mode, where the scale starts on the open (unfretted) string. This arrangement is often found to be more conducive to chord-melody play. Fully chromatic dulcimers, with twelve frets per octave, are also made, to permit playing in any key without re-tuning.
While the most common current tuning is DAd, some teachers prefer the more traditional DAA or the so-called "Reverse Ionian" tuning, DGd. "Reverse" tunings are ones in which the key note is on the middle string and the bass string is the fifth of the scale, but in the octave below the middle string. This is sometimes suggested[by whom?] as an easier tuning. From DGd one can put a capo on the first fret to play in the Dorian mode, or retune the second string (to A), to play in the Mixolydian mode, then from Mixolydian, capo the first fret to play in the Aeolian mode.
The Appalachian dulcimer is now a core instrument found in the American old-time music tradition. But styles performed by modern dulcimer enthusiasts run the gamut from traditional folk music through popular and experimental forms. Some players exploit its similarity in tone to certain Middle Eastern and Asian instruments. Increasingly, modern musicians such as Lindsay Buckland, Bing Futch, Butch Ross, Cristian Huet in France and Quintin Stephens have contributed to the popularity of the solid-body electric dulcimer. Dulcimer festivals take place regularly in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as the Appalachian dulcimer has achieved a following in a number of countries.
Though the mountain dulcimer has long been associated with the elder generation, it has gradually attracted a number of younger players who have discovered its charms. Because of its ease of play, many music teachers consider it to be an especially good educational instrument. Because of this, they are often used in educational settings, and some music classes make their own dulcimers. However, because of budget, time, and craftsmanship skill issues, these are usually made from cardboard.
Brian Jones, of The Rolling Stones, has played the Electric Appalachian Dulcimer on several Rolling Stones recordings during the 1960s, notably on the recording of Lady Jane. Jones can be seen playing the instrument during their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. One of the most famous players of the Appalachian dulcimer is, perhaps, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who has been playing it since the late 1960s on studio recordings (for instance on her famous album Blue (1971)) and also in live concerts. Cyndi Lauper is also a high-profile mountain dulcimer player, having studied with the late David Schnaufer. Lauper plays dulcimer on her ninth studio album The Body Acoustic, and the tour to support the record featured her performing songs like "Time After Time" and "She Bop" solo on the mountain dulcimer. Contemporary professional musicians who view the dulcimer as their primary instrument include Stephen Seifert of Nashville and Aaron O'Rourke of Tallahassee. Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher used a dulcimer on his later albums.
As a folk instrument, wide variation exists in Appalachian dulcimers.
Appalachian dulcimers are often made by individual craftsmen and small, family-run businesses located in the American South and particularly in Appalachia. Cheap imports from Romania, Pakistan and China are slowly making inroads into the American market. John Bailey's book, Making an Appalachian Dulcimer, is one of several still in print that provide instructions for constructing a dulcimer.
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