The Appalachian Dulcimer

by Denise Coss
February 11, 2003

What is a Dulcimer?
The dulcimer is a fretted zither - any instrument in which strings are stretched over a body that has no neck. The word dulcimer, translates from the Greek "dulce" meaning sweet and the Latin "melos" meaning song, thus the name means sweet song. When the dulcimer type instruments were making their presence in the Appalachians, it is assumed that the English immigrants who came into contact with this instrument named it after their version of a hammered dulcimer. Of course, these instruments are not related, but both have a sweet tone about them. Since the English settlers had never seen this type of instrument before, it is only logical that they would name it after one they were familiar with hearing. The hammered dulcimer had been around for hundreds of years and was very popular in their part of the world. However, the dulcimer's early roots are actually in a European instrument, the German scheitholt.

The dulcimer was made of common wood found in the various areas of construction, walnut, cherry and poplar, and were usually painted, as opposed to the clear lacquer or oil finish they have today. The dulcimer consists of 3 or 4 strings on a diatonic fretboard that is mounted on a sound box, with the sound box having holes drilled in it to make the instrument resonate. Some instruments had frets only under the melody string and others had them across the whole fretboard. Staple wire, broom maker's wire and sometimes iron and brass were used to make the frets. The traditional method of playing is to place it on your lap and strum across the strings with a pick or turkey feather, while pressing on the melody string with fingers or small wooden noter. Of course, finger strumming and picking are also very common ways of playing. The dulcimer took on various shapes during its evolution, the most common are teardrop and hourglass, and became a part of the mountain life, culture and craft.

The fretted dulcimer is one of America's major contributions to the world of music that has been handed down to us anonymously by the people of the Southern Appalachian mountains. Making and playing the dulcimer were living folk traditions of the mountain people that had a substantial past and was being carried on without outside influence.

How it Got to Appalachia
The first wave of settlers into the Appalachians consisted of more German than British origin. Most of these early settlers came to Appalachia by way of the Valley of Virginia, having started in Pennsylvania. Around 1769 the "Wilderness Road" opened up migration thru southwestern Virginia, Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. They were also joined later by the Scot-Irish immigrants and the French Huegonots. The Germans brought with them an instrument called a scheitholz (German pronunciation) or scheitholt (English pronunciation). The Pennsylvania German scheitholt is a diatonically fretted zither - so is the dulcimer. A number of scheitholts have been found in Pennsylvania dating back to 1720, when migration to America was at its peak. Playing of this instrument in the German settlements in Pennsylvania had died out by 1900. A many number of scheitholts have been found in Appalachia , Shenandoah Valley (Virginia) and northeast Tennessee along "The Wilderness Road." They were also found along the "Great Wagon Road" from western Maryland to North Carolina, but this was a relatively small number with the majority being found on the Wilderness Road. It is obvious that this instrument went with the Germans as they migrated into the southern regions.

From Scheitholt to Dulcimer
The 1700 to mid-1800's is the "transitional period" for the scheitholt/dulcimer. During early years of settlement, virtually the only musical instruments on the frontier were fiddles and scheitholts. With the influence of the fiddle music, it is easy to see why the transition from scheitholt to dulcimer would take place. With the scheitholt's fretboard being a part of the sound box, it was not conducive to playing the faster fiddle and dance tunes where you had to strum or bow quickly as this type of playing would damage the instrument. Scheitholts from this time period show damage from this type of playing. The scheitholt was made for the slower hymns being finger picked and occasionally bowed. During this transitional period, modifications were being made by raising the fretboard off the sound box. The fretboard was also hollowed out and sound holes drilled into the top. It was also decided that symmetrically expanding the soundbox and also drilling holes in it would make the instrument resonant even more. Early dulcimer-like instruments were made in the Valley of Virginia, but did not flourish there. Substantial development took place along the Wilderness Road.

Tear Drop Dulcimer or Virginia Dulcimer
The different styles of dulcimer each have a different history. One specimen of the teardrop or Virginia style has been dated as early as 1832. Many of these specimens have been found in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee and some in North Carolina just below the southwest Virginia border, with a slight overflow from southwest Virginia to West Virginia. This style was probably developed in southwest Virginia since more old instruments were found there and then disseminated to the adjoining neighbor states. The teardrop is still a popular style even today.

The Hourglass Dulcimer
As with the Virginia style dulcimer, the beginnings of the hourglass are somewhat obscure. What is clear is that this style instrument centers in West Virginia and Kentucky rather than Virginia and Tennessee. J. Ed Thomas, born 1850 and died 1933, is the first Cumberland maker of the hourglass dulcimer. He started making them in 1871 and would peddle them off a mule cart. He dated each instrument and the oldest one found so far is 1897. Unfortunately, no one ever inquired as to how or where he learned to make them. Mr. Thomas also had connections with the settlement schools. Towards the end of the 1800's and beginning 1900's the settlement schools and craft movements brought the dulcimer to the attention of outsiders.

The Galax Dulcimer
The Galax dulcimer is a large-bodied dulcimer that evolved in the general vicinity of Galax, Virginia, around the end of the 19th century. Its body was wider than most dulcimers and more of an oval shape. It is also mounted on a piece of wood, in effect having its own table. This resonates the sound very well. What is interesting about this dulcimer is not only the shape unique, but the method of playing. All four strings are tuned to the same note. The player uses a noter on the first two strings and strums with a stripped turkey quill at the narrow end of the fretboard. It is played in either Ionian or Mixolydian modes without retuning. Making and playing of these instruments continues to be a living tradition in Galax, Virginia. With the romanticized view of the dulcimer as emblematic of the Appalachian culture, mountain residents preserved the dulcimer and discouraged any further development of the instrument. Since the 1950's the dulcimer has entered folk music, and later pop and country music mainstream. With its sweet melody and easy playability, there is no doubt this delightful instrument will continue to grow in popularity and enjoy a place in American's hearts.

Tennessee Music Box
There is another dulcimer that was made in the southern middle Tennessee area that should not be overlooked. Called the "music box" by the people who made them over 100 years ago, these folk instruments were made from materials at hand. A majority have been found in Giles, Lawrence, Wayne and Perry counties. Family histories date these boxes between 1870-1940. The majority being made early in that time period.

These instruments were mostly constructed of yellow poplar, with some made from pine, chestnut, maple and oak. The lumber was 3/8-1/2" thick with the sound box being 10" - 14" wide, 27-28" long and 3-4" deep. The fingerboard usually was 1 1/2" wide and 1 1/2" thick and was not hollow like the mountain dulcimer. Tinwork forms the nut and bridge and also covering the end grain of the fingerboard. It also covers the strum area to protect the wood. It was common to use an old snuff can for the tin. Eye screws were used for tuning pegs and frets were made with fence staples. Many have small feet underneath to set the box on a table for playing. This also increased the instruments resonance. Sound holes were usually 5 on each side of the fret board drilled into the soundbox. The music box looks to be crude and primitive, but it has a full, rich tone not found in other dulcimers. It is played similarly to other dulcimers by being picked, strummed and even bowed. When it is bowed, it has a sound close to a bagpipe or pipe organ. This instrument has been silent for many years but is enjoying a revival not only in folk music, but also in pop, rock and classical largely due to David Schnaufer's research and career as a recording artist.


Smith, Ralph Lee, The Story of the Dulcimer. Crying Creek Publishers, 1986

Smith, Ralph Lee, Appalachian Dulcimer Traditons. Scarecrow press, Inc., 1997

Long, Lucy M., A History of the Mountain Dulcimer. Sweet Music Index., website: August 2002

Murphy, Michael, The Appalachian Dulcimer Book. Folksay Press, 1976

Conatser, Sandy and Schnaufer, David, Tennessee Music Box History, Mystery and Revival, Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin Special Edition by Tennessee Folklore Society; Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37132. 1998