The hammered dulcimer is one of the oldest stringed instruments. Generally regarded as a kind of psalterium to be struck rather than plucked, this trapezoidal zither most likely originated in the Persian empire around 900 CE, although it is possible that the Irish tiompán, a form of hammered dulcimer, may have existed even earlier (more on this here). Immigrants brought the hammered dulcimer with them to the Americas in the 1600s, where the instrument enjoyed widespread popularity for about 300 years, with names such as "whamadiddle" and "lumberjack’s piano."
Portability was key for for early American settlers on the go (read more here), but less so once Americans settled down and opted for a piano over an instrument they could carry around. Following the folk revival of the 1960s, there has been a resurgence of interest in the hammered dulcimer in the United States, so you might already be familiar with them (We'd love to hear about your hammered dulcimer experiences in the comments).
Many have suggested that the modern pianoforte is a descendant of the hammered dulcimer. In the 1690s, German dulcimer player Pantaleon Hebenstreit created a 9 foot long dulcimer with 200 strings, attempting to combine the dynamic sensitivity of the dulcimer with the range of a harpsichord (which made use of a plucking mechanism). Later, Bartolomeo Cristofori of Italy constructed the first pianoforte (gravecembalo col piano e forte). It was essentially a dulcimer with keys that activated hammers. Though these two inventions might have occurred in isolation of each other, the benefit of using hammers in order to create greater dynamics in tone was clear, and the harpsichord has largely been supplanted by the pianoforte.
The word dulcimer comes from Graeco-Roman dulce (sweet in Latin) and mélos (song in Greek). Not to be confused the Appalachian mountain dulcimer – which is fretted, plucked, and sits on the lap – the hammered dulcimer has a separate string for each note, much like a harp (see comparison here). Typically, the strings are tuned in unison pairs (or courses) which also contributes to the instrument's characteristic volume and ringing quality. As you might have already gathered, one of the main distinguishing features that sets the hammered dulcimer apart are the hammers (example), typically made of wood and held in each hand (although some other implements exist, such as Jim Bows).
You can find the hammered dulcimer featured in all kinds of music: Appalachian folk music, Irish music, as well as Classical music; the genres are limitless. This instrument also has many other names around the globe, including: Santur (in Persian), yangqin (or 扬琴 / 洋琴 in Chinese), cimbalom (in Hungarian), khim (or ขิม in Thai), tympanon (in French), hackbrett (in German) and many more. You can find a wide variety of hammered dulcimers at Lark in the Morning, including those made by Dusty Strings, Songbird, and Master Works.
More information on getting started:
Sizes – When looking at different dulcimer listings on our website, you'll see things like 12/11 or 16/15. The slashes represent bridges, and the number represents the number of strings that cross the bridge on each side. For example, a 16/15 has 16 strings crossing the treble bridge, and 14 crossing the bass bridge. A 12/11 will have about 2.5 octaves in range, whereas the 16/15 will have a range of about 3 octaves (video comparison here).
Tuning – Dulcimers have a lot of strings, so the tuning process can be somewhat involved (as with a harp). The strings are typically wound around square pegs, so tuning is done individually on one string at a time with a tuning wrench. Not all dulcimers are fully chromatic, although chromatic models do exist. Tutorial videos for tuning the hammered dulcimer can be helpful when getting your bearings (example), but there are also phone apps designed to help you get acquainted with the instrument, with or without the toil of tuning (examples). Once in tune, if you keep the instrument in a stable, humidity-controlled environment, the hammered dulcimer can stay in tune for some time.
More handy links to our online store:
View our online collection of Hammered Dulcimers here
Check out our tutorial DVDs for Hammered Dulcimer: