With only three or four strings and a simple diatonic fret pattern, the Appalachian dulcimer is generally regarded as one of the easiest stringed 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.
The frets of the Appalachian dulcimer are typically arranged in a diatonic scale. Traditionally, the Appalachian dulcimer was usually tuned to CGG or DAA. 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 re-tune 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 half 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.
The Appalachian dulcimer has made it's place amongst American musicians since it's arrival and is being kept alive by every generation. Even some famous musicians of our time play it, including Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper!