How to Play the Dulcimer

by Ragtimelil

Have you ever wanted to play an instrument but thought it was too hard? The dulcimer is one of the easiest of instruments to learn to play.

The dulcimer is a fretted, plucked or strummed, and sometimes bowed, folk instrument that goes back centuries. Most people associate it with the Southern Appalachian instrument introduced by the Scotch-Irish around the 1800s. Many were, and still are, handmade and vary widely, some having as many as 12 strings. The most common are the 3 or 4 stringed instrument. My dulcimer is a 4 string with the melody string doubled. I do have a slot in the nut where I could move the second string over and play with four separate strings but I never bothered. I’ve got enough to do with what I have.

Update: 1/1/13 Link to a tune by yours truly.

Understanding the Dulcimer

The dulcimer is probably the simplest instrument to learn to play. Even children can learn a tune in a matter of minutes, but because of its unique qualities, it does require some study to understand it and learn to play it well.

Dulcimer Most instruments, like a guitar or piano, are chromatic, meaning they have all the notes on them in half steps. It’s up to you to play the right one for the key the tune is in.

The dulcimer is a little different. It is a modal instrument, rather like a harmonica, that only plays in one key and generally has to be retuned to play in another.

A modal scale is referred to by a name such as Lydian, Ionian, or Dorian that lets the player know which notes are in that scale. For instance, one of the basic tunings used for dulcimer is D-a-d (mixolydian in D) with the bass string first, middle string next and melody string last. Other common tunings are Daa (ionian in D) and Dac (aeolian in D).


Tuning Up

 To tune the dulcimer, you need a reference, either another instrument that is in tune or a pitch pipe, tuning fork or electronic tuner.

  • dulcimer tuning pegsTune the bass string to the D below middle C on the piano, or open 4th string on the guitar. Tighten the string to raise the pitch, and loosen it to lower it. Sometimes humming the pitch  helps.

  • Press the bass string just to the left of the fourth fret. Pluck this note, A, and tune the middle string to it.

  • Press the middle string just left of the third fret, D, and tune the first or melody string to it. If you have two melody strings, tune them both to this D.

If you’re using a tuning fork set to A, tune the middle string to A and fret it on the third fret. Tune the melody strings as above and tune the bass string to this note an octave lower.

Dulcimer Needs

D'Addario J64 4-String Dulcimer Strings

D'Addario Dulcimer strings contain 3 plain steel strings and one nickelplated steel wound on steel string.

View on Amazon

Intelli IMT500 Clip-on Chromatic Digital Tuner for Strings

The Intelli IMT-500 clip on chromatic tuner is designed to tune electric and acoustic guitars, basses, violins, banjos, mandolins and more without interference from ambient room...

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Fender 346 Shell Guitar Pick Thin 1 Dozen

These large rounded triangle picks provide 3 edges to use. When one wears down, just switch sides. The wide body provides plenty of surface to hold and the rounded tip has a nic...

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Not to Fret

Your scale in mixolydian will start with the open strings. Strum the strings open and then finger each fret on the melody string up to the 7th fret. When you get to the 6th fret, you will have either 3 small frets or 1 small and 1 large fret. The newer dulcimers have what is called a 6 ½ fret added between the old style 6th and 7th fret. This gives the ability to play a half tone and makes the instrument much easier to play. Skip the 6th fret, play the 6 ½ fret and the 7th fret. You have just played a major scale, the old do-re-mi. Now do it again and play the 6th fret and skip the 6 ½ fret. Notice the difference.

6th Fret

Build Your Own Dulcimer

I built my first dulcimer myself
Appalachian Folk Dulcimer Plans - Ful...

How to Hold the Dulcimer

playing the dulcimer

There are many styles of playing the dulcimer. There is no right or wrong way. If you just browse though selections on YouTube, you will see folks holding the instrument on their laps, on a table, standing up with a strap and strumming up or down or plucking with the fingers.

I learned to play from books by Jean Ritchie who was one of the leading champions of the dulcimer. I put the dulcimer on my lap (what’s left of it) and I also use a strap to keep it from sliding off. The melody strings are closest to me. Occasionally I will fingerpick a tune, but generally I strum toward my body with my right hand and finger the frets with my left hand. I don’t use a noter but many do. It gives it sort of a bottleneck guitar sound.

Traditionally, according to Ritchie, the dulcimer was strummed with a turkey quill. I don’t have a lot of turkeys hanging around so I like to use a large, medium soft guitar pick. When I don’t have one, I cut one out of a plastic lid. Finding the right stiffness is the challenge. I tend to play hard and will break a pick that isn’t right for me.

Let's Play!

Here’s a simple tune you can play.  Each slash is a strum separated by a line and the numbers are the fret you put your finger on. The dashes mean continue to hold the fret down while strumming. The 3* sounds really good if you place your finger across all the strings - a barre chord.

If you learned a slightly different version of this tune, by all means, play it the way you know it.


Banks of the Ohio


  / / /  | / / / / | / / / / |  / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / /  | / / / / |

  001  2----     2002   1-----    1112   3*----   3*444   2  --- - 


  |/ / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / || 
    2224  4-----   4224   3*---   3*4---   2----    2321  0----- 0


Tunes and Tuning

You can also try to figure out the notes yourself by humming or singing songs you know. Here’s some that work in mixolydian tuning.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Go Tell Aunt Rhody
Old Joe Clark

Some tunes won’t work in mixolydian. To tune to Ionian in D, simply tune the melody strings to match the middle string so you will have DAA for notes.  Now your scale will start on the third fret. Play a scale skipping the 6 ½ fret.

Tunes for Ionian

Amazing Grace
May the Circle be Unbroken
Good King Wenceslas


Whiskey Before Breakfast

Stephen Seifert
I like playing Celtic music on my dulcimer. I've listed a good book with a CD below.

There's some great sites on the internet about playing the dulcimer. One has a great selection of tunes and tablature called Everything Dulcimer. Once you get the hang of tablature, this site will keep you busy for a long time.

Some Relatives of the Dulcimer

Drifting Too Far From the Shore

Bluegrass Gospel

I recorded a short piece with a lousy microphone for all those who insisted they wanted to hear me. I'm no Stephen Seifert.

Drifting Too Far From the Shore

Updated: 01/01/2013, Ragtimelil
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Ragtimelil on 01/10/2013

Hey, sounds like you were on a roll. It just takes practice :-))

Ragtimelil on 08/30/2012

O I hope they do take up the dulcimer. Let me know if I can help out!

katiem2 on 08/30/2012

Oh how cool, both my musically inclined daughters have been very curious about the dulcimer. They watch endless videos about it on YouTube. Great tutorial and very pleasant surprise. I'll be sure to share it with them when they come home from school today. :)K

Ragtimelil on 08/19/2012

It's not really all that complicated once you figure it out (sort of like a computer....) Stephen is a master! I could only hope to play like that someday. Thanks!

Mira on 08/19/2012

Wow, it sounds very nice but complicated. You must be quite accomplished at playing the dulcimer!! I enjoyed the YouTube video at the bottom. Maybe we could hear you, too, play sometime? :-) Right, I see Jo agrees with me :D

Ragtimelil on 08/17/2012

Will do!

JoHarrington on 08/17/2012

I'd love to hear you playing one of these! Let me know when you're on tour in Britain. :)

Ragtimelil on 08/17/2012

Thank you.

zteve on 08/17/2012

Very interesting!

Ragtimelil on 08/17/2012

A voice is a great instrument, and so portable! What instruments do you have?

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