The Hammer Dulcimer, as a musical instrument, has a long history! It is as old as the instrument translated as “dulcimer” mentioned in Bible passages. [This dulcimer, not the mountain dulcimer, was being described…the mountain dulcimer is much newer!!] And, it has travelled well over most of the world ever since: from the santori in the Greek Islands, the German hackbreit and the cymbalom in Central Europe to the yang ching of China and all the way to the dulcimers which have become so popular in the United States!
The one thing that differs in all these instruments is how the strings are set up and how they are tuned. In some countries, they are tuned to chromatic scales–some even including quarter tones–and the instruments are set up to accommodate this.
This is the way the American instruments have evolved. My first hammer dulcimer only had one center bridge… like the one on the left in the image above.
Because the bridge cuts the strings into two portions, the placement of that bridge determines what notes are possible. While some dulcimers were set up with a fourth interval, what has become a standard is a “fifth” from one side of the center bridge to the other–do up to sol.
So, for instance, if you play the second “course” [grouping of strings] crossing the bottom of the center bridge, on the right side of the center bridge it will be the note D, and the same strings, to the left side of the bridge will be an A.
The actual tuning sequence is that of “do-re-mi” scales…what are called diatonic scales. If you will look at the schematic, you will see the “marker” on the bridge. Starting at that “marker”, on the right side of the bridge, the four “courses” up to the next marker, and then, the same four “courses” on the left side of the bridge–you have an entire scale–an octave. This is what I refer to as the 4/4 tuning pattern: four on one side and then the same four, on the other side of the bridge.
D – E – F# – G – A – B -C# – D’
By filling out the entire center bridge, you can see what notes are available!Look at the ‘markers’ and you can see that there are 3 diatonic scales: D, as shown above, starting on the 2nd course; G starting on the 5th course, and C, starting on the 8th course.
G – A – B – C’ – D’ – E’ – F#’ – G’
C’ – D’ – E’ – F’ – G’ – A’ – B’ – C”
The addition of a second, bass bridge, set off to the right side of the instrument, permits the addition of more notes to the instrument. The strings crossing the bass bridge are, in general, only played on the left side of the bridge. In the Midwest, Henry Ford was a great supporter of “country” dancing, and always had a hammer dulcimer in the bands who played for them. Somehow, the strings on the bass bridge in this regional area are tuned one octave below the corresponding string on the right side of the center bridge.
What has become standard elsewhere is to reitterate the relationship of “fifths” as across the center bridge. So the string which is immediately below and to the right of the center string is one fifth below that note…for example ‘G is the fifth below the D.
You’ll also notice that the “markers” exist on the bass bridge as well. So if you start with the G on the bottom, you’ll find that familiar 4/4 tuning pattern again and you will find a scale of G. And, you will remember that you then have another octave of G starting at that fifth course on the right side of the center bridge!
‘G – ‘A -‘B – C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C’ – D’ – E’ – F#’ – G ‘
The same holds true for C while there is only one octave of the F!
All in all, this gives you a musical expanse of two and one/half octaves! As you can see, it does not include some of the notes so it is not completely chromatic. But the 4/4 tuning pattern is such that when you are playing a tune in one of those keys, you have most of the other notes–accidentals–you would need that fall outside the pattern.
If you look closely, you will also see that some of the notes which appear in different places are actually the same notes. Look at the A, second “course” on the left side of the center bridge. It also appears on the right side of the center bridge on the seventh “course” and on the bass bridge on the ninth “course”! This is one of the beauties of this American standard tuning. It means that if you need to find a note, oftimes you can get it with either right or left hand…or especially, it seems, at the moments when you would be most likely to get your hands tied up in knots!
And, if you are looking for other “modes”, you find them by moving the pattern in which you play. For instance, “Old Joe Clark” is a fiddle tune played in A, and so you would basically play it on the left side of the center bridge because the notes you need for the tune are there. The scale is:
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G – A. You can get this same scale by starting at a marker and going straight up 7 notes!
“Kitchen Girl” is one of my favorite fiddle tunes [and Webmistress Patti’s, too!] and it is played in A and Aminor. So the A part is played with the same scale as above, and the A minor scale is a 4/4 pattern, just on the 6th course on the right side of the center bridge, being placed one course above the marker. So, the A minor Scale becomes:
A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A. You can get a minor scale by starting a 4/4 pattern anywhere one course above the marker, rather than starting on it.
There is much more that could be added to this story…but there are many books available if you want to pursue it further. I can highly recommend Peter Pickow’s “Hammer Dulcimer Book” by Oak Publications.
One of the nicest things about the hammer dulcimer is that you don’t have to know anything about the patterns except where to start them on the dulcimer! Once you are playing, you really don’t have time to look for anything more than the markers which help you to know where you are on the instrument. I find I focus on them and then play around the edge of my field of vision rather than looking at individual courses. By not “looking” at the individual courses, it helps you get the “feel” for how far you have to move your hands in order to get to the next course above or below. Much like any other instrument, the sooner you get the feel, the faster you’ll be away! This is me playing at the 4th John Pearse® String Thing,1999, in Nashville, a concert we throw every year at the Summer NAMM Show. Thanks, Michelle–I really love this photograph!
The notes always sound wonderful on the hammer dulcimer, even if they are not the ones you intended to play! This is the finest quality of our Breezy Ridge® Hammer Dulcimer! Clear, unmuddy notes ringing out–it is this sound that draws most people to this “angelic” instrument.
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