Frequently Asked Questions
I put together this list of questions I see in my inbox somewhat frequently in hopes that it might be a useful (albeit incomplete) resource.
If you don't see the answer you were looking for below, please know that in addition to private lessons over Skype, I do a monthly live Q&A on my Patreon page every month. I also post new instructional videos on dulcimerschool.com
Who built your dulcimer?
I have a few dulcimers that I use for recording and performing. My primary dulcimer that I've used for the last 10 years or so was built by David Beede and I particularly love it for flatpicking.
For fingerstyle, I recently acquired a nylon string dulcimer made by Bob Stephens that is one of the most exciting instruments I've ever played. From a technical and tonal perspective, this instrument is a game-changers.
As a good all-arounder, I have a Folkcraft with a top notch pickup with onboard preamp for full control in difficult outdoor gigs. This has become one of my favorites to travel with. It's built like a tank and can handle pretty much anything the road throws at it.
Another all-arounder I use is one made by Mike Clemmer. It's diatonic (with no extra frets), great for teaching beginners, and one of the best values on the market for someone looking for good tone without a huge price tag.
I also play a Bella Mountain Dulcimer setup with steel strings made by Tony Vines that's uniquely well suited for fingerstyle playing to my ear as well as a Custom McSpadden that I keep setup with 4 equidistant strings.
Some of the dulcimer hybrids and extras include a banjammer made by Mike Clemmer as well as a partially fretted small box dulcimer made by Mike. My baritone dulcimer was built by Gary Gallier, a bass dulcimer that gets used heavily on my recordings by Blue Lion Instruments as well as a double bass electric dulcimer built by David Beede.
In general terms, I like my standard dulcimer to have a scale length of 25" or so. For traditional playing, I'm comfortable with McSpadden Dulcimers and the 28.5" scale length.
What strings to do you use?
Elixir brand strings with gauges 0.026 - 0.016 - 0.014
What is your preferred pick for the mountain dulcimer?
Herdim Picks (the blue with three points)
What pickup do you use on your dulcimer?
I use an LR Baggs saddle pickup on some dulcimers (similar to the LB6 but made for a dulcimer), K&K twin dot on others, and a pickup made by David Beede on the one he built.
I’m thinking of having the 1 1/2 fret installed on my dulcimer. How long does it take to get accustomed to having the extra fret?
It really depends on how often you play. I recommend learning some arrangements that use the 1 1/2 fret (or any extra fret being retrofitted to your instrument) as soon as you have one installed. Often times, people add the extra fret and just try to avoid playing it by accident. This seems to set up a mostly negative association with the extra frets.
If you already have a 1 1/2 fret and you're looking for some material, check out the book aptly titled, "1 1/2 Fret"
Why do you sit with the dulcimer tilted up? Is this because you play guitar?
Sitting with the dulcimer titled up has a few benefits and one significant draw back. It's conducive to a more ergonomic position of the fretting hand and allows access to more of the fretboard without having to drastically adjust your body. It also lets your picking hand go more in an up-down motion versus in-out. I find this to be beneficial as gravity is doing part of the work for you.
The draw pack of tilting the dulcimer is that it makes using the thumb a little less natural though definitely impossible. The thumb generally helps get big stretches over the fretboard and is extremely useful especially when playing most of the melody on the high treble string.
For those reasons, I tend to think that traditional style and most chord-melody playing is best suited to a flat or semi-flat position. On the other hand, flatpicking and styles that utilize all the strings for melody are often best suited to the tilted up/angled position. Having said that, people blend styles all the time and ultimately it's a matter of preference.
As to this being relative to my guitar playing, mountain dulcimer came before guitar for me. As a result, my dulcimer playing tends to influence my guitar playing more so than the other way around.
Do you play your banjammer just like a dulcimer?
Yes and no. It's got the same fretboard as the dulcimer and I navigate it the same way I do the dulcimer. However, the dulcimer has very different strengths from the banjammer. I find modifying my technique and using a lot of pattern based ideas to work well when fitting into an ensemble. I find it beneficial to make FAR less use of the drone and strumming in general on the banjammer.
For more on the banjammer and other banjo-dulcimer hybrids, check out The Banjammer Book
I’m thinking of playing the mountain dulcimer because I heard it’s easy. Is that true?
I don't think dulcimer is any easier than guitar, mandolin, or any other fretted instrument depending on what your playing. Having said that, one of the strengths of the mountain dulcimer is making very simple melodies sound good... in my humble opinion. As a result, simple melodies tend to be the prevailing repertoire in the mountain dulcimer community.
Further, given that mountain dulcimer is mostly diatonic and not chromatic like guitar, mandolin, or banjo (meaning it doesn't have "all the notes") it's easy to walk up to the dulcimer with zero musical experience and playing something that sounds pleasant.
Not having all the notes, is also what makes this potentially complicated when you try to arrange classical, jazz, bluegrass, etc, on the mountain dulcimer. The limitations that make it easy are also what it make it hard in certain contexts.
So, is it easy or hard? It really just depends on what you're trying to play.