Chris Peterson
Hammered Dulcimer, Guitar, Original Music

Buying a Hammered Dulcimer

If you're shopping for a hammered dulcimer for the first time, be prepared for a little "sticker shock." Since hammered dulcimers are a niche market, big companies have no incentive to make or import them, so nearly all are made one at a time by skilled craftspeople. The down side is that there's no such thing as a really cheap dulcimer; the least expensive student models start around $250-$300, and go up as you add a case, stand, and other accessories.

Ironically, this is also good news. Regardless of price, almost all hammered dulcimers are tunable and playable, and retain a fair portion of their value. I like that.

What Should You Buy?

There's no easy answer, but if you're new, a lot depends on how much you have to spend, and how sure you are that you'll keep playing.

At their most basic, hammered dulcimers come in two sizes:

  • The 12/11, so named for the number of string courses on the treble and bass bridges, respectively. This size covers 2-1/2 octaves from G below "Middle C" and going up from there. This is generally considered to be a "student" dulcimer, but many experienced players have them because they're relatively easy to carry.

    Along those lines, a 12/11 is good if you drive a small car or don't drive at all. Some 12/11s are fairly heavy, but others weigh as little as 8-10 pounds and are easy to carry almost anywhere. Some even fit in the overhead compartments of airplanes. The 12/11 is also good for kids, who may be too small to carry a large instrument.

    If cost is a big factor, consider a 12/11 with a laminated soundboard. The best-known ones all sound similar, so all you really need to worry about is stability and price.

  • The 15/14 is a good, all-around size for most dulcimer music. Starting at D below Middle C, it covers a range of 3 octaves. A few are built with laminated soundboards, but most have solid wood soundboards, which will give you better tone and volume. There's a lot more variety among this size in tone, design, and wood choices, so comparison shopping is definitely in order. Prices run from about $600-$1,000, depending on complexity of design, wood choices, and visual ornaments, to name a few factors.

    If you're pretty sure that you're going to stick with the dulcimer, this may be a good starting size. Many people who start on a 12/11 find it limiting after a while and trade up to a 15/14 anyway, so it can make sense to buy the 15/14 up front if you have the funds.

A few builders expand these basic sizes to 13/12 and 16/15, adding an extra course at the top of each bridge. All else being equal (tone, price, quality), these are better choices, as they give you a few extra notes you may want, especially the high E.

Some other dulcimer choices include:

  • Larger and/or "chromatic" dulcimers are available, but they can cost a lot more money, and they can vary greatly in layout of the extended range and "accidental" notes that don't appear on a standard 15/14. I've seen at least one decent extended range model selling for around $800, but most cost $1,000-$2,000, with some custom models costing even more.

    A common recommendation in the dulcimer community is to buy as much dulcimer as you can afford, and if money is little or no object, there's a certain logic to this. But your taste may change as you progress, and if this happens, then you could end up buying another dulcimer eventually anyway. (I speak here from personal experience.)

  • Used dulcimers are a great way to buy a lot of dulcimer at a reasonable price. I got my first one (a Dusty Strings Apprentice, laminated 12/11) from a local music store that rents student models and "turns them over" every once in a while at used prices. There may also be dulcimer players who've outgrown their student models and would like to sell them. Although good dulcimers will hold their value fairly well, nearly all of them will depreciate somewhat, and you might be able to find a very good bargain. Just exercise more caution, since you won't always know the dulcimer's history and probably won't get a warranty.

  • Finally, consider renting a dulcimer to start, if you can. That way, if your "dulcimer jones" is short-lived, you won't be out too much money. Rentals are usually 12/11 laminated models, and some stores that rent them will let you apply some of your rent toward the purchase of a new dulcimer if you buy from them.

    Recently, some of you may have heard of hammered dulcimers that are "true" chromatic models, with all the notes lined up as they are on a piano. For some information on two of them, click here.

Scratch-Built and Kit Dulcimers

Scratch-built and kit dulcimers get attention as low-cost alternatives but can be iffy propositions, especially if you've never built a musical instrument before.

The kit's biggest selling point -- a low price -- is also its main problem. The price drives the quality of design and materials, which drive quality control in the building process in turn. Then there's the buyer's skill, which is often not high enough to build a quality dulcimer under the best of circumstances. And if things don't work out, there's little or no recourse since kits are usually sold without any kind of warranty.

These factors are only increased with a scratch-built dulcimer. Building one this way allows you to buy higher quality wood than you'd get in a kit, but that could drive the cost as high as a pre-built model, maybe higher.

In either case, there's also the question of time, and how much yours is worth. Is it reasonable to save $50, $100, or even $200 on a dulcimer that you can't even play until it's been assembled, finished, and strung up?

The bottom line is: Do you want to build a dulcimer, or play the dulcimer? If building is your priority, then have at it. It may work out nicely, or you may just have a nice decoration for your home, but either way you'll have the satisfaction of having built it. But if your aim is to play, then buy one built by an expert. You'll be happier in both the short and long runs.

General Designs

There are two main hammered dulcimer designs:

  • Fixed Soundboard: The soundboard is glued to the rails and pin blocks.

  • Floating Soundboard: The soundboard rests unglued inside the frame and is held in place by string tension.
Which is better? That's hard to say. Historically, the floating soundboard was believed to resonate better because it wasn't glued down at the edges, while fixed soundboard models tended to be lighter and more compact. But modern design and building techniques have blurred those lines a lot, so your taste is really the bottom line. Most modern dulcimers have fixed soundboards, but floating boards are not unheard of.

Physical Layout

Although most dulcimers follow the same basic layout (two bridges on a trapezoid box), there are many differences to be found among them. Preferences are purely personal, and may change as you progress.

  • String Spacing is the distance between string courses. The most common spacing is 1 inch on center, but some dulcimers have smaller spacing (3/4" or 7/8"), and a few are larger (1-1/16" or 1-1/8"). Smaller spacing means a little less distance to cover along the bridges, while larger spacing can help with accuracy.

  • The Bridge Valley is the space between the treble and bass bridges, and it's wider on some dulcimers than on others. A smaller valley can make some ornaments and playing across the bridges a bit easier.

  • Strings per Course: Most dulcimers have two strings per course (note), tuned in unison. Some have three strings per course to help increase volume, though this is sometimes limited to the upper range. Some even have four strings per course. On the flip side, some larger dulcimers limit the lowest notes to just one string. These variations are a matter of personal choice, but keep in mind that having more strings will mean more tuning.

  • Symmetrical vs Asymmetrical: Most dulcimers are symmetrical, with a treble bridge that slants in the same direction as the left pin block (angles toward the bass bridge at the top), but a few are asymmetrical, with a treble bridge that is more nearly vertical.

  • Extended Range: A dulcimer's range can be extended by making one or both of the standard bridges longer to hold more strings, or by adding additional bridges to an existing design. The former is clean and logical, but makes the instrument larger. The latter is more compact, but will usually call for different hammering patterns in the extended areas. The high-range additional bridge is almost always on the left because that's where its neighboring notes are. The low-range additional bridge is most often on the left because of available space on the soundboard, but at least one builder puts it on the right, and another offers it on both sides.


Depending on the builder, you may have a choice of different woods for the soundboard, bridges, and end rails. When it comes to the tonewood (that is, whatever wood is resonating), this can alter the dulcimer's tone, so see if you can sample different models.

  • The Soundboard is most commonly made of mahogany, cedar, redwood, or spruce. From what I've gathered, these woods fall along a continuum as listed, with mahogany the warmest, spruce the brightest, and the others falling somewhere in between. Sustain (how long a note rings) tends to be shorter with the warmer woods, and decay (how fast the volume of a ringing note drops off) tends to be faster.

  • Bridges are usually made of rosewood, maple, walnut, paduak, or some other hardwood, and can also affect the dulcimer's tone. Generally, the harder the wood, the brighter the tone and the longer the sustain.

  • The Back can also affect tone. Generally, a solid wood back will resonate more than a laminated one. Since this can result in more sustain, many builders opt for a laminated back even on their most expensive models.

    These are general attributes. Other factors -- mainly design and interior bracing -- can also affect tone. Compare a Dusty Strings D-35 to a MasterWorks 16/15; both are 16/15 models with fixed soundboards of solid mahogany, but their tones are quite different.

  • Rail woods don't generally make much difference in the dulcimer's tone, as they're too thick and narrow to resonate much. Here, the choices will mainly affect appearance and weight.

  • Pin blocks are almost always made of rock maple because of its availability and hardness, and they're usually laminated like a butcher block to increase stability. This is vital for keeping the tuning and hitch pins tightly in place.

Bridge Cap/Saddle

The bridge cap or saddle is a rod that sits on top of the bridge and provides direct support for the strings. There are also bridge caps along the side edges of the soundboard, on or next to the pin blocks.

These days, most bridge caps are made of a hard plastic substance called Delrin, but on some dulcimers, part or all of them may be brass or steel. Metal will give a brigher tone with more sustain, so it's usually confined to the upper end where the high notes need more of this kind of help.


The main tonal concerns of a dulcimer player are:

  • Warmth runs from round, soft tones on one end of the spectrum to clear, bright tones on the other. If you're familiar with both nylon-string and steel-string guitars, the nylon ones are warm, while the steel ones are bright.

  • Sustain is the length of time a note rings after it's been struck. Generally, the warmer dulcimers have shorter sustain than the bright ones. Shorter sustain is best for fast tunes so the notes don't blend together; longer sustain works better on slower pieces where you want the notes to ring.

  • Decay, a correlate of sustain, is the speed with which a ringing note's volume falls off. Here again, the warmer dulcimers have faster decay than the bright ones. Sometimes you can find a happy medium in a dulcimer with long sustain and fast decay.

  • Punch is the power of the note's "attack." On some dulcimers, the notes seem to jump off the instrument and "punch" through any other sounds (like the rest of a band). On others, the notes are gentler and more easily lost in the mix. In a bluegrass band, the banjo has more punch than the guitar.

There's no such thing as a "perfect" dulcimer. If you play a variety of music types and styles, you may need to search for a dulcimer that gives you the best compromise, perhaps leaning toward what you play most. Of course, you could buy more than one dulcimer, but most people consider that cost- and time-prohibitive.


Some other features that can be found on hammered dulcimers include:
  • Dampers are wooden rails that sit atop the dulcimer and, when actuated, press foam or felt pads down onto the strings to damp the sound. When held down, this results in a dry, percussive tone, and they can usually be moderated somewhat. Dampers are not very common because of extra cost and weight, but when used well, they can be a great attribute.

  • A Soundhole Rosette is a decorative piece of wood that's set into the soundhole(s) in the dulcimer's soundboard. Though strictly decorative, a rosette can give a dulcimer a nice, finished appearance, and if you can get a custom rosette, it can personalize your dulcimer, as well.

What To Look For When You Shop

If you don't like the way a dulcimer sounds, you probably won't like the dulcimer no matter how wonderful its other features may be, so focus on tone first.

If you're ordering directly from a builder and you don't live near his or her shop, you'll need to do some homework. And then you'll have to take at least a small leap of faith, because you won't be able to see or hear your new dulcimer until you get it. If this is your plan, try to sample other dulcimers made by the builder so you can get an idea of what you're ordering. Contact the builder and see if anyone in your area has one. You might also find one or two samples at a jam or festival.

If you're on the hammered dulcimer mailing list (a good idea anyway), post questions about different builders and their instruments, preferably with a request for responses directly to your email address. Also, chat people up at festivals and jams. If you hear a dulcimer you're interested in on a record, see if you can contact the musician(s) and get their feedback about them. When you talk to builders or other musicians, make sure you note what kind of music you play and what attributes you're looking for. And ask about how well their dulcimers "opened up" -- that is, whether their sound grew better with age.

Finally, you might want to find out whether you can return a dulcimer if you're not satisfied. This is never the primary concern, but remember that the dulcimer is made of a natural material (wood) that can never be completely consistent, even within the same tree. Sometimes a particular wood lot will produce a dulcimer that's not quite what you've heard or had in mind, and it's nice to know that you're safe if you get an apple when you expected an orange.

When you find an instrument that looks or sounds interesting, play it. Even if you don't know much, play it. A simple scale can tell you a lot if you listen carefully. Then have somone else play it, if possible, and listen from different locations and angles.

Find the same note in two or three places on the dulcimer and compare the sound. The tone will probably be different, but the notes should all be about the same volume. Then play notes on opposite ends of different scales. Generally, higher notes will sound quieter than the lower ones, but there shouldn't be too much difference. Finally, play straight up from bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom along each bridge. Again, the tone will vary along the length, but each note should sound pretty much like the ones just before and after. If one or two notes are especially loud, quiet, fat, or thin compared to their neighbors, or if you get a buzz or some other weird noise, you may want to keep looking.

In used dulcimers, poor or uneven tone can result from old, corroded strings, especially if the dulcimer hasn't been played for a while. If the strings are greatly discolored or corroded and the tone is weak or uneven, it's a good bet that the strings are at least partly responsible. Since strings are cheap and easy to replace, this won't take a dulcimer out of the running, but don't assume that new strings will cure all the dulcimer's ills, either. Just file it away as a factor to consider.

When you've played the dulcimer for a bit, perform a visual inspection. The soundboard is the most important part, so start there. If it's solid wood, its grain should run side to side and be fairly straight and even (this will be hard to see if the soundboard is painted or stained black). Now, come down to the soundboard's level and sight along its surface. Make sure it's flat and even, with no cracks or splits. A cracked or wavy soundboard may indicate a brace that's weak or unglued, or poor care by its previous owner.

Since it's hard to find good tonewood in really wide pieces, most solid wood soundboards are made up of more than one piece of wood glued in line with the grain, so don't worry about glue joints along the sound board, as long as they're tight, clean, straight, and run all the way across the board.

Also, note that a few builders make their soundboards with a modest arch (they're bowed upward slightly). Ask, but don't immediately assume that this is a problem.

Next, check the bridges. Are they cracked or broken? Are there any gaps under the bridges (between the bridge and soundboard)? Either of these things is an indication of trouble. Does it look like the bridges have been glued in place? If so, skip this instrument, because the bridges should never be glued down.

Don't be put off by bridges that aren't abolutely straight along their length; they're not glued in place, and they can shift a little from time to time. Similarly, if it seems that you can't properly tune the strings on the treble bridge (one side is flat or sharp when the other is in tune), this is not usually a big deal; it can often be fixed by carefully shifting the bridge one way or the other. Finally, don't be put off by dents or grooves in the plastic (Delrin) rods under the strings, as they can be turned or replaced easily and cheaply.

Next, check all the glue joints around the instrument. Do they appear to be solid, or are there some separations? Separating joints could spell trouble. If you can feel a glue joint with your finger, especially where the soundboard meets the frame, it might have been re-glued after the instrument was finished. This is not necessarily a problem, and if the job was done by a skilled craftsperson, it may be just fine. But it never hurts to ask.

Now check the overall fit and finish. Does it look professional or homegrown? A smooth finish and clean joints should not be beyond any seasoned builder, and I think they indicate pride in workmanship. Of course, an instrument can look great and sound awful, but generally, good fit and finish is a sign of a good builder.

If a dulcimer looks especially rough, it may have been home-made or built from a kit. Neither is necessarily bad, but you'll have much better luck with professionally built models.

When you're done with your inspection, play the dulcimer again. Listen carefully, not just for tone, but for odd noises that shouldn't be there. If you hear a buzz or other unwanted tone, see if you can track it down; it may be a minor problem. If it's not or you can't find it, move on.

Finally, if you're looking at a new dulcimer, see if you can play one or two others of the same model. Sometimes wood will vary enough that two visually identical dulcimers will sound very different, and you want the one that sounds best to you.

Where to Buy

If there's a music store in your area that sells hammered dulcimers, by all means visit it. Also, check out local festivals, where you might find retail merchants or used instruments for sale.

Meanwhile, here's a short list of builders, in alphabetical order. It's not comprehensive by any means, but simply a "starter" list of builders whose dulcimers I've seen up close and personal, and two of whom I've done business with (James Jones and Michael Allen). All are excellent instruments that would be worth your while to consider, but they differ in tone, layout, features and appearance, so no specific recommendations are offered. For retailers (where applicable), run a web search for the brand name.

For a comprehensive list, visit the Builder's Page on the Official Hammered Dulcimer Web Site.

  • Cloud Nine Musical Instruments, designed and built by Michael Allen. Floating soundboard. Range: student 12/11 through 5-octave chromatic. Sales are directly to the buyer and through retail outlets.
  • Dusty Strings, owned and operated by Ray and Sue Mooers. Fixed soundboard. Range: student 12/11 through 4-octave chromatic, plus the Rizzetta Piano Dulcimer. One of the best known builders. Sales are mainly through retail outlets.
  • James Jones Musical Instruments, designed and built by James Jones. Fixed soundboard. Range: student 12/11 through 4.5-octave chromatic, plus the Linear Chromatic. Many configurations available, with custom work available on all but student models. Sales are directly to the buyer.
  • Master Works, by Wood 'N Strings and designed by Russell Cook. Fixed soundboard. Range: student 12/11 through 3-octave chromatic. Another of the best-known builders. Sales are mainly through retail outlets.
  • Song of the Wood, designed and built by Jerry Read Smith. Fixed soundboard. Range: 3-octave through 4-octave chromatic. Sales are direct to the buyer and through Jerry's shop.
  • Songbird Dulcimers, designed and built by Chris Foss. Fixed soundboard. Range: student 13/12 through four-octave chromatic. A lot of bang for your buck. Sales are mainly through retail outlets.
  • Rick Thum Dulcimers. Fixed soundboard. A new line currenly limited to one 16/16 model. Sales are direct to the buyer.
Best of luck to you!

© 2000 by Christopher W. Peterson.