Chris Peterson
Hammered Dulcimer, Guitar, Original Music

General Thoughts on the Hammered Dulcimer

Here are some stream-of-consiousness thoughts, in no particular order.

Body Mechanics

Whether you sit or stand when you play, make sure you're as comfortable as you can be. If you don't have a stand, get one. Try different heights and angles to find the setup that keeps you as loose and relaxed as possible. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and your forearms should be parallel to the floor, for the most part.

When you play, don't forget to breathe. Take a slow, easy breath or two before each tune to remind yourself.

One of my worst habits when I play is tensing up, usually in my shoulders and in my jaw. This wastes energy, so try to be aware of this if you do it, and try to stop. (I'm working on it....)

Be kind to your hands. This is very important, so I'll say it again: BE KIND TO YOUR HANDS. If you're not, they can pay you back in spades, with tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or some other malady. This is especially important if you play other instruments, and even more so if you regularly engage in other repetitive, hand-intensive tasks.

Exercise your hands and wrists regularly, warm them up before you play, and if you're going to play for hours at a time, give yourself frequent rests. When you're alone, try not to play for hours at a time. When you're playing with others, be grateful for the tunes you don't know, because they'll give you time to rest. (I speak from painful, personal experience.)

Finally, if your hands, wrists, arms, or whatever, start to hurt, stop whatever you're doing and get some rest. If the pain returns each time you play, something may be wrong, and you should have it checked out by a doctor.


Holding the hammers properly is a hard lesson to learn. Hold them too loosely, and they'll bounce all over the place. Hold them too tightly, and they won't bounce enough. Actually, if you're doing things right, your grip will tighten and loosen a little as you play, tightening as you flip the hammer up and flick it down, and loosening as it starts to fall and just after it strikes the strings. The differences will be subtle, but they are there.

Keep your hands as close to the strings as possible without scraping your knuckles. When the hammer hits the string, its shaft should be nearly parallel to the soundboard. If you hold them higher, you'll end up stabbing at the strings instead of striking them, giving you less control and a weaker tone.

Generally, your fingers should be doing most of the work (kind of like rubbing two coins together), with some assist from your wrists and just the slightest help from your forearms. If you find your arms moving way up in the air, you're probably working harder than you need to, and losing accuracy in the bargain.

Anticipate each move. When a hammer comes off a string, it should start moving immediately to its next target while the other hammer is coming down.

Try to keep your hands alternating to ensure a smooth transition from one note to the next and help increase speed when needed.

I like having a "lead" hand for hammering -- that is, I like the same hand to hit on each downbeat of the tune. Not everyone agrees that this is necessary, but it helps me find the groove, especially on faster tunes, and it seems to keep me on track with my patterns. Most often, people lead with their dominant hand, but not always; for example, I'm a righty who leads with the left. If you can, it might be to your advantage to lead with your left, since the dulcimer favors that hand.

The Dulcimer

I know this is a pain, but keep your dulcimer in tune at concert pitch. And don't just tune the strings you think you "need" -- the fact is, you need them all, so tune them all. Your dulcimer will sound better and remain more stable, and it'll help your ear for learning and playing. It'll also ensure that you're in tune (or pretty close) at any time, and help you achieve a little bit of discipline.

If at all possible, leave your dulcimer out of its case and set up, ready to play -- you'll be surprised how much more often you'll play if you do. A few words of caution are in order, though:

  • Wooden instruments react easily to changes in temperature and humidity, and extremes can be deadly to them. If it's hot, cold, dry, or humid where you keep the dulcimer, get professional advice before you leave it out. Standard heating and air conditioning will take care of the temperature, but they'll also dry out the air, and you may need to use an instrument or room humidifier. If it's very humid in your neck of the woods, you may need to use a dehumidifier. Your dulcimer's builder can give you the best advice, but a good retailer should be able to help, too.
  • Exercise commmon sense. Keep your dulcimer out of direct sunlight and away from heating and air conditioning ducts and units, and make sure it's in a place where things can't knock it over, spill on it, or fall on it.
  • When you're not playing, drape a blanket over your dulcimer to keep dust down and help keep it in tune.
  • If you have small children or pets who may bump into it no matter where you put it, or if you live where the ground shakes from time to time, make sure you have a good, sturdy stand.

Reading Music

Learn to read music. Some folks avoid this because (a) they think it's too hard, and (b) they're afraid it'll hurt their playing.

The first concern is unfounded. While notation is like a new language, the basics are simple, and there are now many good books that teach it in an easy-to-understand fashion, along the lines of the "Dummies" books. Run a search on the web for "music theory," and you'll probably turn something up.

The second concern is harder to address. I think we've all encountered trained musicians who have a difficult time playing by ear, or even playing something they know without music in front of them. But playing by ear is a skill, just like reading music, and people who are uncomfortable with it just haven't learned it well, or at all.

Remember, new knowledge doesn't push old knowledge out of your brain. If you already play by ear, you won't "unlearn" that skill simply by learning to read music. There's even some evidence that learning new skills and concepts can help keep your mind limber, so you have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain.

Look at it another way: Has literacy ever hurt a storyteller? Of course not. And if you think of a tune as a story, the process is the same. Music literacy will never hurt your ear playing unless you let it, and may well help.

Playing by Ear

Learn to read music (see "Reading Music," above).

Learning two things separately is easier than learning both at the same time, so when you find a tune you want to play, commit it to memory first by learning to sing or whistle it. This doesn't have to be a virtuoso thing, it's just a tool to get the tune in your head before you start to hammer it out. You'll find it a lot easier to work out a hammering pattern if you're not also trying to remember how the tune goes.

Get used to putting your music source away once you've committed a new tune to memory. It'll force your memory to work better, and let you really concentrate on what you're doing, rather than what someone else did.

Some tunes will come easily, others will not, and no tune will happen the same way for everyone. It took me the longest time to get "Kid on the Mountain," only to find that a friend got it in a week.

Get to know your dulcimer like the back of your hand. Learn all the different ways to play a scale (there are at least three for most dulcimer-friendly major and Dorian scales). Learn where notes are duplicated and triplicated to facilitate different hammering patterns. Learn how chords are formed, and where they are. Learn to play chromatic scales (or as much of them as you can on your dulcimer), calling out the notes as you play them, so you know all the notes you have and where they are without having to hunt for them.

When you're not playing, listen. Listen to other dulcimer players, and watch them if you can. Listen to a variety of dulcimer records from a variety of musicians. At festivals, jams and performances, try to watch what others are doing while you listen. If you hear something cool, ask that musician how he or she did it.

Listen to other musicians, too. Fiddlers, guitarists, whistle players, and the rest will all have different approaches to the tunes you're playing, and you can always learn from them.


Find out about folk festivals in your area where there will or might be other dulcimer players. Often, there will be workshops for the dulcimer. And there's always good music and good company.

Add a small, inexpensive tape recorder to your gig bag. As sure as your dulcimer will slip out of tune, you're going to hear music that you can't find anywhere else, and unless you're a prodigy, you'll never remember it on one hearing. If you don't have a tape recorder, you can get a small one with a built-in microphone for around $20-$30 that will work just fine, and it'll be worth its weight in gold (mine is several years old, it's been kicked around a lot, and it still works). Just make sure you get a machine that uses standard cassettes to ensure better sound quality.

If you're new to a jam, sit back and listen the first time out. It'll help you understand whether it's meant for you -- to easy, too advanced, or just right). It'll also help you understand where the jammers' heads are. Some adhere strictly to a set of music traditions, and if you come in with something out of left field (like a hammered dulcimer, in some cases), you'll be disruptive and rude. If you want to mix styles or experiment with the music, find a jam where that's welcome. Everyone will be happier for it.


If you're playing solo, start with something you know well to get yourself settled. If it's a fast tune, start slower than you think you ought to, because chances are that your nervous energy will speed you up.

Plan your set according to the time you're given; if they give you 30 minutes, make it as close to 30 minutes as you can. Time yourself in rehearsal, including anything you want to say between the tunes.

If the music bores you, it's sure to bore the audience, so make your set interesting. Some ideas include:

  • Start with something fast and interesting to grab people's attention.
  • Don't just play slow or fast tunes. Follow a couple of fast tunes or tune sets with a slow piece, and then pick up the pace again.
  • Don't overreach. If you're not sure that you've got that tune down, leave it for a later show. The audience doesn't want to hear you rehearsing. If it's just a single phrase or two that's giving you some trouble, keep a simpler way to play it handy to fall back on.
  • Vary the key as you go along. Don't play more than two pieces in a row in the same key, and if you're playing a set of tunes (like 2-3 reels or jigs in a medley), switch keys during the set. Switch between major and minor keys, too.
  • Don't repeat yourself. If you're playing short tunes that are repeated (and this covers most dulcimer music), don't play any tune the same way twice. If you're in a band, step up on one time around, and fall back to chords or a drone on the next. If you're playing solo, your skill and the audience's patience are your only limits, so be creative. Move up or down an octave, vary harmonies, dynamics, and rhythms.
If you make a mistake in performance, keep a straight face, let it go, and continue playing like nothing went wrong. It'll help keep you from making more mistakes (they'll compound if you let them), and chances are that the audience didn't catch it anyway, so there's nothing to gain by grimacing or swearing or whatever you do when you mess up. All you'll do is let the audience in on it.

If you make a huge, unrecoverable mistake, like forgetting how a tune goes (and this will happen eventually), you still have a couple of options. If you're in a band, stop playing and take a breath to get your bearings. If you time your re-entry well, it'll sound like an arrangement. If you lose it when you're playing solo, just keep the gap as short as possible and remain professional. And if the problem is a common one, resolve to fix it before your next performance.

Another option -- more of a joke, really -- from some unattributed musician: If you make a mistake, do it again and call it jazz.


If you want to play the dulcimer, then play it. Don't talk about it or think about it or plan to do it. Just play it. If it sounds dull and boring, find a way to make it bright and interesting. Try playing a tune in a different key (a simple operation on the dulcimer) or at different speeds or different volumes. Go from major to minor, or vice versa. Or play a non-traditional tune. If you don't have any ideas, talk to other players, or post questions to the mailing lists. There's simply no substitute for playing.

As often as possible, get out and play with other people. It's a lot more fun than playing alone, and it'll improve your skills in ways that you could never accomplish playing to the wall.

A tune is not just a collection of notes that happen to be on the same page, or a set of phrases that are played in some random order. Each tune is like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, so learn each one as a whole. Ride it like a wave through all its parts, through tension and resolution, and your playing will be enhanced even before you add any ornamentation.

Don't be shy -- the dulcimer won't bite or hit you back, so hit those strings with confidence.

DO NOT confuse confidence with volume. Confidence is attitude, an "I meant to play that" assurance that comes through on the softest notes. Loud is just loud.

Silence can be just as expressive as sound, so don't feel that you need to fill every space with notes. As in speech, sometimes what you don't say is as important as what you do say.

Don't let mistakes stop you in your tracks. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, so be patient, but work on getting through those rough spots without stopping.

If practice becomes boring, put aside what you're doing for the moment and play just for enjoyment. If you want to work on something new, then do it, but if you don't, then just play what's comfortable. Start and end your practice sessions with something you know, because that'll make it easier to get into it now and come back the next time.

Don't make yourself crazy hammering away on a tune that isn't working. When I'm learning a new tune, I'll only play it through a handful of times at a sitting until it jells (unless I need it right away for a gig), and then I play other tunes or run exercises. And if I can't seem to get a tune after several sittings, I'll put it aside and go on to another. Drilling a tune that isn't working is tiresome, and it can make you hate both the tune and the instrument very quickly. The tune will come eventually if you give it time.

Have fun. It's very easy to get wrapped up in all the intricacies of playing, from melody to technique to ettiquette. If you lose sight of the fun, you'll end up taking it too seriously and playing will become a chore. Most of us don't make enough money at this for it to be a chore, so keep it fun.


© 2000 by Christopher W. Peterson.