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Mountain Dulcimers in the Appalachian Artifacts Collection

Fourteen dulcimers from the Appalachian Teaching Collection in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, with information about their makers, based on the exhibit curated by Student Nathan Kouris.

Contributors and Sources

This guide is based on the summer 2012 dulcimer exhibit project. The exhibit showed in the main gallery of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center from August 2012 through July 2013. Student Curatorial Associate Nathan Kouris selected the artifacts, compiled the information, and photographed the artifacts. Student Curatorial Associate Travis Rigg edited the text, added information, and produced this guide in Summer 2013. Student Curatorial Associate Kathryn Dunn completed additional editing in 2015. Christopher Miller was the supervising curator.  

The information is this guide was drawn from several sources. Special thanks to Dr. Alan Mills and dulcimer maker Warren May, who provided valuable information. We also acknowledge these important sources:

Smith, Ralph Lee. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions

Irwin, John Rice. Musical Instruments of The Southern Appalachian Mountains

Smith, L. Allen Smith. A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers


LJAC Artifact Guides

The Appalachian Artifacts Teaching Collection is held by the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College. For additional information or to access the collection contact Curator Christopher Miller.  Explore more of our virtual exhibits and collections using the links below.

James Edward "Uncle Ed" Thomas 1991.6.1 & 2

This dulcimer (1991.6.1) was made by Ed Thomas of Bath, Kentucky, in 1909. Many consider Ed Thomas to be the originator of the modern form of the Appalachian or Mountain dulcimer.  This dulcimer is signed and dated 1909.

A notable feature of this Thomas dulcimer is the figural carved scroll or pegbox.  It is carved as a animal head, which appears to be a ram, with its tongue sticking out.  At least one other Thomas dulcimer with a figural carved scroll is known. Another notable feature is the wooden case. The case (1991.6.2) appears to have been custom made to fit this dulcimer.  It is constructed of bent oak and lined with green felt.  We don't know whether Thomas, Combs, or someone else made the case.

This Thomas dulcimer was given to Josiah Combs as a gift for being part of the first graduating class at Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky. Combs became a well-known folklorist and folk music performer, touring in the U.S. and Europe with this dulcimer. Recordings of Combs playing this dulcimer are in the Folklife collections of the Smithsonian Institution.  Combs gave this dulcimer to folklorist D.K. Wilgus, who kept the instrument until his death in the 1980s.  Wilgus' widow donated the instrument to Berea College.

Bristol Taylor 2012.11.1

This instrument was made by Bristol Taylor of Berea, Kentucky, in 1904.  It was purchased by Hattie Bishop Speed and donated to the Speed Museum around 1912.  It has nearly identical proportions and construction to Ed Thomas' dulcimers, suggesting perhaps that Taylor copied a Thomas.  It is made of white oak, not a typical wood for dulcimers.  Because of its local and Appalachian connection, the Speed Art Museum transferred it to Berea College in 2012.

Bristol Taylor 2012.11.2

This instrument is unmarked, but nearly identical to 2012.11.1 except for the choice of wood, so it is believed to have been made by Bristol Taylor of Berea, Kentucky, around 1904.  It also was also purchased by Hattie Bishop Speed and donated to the Speed Museum around 1912.  It has nearly identical proportions and construction to Ed Thomas' dulcimers, suggesting perhaps that Taylor copied a Thomas.  It is made of black walnut.  Because of its local and Appalachian connection, the Speed Art Museum transferred it to Berea College in 2012.

Jethro Amburgey 1976.13.14

This instrument was made by Jethro Amburgey of Hindman, Kentucky. A paper label inside says: " #93 / Jethro Amburgey / Cody , Ky. / June 4, 1938." It has an unusual provenance.  The dulcimer was owned by Appalachian author James Still. In the 1970s it was damaged during a flood of Troublesome Creek in Hindman. Still gave the instrument to Loyal Jones, then Director of the Berea College Appalachian Center. Jones had the instrument repaired by Mr. Raymond Layne of Berea, Kentucky. Layne reproduced some missing pieces and reassembled the instrument.  

Homer Ledford 2010.28.1

This instrument was made by Homer Ledford of Winchester, Kentucky .  It is number 1,549, made in August 1968.  It is made of 150-year-old yellow poplar from church pews, and was originally purchased by Ms. Beverly Jones.  It is a four stringed instrument, a trait Mr. Ledford began employing during the folk music revival.

Warren A. May 1997.34.1

This is an early Warren May dulcimer, number 1,062, made January 18, 1981, in Berea, Kentucky.  Mr. May loaned this instrument to the Berea College Appalachian Museum for student employees to play for museum visitors.   It was used this way from about 1984 until 1998. Mr. May donated the instrument to the Museum in the 1990s.

Isaac D. Stamper 1981.1.1

I.D. Stamper is best known known for playing of the banjo and dulcimer.  He did, however, make some instruments. This one is a classic hourglass shape, but with a very wide body and a high, narrow fret board.  This interview in the Digital Library of Appalachia includes I.D. Stamper talking about making dulcimers.  The Digital Library of Appalachia contains a number of I.D. Stamper interviews and performance recordings.

I.D. Stamper was born in 1904 in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and moved to Kentucky when he was about nine.  He worked in Kentucky coal mines for over 35 years.  He built and played dulcimers and banjos.  

Hubert Rogers 1981.8.1

Hubert Rogers was the subject of an NEH-funded slide show created by the Berea College Appalachian Museum in 1976-78.  Rogers was from Denton, Kentucky. This instrument has a bridged fret board. This technique is uncommon because of its complexity in construction, but it increases the volume of the instrument. The technique involves scalloping the back of the fret board to decrease contact with the soundboard. The sound board is the top piece of wood. The less the soundboard is able to vibrate, the less the sound will be amplified acoustically. When the amount of contact  between the soundboard and the fret board is reduced, the soundboard is able to vibrate more.  Normally, the fretboard is affixed directly to the instruments soundboard.

Hubert Rogers 1981.8.2

Hubert Rogers, Denton, Kentucky, made this instrument during the production of an NEH-funded slide show created by the Berea College Appalachian Museum in 1976-78.  Slides of Rogers making the instrument and recorded interviews are available in Hutchins Library Special Collections and Archives.

John M. Hall 2001.6.1

This dulcimer may have been made by John M. Hall of Hazard, Kentucky, perhaps in the 1960s. Hall was the cousin of famous folk singer Jean Ritchie. He is said to have based his design on the dulcimers of Elihue Blair.

Leonard Glenn 1976.11.17

This instrument was made by Leonard Glenn, of Sugar Grove, North Carolina, July 11, 1969.  It was owned by noted labor organizer and musician Si Kahn.  The reverse curve from the nut to the first bout is special to instruments from North Carolina and West Virginia. It also has a distinctive use of "tiger's eye" or "flamed" maple for a top.

W. W. C. 1992.1.1

This straight-sided box dulcimer is marked "W. W. C. 1905."  The maker used American chestnut.

Maker Unknown 1985.4.7

Single bout dulcimers originated before the popular hourglass shape.  While single bout dulcimers are still made today, they are not nearly as popular in Kentucky as their double bout counterpart. Single bout dulcimers remain popular in other regions, such as Southwestern Virginia.

Maker Unknown 2001.6.2

This narrow, straight-sided instrument is a sheitholt, considered by many to be not a dulcimer, but a close relative. The style is thought to be of German origin and many consider it to be the inspiration for the Appalachian mountain dulcimer.  This instrument was built in Berea, Kentucky, perhaps around 1900-1910.