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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.

The Folk Music Revival

In the late 1940s, people across the United States became increasingly interested in folk music. They began buying old records of “hillbilly” studio recordings and traditional mountain music. This expanding market made popular once again the recordings of the 1930s and 40s, mostly by John and Alan Lomax. This was the first time many Americans had heard this kind of music, especially the Delta Blues style from Mississippi. In 1952, Folkway Records released Anthology of American Folk Music, complete with 84 songs played by traditional country and blues artists. This revival allowed for tremendous growth in the availability of diverse music through records as well as radio shows in the United States.

The Anatomy of a Dulcimer by N. Kouris

1. The Scroll

The scroll is an ornate carving at the top of the head, or pegbox. It is called the scroll because the usual design is a spiral, similar in appearance to a paper or parchment scroll. This is not the only form that the scroll can take though. There are also examples where the scroll has been carved to look like something else entirely, like the head of an animal, such as a lion, or a horse.

2. Tuning Pegs

The tuning peg is a simple device used to keep the strings at the proper tension. If the strings aren't tight enough or too tight, the tuning of the instrument will be off, and making good music will become much harder. Dulcimers come with different types of tuning pegs. Some have geared pegs, similar to what is used on a mandolin, guitar, or contrabass, while others have smooth wooden pegs similar to those on a violin.

3. Nut

The nut is a piece of material at the top of the fret board that keeps the strings suspended. Without the nut, the strings lie flat on the fretboard, and there is no range of notes.

4. Fret

A fret is a raised bump on the fret board. When a string is pushed down onto a fret, the length of the string is effectively the distance between the bridge and that fret.  This causes the sound derived from plucking, strumming, or striking the string to be a higher pitch, due to the shorter wavelength created by the string's vibration.

5. Fret Board

The fretboard is where the frets are. The strings run parallel over the fretboard from the tailpiece to the pegbox. The frets run perpendicular to the strings and fretboard, and parallel to the nut and the bridge.

6. Upper Bout

Most dulcimers are not uniform rectangles in shape. Most have a shape that is narrow in the middle and ends, and wider in between. The wider part of the dulcimer that is toward the pegbox is called the upper bout.

7. Waist

The narrow section between the wider sections is called the waist. It is called this because it resembles the waist on a human form. Some dulcimers don't have waists. They might be wide in the middle, and then narrow out at both ends instead of having bouts. Some are also uniform rectangular shapes.

8. Lower Bout

Opposing the upper bout across the waist is the lower bout. The lower bout is the wide section of the dulcimer that is located toward the tailpiece.

9. Sound Hole

Dulcimers are hollow. This is to let the vibrating air from the strings enter the body, and then leave through the sound holes. This creates an acoustic amplification effect, making the dulcimer louder so that it can be heard. Without any sort of amplification, acoustic or otherwise, the dulcimer would be so quiet that it would be hard for even the player to hear. Sound holes come in many different shapes.

10. Strum Hollow

Between the final fret of the fretboard and the bridge, there is a section of wood carved from the piece of wood that makes the pegbox and fretboard, and connects to the tailpiece. This carved out section is called the strum hollow. Without this, it is very hard to get the strings to vibrate easily because the wood would be in the way.

11. Bridge

The bridge serves the same function as the nut, but it is at the other end of the dulcimer. Without the bridge, the strings would run over the final fret, and the dulcimer would be rendered unplayable.

12. Tailpiece

The tail piece is where the strings attach the the dulcimer. The tuning pegs, when twisted, pull the string against the tail piece, creating tension. It is this tension, as well as the length and thickness of the string, that determines the wavelength of the vibrating string. Without the tailpiece, there is nothing to hold the strings against, and there is no tension. Try making noises by flicking the loose ends of your shoelaces around and you can start to appreciate why this is an important function.

Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie, “The Mother of Folk Music,” was born to Abigail and Balis Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky. She was the youngest of fourteen children, ten of them girls. Balis played the dulcimer but discouraged his children from doing so. However, Jean Ritchie developed a taste for music, memorizing songs and performing at a young age. She attended Cumberland College, now known as The University of the Cumberlands, and went on to study at the University of Kentucky. She continued to be active in music and participated in many musical groups on the campus. During World War II, Ritchie took up teaching elementary school and in 1946, she taught at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. She continued singing during this time, also playing her guitar and Appalachian dulcimer. After teaching, Mrs. Ritchie helped her husband in his uncle’s shop where they sold three hundred dulcimers, in part beginning the folk music revival. During the 1950s and 1960s, Ritchie went under the alias of Than Hall to avoid conflict with her mother; she also believed her audience would respond better to the topics of her songs, if they thought the songs were sung by a man. Ritchie has sung at locations such as Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. She continued her musical career until 2009 when she was hospitalized for a stroke. She passed away on Monday, June 1st 2015 at her home in Berea, Ky. An obituary is accessible in the link below.

The Making of a Dulcimer by N. Kouris

    The following are the basic steps for creating a double bout dulcimer. These steps will allow for an understanding of the craftsmanship behind creating these fine instruments.

    The first and most important step in making a dulcimer is selecting the wood to be used. Dulcimer makers favor using walnut as it gives the instrument a better sound. Cherry is also an option as well as poplar. Along with the type of wood, the age of the wood is important too. Aged wood has the advantage of being worn and weathered this gives each piece of wood its own unique characteristics and sound. The next step is to cut down the wood so that it is easier to manage and work with. The top, bottom, and sides of the dulcimer are cut to one-eighth of an inch thick. The templates for the tailpiece and scroll are cut into two inch by four-inch blocks, and the fret board is cut out of pieces of three-quarter inch wood.

    Third, the scroll and tailpiece are carved out of the previously mentioned blocks. These two pieces are done before the rest because they are the most time consuming to carve. Each piece is hand carved either with chisels or with a pocketknife depending on the complexity of the design. The tapered holes that will hold the tuning pegs are cut into the scroll.

    Then, the tuning pegs are carved. Each maker develops their own style of tuning pegs. These are hand carved and put into a special tool, which looks like a large pencil sharpener. They will fit exactly into the tapered holes of the scroll. After those two pieces are completed, the next focus is to build the fret board. The fret board is a complicated piece to build because it is usually hollow, forming an upside down “U.” The player notes and strums on the side of the “U” where the underline is shown.

    Next, the sound holes are carved in what will become the top of the dulcimer. This is done first so that cracking and breaking of the wood is avoided. The wood is very thin so putting too much stress on it could end in disaster. After the sound holes are carved, the  top and bottom are matched and the hourglass shape is cut out. This ensures that the shape is identical on both pieces. This is important, as it not only makes the instrument look more appealing, it also reduces vibrations, which could affect the sound of the instrument.

    The eighth step is to sand both the top and bottom. This ensures that all sides are smooth and identical, the top and bottom are sanded to the correct thickness, as cutting them any thinner in the beginning would be a risk. Both pieces are sanded down from 1/8th of an inch to between 3/16th and 3/32nd of an inch. It is at this time that makers place their labels on the bottom so that it will be visible through one of the sound holes. Now that the top is properly proportioned, the fret board can be glued onto the top. It is very important to make sure that the fret board is centered. Not only will the instrument look bad but it may not produce the correct sound. If the fret board is crooked or off center then the strings may not fit, and may buzz or touch each other, preventing playing.

    Once the top/fret assembly is dry, it is glued to the scroll and tailpiece. Again, accuracy is very important. Next, the bottom is glued to the scroll and tailpiece. Now the bottom has to be matched to the top again to make sure that they are properly lined up. Once lined up, the bottom can be glued in place.

    Now, the sides are bent into their curved shape. The sides are one of the more complex pieces of the dulcimer. They have to be soaked first in water for several hours. Then they are bent over heat to shape them into the hourglass design. Then, they are placed into a mold and clamped to dry overnight so they keep their shape. Once bent and set, the sides are put in place. They are slid in between the top and bottom and are aligned properly. They are then glued in place, clamped around the perimeter, and left to dry for twenty-four hours.

    Finally, one final sanding is done and a finish is applied. This last step makes the instrument more esthetically pleasing. The sanding ensures that there are no rough spots on the instrument. The finish, which is a standard lacquer, also helps protect against weather and damage.