Appalachian Dulcimers

Name: Appalachian Dulcimer.
Type: Plucked Zither > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 314.122.5
Specimen: 1 in collection.
Country: United States.
Region: North America.

Description: The Appalachian dulcimer is a plucked fretted stringed instrument of the zither family. It has its origins in the Scots-Irish immigrant communities in the Appalachians.

History: The fretting of the Appalachian dulcimer is traditionally diatonic although experiments in other fretting arrangements are being introduced including an Appalachian dulcimer with a fully chromatic fretboard. Although the Appalachian dulcimer first appeared in the early 19th century among Scots-Irish immigrant communities in the Appalachian Mountains, the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or Scotland.

Origins: Because of this, and a lack of written records, the history of the Appalachian dulcimer has been, until fairly recently, largely speculative. Since 1980, more extensive research has traced the instrument’s development through several distinct periods, and likely origins in several similar European instruments: the Swedish hummel, the Norwegian langeleik, the German scheitholt, and the French épinette des Vosges.

Construction: Because few historical records of the dulcimer exist, the origins of the instrument were open to speculation until recently when Ralph Lee Smith and L. Alan Smith reconstructed the instrument’s history by analyzing older dulcimers. The organological development of the dulcimer divides into three periods: transitional [1700 to mid-1800s] pre-revival or traditional [mid-1800s to 1940] and revival or contemporary [after 1940].

Charles Maxson an Appalachian luthier from Volga, West Virginia, speculated that early settlers were unable to make the more complex violin in the early days because of lack of tools and time. This was one of the factors which led to the building of the dulcimer, which has less dramatic curves. He too cited the langeleik, scheitholt and épinette des Vosges as ancestor instruments.

Tunings:
D A D 3 Stringed 3 single courses.
D’D A D 3 Stringed 1 Double course 2 single courses.
A D A D 4 Stringed Four single courses.

String Order:
3 String – Three string three single courses.
4 String – Three courses, two single-stringed and one double.
4 String – Ozark Configuration – Four individual strings.
5 String – Two double stringed and one single-string.
5 String – Four Courses: One double-string three single-string. The double string course is the melody course.

Citations: Long, L. M.; The Negotiation of Tradition: Collectors, Community, and the Appalachian Dulcimer in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1995.

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