[Article by Michaela Elias]
It is said that sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are the simple ones. While a guitar has six strings, and a piano has numerous scales, the dulcimer has a mere three strings and a single scale. So why bother? You may ask. What is the appeal of the simple dulcimer, especially when it can only be played in a few keys, making it difficult to play with other instruments? Why would anyone take up the dulcimer when they have the choice of a more complex versatile instrument like the guitar? But in its simplicity, the dulcimer, which resembles the guitar and is basically played in the same manner, is both charming and accessible.
Wayne Jiang and Patricia Delich are two dulcimer players in the process of documenting the Dulcimer Renaissance in the 1970s. “If it was 1940, you probably wouldn’t have heard of a dulcimer because when it first surfaced outside of the Appalachian Mountains, it was rarely seen,” note Wayne and Patricia. But the light, melodic sound of the dulcimer did not go unrecognized for long. As more and more people started playing the dulcimer, the once obscure instrument gained popularity, picking up during the folk revivals in the late fifties and early sixties. “Every dulcimer has its own sound and personality and it’s a joy to see the variations of dulcimers,” say Patricia and Wayne. “The creativity and craftsmanship in dulcimer building is constantly evolving. There is no wrong way to make or play the dulcimer. If it sounds good and works for you that’s what you do.” Wayne and Patricia have seen every shape of dulcimer with various shapes of sound holes from hearts to butterflies to birds and they have their own incredible collection of dulcimers which they have acquired from places like eBay.
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According to the Patricia and Wayne, “Jean Ritchie is the main person who brought the dulcimer to the rest of the world.” Ritchie, one of fourteen children, memorized songs and played them for audiences. Ritchie played the Appalachian dulcimer, which is played on the musician’s lap with either a pick or fingers. German immigrants brought the dulcimer to the United States in the early to mid-1800s and sometime thereafter, in the late 1800s, it made its way to Appalachia. An Appalachian dulcimer differs from its European cousin, the Hummel, in terms of shape. The Hummel is usually a square or rectangle shape, whereas the Appalachian dulcimer is generally shaped like an hourglass or teardrop, a transformation that occurred when the instrument was transported to America.
In the 1960’s, Richard Fariña exposed the melodious dulcimer to an even greater audience and heightened the instrument’s popularity. But it was Joni Mitchell who played the dulcimer on her renowned Blue album in 1971 that solidified the instrument’s popularity. Following the Blue album, aspiring musicians tried their hand at the dulcimer, appreciating the relative ease with which it could be played.
Since its introduction to the American music scene, the dulcimer has been adapted over the years. Initially, the body of the dulcimer was very thin, but over time instrument makers in the Santa Cruz area began expanding its size, making bigger dulcimers with wider bodies, fretboards, and a longer scale, amplifying its sound and making it even easier to play in the process. These modifications had the added benefit of making the dulcimer more compatible with other instruments. The method of playing the dulcimer also changed to make it more versatile. Traditionally, the dulcimer has three or four strings–two are used for droning and the other two are doubled and used to play melody. Early dulcimer players would only put their fingers on the melody string, but in the late sixties musicians started using all the strings, making the dulcimer much more adaptable in playing chord and melody at the same time. With these changes the dulcimer started appearing in Renaissance, Irish and even rock and roll music, breaking out of its original, Appalachian style of folk melodies and fiddle tunes.
But the real reason that the dulcimer still has a wide and loyal following is because of its sound. “People are drawn to the dulcimer. When they hear it, many fall in love with the sound,” say Wayne and Patricia. They explain that after people hear a dulcimer and fall in love with the sound, they embark on their own journey to try and find out what instrument is making that unique and enticing sound. And then some of these people become so enchanted with the dulcimer they start to play it themselves.
The dulcimer is an extremely individualized instrument. Pre-internet days, when the dulcimer was just beginning to gain popularity, there were very few books to learn how to play the instrument so people had to learn to play on their own. People who became hooked on the dulcimer would then build them themselves. They would try to build better and more melodious dulcimers, and they would push each other to reach the outer limits of the dulcimer’s range. And this led to a key aspect of the dulcimer, which only adds to its fascination among enthusiasts: No two dulcimers are really the same. There is no standard for a dulcimer and they are not made in a factory. Rather they are created by hand, usually by people who feel passionately about the instrument.
It was the dulcimer that brought Patricia and Wayne together, and they now work to proliferate their love for the instrument. In addition to playing the dulcimer themselves, they have produced a video about the dulcimer, specifically about a company that makes them by hand. One of the reasons they made the video was because “we feel Capritaurus (the dulcimer company) played a big part in the dulcimer boom. They made around 20,000 dulcimers that sounded great, were very affordable, and put dulcimers in the hands of many people.” According to Wayne and Patricia, people are responding positively to the video, with dulcimer players saying that it has inspired them to pick up the instrument again, and others saying it has inspired them to learn the dulcimer for the first time.
Wayne and Patricia feel that the dulcimer is a very democratic instrument, “because it is affordable and easy to play. It’s a quiet little instrument that sounds incredible. It does not come out and say ‘hey listen to me’. It has beautiful sound that pulls you in.”
Although Wayne and Patricia admit that people have to make an effort to learn about the dulcimer, they insist that “the dulcimer is still out there, you just have to look for it.”
Their videos can be viewed at http://bit.ly/dulcimuse.