Hammer Dulcimer — history global and personal

The Hammer Dulcimer is a tuned percussion instrument thought to be an ancestor to the piano. The basic concept is a trapezoidal pattern of strings tuned on two sides of a bridge. At the wider end of the trapezoid one finds the lower pitches, and vice-versa. In most traditions the strings are struck with mallets of some sort, though in some cultures they are plucked as well. Variants of the dulcimer have been played across the northern hemisphere for centuries. Historians haven’t pinned it down, but the origins seem to lie from ancient Persia to Eastern Europe. The Persian name “santoor” is used in India as well, whereas in Greece it is known as “santouri”. In China the instrument is called “yang ch’in” which I’m told means “foreign zither”.  Here’s a tuning chart of one yang ch’in.  In Eastern Europe the name ranges from “cymablom” to “tzimbaly”, and it is played from Hungary to the Ukraine. In Germany it is called “hackbrett”, which means “chopping block”. In Mexico it is called “salterio”. In the English speaking world it is called “hammered dulcimer”. I prefer “hammer dulcimer”, ‘cuz that’s the way I say it.
The dulcimer I play features 68 strings, is equipped with dampers, and has a 3 octave range. Strings are struck with small wooden mallets, or “hammers”. This instrument was built by Sam Rizzetta & Nick Blanton in 1987. It is tuned in fifths across the middle bridge, has a bass bridge to the right side and a small three-course bridge off to the lower left. I’ve tuned the lowest note an octave below middle C.
One of my hammers, built by Rick Fogel. The hammer has a two-sided head, one side bare wood (maple) and the other covered with leather, for creating two distinct tones.
I have another instrument I built with Randy Hudson (Randy is an expert builder and co-founder of Dusty Strings, who was kind enough to invite me to his shop) in ’85. This experimental instrument was built with moveable bracing designed to be flexible in terms of tunings. It is currently tuned in Persian and Arabic scales. It still has an American tone, however. The Persian santoor has different dimensions, uses different metals for the strings, and features four strings per course. (My dulcimers feature two strings per course.) I’ve been fortunate to have a chance to study the santoor with maestro Hossein Salehi here in Portland.
How I Got Started With the Dulcimer
The hammer dulcimer is an instrument I first heard played by Rick Fogel in the nineteen seventies. Rick was a colorful character living in a tree house off in the forest – when not traveling to Alaska to spend the winter in a wall tent at an isolated camp across Glacier Bay, just for the fun of it. I was living with friends “back on the land” in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia at the time, pickin’ and singin’ around a campfire when not building a house made of recycled materials or working in a large vegetable garden.
When I heard of a new guitar program at the local college music department, I moved to town to study classical guitar for a year with Pete Miller at James Madison U. in Harrisonburg. After two elective courses I concluded that the amount of “elective” education necessary for a degree would not agree with me. The last semester consisted of only music courses. Then I headed off to Washington, D.C. to try my hand busking the streets of the city.
Busking with the classical guitar is a rough gig. My very first day happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, 1979. I was playing on the streets of Georgetown in northwest D.C. After playing baroque tunes and renaissance dances for a few hours I gathered the meager change in my guitar case and decided to take a break and head down to the C & O canal for a stroll. Met some kindly wine drinkers. Hung with those equally impoverished fellas a while. When I returned to the street, there was Rick Fogel with his dulcimer, playing with a huge crowd around him.
Rick was lean and wild, fresh back from winter in Alaska and wearing, I kid you not, leather pants from a deer he’d skinned out yonder. When he asked me to back him up I pulled my high-brow Ramirez guitar out of the case and commenced to thump away on jigs and reels for a couple hours. When Rick emptied out the hat to split the take I realized that my fine guitar was the wrong instrument for busking. I asked Rick, “Where would I get me one of them dulcimers?” He had a kit for sale, he said, and I promptly borrowed some bucks from my brother Kevin, and shelled out $80 for a Whamdiddle dulcimer kit. Rick Fogel is still active as a musician as well as with his Whamdiddle dulcimer making business.
My brother Kevin and sister Julia, whose hospitality I was taking advantage of at the time, were subjected to several weeks of beginner dulcimer tuning & playing (the term “playing” being employed loosely) but eventually I began coaxing music out of the box. Before long I was playing on the streets of Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia and in Washington, D.C., often playing six or eight hours a day, learning the ins and outs of that little Whamdiddle kit dulcimer. By summer I was starting to think of myself as a dulcimer player. I traveled west that fall of ’79 to visit my good friend Dan Compton in Portland, Oregon, and brought the dulcimer with me. He and I worked up some duet material and began performing in the Portland area. I continue to hammer away to this day.