Why are there white markers on the bridges?
The white markers help me to see at a quick glance where the various scales begin and end.
How do you know which strings to hit?
I use the white and black markers as reference points. It helps to have a good ear and a good memory for a tune! But, like many musicians, I memorize the tune and how to play it. When I know a tune very well, it's really a matter of "muscle memory."
Can you pluck the strings?
Sure, some musicians use finger picks, like the kind a banjo player wears, to pluck the strings instead of striking them. Another unique feature that some musicians use is a "damping pedal." A damping pedal works like the pedals on a piano, by pressing on the strings after they have been struck. Doing so cuts the sound short -- otherwise, the tone that is created by striking the string rings out and fades away gradually.
How is a hammered dulcimer tuned?
The notes are organized in the classic "Do-Re-Mi" scale, but not exactly linearly like on a piano. Like a guitar or mandolin, notes are grouped by intervals of fourths or fifths, depending on how you look at the instrument.
How long does it take to tune?
If conditions are ideal (not a lot of noise, the temperature is holding steady) it can take me about 10-15 min. But you should have seen me the very first time I tried to tune one!
How does the weather effect it?
If the weather stays steady, the instrument can stay in tune fairly well. Changes in temperature can make tuning a constant challenge. If you are going from one environment to another -- for instance, from your air-conditioned house to an outdoor stage on a sunny day -- let the hammered dulcimer sit out of its case and "acclimate" for 10 minutes or more before trying to tune it. Otherwise, it'll go out of tune again as it warms up or cools down.
Extremes in temperature can be downright harmful. The glue holding the instrument together can fail if you leave it in the trunk of a car on a hot summer day. Nor would anyone recommend leaving a hammered dulcimer outside when it's below freezing, then bringing it indoors and in front of a roaring fire. Keeping it in a soft or hard case with a thick lining will help tremendously. Unlike a violin, however, the hammered dulcimer is a surprisingly sturdy instrument! Take a good look at it, though: it's basically a wooden box with wires strung across it. I heard of one person who makes hammered dulcimers and likes to stand on them (with his shoes on, of course) to show off how well-made they are!
How often do you replace the strings?
Only if they break, and that very rarely happens. I've been playing since 1990, and I've only had to replace two strings.
Does a hammered dulcimer have chromatics?
Chromatic notes (e.g. the black keys on a piano) can be found scattered in different parts of the dulcimer. Not all dulcimers have all chromatic notes - so check carefully to be sure you're getting what you want. (Many people think at first that they need a fully chromatic instrument, but later find that they hardly ever use the chromatic notes. Traditional Irish music doesn't usually contain notes that can't be found on a standard 12/11 dulcimer.
Where can I find a teacher?
Obviously, there aren't as many hammered dulcimer teachers out there as, say, piano teachers. A good bet would be to talk with someone who lives in your area and plays -- even if they have never taught, they may still be able to give you some pointers. Good places to look include music stores that sell hammered dulcimers and Irish or folk music festivals in your area.
There's also a very handy website with a searchable database of teachers: Teachers' Lists.
How long would you say it should take someone to get a basic idea of the scales and maybe even a simple tune or two down?
I learned the C scale and a simple tune (Frere Jacques) in my first lesson. It helps if you are the kind of person who is comfortable with playing by ear, or doesn't mind "noodling" with the instrument to teach yourself a tune.
Is there a specific kind of dulcimer that a beginner should look for?
I would recommend that a beginner get a smaller (and less expensive) model. It's less intimidating and not as painful an investment if you decide you don't like it. I started out with a Dusty Strings model aptly named the Apprentice. Some teachers also rent hammered dulcimers to their students, an even better choice for the committment-shy. However, the fact that I had spent $350 on a musical instrument was also a great incentive for me to play: I thought it was too expensive to be just a dust-catcher!
I also recommend shopping around as much as possible -- go to music festivals and play around with all the display models that you can find. There are a lot of hammered dulcimers out there, and they all have their own unique sound!
Your hammered dulcimer looks pretty heavy.
Got more questions? Contact Darcy or check one of these helpful websites.
The Pyrates Royale