Ironically, this is also good news. Regardless of price, almost all hammered dulcimers are tunable and playable, and retain a fair portion of their value. I like that.
What Should You Buy?There's no easy answer, but if you're new, a lot depends on how much you have to spend, and how sure you are that you'll keep playing.
At their most basic, hammered dulcimers come in two sizes:
Along those lines, a 12/11 is good if you drive a small car or don't drive at all. Some 12/11s are fairly heavy, but others weigh as little as 8-10 pounds and are easy to carry almost anywhere. Some even fit in the overhead compartments of airplanes. The 12/11 is also good for kids, who may be too small to carry a large instrument.
If cost is a big factor, consider a 12/11 with a laminated soundboard. The best-known ones all sound similar, so all you really need to worry about is stability and price.
If you're pretty sure that you're going to stick with the dulcimer, this may be a good starting size. Many people who start on a 12/11 find it limiting after a while and trade up to a 15/14 anyway, so it can make sense to buy the 15/14 up front if you have the funds.
Some other dulcimer choices include:
A common recommendation in the dulcimer community is to buy as much dulcimer as you can afford, and if money is little or no object, there's a certain logic to this. But your taste may change as you progress, and if this happens, then you could end up buying another dulcimer eventually anyway. (I speak here from personal experience.)
Recently, some of you may have heard of hammered dulcimers that are "true" chromatic models, with all the notes lined up as they are on a piano. For some information on two of them, click here.
Scratch-Built and Kit DulcimersScratch-built and kit dulcimers get attention as low-cost alternatives but can be iffy propositions, especially if you've never built a musical instrument before.
The kit's biggest selling point -- a low price -- is also its main problem. The price drives the quality of design and materials, which drive quality control in the building process in turn. Then there's the buyer's skill, which is often not high enough to build a quality dulcimer under the best of circumstances. And if things don't work out, there's little or no recourse since kits are usually sold without any kind of warranty.
These factors are only increased with a scratch-built dulcimer. Building one this way allows you to buy higher quality wood than you'd get in a kit, but that could drive the cost as high as a pre-built model, maybe higher.
In either case, there's also the question of time, and how much yours is worth. Is it reasonable to save $50, $100, or even $200 on a dulcimer that you can't even play until it's been assembled, finished, and strung up?
The bottom line is: Do you want to build a dulcimer, or play the dulcimer? If building is your priority, then have at it. It may work out nicely, or you may just have a nice decoration for your home, but either way you'll have the satisfaction of having built it. But if your aim is to play, then buy one built by an expert. You'll be happier in both the short and long runs.
General DesignsThere are two main hammered dulcimer designs:
Physical LayoutAlthough most dulcimers follow the same basic layout (two bridges on a trapezoid box), there are many differences to be found among them. Preferences are purely personal, and may change as you progress.
WoodDepending on the builder, you may have a choice of different woods for the soundboard, bridges, and end rails. When it comes to the tonewood (that is, whatever wood is resonating), this can alter the dulcimer's tone, so see if you can sample different models.
These are general attributes. Other factors -- mainly design and interior bracing -- can also affect tone. Compare a Dusty Strings D-35 to a MasterWorks 16/15; both are 16/15 models with fixed soundboards of solid mahogany, but their tones are quite different.
Bridge Cap/SaddleThe bridge cap or saddle is a rod that sits on top of the bridge and provides direct support for the strings. There are also bridge caps along the side edges of the soundboard, on or next to the pin blocks.
These days, most bridge caps are made of a hard plastic substance called Delrin, but on some dulcimers, part or all of them may be brass or steel. Metal will give a brigher tone with more sustain, so it's usually confined to the upper end where the high notes need more of this kind of help.
ToneThe main tonal concerns of a dulcimer player are:
MiscellaneousSome other features that can be found on hammered dulcimers include:
What To Look For When You ShopIf you don't like the way a dulcimer sounds, you probably won't like the dulcimer no matter how wonderful its other features may be, so focus on tone first.
If you're ordering directly from a builder and you don't live near his or her shop, you'll need to do some homework. And then you'll have to take at least a small leap of faith, because you won't be able to see or hear your new dulcimer until you get it. If this is your plan, try to sample other dulcimers made by the builder so you can get an idea of what you're ordering. Contact the builder and see if anyone in your area has one. You might also find one or two samples at a jam or festival.
If you're on the hammered dulcimer mailing list (a good idea anyway), post questions about different builders and their instruments, preferably with a request for responses directly to your email address. Also, chat people up at festivals and jams. If you hear a dulcimer you're interested in on a record, see if you can contact the musician(s) and get their feedback about them. When you talk to builders or other musicians, make sure you note what kind of music you play and what attributes you're looking for. And ask about how well their dulcimers "opened up" -- that is, whether their sound grew better with age.
Finally, you might want to find out whether you can return a dulcimer if you're not satisfied. This is never the primary concern, but remember that the dulcimer is made of a natural material (wood) that can never be completely consistent, even within the same tree. Sometimes a particular wood lot will produce a dulcimer that's not quite what you've heard or had in mind, and it's nice to know that you're safe if you get an apple when you expected an orange.
When you find an instrument that looks or sounds interesting, play it. Even if you don't know much, play it. A simple scale can tell you a lot if you listen carefully. Then have somone else play it, if possible, and listen from different locations and angles.
Find the same note in two or three places on the dulcimer and compare the sound. The tone will probably be different, but the notes should all be about the same volume. Then play notes on opposite ends of different scales. Generally, higher notes will sound quieter than the lower ones, but there shouldn't be too much difference. Finally, play straight up from bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom along each bridge. Again, the tone will vary along the length, but each note should sound pretty much like the ones just before and after. If one or two notes are especially loud, quiet, fat, or thin compared to their neighbors, or if you get a buzz or some other weird noise, you may want to keep looking.
In used dulcimers, poor or uneven tone can result from old, corroded strings, especially if the dulcimer hasn't been played for a while. If the strings are greatly discolored or corroded and the tone is weak or uneven, it's a good bet that the strings are at least partly responsible. Since strings are cheap and easy to replace, this won't take a dulcimer out of the running, but don't assume that new strings will cure all the dulcimer's ills, either. Just file it away as a factor to consider.
When you've played the dulcimer for a bit, perform a visual inspection. The soundboard is the most important part, so start there. If it's solid wood, its grain should run side to side and be fairly straight and even (this will be hard to see if the soundboard is painted or stained black). Now, come down to the soundboard's level and sight along its surface. Make sure it's flat and even, with no cracks or splits. A cracked or wavy soundboard may indicate a brace that's weak or unglued, or poor care by its previous owner.
Since it's hard to find good tonewood in really wide pieces, most solid wood soundboards are made up of more than one piece of wood glued in line with the grain, so don't worry about glue joints along the sound board, as long as they're tight, clean, straight, and run all the way across the board.
Also, note that a few builders make their soundboards with a modest arch (they're bowed upward slightly). Ask, but don't immediately assume that this is a problem.
Next, check the bridges. Are they cracked or broken? Are there any gaps under the bridges (between the bridge and soundboard)? Either of these things is an indication of trouble. Does it look like the bridges have been glued in place? If so, skip this instrument, because the bridges should never be glued down.
Don't be put off by bridges that aren't abolutely straight along their length; they're not glued in place, and they can shift a little from time to time. Similarly, if it seems that you can't properly tune the strings on the treble bridge (one side is flat or sharp when the other is in tune), this is not usually a big deal; it can often be fixed by carefully shifting the bridge one way or the other. Finally, don't be put off by dents or grooves in the plastic (Delrin) rods under the strings, as they can be turned or replaced easily and cheaply.
Next, check all the glue joints around the instrument. Do they appear to be solid, or are there some separations? Separating joints could spell trouble. If you can feel a glue joint with your finger, especially where the soundboard meets the frame, it might have been re-glued after the instrument was finished. This is not necessarily a problem, and if the job was done by a skilled craftsperson, it may be just fine. But it never hurts to ask.
Now check the overall fit and finish. Does it look professional or homegrown? A smooth finish and clean joints should not be beyond any seasoned builder, and I think they indicate pride in workmanship. Of course, an instrument can look great and sound awful, but generally, good fit and finish is a sign of a good builder.
If a dulcimer looks especially rough, it may have been home-made or built from a kit. Neither is necessarily bad, but you'll have much better luck with professionally built models.
When you're done with your inspection, play the dulcimer again. Listen carefully, not just for tone, but for odd noises that shouldn't be there. If you hear a buzz or other unwanted tone, see if you can track it down; it may be a minor problem. If it's not or you can't find it, move on.
Finally, if you're looking at a new dulcimer, see if you can play one or two others of the same model. Sometimes wood will vary enough that two visually identical dulcimers will sound very different, and you want the one that sounds best to you.
Where to BuyIf there's a music store in your area that sells hammered dulcimers, by all means visit it. Also, check out local festivals, where you might find retail merchants or used instruments for sale.
Meanwhile, here's a short list of builders, in alphabetical order. It's not comprehensive by any means, but simply a "starter" list of builders whose dulcimers I've seen up close and personal, and two of whom I've done business with (James Jones and Michael Allen). All are excellent instruments that would be worth your while to consider, but they differ in tone, layout, features and appearance, so no specific recommendations are offered. For retailers (where applicable), run a web search for the brand name.
For a comprehensive list, visit the Builder's Page on the Official Hammered Dulcimer Web Site.