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Here are a few interesting tidbits about the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. The dulcimer is an American instrument that dates back to the 1800s. It originated in the Appalachian Mountains in the southwest part of Virginia.
The dulcimer was designed from several types of fretted lap zithers brought to america by western European immigrants. These instruments included a Norwegian langaleik, Swedish hummel and French epinette. But, the true forefather of the dulcimer was the German scheitholtz, which was a long, narrow instrument with straight sides. The melody was fretted on three of the instrument‘s strings. It also had three other strings that make up three chords of two strings each, the 1-4-5 chords, and were played individually. Hence, there were a total of nine strings on the scheitholtz. The frets are installed directly on the instrument instead on a fret board. The scheitholtz was brought into Pennsylvania by German immigrants.
Soon after, a fret board was added to a larger soundbox, or the body of the instrument, and the scheitholtz transitioned into the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. This modern dulcimer migrated further south along Wilderness Road in southwest Virginia. Basically, what was done is a fret board was made similarly to the scheitholtz order of frets, minus the “Chord strings.” The new fret board was then attached to a larger soundbox, which was a teardrop shaped dulcimer.
After the Civil War, the mountain dulcimer made its way further along Wilderness Road into West Virginia and Kentucky. The dulcimers that were brought into West Virginia had evolved into the beautiful hourglass shaped dulcimers of today, whereas the Kentucky dulcimers were a narrow teardrop shape.
The dulcimer eventually made its way across all the Appalachias, including North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Each luthier would incorporate his own ideas for sound holes.
The British, Scottish and Irish immigrants had claimed the dulcimer was theirs. Hence, there are many British, Scottish and Irish songs that are commonly played by dulcimer enthusiasts today. By the time the dulcimer made its way into West Virginia, its name had changed to “dulcimore,” which later became ”dulcimer.” The word “dulcimer is derived from the Greek word for “sweet song.”
The mountain dulcimer shouldn’t be confused with the hammered dulcimer, which was a Persian instrument called a santur. The santur was actually the forefather of the piano!