What Is the Hammered Dulcimer?

The hammered dulcimer is a trapezoid-shaped instrument with many strings. It is played by striking the strings with percussion-type “mallets” called hammers, which are 8–10 inches long. Since it’s played by striking, the hammered dulcimer is in the pitched percussion family. There are generally two strings per note (both are tuned to the same pitch and called a course), although some instruments, particularly older ones, may have three or four strings per course.

Hammered Dulcimer

Master Works 16/15 extended range
hammered dulcimer with dampers

The word hammered was added in 1950 to distinguish the hammered dulcimer from the mountain dulcimer, which is an hourglass-shaped, fretted instrument with four strings. The mountain dulcimer, also called the lap dulcimer or Appalachian dulcimer, is laid flat on a lap or table and played by strumming with the right hand and fingering with the left.

Folkcraft Mountain Dulcimer

Mountain dulcimer by Folkcraft
photo courtesy of  Folkcraft Instruments

Features of the Hammered Dulcimer

The hammered dulcimer has at least two bridges, which run from top to bottom. The bridge on the left is called the treble bridge, and both sides of the bridge are used for playing. The bridge on the right is the bass bridge, and only the left side of the bridge is used. Each string goes over one bridge and under the other. This means you can only hit a string right beside that string’s bridge—you can’t strike a treble bridge string on the bass bridge.

If there are more than the two main bridges on the instrument, the added bridges are shorter and are either “chromatic bridges” (used for playing accidentals) or “extended range” (used for playing extra high or low notes).

The hammered dulcimer comes in different sizes—11/12, 12/13, 14/15, 15/16, and so on. The first number refers to the amount of notes on the treble bridge (counting only one side) and the second to the number of notes on the bass bridge. If there are three numbers, the smallest one refers to an extended bass bridge. A 16/15 hammered dulcimer (sixteen notes on the treble bridge, fifteen on the bass) is generally considered a full-size dulcimer and covers roughly three octaves.

While notes on a piano are laid out in a row—1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8—notes on a hammered dulcimer form a box shape—

8 4
7 3
6 2
5 1

hammered dulcimer string and bridge layout

A string that goes over one bridge runs under the other bridge.

scale pattern on hammered dulcimer

Scale pattern on hammered dulcimer

Boxes of notes are marked by different colors of bridge material, called markers.

Hammered dulcimer bridge markers

What About the Hammers?

History of the Hammered dulcimer

The Hammered Dulcimer in Michigan

The Hammered Dulcimer Today