Editor’s note – To see new posts on HOGFIDDLE, scroll down past this post. An earlier version of “Drones, Picks and Popsicle Sticks” appeared on the old Everything Dulcimer website in 2009 and in Dulcimer Players News the following year. (It was on my faculty page at Benedictine University Springfield, so I tried to set a good example for my students by incorporating MLA-style documentation. You can safely ignore it.)

By Peter Ellertsen

Sooner or later, anybody who plays the Appalachian dulcimer has the dulcimer conversation. [1] I first encountered it at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site in Illinois, when visitors would see me sitting on the porch of a country store going plinkety-twang on a musical instrument like nothing they’d ever seen before.

“What’s that,” they’d ask.

“A dulcimer,” I’d tell ’em, even though I knew what was probably coming next.

“Oh,” they’d say. “A dulcimer. What’s that?”

If I had a copy of Joan Rimmer’s definition in the New Grove Dictionary of Music handy, I could tell them I’m playing a “partly- or fully fretted zither, derived from north-west European forms some time since the late 18th century in the Appalachian mountains.” But I didn’t. So I’d just say the mountain dulcimer is a home-made musical instrument developed by people like the Virginians, Kentuckians and up-country Carolinians who settled central Illinois in the 1820s and 30s. The earliest dulcimer we know of for sure, in the collection of dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, is from the Virginia highlands near Roanoke. It’s dated Aug. 28, 1832.

As far as we know, the Appalachian dulcimer came to the Southern mountains with German-speaking settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for Traditional Arts, says many of them were “Swiss-German Anabaptist pacifists from the Palatinate [who] entered the country at Philadelphia and migrated down the ‘valley road’ through the Shenandoah to both sides of the Blue Ridge in the decades immediately preceding and following the American Revolution.” They carried with them a stringed instrument called a zitter or a scheitholt, which was a forerunner of the concert zither. In time, according to Smith, a journalist and collector who is considered the most knowledgeable historian of dulcimer origins, Scots-Irish settlers in the Virginia highlands heard it and adapted it to the ballads, fiddle tunes and folk hymns of their own musical tradition.

So the dulcimer is an early example of cultural diversity. Call it a Scots-Irish adaptation of the Pennsylvania German tradition that got to be a part of southern Appalachian culture, like the Kentucky rifle, homemade apple butter and cantilevered barns. Which, of course, makes it all-American.

Sometimes you’ll hear the dulcimer called a “hog fiddle” or a “Tennessee music box.” More often than not, the old-timers called it a “dulcimore.” It has other names. Musician and storyteller Mike Anderson of Jacksonville, Ill., has a wonderful tale, embroidered only slightly in the telling, of a tour guide who got confused and called it something that sounded like a “duckslammer.” Whatever it’s called and wherever its origins, the Appalachian dulcimer has spread nationwide. It’s one of the best things to come out of the folk music revival of the 1960s and 70s.

After traditional artists like Jean Ritchie, originally of Viper, Ky., introduced the dulcimer to the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 50s, it caught on with California novelist Richard Fariña, his wife (also Joan Baez’ sister) Mimi and other folkies on the West Coast. During the 70s it went national. Now you’ll hear Renaissance airs, Bach, blues, ragtime and show tunes played on the dulcimer, as well as the old Appalachian ballads and fiddle tunes. The new styles of playing are nothing if not versatile, and folk revival players playing en ensemble from copyrighted DAD tablature have taken Southern hill-country tunes like “Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm” to a nationwide audience.

But there are still players who are attracted to the traditional sound of the dulcimer pretty much the way I heard it in East Tennessee some 30 or 40 years ago.

For several years, the annual Mountain Dulcimer Week workshops at Western Carolina University have included a weeklong dulcimer traditions class coordinated by traditional artist, fiddle tune collector and radio host Don Pedi of Madison County, N.C. And the “History of Dulcimers and Songs” discussion forum on the EverythingDulcimer.com website has hosted spirited discussions of subjects ranging from the song-catching of English folklorist Cecil Sharp to a theory of the evolution of the Pennsylvania-German zither into the Kentucky dulcimer. Other straws may be in the wind, too. A revival is under way in the north of Germany, too, where luthier Wilfried Ulrich is making modern versions of a traditional box zither called the hummel.

For several years now, I’ve been noticing this renewed interest in the tradition. I’m lucky enough to have volunteer gigs at a couple of historic sites that interpret the “Southern upland” culture of the lower Midwest during the 1830s, and I’ve been collecting accounts of the instrument’s history for 20 years. It started as an effort to document the way the dulcimer might have been played at New Salem, but I found out pretty quickly that there’s no direct information before the early 1900s. I did, however, locate a lot of information that has helped my own playing (although I’ll be the first to admit I talk a better game than I perform). What I’ve learned is quoted at length below, and links are provided. So if you’re curious about the authentic sound of the Appalachian dulcimer, you can surf the websites cited below for ideas you might want to add to your own repertory.

1. The ancient sound of the dulcimer

I can’t remember when I first heard an Appalachian dulcimer played. Probably during the 1960s on WUOT-FM, the public radio station at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. I know as a UT student I heard a lot of dulcimers at craftsmen’s fairs in nearby Gatlinburg. People still played the old-fashioned way in the 60s and 70s, at least in East Tennessee. They’d strum with a pick in their right hand, and sound the notes by sliding a wooden “noter” with the left hand up and down the fretboard. I remember a constant melodious buzz in the background as I wandered through craft fairs at the old Gatlinburg civic center.

That resonant buzz, which musicologists call a drone, is the ancient sound of the dulcimer. I loved the sound. In time, I started learning how to make it myself. And I’m still learning.


Dorsey Williams at 1974 fiddlers’ convention in Smithville, Tenn.

The player I claim as my first teacher, the late Dorsey Williams of Jefferson City, Tenn., sharpened a rat-tail comb for his pick and used a Popsicle stick to note the strings up and down his fretboard. Like most traditional players of the day, he noted only a doubled melody string but strummed across all the strings. A born showman, Dorsey would flail away at old standards like “Grandfather’s Clock” while festival-goers gathered around. He had a world of fun playing the dulcimer, and he taught me making music isn’t always about precision and technique — it can be rowdy and joyous.

In his authoritative history of Music in the New World, Charles Hamm says during the 19th century the dulcimer was a solo instrument “used for playing simple melodies supported by a drone, or accompanying ballads or songs with a drone or fragments of a simple ostinato,” a repeated musical phrase (82). No evidence exists anywhere that the contemporary chord-melody style was played anywhere before the 1950s or 60s. In her Dulcimer Book Jean Ritchie, a Kentuckian who introduced the dulcimer on the New York folk revival scene in the 1950s, explains both of the more traditional styles of playing mentioned by Hamm:

• Instrumental: Ritchie says: “In your left hand is the noter, usually a finger-length of bamboo. … Cradle the noter along the fingers and hold it so that the thumb may press from above, and the side of the finger may glide along the side of the fingerboard to keep the end of the noter from touching the middle string. That’s because melody changes are all made on one string; the other two are always drones” (18). She’d slide the noter up and down the fretboard while strumming her thumb or a pick across all the strings, for “a constant harmonizing chord which gives the delightful and characteristic drone, or ‘bagpipes’ sound.”

• Accompaniment. Ritchie gets a repeated musical phrase or ostinato, to use Hamm’s word, from a finger-picking pattern by strumming the melody string and “rolling the thumb outward across the two drones, sounding them individually for two accompanying beats at the ends of lines, and such likely places” (24). While the old-timers often sounded the open melody string or the key note and drone strings throughout a song, or played in unison with the melody, Ritchie likes to play harmonies that complement her voice.
Ritchie’s Dulcimer Book, first published in 1963 and still in print, was the basic beginners’ book for decades. And the available evidence strongly suggests that people have been playing the dulcimer, and its European forerunners, her way since the Middle Ages.

A variation on the basic pick-and-noter tradition has developed in southwestern Virginia, mostly by players who compete in the old-time fiddlers’ convention in Galax, Va., and sit in on sessions with old-time string bands. Galax-style artist and teacher Phyllis Gaskins recalls first time she heard its “lightning-fast noter playing”:

Walking under the trees at a Southwest Virginia fiddle convention, through a maze of musicians and humming banjos, fiddles and guitars, I heard a bell-ringing drone sound from one of the old-time bands. Stopping to listen and determine the source of this sound, I saw a different sort of dulcimer – oblong, almost football shaped, loud enough to be heard above two guitars, a fiddle, and a clawhammer banjo! It was played by a man leaning back in his chair, smiling at the audience as he slickly noted on two strings with a wooden stick and strummed with a turkey quill. … All these dulcimers were played in a monotone tuning, which uses four light-gauge unwound strings all tuned to the same high d above Middle C. This creates a delightful drone sound, especially when played with other instruments.

Since their dulcimers are tuned to D, Galax-style players can play tunes in D and G without retuning, and they can play fiddle tunes in A by raising the drone strings to E with a capo. That means they can play with old-time musicians in the correct key, since almost all fiddle tunes are in D, G or A. It opens up a new world for “D for dulcimer” players who want to break out of the DAD lockstep.

“No heart wrenching ballad singing here,” says Phyllis Gaskins, “just happy fiddle tunes for dancers!”

A blogger from New York state called “Strumelia” (to use her screen name) says the Galax-style musicians “played … with long flexible whip-like picks, in a sort of egg-scrambling motion. The sound was described by others as a ‘swarm of angry bees’. The intense droning sound all in the same octave really appealed to me, and I imagined this was a good way for me to bring my fiddle tune accompaniment style up to speed!” I’m teaching myself to play fiddle tunes in a modified Galax style, and I fully agree. Except I’d rather think of a swarm of happy bees.

Mostly, however, the Appalachian dulcimer was played by itself. Our earliest sound recordings date from the 1930s, and for the most part, they’re field recordings available through the Archive of Folk Culture in the Library of Congress. In virtually every instance, a traditional musician performs a fiddle tune, a children’s song or occasionally a ballad or a hymn without accompaniment. As with other types of folk music, most of what we know beyond those early recordings is guesswork. But they give us as much as we need to go on.

“During its traditional period, the dulcimer was principally a solo instrument,” says collector and historian Ralph Lee Smith. He adds:

Its place was generally in the home. It often stood in a corner or was placed over a fireplace mantel, where it was correctly regarded as a fine decoration. … Reflecting the dulcimer’s role as a ‘home instrument,’ many old time players were women. Whether they were men or women, few traditional players could read music; they played by ear rather than from musical score. Some players accompanied them-selves with singing, while others were content just to play tunes. (Traditions 1-6)

As with other forms of popular music, we have very little information about playing styles before the advent of sound recording technology, and the written sources are not always completely accurate. But they do allow us to make educated guesses about what the dulcimer sounded like in what Smith eloquently calls the “mists of the Appalachian mountain past.”

Some early descriptions of playing styles:

• Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp (Kentucky, 1917). In the introduction to his preliminary report on song-catching in the Southern mountains, Sharp relied on Olive Dame Campbell, who later founded North Carolina’s John C. Campbell Folk School. “Mrs. Campbell … tells me that in Kentucky, where I have not yet collected, singers occasionally play an instrument called the dulcimer, a shallow, wooden box, with four sound-holes, in shape somewhat like a flat, elongated violin, over which are strung three (sometimes four) metal strings, the two (or three) of which are tonic-drones, the melody being played upon the remaining and uppermost string which is fretted. As the strings are plucked with the fingers and not struck with a hammer, the instrument would, I suppose, be more correctly called a psaltery.” (Campbell and Sharp x)

• Howard Brockway and Loraine Wyman (Kentucky, 1916). “At rare intervals in our search we encountered a fiddle … More frequently, we found the ‘dulcimore,’ which is the real indigenous Appalachian instrument. It is made in the mountains and fits its environment in quite a charming and piquant way. It seems most thoroughly a part of the spirit of the culture represented by the old songs. In shape it is most like a ‘pochette,’ the little instrument carried by dancing masters in the olden days, although very much larger, of course. It is strung with three strings, either gut or wire. Two of these are tuned in unison while the third is tuned a fifth below. The outer one of the two is the only fretted string, the others supplying a drone bass, giving somewhat the effect of a bagpipe. The dulcimore (accent on the last syllable) is held on the knees and the strings are plucked with a piece of leather or a quill. The melody is played upon the fretted string, for which purpose a quill or a small stick is employed.” (Quoted in Smith, Folk Songs 39-40)

• William Aspinwall Bradley (Kentucky, 1915). When Bradley went hunting for English ballads in the southern Appalachians, he reported: “The singer frequently accompanies himself on banjo, fiddle, or dulcimer. This last is the traditional instrument of mountain music. Like Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, the Kentucky girl is also a ‘damsel with a dulcimer,’ or rather she was before this odd and yet elegant instrument, which descends directly from Elizabethan England, and which looks not unlike a very slender and short-necked violin, began to disappear. It is strung with three strings, which are sometimes of gut, though generally of wire. Two of them are always tuned in unison, while the third is an octave lower. Occasionally the dulcimer — or ‘dulcimore,’ as it is called in the vernacular — is bowed, but more often it is plucked, the performer holding it lengthwise in his lap, producing the notes by pressing the string nearest him with a bit of reed held in his left hand, while his right hand sweeps all three with a quill or a piece of not too flexible leather. The two strings that are not pressed form a sort of bourdonnement, or drone-bass accompaniment, like a bagpipe. The tonal quality is very light — a ghostly, disembodied sort of music such as we may imagine to have been made by the harp in the ballad of ‘The Twa Sisters,’ although this instrument is formed, not from the bones of a drowned girl’s body, but from thinly planed and delicately curved boards of native black-walnut. Those which, like mine, are made by an old man who lives in a cabin at the mouth of the Doubles of Little Carr are pierced with four little heart-shaped openings.” (912)

• Josephine McGill (Kentucky, 1917). “This instrument, in the vernacular dulcimore, is nearly a yard in length and resembles an elongated violin. It has three strings, the first and second being tuned to the same pitch, the third a fifth below. Two prime effects are obtainable from the instrument; one similar to that of the ancient drone; the other, like the twanging of a banjo or guitar. … As may be fancied, the chief variety to be obtained from the dulcimer is that of rhythm.” (Quoted in Smith, Folk Songs 18-19)

• Emma Bell Miles (Tennessee, 1909). In a romantic short story titled “The Dulcimore” set on the Cumberland Plateau near Chattanooga, a handsome young mountain blacksmith gives his true love a three-string “dulcimore … whittled with innumerable patient touches out of dark brown oak, unvarnished, the head resembling a fiddle’s, but curiously carved in an attempt at ornamentation — a thing fitted only for the wild minors of native airs.” She plays “faint monotonous chords” on it with a “triangular plectrum of smoothed bone,” after tuning the instrument “to draw the strings into the weird and plaintive harmony of which they were capable” (950-52). Miles, of Chattanooga, lived in the Cumberlands for several years and she had a strong feel for traditional Appalachian music.

• Josiah Combs (Kentucky, ca. 1900). In an academic paper he later wrote for publication in France, native Kentuckian Combs described the dulcimer like this: “This strange instrument … has a slight resemblance to the violin, with a narrow and elongated body and a very short neck. It is usually made of walnut or maple wood, and is strung with three strings plucked by a crow-quill held in the right hand. One of the three strings, the one nearest the body as the instrument lies in the lap, is tuned an octave higher than the third one, and in unison with the second. The melody is produced on the first string by moving a bit of smooth reed back and forth over it, pressing it down between the fret and strumming all three stings with the quill; the second and third strings are used as tonic-drones. … The ‘dulcimore’ is adapted to simple, one-part tunes rather than fast ones. Because of its simplicity many folk-airs even cannot be played on it.” (Quoted in Hamm 81)

2. Europe: ‘Remember the buzzing of bees’

If the dulcimer’s origins are shrouded in Appalachian mists, the early history of its European antecedents is practically invisible. Yet they are part of a large family of related box zithers once played in an arc that extends from the mountains of southern Germany and France through Belgium, the Low Countries and the North Sea coast through northern Germany into Denmark and Sweden. As with the American dulcimer, all available evidence strongly suggests that players relied on unfretted drone, or “bourdon,” strings to accompany the melody played on one or two strings.

By far the best source on European zithers related to the American dulcimer is a book titled The Story of the Hummel by German luthier Wilfried Ulrich, who assembled an exhibition of the instruments at the open-air Museumdorf Cloppenburg, in Lower Saxony, in 2011 and had the exhibition catalog translated into English. Of special interest are several quotations describing early instruments and traditional players in the early to mid-1800s.


Wilfried Ulrich with hummel. (Picture shows Swedish player Otto Malmberg, ca. 1900)

The dulcimer’s closest European cousin is variously known in German as a zitter (the generic word for a zither) or scheitholt; in French as an épinette des Vosges (for the mountains where it is found); in Flemish as a Noordsche balk (which translates roughly as a wooden beam from the Nordic countries); and in Dutch, German and Swedish as a hommel or hummel, depending on the language and dialect. [2] (The word “hummel” also means “bumblebee,” so if you’re using Google’s automatic translator, you don’t want to be too literal-minded if you’re told to stroke the bumblebee! It’s a reference to the resonant, buzzing drone of a box zither played well.)

In general, the European zithers are diatonic, like traditional Appalachian dulcimers, and they’re very often tuned to intervals of a fifth, corresponding to our DAA tuning on the dulcimer. They’re usually fretted like a traditional dulcimer, too, either by using a noter or finger-walking up and down the melody string. Like most folk instruments, they’re played by ear.

When he taught at Western Carolina University’s dulcimer week, German luthier Wilfried Ulrich shared a joke that could apply just as well to traditional Appalachian dulcimer players.

“You want to stop a piano player?” Ulrich said. “Take away his sheet music. You want to stop a hummel player? Give him some sheet music.”

The influential 17th-century German composer Michael Praetorius included the instrument he called a scheitholt in his catalog titled Syntagma Musicum, but he dismissed it as a ragged, lower-class instrument (a “lumpeninstrumente,” using a notoriously hard-to-translate word with unsavory connotations). Whatever he called it, the instrument appears to have evolved by adding resonant drone strings to the monochords or one-stringed zithers that medieval monks used to keep their singing on pitch.

Ulrich said early scheitholts, like the surviving monochords, typically were “made from three or five thin pieces of wood put together in a bad way,” and he thinks Praetorius’ term originated as a joke. “It means nothing else but firewood,” he explained at Western Carolina. “Perhaps when Mr. Praetorius saw [a scheitholt], he said, ‘What’s that? It looks like firewood.’” The name stuck.

Over time and by degrees, the instrument evolved into the concert zither, and it attained some degree of respectability, at least as a folk instrument. Published references to the instrument are few and far between, especially when compared to the fiddle or the bagpipe. If we can generalize on the basis of a few literary references, the people who played it were more likely to call it a hummel or a zither. But learned authors and musicians don’t appear to have been overly familiar with folk music, and Praetorius’ name for the instrument is still widely used.

When we do find printed references to box zithers being played, they are described as being played by working-class people, although often in terms that appear to derive from Praetorius. This leads Andreas Michel, who has written about scheitholts and other early folk zithers for a museum of musical instruments at the University of Leipzig, to suspect a “literary tradition” rather than one grounded in the oral tradition of a folk community.

For example Michel cites novelist Johann Müller of Hamburg in northern Germany, who in 1779 wrote of a maid singing “sweet arias,” accompanied by a kitchen maid (Küchen-nymphe) playing a hummel. Even in translation, it sounds as literary and contrived as any of our homegrown nonsense about damsels with dulcimers in Kentucky.

By way of contrast, Michel notes that Hortense Panum, a Danish scholar who cataloged medieval stringed instruments, wrote of an itinerant musician named “Karsten mit der Hommel” who went from village to village in Schleswig-Holstein playing at farmers’ dances during the mid-1800s. In fact, there was a lively tradition of playing the box zithers at dances along the North Sea coast from Holland through Germany into Denmark and Sweden. But Panum described the instrument in terms she apparently got verbatim from Praetorius.

While the scheitholt and hummel were never played widely in Germany and the related épinette des Vosges was played only in widely scattered pockets in France, box zithers were fairly popular in the low countries and along the North Sea coast into the southern reaches of Scandinavia.

In Belgium and around Ulrich’s home in East Frisia, a living musical tradition lingered into the European folk revival of the 20th century. In recent years a modest interest has arisen in bringing back the old traditions, inspired in part by the popularity of the American dulcimer.

In a series of meticulously researched essays on music in the time of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, Adelheid Rech notes that the hommel (to use the Dutch and Flemish spelling) “still enjoys considerable popularity in folk orchestras” in Belgium and once was widely played in Holland as well. As in Appalachia, the hommel was often played by women. Rech adds:

The hommel was primarily played in the privacy of the family circle of the lower classes. The great majority of the players were farmers, craftsmen or itinerant tradesmen who played at the fairs, and in years to come, factory workers. It is indeed the only folk instrument played by women, and more than half of the hommel-players still known by name today, are women.

The hommel was also known over the centuries as a soldier’s instrument, and it had other uses as well. It was sometimes used to support congregational singing before organs were widely available, and Rech says a Flemish museum destroyed in the World War I battle of Ypres “once housed a large hommel from the 17th century that substituted [for] a church organ.”

As Rech notes, the hommel is enjoying a revival in Belgium. Evidence of this is scattered elsewhere around the Internet, and you can learn a lot about it by surfing YouTube. Belgian high school teacher Jos Tilley’s YouTube has good video clips of his own playing on the hommel and French luthier Christophe Toussaint’s on the épinette des Vosges. Be sure to check out a clip called “Genen drank, gene klank – samenspelpret,” too. I can’t translate the title, but it looks like a lively pub session in Belgium, with bagpipes, accordions, guitars and hommels playing together, and several couples dancing in the background.

Memo to dulcimer players: It is possible to play with other instruments. It’s a lot of fun.

Also on YouTube is Ulrich, who taught at Western Carolina (search under keyword “Ulricus” so you don’t have to wade through a lot of heavy metal and electronica video clips). He not only sings Goethe and Frisian ballads, but he also experiments with Japanese song, Cajun two-steps and the blues. At Western Carolina, Ulrich demonstrated a strongly rhythmic approach to playing. His hummels have five strings or more, typically tuned to D and G. While he flatpicks intricate melodies on the melody string, he strums out hard on the downbeat. And the effect is mesmerizing.

“The drone strings are just to make enough noise to get a rhythm,” he said in Carolina. In East Frisia, along the coast between Holland and Denmark, farmers would wear heavy wooden shoes to dances in people’s homes, and that rhythmic out-strum was important.

“When the hummel players sat in one corner,” Ulrich said, “the noise from the dancers was enough that dancers in the other rooms could hear the rhythm.”

Practically none of that European tradition of dance music, however, got over to the United States.

During the 1700s, box zithers were brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants and down the Shenandoah Valley by their descendants. Any living tradition of playing them died out during the 19th century, but a Pennsylvania collector who interviewed the players’ descendants during the 1920s said they often recalled its being played with a bow.

One said his father played “generally German hymns, such as were sung in the Mennonite Meeting-house,” as well as “Home Sweet Home” in English (Smith, Story 20). But when the Scots-Irish in Virginia got ahold of the instrument, they used it for dance music — and in Virginia, that meant fiddle tunes.

Ralph Lee Smith argues:

… the only instrumental music that makers and owners of scheitholts during the early days of settlement were likely to hear, was fiddle music. The fiddle, of course, was the preeminent instrument for the playing of dance music; dance tunes constituted the major proportion of everything that fiddlers knew and played. Owners of scheitholts would of course be interested in playing tunes that were played on the only other musical instrument in the environment.

Smith’s interviews with descendants of English-speaking players bear that out — he turned up fiddle tunes like “Old Joe Clark,” and popular standards like “Wildwood Flower” that have gotten into the old-time string band repertory (Smith, Story 20-21, 57-58). In other words, the songs we’re playing today.

So in a way, Herr Praetorius’ ragged peasant’s instrument came full circle as it evolved into the Appalachian dulcimer. It was still played in the home, often by women, but among the Scots-Irish it was again used to play dance tunes.

Some descriptions:

• Ralph Lee Smith, 19th-century Pennsylvania and Virgina. Smith believes the Pennsylvania Germans played slowly, most often with a bow, while the Scots-Irish adapted the instrument to their music and ripped through fiddle tunes using a turkey quill for a pick. He says, “It is interesting to note that the damage to the top of the instrument caused by the action of a swiftly moving plectrum or switch, is rarely seen on scheitholts from the areas of old German settlement … They were obviously played with a bow, with the fingers, or carefully with a plectrum. One does see some scheitholts with this kind of damage to their tops, in Appalachia” (Story 20-21). The same kind of pick damage is commonly seen on old Appalachian dulcimers and is probably one reason for the dulcimer’s raised fretboard.

• Adelheid Rech, Belgium and Holland. Says Rech, “The hommel is played with a noter held in the left hand, a stick of hard wood, 5-7 cm long, for the fretting, and by plucking the melody string/s and drones with a plectrum held in the right hand. Instead of the noter some players use the fingers of the left hand to stop the melody string/s on the frets and pluck with the fingers and occasionally the thumb of the right hand. Noting (fretting) and plucking are generally done simultaneously; rapid melodic passages and grace notes are played with one single stroke (glissando). While playing, the instrument is usually placed on a table top or chest; the musician sits down or plays standing. Occasionally the hommel is played while held across the lap or knees. In former times, the hommel was also played with a bow, particularly in northern Holland and Frisia. …”

• Wilfried Ulrich, East Frisia, Germany. On his home page, Ulrich says, “The melody strings are depressed with the left index finger or a playing stick (Spielstab), while the right hand strikes the strings with a quill pen or a thin pick.” He demonstrates his techniques, which are more varied than that, in several clips on YouTube. Ulrich adds, “Always remember [as you read] throughout this thick website, the buzzing of bees (Summen der Hummeln) was the onomatopoeic name for the instrument.”

• Gabriella Weher, Marburg, Germany. Weher. who plays in Marburg’s Edelweiss zither orchestra, reconstructs past performance practice. “In the Middle Ages one made music on a ‘Scheitholt’ (2- or 3-stringed, rectangular music instrument). Undoubtedly the predecessors of the Scheitholts are to be found in the Turkish and Persian area. The 14 frets used on the Scheitholt permitted diatonic playing on two melody strings tuned together, in addition a free string was sounded, which could change pitch as with the Monochord by adjusting a bridge underneath. The left hand played with a round piece of wood over the strings. The thumb of the right hand strummed the strings.” Weher’s description is based on that of Praetorius, below. Ulrich doubts the instrument’s origins were Middle Eastern.

• Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1618). Danish music historian Hortense Panum writes, in a close paraphrase, “The first account of this instrument comes from Praetorius (‘Syntagma musicum,’ 1618) who described it as a small monochord made of three or four boards, provided at one end with a peg box in which are inserted three or four pegs for tuning the brass strings of the instrument. Of these strings three are tuned to the same note, while the fourth (which was added ad libitum) was tuned an octave higher. One of the unison strings was pressed on to the finger-board by a little metal hook halfway (?) down, so that its pitch was raised a fifth. Near the nut the thumb of the right hand made the instrument sound by crossing all the strings, while the left hand made the melody by drawing a little smooth rod backwards and forwards over the foremost string. Brass frets indicated the places where the various notes were to be found.” [Parentheses and question mark in the original.]

• Praetorius (trans. Wilfried Ulrich). From Syntagma musicum: “Although this instrument should (rightly) be referenced among the rather worthless instruments, I still wish to describe it here since it is little known. And it is not unlike a Scheit, or piece of wood, since it is almost like a small monochordum, rather simply built from three or four thin boards, at the top with a small collar with three or four pegs, strung with 3 or 4 strings of brass. Of these three are in unison, but one of them is pulled down by a small hook in the middle, which makes it sound higher by a fifth. And if desired, the fourth string can be added, tuned an octave higher. But below, at the bridge, one continually strums across all the strings with the right thumb, and by moving a small, smooth stick with the left hand back and forth on the most forward string across the frets, which consists of inserted bass wire, the melody of the song is produced.” (Qtd. Story of the Hummel 10)

• Simon Molitor (Austria, 1806). Molitor, a Viennese guitar player, quotes Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, another early 19th-century Viennese musician, and adds, “By German Zyther, Herr Albrechtsberger most likely means that instrument, strung with wire strings, that we find under the name Zyther (not guitar) in the hands of unmusical people. It does not have a neck for tuners, but consists only a flat sound box, which is cut off straight on one side. It is furnished with a fingerboard for the two strings closest to the edge with frets of iron wire. Those who play it best, usually just harmonize thirds and sixths, while strumming the other strings as bass drones; mostly, however, it is tuned in a main chord and when this comes up all strings are simply strummed across with the plectrum. (Ulrich, Story of the Hummel 21-22)

• J.G. Kohl (Germany/Denmark, 1846). Kohl, a travel writer, describes an older woman on the North Sea island of Föhr, who “still owned an old musical instrument, a type of old-fashioned zither, which she placed in front of her on the table in order to play for me an old tune.” He continues, “This Hommel had only brass strings. Several of them were strung in a parallel fashion, but the others were spread like divergent rays (they were arranged fan-shaped). She fretted the parallel ones with the finger, and strummed them with a quill. But at the end of each phrase she brushed the quill over the divergent strings, which, so to speak, just rang and resonated like an echo. My old friend said that once upon a time such Hommeln were more frequent, and most likely one danced to their music, whereas nowadays trumpets and violins were always wanted for dancing. But most people had a Hommel at home, to accompany with it the psalm of Sunday afternoon, which was sung in those days in each family. (Ulrich, Story of the Hummel 22)


An earlier version of “Drones, Picks and Popsicle Sticks” appeared on my faculty website at Springfield College in Illinois (now Benedictine University at Springfield), titled “Pick’n Noter Pages.” (That explains those Modern Language Association-style citations: Since it was on my faculty page, I wanted to set an example for my freshman English students. I don’t think the MLA citations do any particular harm, so I’ve retained them.) Artwork on the first page is by W.J. Duncan, with William A. Bradley’s story cited below in Harper’s 130 (May 1915): 908.

[1] In addition to the printed works acknowledged below, I am generally indebted to my instructors over the years in Mountain Dulcimer Week workshops at Western Carolina University, especially Ralph Lee Smith, Don Pedi, Phyllis Gaskins and Betty Smith. My overall understanding of the subject also relies heavily on posts to the History of Dulcimers and Songs forum on the EverythingDulcimer.com website.

[2] Translations from the German are mine (with a lot of help from Google and the Babylon 8 online dictionary at http://translation.babylon.com/German/to-English#). Any resulting illiteracies, therefore, are also mine. Since my sources refer to a variety of European box zithers in different languages and dialects, I have usually followed their spelling in the adjacent text rather than trying to impose a spurious uniformity of language.

Works Cited

1. Bradley, William Aspenwall. “Song-Ballets and Devil’s Ditties.” Harper’s 130 (May 1915): 901-14.
2. Campbell, Olive Dame, and Cecil J. Sharp. English Folk Songs from the Southern Mountains. 1917. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger. 2008.
3. Ellertsen, Peter. “Music, Politics Mix at Festival.” Knox County News [Knoxville] July 18, 1974: 2.
4. Gaskins, Phyllis. “Virginia Dulcimer, ‘Galax Style’!” Mel Bay Dulcimer Sessions Feb. 2005. http://www.dulcimersessions.com/feb05/galax.html
5. Hamm, Charles. Music in the New World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
6. Irwin, John Rice. Musical Instruments of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Norris, Tenn.: Museum of Appalachia, 1979.
7. Long, Lucy M. “A History of the Mountain Dulcimer.” n.d. Sweet Music Index. http://www.bearmeadow.com/smi/histof.htm.
8. Michel, Andreas. “Scheitholt und frühe Formen der Kratzzither.” Studia Instrumentorum Musicae. Musikinstrumenten-Museum der Universität Leipzig 2001. http://www.studia-instrumentorum.de/MUSEUM/zith_scheitholt.htm
9. Miles, Emma Bell. “The Dulcimore.” Harper’s 119 (Nov. 1909): 949-56.
10. Praetorius, Michael. “Diverse Geigen.” Syntagma Musicum. 1614-1620. Plate XXI. Wikimedia Commons. Ed. Matthias Gruber. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:439px-diverse_Geigen.png
11. Panum, Hortense. The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages: Their Evolution and Development. Ed. Jeffrey Pulver. 1939. New York: DaCapo, 1971. 263.
12. Rech, Adelheid. “Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer.” 2001-2009. Essential Vermeer. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/folk_music/hommel.html
13. Rimmer, Joan. “Appalachian Dulcimer.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. New York: Grove, 1980-86. 1:506.
14. Ritchie, Jean. The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.
15. Smith, Ralph Lee. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
16. __________. “The Appalachian Dulcimer’s History: On the Trail of the Mountains’ Secrets.” Mel Bay Dulcimer Sessions July 2003. http://www.dulcimersessions.com/jul03/appalachain.html
17. __________. Folk Songs of Old Kentucky: Two Song Catchers in the Kentucky Mountains, 1914 and 1916, with Arrangements for the Dulcimer. Pacific, Mo.: Mel Bay, 2003.
18. __________. The Story of the Dulcimer. Cosby, Tenn.: Crying Creek, 1986.
19. “Strumelia.” Appalachian Dulcimer Noter and Drone Blog. June 13, 2009. http://dulcimer-noter-drone.blogspot.com/2009/06/why-i-dont-use-bass-and-middle-strings.html
20. Toussaint, Christophe. Les Épinettes des Vosges. 2009. http://epinette.free.fr/index.php
21. Ulrich, Wilfried. The Story of the Hummel. Trans. Christa Farnon. Cloppenburg, Germany: Museumsdorf Cloppenburg, 2011.
22. __________. ULRICUS – Instrumentenbau – Wilfried Ulrich. 2009. http://www.ulrich-instrumente.de/
23. Wehrer, Gabriella. “Geschichte der Zither.” 2009. Zitherorchester Edelweiß Maulburg. http://www.wehrer.de/zither.htm.
24. Wilson, Joe. “Jean and Doc at Folk City: A Backward Glance 27 Years Later.” Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40005, 1990.

2 thoughts on “Drones, picks and Popsicle sticks: Notes on traditional styles of playing the mountain dulcimer and its European antecedents

  1. My book “The Story of the Hummel” is still available ! 180 p., all photos in colour, 43 instruments with all measurements. 22,- € + 9,- € shipping, I would prefer + 4,- € insurance because some books to USA arrived in the nirwana instead of addressee !


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