The Evolution of the Dulcimer as a Folk Music Instrument

The modern guitar as we know it has come a heck of a long way. Even if you take away electric guitars, the acoustic guitar is an extremely different type of instrument than its predecessors. And today we have so many versions of what we could classify as being a part of the guitar family. But instead of tracing the entire lineage of the guitar and untangling the web of the many iterations throughout history of this beloved stringed instrument, let’s take a look at one thread of this expansive musical instrument’s chronology. Let’s take a deep dive into the evolution of the dulcimer guitar and its role as one of the main - and newest - folk music instruments. 

A *Quick* Guitar Overview

So let’s first address the two big groups guitar-type instruments are a part of: the lute family and the zither family. In short the lute family of instruments are those that their strings run beyond their bodies, and has an opening or sound hole. As for the zither family, these instruments are those whose strings are the same length as its body or soundboard which is often more shallow. 

So in this fork in the family tree, we’re going to go down the zither family path which takes us to the mountain dulcimer

zither folk intrument 1

zither folk intrument 2

The Dulcimer as a Folk Instrument

Now among this zither lineage, let’s look at the family of instruments referred to as dulcimers. There are two main groupings of dulcimer guitars: the hammered dulcimer and the mountain dulcimer. 

The hammered dulcimer finds its origin from a Persian instrument called the Santur which dates back hundreds and hundred of years B.C in the Middle East. This type of instrument, usually made of different types of wood and strings, is played with mallets or hammers. You can track its evolution to the harp then the harpsichord and ultimately transformed into what we know today as the modern piano. 

The mountain dulcimer is where we can trace a little bit closer to what we think of as a guitar-like instrument; however, still with some differences. It first manifested as fretted lap zithers which can be seen in different instruments among Western Europe. Some of those instruments include the Langeleik from Norway, the Hummel from Sweden, the Epinette from France, and especially the Scheitholtz from Germany. These instruments and their inspirations were brought to North America most notable to the state of Pennsylvania. From there, the mountain dulcimer slowly spread down the Blue Ridge Mountains to Virginia and then the rest of the Southern United States in the years after the Civil War where it became one of the beloved Appalachian folk instruments.

Mountain dulcimers, known by many names such as the Appalachian dulcimer, lap dulcimer, plucked dulcimer, and Kentucky dulcimer, are oftentimes believed to be the only authentic instrument to be created in the United States, and it became a staple as not only one of the favorite Appalachian instruments, but as a prominent folk music instrument.

The Dulcimer Guitar (!)

From the mountain dulcimer comes another Appalachian instrument called the dulcimer guitar. Also referred to as the stick dulcimer, these are any 3 or 4 stringed instruments that are fretted like a traditional dulcimer and played like a guitar or mandolin and not on the lap like the mountain dulcimer. This type of dulcimer is typically a much smaller sized instrument, and can often be compared to the Hawaiian ukulele whose origin is from Portugal. You can take a deeper dive into the history of stick dulcimers and its place as one of the major American folk music instruments.

There are even more types of Appalachian dulcimer related instruments in the stick dulcimer family which are called Strumsticks or “pickin’ sticks.” And there are even more modernized versions of stick dulcimer, one of the most popular of which is the Seagull Merlin. I took some extra time comparing the Seagull Merlin Dulcimer and the mountain dulcimer here

And that’s where Inglewood Instruments comes in!


A New Dulcimer Guitar

Through a long line of stringed instruments before it and a variety of different creators, cultures, and countries, there’s a rich history of dulcimer in folk music, and the dulcimer guitar has claimed its place as a folk instrument praised for its versatility and ease of playing. With deep roots in the folk music tradition of the United States, that same love of the dulcimer guitar is what inspired me to create my own version of the Appalachian string instrument: the brand new River Dulcimer "Model 1" (there's going to be a better name, one day, I hope).

Find out more about the instrument and how you can own one yourself. Also, if you want to learn even more about mountain dulcimers and dulcimer guitars, watch my interview with Stephen Seifert where you can actually look and listen to one of the world’s foremost mountain dulcimer players!