How to Tune a Dulcimer

By Ryan Angus

There is nothing quite like the sound of a mountain dulcimer. They have an open, ringing quality to them that is due, in large part, to their open tuning. The dulcimer's tuning allows a player to play a drone chord on open strings while playing a melody over top of it--similar to a sitar or bagpipe. Because these open strings are vital to the sound of the instrument, it is extremely important for a dulcimer to be in tune. There are many different tuning options for dulcimers. Players will tune the strings to different combinations of notes (modes) to achieve different sounds. For this article we are going to tune to the common tuning of D-A-A (D Ionian). The tuning technique is the same regardless of which mode you choose for your dulcimer, and so once you learn how to tune to D-A-A you can easily tune to other modes as well. You are going to learn how to use an electronic tuner and--for those without a tuner--a piano or guitar to tune the dulcimer.

Tuning With an Electronic Tuner

Place the dulcimer in your lap. The dulcimer's tuning keys should be on your left. At the bottom of the fretboard (closest to you) should be the doubled string. Above that will be two single strings--one in the middle and one at the top (bass string).

Place your electronic tuner near the dulcimer and turn it on. On your knee is usually a good place because it is close to the instrument and easily balanced.

Pluck the top string (furthest away from you) with the pick and see what note the string registers. If the pitch is below D then you should tighten the string with the tuning key to make the pitch higher. If the pitch registers above D then you should loosen the string with the tuning key to lower the pitch. Continue this process until the string is at D on the tuner.

Pluck the middle string with the pick and see what note the string registers. If the pitch is below A then you should tighten the string with the tuning key to make the pitch higher. If the pitch registers above A then you should loosen the string with the tuning key to lower the pitch. Continue this process until the string is at A on the tuner.

Pluck the first string of the doubled set of strings with the pick and see what note the string registers. If the pitch is below A then you should tighten the string with the tuning key to make the pitch higher. If the pitch registers above A then you should loosen the string with the tuning key to lower the pitch. Continue this process until the string is at A on the tuner. For the next string you can either repeat this step with the tuner or you can pluck the first string and adjust the second string to match it.

Strum all of the strings to make sure it sounds in tune.

Tuning with a Guitar or Piano

Place the dulcimer in your lap. The dulcimer's tuning keys should be on your left. At the bottom of the fretboard (closest to you) should be the doubled string. Above that will be two single strings--one in the middle and one at the top (bass string). Have a guitar or piano within reach.

Sound the open D string (4th from the bottom) on a guitar or the D below middle C on a piano and adjust the dulcimer's top string to match this pitch.

Sound the A note (2nd fret, 3rd string from bottom--open G string) on a guitar or the A below middle C on a piano and adjust the dulcimer's middle string to match this pitch.

Sound the A note (2nd fret, 3rd string from bottom--open G string) on a guitar or the A below middle C on a piano and adjust the dulcimer's lower set of strings to match this pitch.

Strum all of the strings to make sure it sounds in tune.

About the Author

Ryan Angus has been a college writing instructor since 2005. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English literature from Marshall University with an emphasis on language studies (linguistics). Currently, Angus is pursuing a Ph.D. at Purdue University and his research will focus on improving the ways that writing and language are taught in schools.