The two main types of dulcimers heard today are the hammered dulcimer and the mountain dulcimer. These have evolved into two completely different instruments, but their precursors are the same instruments used for centuries in other cultures.
The modern hammered dulcimer is made up of a trapezoidal box with strings strung across four bridges, with tuning pegs on either end. The instrument is usually placed on a table or stand with the strings parallel to the front of the player's body. The dulcimer's strings are struck with hammers. Old-style dulcimer music is monophonic, but more recent music and musicians experiment with playing more than one note at a time.
Dulcimer hammers may be hard or soft, and have stiff or bendable sticks. In the U.S. and England, players usually design their own sticks, but in other countries the hammers are more standard.
The mountain dulcimer is also called the Appalachian dulcimer, the lap dulcimer or the hog fiddle.The mountain dulcimer is mainly used for folk music in the Southeastern U.S. It has a narrow body and is played by plucking the strings, which are stretched over frets. There are traditionally three strings: the melody, the middle and the bass. Sometimes the strings are double-strung for enhanced volume.
An instrument called the psaltery has been in existence since ancient Greece. The shape has changed over the years until it evolved into the instrument used frequently in Great Britain and the precursor of the mountain dulcimer. Strings are usually plucked, but sometimes bowed depending on the music being played.
The cimbalom is a more elaborate dulcimer, which was used in Hungary. Its strings are hit with hammers made of wood covered with thick cotton. The cimbalom is common in Hungarian gypsy music, and a concert version was developed for 19th and 20th century composers who have used gypsy music elements in their serious concert music: Franz Liszt, Zoltan Kodaly, Bela Bartok and especially Igor Stravinsky.
Dulcimers in Other Cultures
Dulcimer-like instruments in other cultures include the santur from the Middle East (developed in Persia), the yangquin from China, the kimbalom from Eastern Europe, the tympanon from western Europe and the hackbrett from Germany.