Hammered Dulcimer Plans

I'm providing these images of scale plans I drew up long ago when I was building accoustic dulcimers. I used to carry these so if anyone wanted to build one, we could step into a copy shop and they could make a copy. I've always tried to encourage people to go ahead and build their own. I figure this is also where to start in developing your own plans, acoustic or electric, since the string lengths and bridge placement are the same, and all dulcimers follow this general pattern. I made these plans to scale of 1/2"=1", except the pinblocks, which are full size templates for drilling the holes for hitch and tuning pins. I have scanned them as full size images, at 200dpi, so each should fit on a legal size piece of paper and provide better detail compared to what you see on the 72 dpi available on the webpage. Each image overlaps the adjoining one so they can be printed out and taped together carefully to assemble the complete plan.

An important point is that the bridge angles are based upon the distance between each course. These plans are based on a spacing of about 1.5 inches. I use two strings per course, but some dulcimers usethree, four, or even five, which vwould require wider spacing. The bridge angles are also relative, that is, you could have one side stright up and down and the other side twice and angled and everything would work out the same, and in fact, some traditional dulcimer-type instruments are made this way. The only absolute is that the string lengths must be right for the chosen top and bottom notes, with enough equal spaces of some size between for all the intervening notes/strings. You have to make your own decisions. You could build smaller prototypes, which is what I did when building the first electric dulcimers, like 9-10 string versions, or even as few as 5/6 strings, to work out construction and design details. Something this small is still playable for testing but requires less time and effort than a "full-sized" model. Even "full-size" is relative. A 13/14 course as pictured gives a reasonable range, but standard dulcimers range from 9/10 to 15 or 17. It is important to remember that for a given spacing of the courses, the bridges can be extended up and down as far as you can reach. You could also arrange the strings chromatically, which would alter the bridge angle again. Though this has been done in some traditional and modern designs, you should consider that one of the essentially harmonic components of the dulcimer's design is that the strings that pass close to each other on the same or adjacent courses are harmonically related at primary harmonic levels, the fifth, an octave, or a fourth, which is essentially an inverted fifth. The harmonic resonation of these adjacent strings is part of the tone of the dulcimer. This can be easily demonstrated by hammering just one string for a bit, then damping it out, and listening to the harmonics still ringing from the other strings. Though in some traditional instruments a single half-step progression is added (eg a "C" followed by a "C#" above it) to give a greater range of keys, and range in the available keys, in a smaller instrument. These few chromatic steps, sometimes only the one used as example, doesn't effect the over-all nature of the instrument so much. While the chromatic arrangement that was popularized on the piano keyboard is useful, it is not the only way or even the best arrangement. A study of the arrangement of the notes in the dulcimer will reveal it to be a practical, effective, and a musically natural and logical pattern of notes, ancient and quite perfect, even if unfamiliar to eyes and minds taught to see music in the relatively recent chromatic progression of a keyboard.

Rick Fogel at Whamadiddle wrote up an excellent paper on the mathematics of calculating string lengths if you want to go that far. Otherwise, as long as it is close, you can tweak the desired string tension by adjusting the end rails in or out slightly. This is to suggest that in your designs you leave a bit of margin, at least in your prototypes, for the rails and bridges to be slid around slightly to the best placement. The center bridge divides the string for a perfect fifth between sides, the right bridge uses the double octave node, and even if not played, the high notes on the right side of this bridge will be clearly heard in the harmonics if not damped, especially in an electric instrument. I get into suggestions for electrics more on the electric dulcimer builder's page, so I'll let this go as it is. Also, while the dulcimer is laid out for a right-handed lead, For a right-handed lead, it is best to have the bass on the right, where you start more common ascending chords and scales, it would be perfectly reasonable to build a "left-handed" design, reversing the placement of the bridges. Some people add foot-operated dampers. Anyway, please think of this as a starting point for your own plans.

remember, the images are reduced to display on this page, but files themsleves are quite large, about 1 MB each, so will take some download time over slower connections.

13/14 Course Accoustic Hammered Dulcimer

construction details

Traditionally, rock maple is used for the pin-blocks to grip "zither pins" which are hammered into slightly undersized holes, then tuned with a special "tuning wrench" you buy with the pins. Though other woods (possibly teak in China) or metal could be used to tighten and adjust the tension on the strings at one end, and hitch them at the other. You can buy smooth "hitch pins" as well, though I just use double headed common nails for my hitch pins, cut off and dropped into drilled holes the same depth as the tuning pins. They need to be fairly heavy or they will bend. I alternate hitch-pins and sets of tuning pins so one bridge's strings all tune on one side and the other bridge tunes on the other. I find it easier that way, but you could just as well place all the tuners on one side and all the hitch-pins on the other. Remember whatever you do there will be literally tons of tension on the instrument, make it strong. That's why I put bolts through the pin-blocks and backs, though I expose my dulcimers to a lot of weather as well. Though the strings should line up naturally, occasionally they don't and I use finish nails as occasional "guide pins" to align a string. You could place guide pins on every string if you wished. I also find that I have to slip bits of felt in places to stop slight buzzes that occasionally develop where something vibrates against something else. I also place a small roll of felt between the strings to the right of the right bridge,to damp the overtones from the strings, because even though the strings are not played, they ring, and being untuned, contribute out-of-tune high harmonics. These strings to the right of the right bridge are technically a double octave and can be tuned and even played if the bridge is placed right, and contribute high harmonics even unplayed. On some dulcimers I have done this, on others I just damp the strings with felt, or a combination of the two.
I use hard or soft plywood for the backs, and any hardwood for the sides and bridges. I use doorskin (thin luan plywood) for the top, though you could use solid spruce or a hardwood plywood as well. The top has to have sound holes cut in it, and you can choose what you like, just remeber they need to let the sound out. I use a simple round hole in the main box and cresent to either side, my "three moon" design". I later addes slots in the top and bottom, which did increase the bass. Many peope cut a round hole and then put a decorative circular hardwood piece in it, letting them leave some decorative emblem in the ring. Just don't block the hole too much! Guitars have simple round holes, other string instruments use "f" holes. The interior braces are white pine or spruce. I place them the same way I place the bridges, by using a couple strings, top and bottom, and a temporary bridge piece to accurately find the placement on the node by ear. The I glue the braces down, though the bridges remain floating. The top of the brace is rounded so that the top will rest in a small area, and allow arching, and reduce the possibility of the top not resting cleanly and leaving a loose spot that could buzz. But it also means the bridge could get off center and start to tip either way and warp the top. It is a balance, so you can bevel the braces to have as wide a base as you want. You don't glue the top or bridges down, so you can always remove the top and change it. I use a piece of brazing rod along the tops of the bridges and side rails to keep the strings from cutting into the wood, some use delron rods instead. I often place felt on top of it in the lower registers.
Your hammered should match your style of playing, so experiment with different woods and hammers of different length and balance till you find the one the suits you, which may change over time. Mine are relatively short, and I have come to favor African Purpleheart for the body of the hammer. It is very dense and heavy, but still retains some flexibility, and the strength to keep from shattering under use. I use a softer wood to widen the handle, that will wear well and smooth, since this is where the hammer rides on your finger and thumb. I wrap my primary use hammer-heads in masking tape with some felt of paper padding, for a softer sound, and so they are easy to repair, and so the tape wears away, not the wood. Some people use leather, or felt, some use nothing. You get different tones with different heads, or course. I sometimes use several hammers with different heads for different effects. Again, do what works for you.
You can add damper pedals like a piano. A simple design is using a pedal with a string or rod to pull down felt padded dowels mounted on pieces of spring steel above the strings.

The basic process is to rough cut all the pieces, drill out the pinblocks, attach the pinblocks and rails to the back and peg the corners so they can't slip. Next you sand smooth these parts, sanding a slight arch into the top and bottom rails. Next, you put in the tuning and hitch pins, this allows you to align the bridges and interior bridge supports by putting test stings on the top and bottom. Figure out where the supports go and glue them in, matching their height to the rails. finish the inside of the dulcie with linseed oil. Make your bridges by boring holes through at an angle to match the strings (easy to check now that the support rails and test strings are in), then cutting the sides at an angle. You can either leave a solid wooden top to the bridge, or cut away the wood above the holes to some degree, though leave them wide enough so the strings can't slip off even if they move a bit. The rod can either be continuous (even if the wood is not, or can be cut into individual pieces for each bridge. I have done both. Mostly I use single pieces now, simply because the individual pieces had a habit of popping out and getting lost. You need to cut a groove in the top of the bridge to hold the rod, and I often glue the rod in place. I have used dark wood for bridges, though now I don't. Some people stain every fourth bridge to help orient themselves. You can use pieces of colored felt for the same result. The top, bridges and side rails ("nuts") are held on by the tension of the strings, so are mobile and replaceable if damaged. You can place felt along the entire nut both sides if you like, I do now. You can finish the entire dulcimer either before you assemble the top or after, with oil (don't get in the tuning pin holes!), varnish, or paint. Remember that the top will arch on assembly, which can crack fully hardened finishes done before assembly. You'll have to wait for the dulcimer to settle into equilibruim before it will maintain tuning, so give it a couple days to settle, and it will still take a few rounds of tuning before the strings all tighten up and stay in tune.

The strings are made of piano wire, # 8, #9, and # 10. Start with # 10 and progress through the instrument changing to the next lighter about a third of the way up, or the first 6 notes on the right bridge and the first 3 on the left. You buy a spool of wire (usually by the pound) and make your own strings by twisting a loop in one end and cutting the other a couple inches long and then winding it up on the tuning pin (remember to back them out before you start!). The loop is made by bending the end of the wire around till it crosses itself at a 90 degree angle, grasping the loop firmly (needle-nosed pliers are a nescessary tool for the dulcimer) and winding the wire tightly and carefully around itelf, maintaing the 90 degree angle. Three winds should be enough, then trim off the extra wire leaving only a short tail sticking out. Remember the ends of the wire are sharp as a needle and as dangerous. I have punctured myself more times than I can count and it definitely hurts (bandaids in the dulci tool kit). Especially watch the sharp string ends that stick up often on the dulci if kids are about and want to touch it, big owwies.

Dulcimer Tuning

============== C | F ======================================
================================ B flat | =================
============== B | E ======================================
=================================== A | ===============
============== A | D ======================================
=================================== G | ===============
============== G | C ======================================
==================================== F | ===============
============= F# | B =======================================
==================================== E | ===============
============= E | A ========================================
==================================== D | ===============
============= D | G ========================================
==================================== C | ===============
============ C# | F# ========================================
==================================== B | B" ==============
============ B | E ==========================================
==================================== A | A" ===============
============ A | D ==========================================
==================================== G | G" ===============
=========== G# | C# ==========================================
==================================== F# | F#" ===============
=========== F# | B ===========================================
===================================== E | E" ================
============ E | A ==========================================
===================================== D | D" ===============
=========== D# | G# ==========================================

This is a diagram of the lay-out of the strings. Though it is a general tuning chart, it is more important to help you understand the essential principles of the string lay-out. This lay-out can be extended as far as you want to reach. Starting with the primary harmonic relationship, the "fifth" (because it is the fifth note in the scale of the dominant note), a pattern can be built, a "fabric of fifths", where every other harmonic relationship is defined as some number of fifths, where every key, chord, and scale, and their relationships to each other, are defined. It is something that was intrinsically understood when the dulcimer was the primary or only instrument, and people thought of music as laid out in this pattern. This is in comparison to modern times, when people tend to view music in terms of the more recent chromatic arrangement of notes on the keyboard. A great accomplishment, the tempered scale, but not the same as the fabric of fifths. You should see it as a pattern that would extend like a piece of cloth, endlessly to both right and left as well as up and down. I'll try to explain it more at length in another place. Right now it is only important to see that the dulcimer represents the purest reflection of the essential laws of physics that are manifest in music. This is simply because early musicians developed the dulcimer by building on the essential harmony they understood from vocal harmony, and built upon that to make an instrument that reflected the essential principles they understood from practical experience. I cannot stress enough that understanding it is key to a true understanding of the nature of music in terms of the underlying physics that we hear as music, as pleasant sounds, as we are pleased by seeing pure colors, geometric relationships, crystals of various types. It is the same harmonic relationships that we see in the motions of the stars and planets, or the orbits of electrons, or countless other relationships of nature. This is the "the music of the spheres" of the ancient Greek philosopher-scientist-mystics, when all those were one, and music and mathematics were seen as what they are, just two facets of a single reality, one that has many facets. It bears study, try Pythagoras, medieval woodcuts portray him playing a dulcimer.

As you can tell from the diagram I start out by drawing in the strings at the spacing I want and then build the dulcimer on top of that. The important thing here is to note that the bottom right note should be a dominant, like the "D" in this case, while the string above it on the center bridge is it's fifth ( "A" in this case) on the right side and another fifth higher ("E") on the left side on the bridge. The bottom string of the center bridge is tuned to G# (below the A) and D# (below the E) which provides the major thirds for both these keys, B and E, and especially for the bass E above the bass D on the right bridge. You can see that if you go straight up the bridge from the E you end up with the minor triad and scale, while to get the major triad and scale you run across the bridges proceeding to the left. You'll note that if you start at D that if you go straight up the bridge you get a natural flat 7th. For the diatonic scale you have go across bridges, with every four notes and their mates to the left make a single diatonic scale. The next set of 8 notes one note above is another diatonic scale, in a modal progression, D major to E minor to F# minor to G major etc till you progress modally up to D minor finally. I can't explain it in detail here, but all the sharps and flats are in this pattern but placed appropriately in the scales and keys they belong in, rather than in the non-harmonic chromatic arrangement of the piano. In fact, if you tuned the dulci by ear to perfect fifths, you would end up with a B flat AND an A sharp, slightly different from each other, the complete natural scale rather than the 12 tone tempered scale. I suggest tuning to the tempered scale, though it is not as harmonic as the natural one, if you want to play with other instruments. Though in tuning, the best tone is gotten when you tune not to a single reference note, but to the harmonic ring of the entire instrument. With the instrument fairly in tune, brush your fingers lightly across the entire instrument, to set the strings in motion. As you fine tune a particular string, when the perfect harmonic is reached, you can hear a definite increase in the volume and clarity of the harmonic "ring". This is because energy is conserved and transmitted more efficiently through a harmonic relationship, while more and more is lost, and volume decreases, as you leave the harmonic node. It is interesting to note that a dulcimer in China and a dulcimer in the the mountains of Virginia are tuned the exact same way, despite all the talk of "western" and "oriental" scales. There is only one harmonic physics, and it is universal, which is why music is the "universal language".
There are a few options.. one used in china is to place one chromatic step in the middle of the instrument, where middle C is placed on the right bridge. This extra course allows for a C# to be placed below the C natural on the right bridge and a C | F to be placed above the C#|F# on the center bridge. The main reason for this is to give a greater range of keys in a smaller instrument. Another option was the use of levers, like on a harp, to re-tune specific strings, specifically the D to a D#, changing the predominant mode from C major/B minor to B/major/C minor. Later they built entirely chromatic instruments, though they required dampers since you lost the harmonic advantage of sympathetic strings resonating when vibrating in close proximity.
Harmonics and resonance are another intrinsic aspect of the tone of the dulcimer. When you strike one note, every string with the same note vibrates across the entire instrument, and harmonically related notes also ring to a lesser degree. When you play you are not actually dealing with single notes, but with the sum total of harmonics resonating out of the entire instrument with all the strings contributing, more or less, to a shifting harmonic peak. This is the great advantage and intrinsic nature of the dulcimer, this pattern of notes, the fabric of fifths, the individual notes sounding within a harmonic wall of sound. It means the most harmonic notes are in close proximity, the modal progressions and which is important in this instrument that has so much sympathetic harmonics, while the least harmonic chromatics are as far apart as possible, and the natural harmonic and modal scales and chords are closely interlaced, literally. It also has its own patterns of chords, scales, runs and licks that come from its arrangement of notes, just like there are patterns inherent in the chromatic arrangement of the piano's 12 tones or the arrangement of notes on a fretted instrument. Each pattern of notes: keyboard, fretboard, or dulcimer, is reflected in the playing patterns that fall naturally to the hand when you play.. just as there are natural guitar licks and piano rolls, there are natural dulcimer runs. In fact, since the dulcimer predates the other instruments by a few millennia, you might say that the traditional styles of playing on almost any instrument evolved from trying to play along with or reproduce natural dulcimer runs and the melodies and rythms that evolved from them. The dulcimer is the grandparent of all other stringed instruments, and they all reflect some aspect of it, and the music that developed around it for thousands of years before any other stringed instruments were invented.

I have documented several of my recent dulcimer building efforts with video, and hope to mix those down into a dulcimer building video eventually.

I've made a guide to Hammered Dulcimer Playing Basics. It isn't a set of dulcimer lessons, but the important first steps in principle and practice for playing the dulcimer. It is all you need to learn to basically play the dulcimer, especially if you are familiar with music through some other instrument. Then you can move on to wherever you want to go, on your own. For actual lessons, I think that a video may be more effective. I have sporadically created video dulcimer lessons, but on a individual basis. I can demonstrate something in a minute that it might take a week or a month to master. So I would give people a comprehensive lesson in an hour or two, videoing it on my camera, and giving them the tape, so they could learn at their own speed, repeat lesson, minute by minute, till they learned it. I been working for over a decade on a finished video dulcmer lesson I could reproduce and distribute, but never had time, and frankly, there wasn't much demand. Though I have to if I want to spread my style of playing. Sometime in the last decade, after I recommitted myself to video with new digital equipment, I did write up a video lesson plan. But the fact is, I have only so much time. This is a clear example of why I am taking a shift from my touring and performing to complete this and many other backlogged music projects. When I get it done, you'll find it here.

Finally, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.