The dulcimer, also known as the Appalachian dulcimer, lap dulcimer and mountain dulcimer, is a fretted lap-held instrument of the zither family, that may have descended from the German Schelitholt, a zither that was mounted on a sound box with strings that did not extend beyond the box. The dulcimer first appeared amongst the people of the Southern Appalachians in the late 18th century. To my knowledge it is the only musical instrument to have originated here in the United States.
The dulcimer was a folk instrument for personal enjoyment (it is pretty quiet) until the 1950-60s, when Jean Ritchie, an American folk singer and dulcimer player, was discovered and signed by Elektra records. The folk music genre took off at about the same time, and soon dulcimer clubs were springing up around the country.
The dulcimer has 3 strings, one of which is a drone, meaning that it’s pitch does not change. There are various tunings for these 3 strings, but it is safe to say the D-A-D is probably the most traditional. The dulcimer is then strummed, much as a guitar might be, while the player sings.
Here are some examples of dulcimers you can hear on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INu3UQ35yVk in the hands of Stephen Seifert, one of the most noted dulcimer players today, the dulcimer’s 3 strings seem to have no limit. Whiskey Before Breakfast is a standard fiddle tune played by folk and old-time music enthusiasts.
Shady Grove is another traditional old-time music tune, played here by Gretchenman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJP5MxWSthE. If you look closely at the video you can see that her dulcimer has more than 3 strings.
Finally, you can hear Jean Ritchie performing on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ua0QuXO4wgE.
As with all instruments, performers/musicians have taken the original instrument, developed their techniques on it, and finally surpassed the original intent of the instrument, taking it into new genres and encompassing new musical styles. What started out as an accompaniment instrument, as heard with Jean Ritchie, now stands alone as a solo instrument as heard with Seifert.
Tomorrow - English Horn.