Stick Dulcimers: What They Are & Why They Matter to You

Stick Dulcimer

Chances are really high you’ve never heard of a stick dulcimer, and that’s sad, but about to change. Let me start by asking you some things:

  • Have you ever wanted to play an instrument?
  • Have you tried to play one before and it just didn’t work out?  (Maybe your fingers fumbled all around in a frustrating mess, or they really hurt, or you ran out of time to practice?  Maybe it was your mom’s idea to even take those stupid lessons?)

If any of the above sounds familiar, the stick dulcimer just came to your rescue and you haven’t even realized it yet. You’re about to be able to play an instrument. And if you’re already a musician, regardless of instrument, this is still for you (more on that later), because as a musician myself, I can promise you’re going to smile at the unique qualities.

Don’t believe me? Think I’m being hyperbolic? I’m about to show you how to play a song in less than 10 steps. 5 minutes of practice and you’ll be playing an instrument. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here are some very interesting facts you should know about stick dulcimers:

  • Only three strings.  Less to mess with.
  • Strings are tuned “open.”  Everything sounds nicer. Easier to keep in tune.
  • It’s fretted for just one key.  No wrong notes.  (Well, you could still have a few sour moments, but it’s really hard to sound bad)
  • Super portable.  Walk around playing it without a strap.
  • No formal music training required.

I fear you didn’t read all of that, so let’s recap for a minute. Stick dulcimers have half as many strings as a guitar, with less frets (which reduces the confusion of which notes to play when), they’re tuned so they sound good when simply strumming, and they sound good when only playing with one finger.

Backstory of the Stick Dulcimer

Some say that the only truly indigenous American instrument is the mountain dulcimer (aka “Appalachian dulcimer” or “lap dulcimer”), which is the stick dulcimer’s parent.  While others have debated the veracity of such a claim, saying that the mountain dulcimer is a direct descendant of Scottish or Nordish folk instruments, it’s undisputed that the stick dulcimer descends directly from the mountain dulcimer. They share the same fretting setup, string configuration, and string tuning.

As best as we can determine from recent study, the modern incarnation of a stick dulcimer was actually born out of the workshop of Homer Ledford, a Kentucky-based and world-renowned luthier known for his mountain dulcimers. His first stick dulcimer was dubbed the “dulcitar” and seems to have been crafted in the mid-to-late 1970’s. In the 80’s the instrument was further developed by Bob McNally, inventor of the backpacker guitar (whose design was later sold to the Martin Guitar Company), and through the 80’s and 90’s and to present a variety of other makers have continued to expand the instrument’s design and tone. (For a more extended backstory, read a “History of Stick Dulcimers.”)

The stick dulcimer is an inevitable evolution of a somewhat stationary instrument into a portable, more readily accessible (or culturally relevant and popular) version. It is held and played like a mandolin and just as travel ready. Some versions are more akin in sound characteristics to a guitar, such as the Seagull Merlin M4 (by the Canadian instrument company, Godin), while others resemble the nasal tone of a banjo. Some 4-string models (which simply double the top string) are more akin in tone to a mandolin, which is a double-stringed instrument.

Stick Dulcimer Lessons

Due to the relative anonymity of the instrument, the only ways to learn to play one are via YouTube channels, Facebook groups, or by purchasing mountain dulcimer music and inverting the notation.  (Not hard, just a bit of a pain, especially if you’re new to music!) 

For the sake of my attempt to convince you of the ease of playing one, I’ll demonstrate an American classic with one finger. I give you Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”!

  1. Hold the stick dulcimer as you would with a guitar:  
    1. Left arm supporting the neck with your fingers able to touch the strings, and thumb touching the middle of the back of the neck
    2. Right arm wrapping around the body, holding it close, using your right hand to strike the strings. 
  2. Place left index finger on the first string (and only the first string) just behind the second fret.  The “first string” is the one that’s highest pitch, and closest to the floor when you’re holding the instrument.
  3. Strum all the strings at once with your right hand.  Go on, strum them, I’ll wait…
  4. Now slide your left hand closer to the body, positioning your index finger behind the third fret.
  5. Strum all the strings at once with your right hand.
  6. Now quickly strum the strings again, then slide your left hand back so your index finger is behind at the second fret as before.
  7. Strum all the strings at once with your right hand.
  8. Now slide your left hand closer to the tuning keys, positioning your index finger behind the first fret.
  9. Strum all the strings at once with your right hand.
  10. Repeat steps 2 – 9 until you’re comfortable with the motions.
  11. Congrats, you’re playing a freakin’ Tom Petty song.
  12. Feel proud. Like Proud Mary. Wait, that’s a different classic American song.

Find the Stick Dulcimer for YOU.

Since there are a variety of sizes, tunings, and styles of stick dulcimers, you should take a few factors into consideration when purchasing. 

  • Are you a new musician?  Go with whatever you want, you’ll like them all!
  • Are you an adult or child?  The Seagull M4 Merlin is a better fit for kids, while a full-size Strumstick could work for an adult (the frets are farther apart).
  • Do you like to keep things nice, or are you prone to beating them up?  If the second, then consider a Seagull Merlin as they’re sturdier (and less expensive)
  • Do you like a challenge?  The pickin’ stick variety has a bit more musical nuance, due to its added “6.5 fret.”

If the above info still leaves you in question, read over the resource guides on strumstick.com

Ryan Pryor is a long time guitarist, composer, recording engineer, and dulcimer enthusiast and graduate of Belmont University’s Commercial Music program, in Nashville, TN. He has been extolling the virtues of stick dulcimers since purchasing one on a whim in Asheville, NC, circa 2012.