Ask Russell

Ask Russell

~ How do the bridges affect the sound of a Hammer Dulcimer?

  • More dense woods such as Rosewood or Ebony seem to produce a darker or mellower tone. Lighter material such as walnut or cherry tend to produce a little brighter tone and are definitely less efficient in transferring the musical energy of the vibrating strings, thus producing less sustain.
  • The overall size of the bridge affects the tone somewhat. In my opinion a larger, more massive bridge is less desirable than a smaller, more petite bridge.
  • Bridge caps (the material on top of the bridge that the strings sit on) as well as the side rods (the rods on the extreme left and right sides of the instrument) have more to do with the instruments sound than any other single part of the instrument as they are the only things that come in direct contact with the strings.
  • Hard metal promotes brassy tones and extensive sustain and is more difficult to tune (because of the friction of the strings on metal)
  • Wooden rods or bridges without rods are extremely soft and dramatically reduce sustain.
  • Delrin rods (which most instruments have these days) are somewhere in between metal and wooden tone-wise and are very slick which promotes ease of tuning.
  • Separated bridge caps tend to reduce sustain somewhat compared to continuous bridge caps and side rods.
  • Remember, the sound of any builder’s instrument can be dramatically changed by varying nothing more than the bridge or bridge caps!

~ What tips do you have for long distance travel with my Hammer Dulcimer? ~Mile a Minute

Dear Mile a Minute,

The words “travel” and “summer” DO NOT go together well! I’ve repaired several instruments that have suffered from “trunk-itis” in August and “see-how-hot-I-can-get” in July with the windows rolled up (or rolled down, even). I’m talking the lacquer had bubbled up from the heat! Yuk! What do you do? You treat your instrument like a toddler. You don’t leave it in the car with the windows up or down, you don’t leave it where someone would steal it, you don’t set it where something would fall on it, etc. You keep it at a safe temperature and secure. You don’t let it get dry. You feed it 3 times per day – well, maybe not. Hopefully it needs no diapers! On the serious side, if you fly and don’t put it in an approved aircraft case, you might as well go to Vegas and roll the dice! You might ship it ahead by UPS or other carrier but I have another story concerning that!! Use your head and remember your investment!

~ I’ve recently purchased a hammer dulcimer and was wondering what advice you would have for a raw beginner.

Dear Half-baked.

I speak with folks in your shoes almost every day. Life is great and the music grows for days and weeks when they first get started but a few months later it all seems to come to a screeching halt. The hammer and mountain dulcimer aren’t hard to learn, especially compared to the guitar or piano and such. The key is simply to be around other players as often as possible. Don’t be a closet player – get around to club meetings, festivals, seminars, concerts, private or group lessons and even craft shows or such where someone is playing constantly and you can watch. It’s simple enough that you learn from just watching. Also, set your instrument up, and leave it up, in a well-traveled area in your home where you are tempted to stop and play for 5 minutes – maybe it will turn into 55 minutes! If there isn’t someone to learn from try a video or two and books with accompanying CD’s. Be sure to get materials that address chords and scales. You just can’t believe how important and relevant to all playing subjects chords and scales are. Sorry! But, I promise if you’ll jump on these ideas you’ll be impressed with the speed at which you’ll improve and joy you will inherit from your efforts. In no time you’ll be cookin’ up a smorgasbord of well-done music.

~ After years of enjoying the hammer dulcimer, I feel as though I’ve hit a ceiling in progressing in my skills. What should I do? ~Harry Headache

Dear Hard head – I mean Dear Hairy Head – oops – I mean Dear Mr. Noggin,

Everyone hits a plateau in their playing (hopefully not painfully). It usually occurs when you are stay­ing to yourself and not being exposed to other players, techniques, challenges, music, etc. So, 1st thing I’d do is quit my job, buy a pup tent and travel the US going from dulcimer festival to dulcimer festival! Not feasible? Then find out about all the festivals within your reach. Check out the calendar in Dulcimer Players News and join a couple of dulcimer clubs just to get their mailings. Plus ask about other dulcimer activities when you attend a festival. Sometimes there are workshops and concerts in homes, churches or libraries. Just go and watch a dulcimer player at a craft show or jam session. Just get exposed!

Next I’d remember to acquire a new CD every month or so. Be sure to try a variety of performers and styles. You don’t want to be just like someone else but get a little something from everyone. Also, there are lots of new instructional materials for both Ham­mer and Mountain Dulcimer players – get some! Of course, I believe every Hammer Dulcimer player at every level should own the Ultimate Hammer Dulcimer Resource Book.

Last, challenge yourself – give yourself a goal. Set up a place to perform for someone – family or friends or church or ??. Just fix a date to perform and prepare for it. Also, I highly recommend dulcimer contests. I know the idea seems scary to most but it can be really fun, certainly challenging and I promise it will push you to another level. Pick out four tunes and do everything imaginable to them. Automatically, these skills and embellishments will ooze over into your other tunes.

Now, if that’s not enough to give you a migraine, just holler back. I’ll scratch my head and come up with something more OR I’ll have Larry scratch his head a while and I’ll go catch a “flat head” catfish! Hey, that’s a great idea for a “head-strong” person like me! If I leave now, I’ll get a “head start” on everyone else!

~ I have decided to forge ahead into the challenge of learning to play the hammer dulcimer after visiting with you at a craft show in Virginia last week. I believe your comment “we ain’t gettin no younger” summed it up nicely. I am so looking forward to making music without a CD player! What advice do you have as I attempt to “hammer out” a wise decision? ~Braveheart

Dear Fellow Soldier,


Congratulations on taking the initiative to form a battle plan. The Bible says it is wise to seek the counsel of others before going into battle, but from a salesman??? Heck, I think you should buy the most expensive instrument we make!!! Yeehaw!!! Would you like gold-plated dampers on that??? Seriously, you are going about it very wisely. You might be able to find an article or two on the subject from some old Dulcimer Players News (don’t know which issues – Good advice is usually available from successful musicians such as guitar players, if you don’t know several good hammer dulcimer players. You should be able to make contact with internet chat-lines on the subject. The most information on the subject I know of anywhere is on our very own website under products/hammer dulcimers. Some time ago, I wrote an article to assist customers trying to decide which of our models they wanted to purchase and play, cleverly named “The Hammer Dulcimer Models Comparison”. It’s a tough thing to figure out and even harder to tell someone else what to do! So I don’t – I just share as much basic information as possible about a whole list of important aspects of dulcimer playing and building such as the benefits and determents of: physical sizes of different instruments, different musical ranges, chromatics, keys available, sound variations caused by different soundboard materials, bridges, bridge caps, sustain levels and what causes it, stained soundboards, bracing, backs, sound holes and inlays, ways to support the instrument, cases, dampers, hammers, how to make a million dollars in the stock market, how to lose weight, where the next hurricane will hit, how to cook a perfect soufflé (Merla’s still working on that one), etc… You can’t go wrong reading this little article. So, what are you waiting for? Paint your face up; sharpen your sword and CHARGE!!!

~ How do you go about preparing for a concert? I’ve been asked to perform, have never done such a thing and am very nervous! ~Scaredy Cat

Dear Kitty,

Been there – done that! Every appearance has its own quirks – every crowd their own personality – every stage its special challenges. “Preparation” is the key word also known as “practice”. The smallest simplest performance can go so awry when you fail to prepare.

  • Tune list – start with something a little easy, a confidence builder. Should be something everyone recognizes and can relate to.
  • Think variety – Mix it up – slow, fast, new, old, gospel, traditional, contemporary, Celtic, Christmas, self-composed – whatever you have in your repertoire to work with.
  • Not every piece has to be a knock-em-dead arrangement.
  • Practice every tune that day – as close to performance time as possible. It’s sort of like downloading from your “hard drive” memory to your “RAM”.
  • Even if you have to go on late, go on “TUNED”!
  • Don’t go on late!
  • Wear matching socks, and don’t forget your hammers (don’t ask me how I know!)
  • Ask about dress – what they might expect.
  • Start your performance knowing you’re gonna mess up. It’s inevitable! You’ll play thousands of notes in a half hour – maybe even 10,000 or more. You’re not gonna nail every one of them. So, don’t get flustered when it happens – just keep goin.
  • Enjoy yourself and the crowd will have fun, too!
  • BREATHE! I catch myself in a stressful part of a song and I’ll almost blackout from forgetting to breathe!

Hope this helps – it ain’t rocket science but it might keep the cat from gettin skinned alive!!


~ I come to the hammer dulcimer from the guitar and piano. I love playing melody but don’t always know the tune everyone else is playing. I enjoy playing chords on the guitar and piano on those tunes, almost as much as melody on those I do know. How do I play chords on a hammer dulcimer? ~Chordless Karen

Dear Chordless:

Don’t “chord less”, chord more!!  It’s easy!  Pick any key (located between any two marked courses on the treble bridge – the bridge on the left) and play up the scale – four notes up the right side then four notes up the left side – remember to stay between the two marked courses.  That’s a “diatonic scale”, known to most of us as “do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do”.  Now, change that to numbers such as “do”=1, “re”=2, “me”=3, “fa”=4, etc.  You play 1,2,3,4 up the right side of the treble bridge between the marked courses and 5,6,7,1’ up the left side of the bridge.  Both the first lower pitched “do” on the right and the last higher pitched “do” on the left are the same note only an octave apart thus they are assigned the same name and number “do”=1.   OK, now play only 1, 3, 5, 1’.  Cool, huh?  You just played a chord.  Since you can’t play all the notes simultaneously, it is officially called an arpeggio.  Now take that pattern and move it up and down the treble bridge starting on every course.  Every pattern is a new chord and its name is the name of the first note you strike, with one variation – all the patterns that begin and end on marked courses are major chords and those patterns that begin on the courses not marked are minor chords.  Now you have a bucket full of chords to play with.  And now you can leave that bulky old heavy piano at home!!!  Your friends might start inviting you to their jams again since they don’t have to help carry it up the stairs!  (You can still bring the guitar if you just have to)  Good luck.

~ How does humidity impact my instrument?

Many of you have called, written, or emailed to ask about the effects of humidity on the hammer dulcimer. We’ve generated several answers to this question and finally decided to go to the dulcimer guru himself, Sam Rizzetta. Sam was nice enough to email us his thoughts on humidity and its effects on the hammer dulcimer and gave us permission to publish it for you.

Sam writes:

Dulcimers are somewhat forgiving regarding humidity levels. And, of course, it depends a bit on the individual instrument. Generally, wooden instruments are happiest near the humidity levels in which they were constructed. But any environment that would be OK for violins or guitars, which are more delicate, would be more than adequate for dulcimers. Ideal humidity for dulcimers might be in the range of 30% to 55%. Winter season with heating systems running may lower humidity below this range. If humidity falls very low, i.e.., dry, some woods may split, crack, or warp; tuning pins might loosen. Keep the dulcimer in a cool area away from heaters, hot air vents, sunny windows, etc. Humidify the air if necessary. Humid environments are somewhat less troublesome but can cause swelling and warping and buckling of tops and backs. Humidity changes of any sort may cause some tuning changes. The worst aspect of extremely damp situations, such as playing outdoors in late night dampness or humid, rainy weather or leaving your dulcimer in a basement, is that moisture condensation may lead to corrosion of critical metal parts like tuning pins and strings. Replacing these is labor intensive. Dampness will also damage some finishes. The bottom line is that dulcimers are moderately tolerant of a wide range of humidity levels. If people are comfortable, so are the dulcimers.
Sam Rizzetta

Thanks, Sam, for sharing your knowledge on the dulcimer and how humidity affects the dulcimer. I would like to add that varying humidity levels affect the tuning of Hammer Dulcimers more than any other factor. I’ve learned that humidity also varies dramatically more than most of us realize. Do yourself a favor and maintain a consistant level, whether high or low, as much as possible. Afer all, we all prefer to play than tune and a well-tuned dulcimer sounds so much sweeter.