About the Dulcimer

appalachian and mountain dulcimerA dulcimer is a fretted, plucked musical instrument. The instrument first appeared in the early 1800s from the Scots-Irish in the southern Appalachian Mountains, and thus is also called a mountain dulcimer or an Appalachian dulcimer. There is a wide variation in Appalachian dulcimers and some may have up to 12 strings, but they are most commonly found with 3, 4, or 5 strings.

How to Tune a Dulcimer

Like a said earlier, there are a lot of types of Dulcimers, so I am only going to explain how to tune the most common dulcimers, the 3, 4, or 5 stringed dulcimers.
There are many ways you can tune a dulcimer, but currently the most common tunings are DAD, DAA, or DGD. DAD is the most common but it is often easier for the beginning player to tune to DAA or the so-called "Reverse Ionian" tuning, (DGD).

Difference between 3, 4, and 5 stringed Dulcimers

Down below i will explain how to tune a Dulcimer that has 4 strings. A 3 string and 5 string dulcimer are basically tuned to the same tuning as a 4 string dulcimer. The difference is that a 3 string has only 1 melody string, and the 5 string dulcimer has 2 melody strings and 2 bass strings. Those pairs of strings are tuned exactly the same note, to cause a harmonizing effect.

Tuning a Dulcimer using a Keyboard or Piano

Tuning a dulcimer using a Piano in DAA tuning Tuning a dulcimer using a Piano in DAD tuning

Tuning a Dulcimer to itself

D Ionian (DAA) Tuning

1st String (bass) D - 2nd String (middle) A - 3rd String and 4th String (melody strings) A
  1. Tune the 3rd or bass string to the D below Middle C on the Piano (or to the open 4th string of a guitar).
  2. Press the 3rd or bass string just left of the 4th fret and pluck this note (A). Tune your middle or 2nd string until it matches this pitch.
  3. Tune the 1st or melody string to the same note as the open middle string.

D Mixolydian (DAD) Tuning

1st String (bass) D - 2nd String (middle) A - 3rd String and 4th String (melody strings) D
  1. Tune the 3rd or bass string to the D below Middle C on the Piano (or to the open 4th string of a guitar).
  2. Press the 3rd or bass string just left of the 4th fret and pluck this note (A). Tune your middle or 2nd string until it matches this pitch.
  3. Press the 2nd or middle string just left of the 3rd fret and pluck this note (high D, one octave above the open bass string). Tune the 1st or melody string to this note.

That's it! If you have any questions or comments, post them below.

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Comments (29)
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Hi Anne Lang, You've probly thot of using G, B, D (wrapped or unwrapped G and detuned E) strings from a guitar. And the 12-string guitar has a high G above E just in case. This way your strings match your G key without too much TENSION! This will change your other tuning options, tho, but sing on.
Regards, Jebby

by Jebby on

Hi All, I have a 7 string dulcimer with 4 violin pegs and 3 piano-type tuners. No strings on it yet. Nut and bridge have slots 2-2-2-1 with single wide slot farthest. Only 4 string end holders. Maybe the 3 tuners are a standard and the 4 are another standard and all share the string ends? But with 2-2-2 slots they will overlap. Maybe 3 vibrating drones like a sitar? (heh)
The central Pennsylvania maker carved lifelike grapes and leaves into the walnut upper tuning block and lower string block. The dulcimer is so beautifully over-worked that I imagine it will play well if I get it strung correctly.
Any ideas?

Thanks, Jebby

by Jebby on

I'm trying to tune all my strings into G as I want to play Joni Mitchell's case of you but some if the strings seem really tight and I'm not sure I can tighten them anymore

by Anne Lang on

Jim Good, WV dulcimer maker

by Leonard Courtney on

How are the strings numbered. Bottom to top or top to btm?

by Harry Wilson on

Crazy Canuck

Tunings will depend on whether you choose to play with 'others', with most published 'standard' tabs or by yourself.

I was a guitar player, until a hand injury forced me to give it up.

I discovered the dulcimer by accident and decided to get one. It is relatively easy to learn, especially if you stick to the conventional fretboard.

Playing chords from 'guitar' sheet music is possible IF you keep it simple and know the limitations. DAD tuning allows you to play with guitars but SOME chords are impossible, due to the MISSING notes and scales that the simplified fret board offers. This fact should not discourage you, seeing as playing the instrument is fun and cool !

I am one of the growing number of players who has ordered a full chromatic fret board (like a guitar, but with 3 strings instead of 6) with the intent of playing more complex chords to accompany more instruments.

I will need to 'create' my own reference library, based on music theory and some good resources that are ever growing to join the 'craze'.

I have been working with about 5 tunings, with more possibilities in the future. For arguments sake, I can create my own tuning.

So far, it is possible to play MOST chords with 3 separate string setups / tunings. By experimentation, I can see HOW I can accommodate MOST chords by how accessible / far the 'stretches' are.

Here are some examples - DAD, FAC and GBE. You can chart the positions and eventually find the BEST compromise.

My style of playing is aimed at joining jams, but I should be able to play some melody styles by flat picking 2 or 3 strings.Consider it a work in progress. Just remember that you need to consult music theory to build the scales and positions.

If this sounds too complicated or simply not your thing, then stick to the basics. There nothing wrong with the basics.


by Ronald on

The type of instrument shown in your picture is the Appalachian dulcimer (originally from the Appalachian Mountains area, hence the name). This belongs to the "cistern" family of string instruments. But since hammered dulcimer also exists (even some electrical ones availabe - i.e that can be amplified, as you do an electric guitar), you might like to restore the regional marker of the type of instrument you show here, so as to prevent confusion.

by Peter d' on

Thanks for the tuning tips. I have a 4 string made by Charles Zaida in 1986 it's stamped no.263. Charles is from Tombstone Az. Any info you can give would be helpful

by Dan Malberg on

dulcimer design

I am interested in how you got the lizard design, it is my design/art, I had a dulcimer built and designed the lizard and a squaro cactus on it...

by David Dunlap on

There is a wealth of information about mountain dulcimers at everythingdulcimer.com There is also a large amount of music tabbed specifically for the dulcimer on their website.

by Wanda on

I'd like to add mountain dulcimer in my chords and scales reference site. http://chords.jpglomot.com
Thanks for this. Do you think it could exist a chord reference for this instrument ?

by JP on


Dulcimer sounds good but hard to use

by Arnold Desmond on


In what order are the strings numbered, from the bottom of the dulcimer to the top or from the top down.

by norma on

Hi I have just finished building my four string dulcimer and am intrigued by this beautiful little instrument. It was a kitty but I intend to do another one from scratch using black heart sassafras and huon pine from tassie, thanks for the site I had no idea of how to tune the little fella.
Cheers Diggs.

by Daggs on

Tuning help

Thanks for this, I had just dug out my Dulcimer after about 15 years in the closet and had forgotten how to tune her up. This helped immensely and recovered my memories. I'll be able to start playing now if I can ever find my box of music!

by Rhonda L Esakov on

Whippet man.

I have bought a real Kentucky dulcimer , and a Seagul
I play ukuleles BUT
IM HAVING SOOOO MUCH FUN on my Dulcimers, that it should be illegal.
I'm even buying a spare one tomorrow! ( got lucky on Gumtree)
I find them therapeutic.

by Garry on

Bluse Man

Thank you so much ,this has help me a lot,but how do I get a sharp or flat,By bending? noting that the progression of the frats are in hole Note's!

by James Boobby Bluse on


Hi, Ryan here. I have never even held a dulcimer in my hands but would really love to give it a try. I am somewhat proficient on a guitar though i suppose. My question is this: Are dulcimers easily converted from right hand versions to lefty compatible? I suppose if depends on the model, but think I would like to give the Seagull Merlin Mountain Dulcimer a try. THey are inexpensive and have great reviews.

Would LOVE a little advice on this matter from a fellow musician. I would be sincerely GRATEFUL for input :)


by Ryan Vander Lugt on

no 5 string here

by Tom on

Mixolydian vs Ionian

Neil, when you play in D Ionian, you tune the melody string to A, and the D scale starts on the 3rd fret, and the frets will be right for that scale. When you play in D Mixolydian, you tune the melody string to D, and start the scale with the open string. The frets will be in the right places for Mixolydan that way.

by Steve on
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