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 (11)
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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

Owner Wishbringer Hand-Crafted Music

Neil: the difference between DAD and DAA has to do with the stress on the treble note. With DAD the "D" note will be stressed, whereas with DAA the A note will be stressed. This will also represent in how the dulcimer is played using a peg on the outside string. It seems a minor difference, but in truth it's quite significant.

Arna: A dulcimer can be tuned to just about any key you like by changing the string spec being used. It makes no difference if you're playing by yourself, however if you're playing with others you would need to either be similarly tuned or transpose your music to the common key.

My appreciation to GetTuned.com for providing this useful site.

https://Etsy.com/shop/Wishbringer

by Wishbringer on

Can a 3 string mountain dulcimer be tuned to the key of c

by Arna on

Oh, please! Tell me why switching the on string up from A to a D sends us from Aolian to Myolydian running. For the life of me I can't figure it. I thought it was in the location of the frets putting that 1/2 step between 7-8 (Ionian) and 6-7 (Myxilodian). I can't see how one can change that by tuning. Thanks a lot.
Neil

by Neil Brunton on

What gauge strings?

Larry Graham asked about this. First, you need to decide what notes you want each of your strings to play when plucked open (not pressing down any frets). Then measure your VSL, the "vibrating string length" which is the distance from the nut to the bridge. Write down this info and go to Tom Strother's String Gauge Calculator, fill in the blanks, and there are your answers! http://www.strothers.com/string_choice.htm

by Jan on

Thanks

Thanks for posting this, well done.

by Rose on

how do you tune a 6 string dulcimer?

by Jim on

What are the string gauge for a four string.

by Larry Graham on

mr

Ta for info on how to tune a dulcimer. Ihave almost finished making my first one ,and am quite excited. I'm dying to complete it and try playing it. I have never seen a real one, only photos on computer.

by lawrie on

I just love the sound of dulcimers.

by Catherine on
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