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 (20)
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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

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.


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.

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 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


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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