The Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and its fretting is generally diatonic.
Although the Appalachian dulcimer appeared in regions dominated by Irish and Scottish settlement, the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or Scotland. However, several diatonic fretted zithers exist in Continental Europe, which bear a strong similarity to the dulcimer. Jean Ritchie (The Dulcimer Book, 1974) and others have speculated that the Appalachian dulcimer is related to similar European instruments like the langeleik, scheitholt, and epinette des Vosges.
A traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and pluck or strum the strings with one hand, while fretting with the other. The dulcimer may also be placed in a similar position on a piece of furniture such as a table or chest of drawers, to enhance the sound. There are two predominant methods of fretting. First, the strings may be depressed with the fingertips of the fretting hand. Using this technique, all the strings may be fretted allowing the player to produce chords. Second, the melody string, the string closest to the player, may be depressed with a noter, typically a short length of dowel or bamboo (see photo at left). Using this method, only the melody string is fretted and the other strings act as drone strings (the melody string may be doubled so that the melody can be better heard over the drones). In this second style of playing, the combination of the drone strings and the buzz of the noter on the melody strings produces a unique sound.
In practice, a wide variety of playing styles have long been used. Jean Ritchie's The Dulcimer Book (1974) has an old photograph of Mrs. Leah Smith of Big Laurel, Kentucky, playing the dulcimer with a bow instead of a pick, with the tail of the dulcimer held in the player's lap, and the headstock resting on a table pointing away from her. In their book In Search of the Wild dulcimer (1974), Robert Force and Al d'Ossché describe their preferred method as "guitar style": the dulcimer hangs from a strap around the neck, and the instrument is fretted and strummed like a guitar; they also describe playing "Autoharp style" where "the dulcimer is held vertically with the headstock over the shoulder." Lynn McSpadden, in his book Four and Twenty Songs for the Mountain Dulcimer, states that some players "tilt the dulcimer up sideways on their laps and strum in a guitar style." Still other dulcimer players use a fingerstyle technique, fingering chord positions with the fretting hand and rhythmically plucking individual strings with the strumming hand, creating delicate arpeggios.
Contemporary players have also borrowed from chord theory and guitar analogues to create a variety of more complex ways to play the dulcimer. Some dulcimers are constructed with four equidistant strings to facilitate playing more complex chords, particularly for playing jazz. In another line of contemporary innovation, electric dulcimers have been used in rock music. The Appalachian dulcimer is both easy to learn to play, and capable of complexity, providing scope for a wide range of professionals and hobbyists.
Modern instruments usually include an additional fret a half step below the octave position, the so-called "six and a half" fret. This enables one to play in the Ionian mode when tuned to DAD, the traditional tuning for the Mixolydian mode, where the scale starts on the open fret. This arrangement is often found to be more conducive to chordal playing, as opposed to the more traditional dronal style. Among modern players, it is fair to say that the instrument is most commonly tuned to DAD. So-called "chromatic dulcimers" are sometimes made, to permit play in any key without re-tuning.
While currently the most common tuning is DAD, it is often easier for the beginning player to tune to DAA or the so-called "Reverse Ionian" tuning, (DGD). "Reverse" tunings are ones where the key note is on the middle string and the bass string is the fifth of the scale, but in the octave below the middle string. This is sometimes suggested as an easier tuning. From (DGD) one can put a capo on the first fret to play the Dorian mode, or retune the second string to (A), to play the Mixolydian mode, then from Mixolydian capo the first fret to play the Aeolian mode. DAA tuning should not be thought of as simply a "beginner" tuning, however. Many accomplished, innovative players use this tuning.
The Appalachian dulcimer achieved a renaissance in the 1950s urban folk music revival in the United States through the work of Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky musician who introduced the instrument to New York City audiences. In the 1960s, the American folk musician Richard Fariña (1937–1966) became the first to utilize an Appalachian dulcimer in a less traditional way, pointing out its similarity in tone to some Middle Eastern and Asian instruments. Styles performed by modern dulcimer enthusiasts run the gamut from traditional folk music through popular and experimental forms, although most perform in more or less traditional styles. The increasing popularity of solid-body electric mountain dulcimers can be evidenced through performers such as Lindsay Buckland Bing Futch, Butch Ross and Quintin Stephens Dulcimer festivals take place regularly in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as the Appalachian dulcimer has achieved a following in a number of countries.
As a folk instrument, wide variation exists in Appalachian dulcimers.
Guitarist John Pearse was one of the first persons to introduce the dulcimer to English folk clubs in the 1960s, but one of the most masterful - and reclusive - of the English players is Roger Nicholson, who made a seminal album called "Nonesuch for Dulcimer" with an English guitarist & singer called Robert Johnson.