In the early days of Mountain – or Appalachian – Music, the go-to instruments were the banjo and the fiddle. Those two instruments alone get toes to tapping, feet to dancing or tears to pouring. The mandolin, guitar and piano were added to the mix in later years.
My mom loves music. In her younger days, she could have been an opera-quality soprano. On a trip to Arkansas one year, she watched a craftsman as he made a dulcimer. After hearing one played, she fell in love. My dad was a great guy. Before they left Mountain View, Dad surprised Mom with a dulcimer. It was nothing but fingers strumming from that moment on. As time passed by, she purchased her first auto-harp. Some of the most beautiful music filled that house!
The dulcimer is a member of the zither family. It has of 3 or 4-strings and sits on your lap to be played. Depending on the music, a dulcimer lends a jaunty feel to the song, or brings a haunting quality that reaches straight to your very soul. They come in different sizes, with an average length of 36” – 38”. However, a bass dulcimer can be up to 4’ long. Sound quality ranges from bass to soprano. Dulcimers are played with a small, triangular hard-plastic pick.
Surprisingly, the wood used to make the soundboard can change the sound. Spruce brings a brighter sound, while redwood has a warmer one. Jerry Rockwell explains that different types of wood can be used, such as walnut or cherry for the sides, backs and fingerboards. He likes spruce for the soundboard. For some great information, visit Jerry Rockwell Music.
Each craftsman brings a different quality, style and feel to the dulcimers they make. The sound hole can be of a different design – it just needs to be the correct size to allow for optimal vibration.
Tradition says the Courting Dulcimer was designed by a dulcimer playing craftsman, who was overly protective of his daughter. When courting, the young couple were sent outside on the porch to play. This way, they were constantly under an adult ‘eye’, but watch out if the adults turned their back. A quick kiss could be stolen if the couple leaned far enough over the dulcimer! A courting dulcimer is a ‘two-sided’ instrument. It is as if two dulcimers were melded together. There is one body, but two fingerboards. It is designed for duets, and laid across the laps of two people who are facing each other. When played in perfect harmony, this is music that just swirls in your soul!
Hammer (or Hammered) Dulcimer
A hammer dulcimer is a larger percussion instrument, trapezoidal in shape, with two bridges. You can stand up to play it by placing the hammer dulcimer on a stand, and some musicians sit cross-legged on the ground. Two spoon-like ‘hammers’ are used to strike the strings. The strings are in ‘courses’, which are two strings tuned in unison. (See the Mandolin for more information on this style.)
Charles F. Zimmerman was awarded the first patent on the auto harp. Karl August Gutter built a different model that most closely resembles what we have today. An auto harp is a stringed instrument where felted frets slide along the strings horizontally, rather than vertically. The auto harps we know today are a basic rectangle with one corner lopped off. It around this edge that tuning pegs are added. At the other end is a chord bar, which will press down on the strings underneath to create the correct notes. Auto harps, like most stringed instruments, are played with a pick.
Although the traditional Appalachian music began with the fiddle and banjo, it has evolved to allow numerous other instruments into the mix. These are a few you may find, with some of them being rare, but acceptable:
• Banjo – This is the second most thought of instrument when considering Mountain Music (with the fiddle being the first). Go ahead. Sing ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, but if I listen to a banjo player, give me Earl Scruggs, any day, any time.
• Fiddle – here’s a fun fact about fiddles: A violin is a fiddle, but a fiddle might not be a violin. It is semantics to some, but it has to do with the specifics of how the instrument is made. Technically, any stringed instrument can be a fiddle!
• Bass Fiddle – my Grandad played a bass fiddle for years. My brother has it now, but we always laugh about it: there are burn marks on the back where Grandaddy would put out his cigarettes during a session. For some reason, it doesn’t affect the sound quality.
• Bodhran – (often pronounced ‘bahran’, but good luck with the REAL pronunciation!) – is an Irish frame drum. This is a hand-held drum, usually with goat-skin on one side, and the underneath side is open, with a bar to hold the drum in your hand. It is played with a short stick that is rounded end on each side. This is more of an Irish instrument, but can easily be adapted to Mountain Music.
• Tin Whistle – again, this is not a traditional instrument of Appalachia, but an interesting addition. It is a six-hole woodwind instrument considered more Celtic than Mountain. In England, this instrument is called a ‘whistler’.
• Mandolin – a stringed instrument from the Lute family. A Mandolin is strung in ‘courses’. One course = 2 strings tuned in unison. Usually there are four courses, but 5 (10 strings) and 6 (12 strings) courses are available.
Make Your Own
Wash Tub Bass
Do your fingers get tangled when you try to play an instrument? Play a washtub bass – it only has one string! My son James plays quite a few instruments, from stringed to tin whistle, and even accordion. But he is also a creative sort. One day he headed to the shop and created a washtub bass. With a moveable board, one string and a #2 washtub, that boy makes some beautiful music! Grab a drill and the supplies. Next thing you know, you will be auditioning for a pickin’ and grinnin’ session!
Spoons are simple to assemble, but not so easy to play. Playing these requires finding the beat quickly, being ‘rhythmically inclined’ and an ability to keep up the pace.
Got a washboard? A washboard is ribbed metal mounted to a frame, and designed to do laundry. Play it with thimbles, spoons, or even a stiff-bristled whisk broom, depending on the sound quality you want.
It doesn’t matter if you are a player or a listener. Mountain Music is a ‘one size fits all’ genre of music. It is the one thing that resonates within us, and can stir the emotions to depths rarely explored. It can start our toes to tappin’, our feet to dancin’, or our tears to flowin’.
And you don’t have to buy tickets to a concert to hear it. Have a session right in your own kitchen, or have a potluck and invite musicians to bring their instruments. It’s what living a Simple Life is all about. Anyone ready to be a Player? Grab your instrument and let’s get this party started!