Just Pluck and Strum It!

I’m not sure what determines the time when you finally do something you’ve planned to doMountain Dulcimer 13 for years. Sometimes I think it depends on just how hard you want to accomplish something, then other times, I believe the excuse, “I didn’t have the time to devote to it,” is a legitimate one. I’m in Florida now here at a special resort RV park. Just today, as I was leaving a building on the grounds, coming through the door was a  man, who was bent on practicing piano. “I love it,” he said, “I only wish I had learned this when I was a child.” Even more than escaping the weather, living here for a few months allows residents to join many classes being conducted by volunteers. So what did I do? Well, for one, I enrolled in a mountain dulcimer class.

Learning to play the dulcimer has been a desire of mine ever since my husband hand- Mounain Dulcimer 4crafted one for me back in February 1994. What took me so long? Here’s that same old excuse, “I didn’t have the time.” Granted, being retired does leave a person time to pursue other interests and here at SunNFun campground, classes are just a walk away from my RV. My husband is thrilled and waits for the day we’ll play songs together.

It all began when on a trip to Tennessee we heard and saw Mountain Dulcimers being played. This presented yet

My husband with his dulcimer.

My husband, Burl, with his dulcimer.

another challenge for my husband, Burl. He had to build one! Even though he has spent years of study and daily, hard work as a publisher/broadcast engineer, he’s always had a project or two, sometimes three, on the side. For a man who loves working with wood, building dulcimers held his interest, for awhile. In fact, before moving on to another project, he built ten of them and gave one to each of our five children. He instructed our son, Merwin, in the construction of one and video taped him as he worked. He then advertised the how-to-build video in the Dulcimer Player News, a magazine devoted to mountain dulcimer enthusiasts. Many videos were sold across the United States, with one purchaser as far away as Australia.

Because the dulcimer first appeared, in the early 19th century, among Scotch-Irish

Dulcimer playing is an old time music tradition.

Dulcimer playing is an old time music tradition.

immigrants in the southern Appalachian Mountains, it’s oftentimes called the Appalachian Dulcimer. It is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. Dulcimers appear in a wide variety of body types, teardrop, rectangular, violin-shaped, fish shaped, etc. The ones Burl made are hour-glass shaped. He experimented with a variety of woods, the one he built for me has a walnut bottom and spruce top with a maple/wenge fret board. His dulcimer has special meaning to him in that before his grandfather’s shop was demolished, he carefully preserved, stored, and planed several of its Chestnut boards for use in its construction. Many times the sound holes of dulcimers are heart-shaped, but on mine they are shaped like birds, reminders of the yard birds I love so much. Those on his, are unique in design, too.

In what seemed like no time to me, my husband became an accomplished

The day is coming when we'll be playing duets together.

The day is coming when we’ll be playing duets together.

dulcimer player. With his excellent ear for music, it came easily to him, although he does remind me that he worked many hours learning to play. Besides the usual folk songs, there are others that seem written especially for the dulcimer. Have you heard “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “Boil Them Cabbage,” and “Old Joe Clark?” They are truly mountain songs and are ideally played on the dulcimer.

Getting back to dulcimer construction, I think he chose the hour-glass shape because of the challenge it presents. I remember him soaking the wooden sides of the instrument in water for a few hours, then heating the wet

Here's the correct way to hold the "lap dulcimer.

Here’s the correct way to hold the “lap dulcimer.”

wood before carefully bending it to shape. Inside one of my dulcimer’s sound holes is a label that reads “Hand Crafted by Burl Updyke February 1994” plus a description of the woods used. It may seem to you that it took me a long time to appreciate what my husband did for me, and so it must seem to him. As I learn to play it, I’m truly beginning to appreciate it more then ever. The dulcimer is generally regarded as one of the easiest string instruments to learn and one reason for this is that although you have music before you, below the staff is a dulcimer tablature giving written instructions that enable a person to play without reading music.

I usually hesitate to tell others when attempting a new project like learning to play

This is me, finally showing appreciation for the gift my husband made for me.

This is me, finally showing appreciation for the gift my husband made for me.

an instrument because this, like any other new skill, requires dedication and stick-to-itiveness. Others will surely ask me how I’m doing? Well, it’s fun learning a simple American old-time music tradition, but it can’t be done without lots of PRACTICE. Check with me later.

14 thoughts on “Just Pluck and Strum It!

  1. Another great story. Nita said she would like to learn how to play one too, but “So far, she just hasn’t had time.” I think it would be a challenge to build a dulcimer, one I might be up for. The photos are priceless.


    • There is no question on whether or not you could make a dulcimer .I’ve seen your work and I know that you can.Thanks for your kind comments. Build two, take lessons and all four of us can play together.


  2. Hi Aunt Shirley!
    Your dulcimer is beautiful! I really do hope you learn to play it well. I think you and Uncle Burl could make some beautiful music together! Here’s my encouragement to keep practicing! Keep us updated on how the lessons are coming.


    • Hi Deb: So nice to hear from you and thanks for the encouragement to learn the dulcimer. My plans are to keep strumming. It does take dedication but the results are worth it. I always enjoy hearing from you. Hope the family is doing well.


  3. This is the 1st I’ve seen or heard of a dulcimer. They are beautiful and I would think they sound beautiful too. As for the one Burl made for you with his own little touches that describe your personality…that’s love. A kind and loving act that gave him as much pleasure making and giving…as you in receiving and learning to play.


  4. The dulcimer that Burl made for your is certainly a beautifully crafted instrument. It will be fun for you to play together, once you learn how to play it. Will you be learning how to play “by ear” or will you be learning with a book and also learning how to read music? I know that many people play instruments by ear, and others know how to read music. I hope that you enjoy your music lessons. It seems like you have allot to do while vacationing in the South. Enjoy!


    • Hi Colleen: I am going to class here and learning to play the dulcimer by music. Those that play by ear have a special gift, although some think it can be taught, also. There are about 10 others in my class. Dulcimer lessons have been given here for many years and there is a huge number of players. Thanks for writing.


  5. beautiful mountain dulcimer! stick with your lessons and take the time to learn it!
    i have build 5 mountain dulcimers…mine are rectangular though, as i decided i didn’t want to get into bending wood LOL. i have yet to learn to play it…no time…but i keep saying ‘someday’ 🙂
    i have learned to read the TAB for the dulcimer and if i were to spend about a half-hour a day on it i could probably play it well….but we’re back to that ‘time’ thing LOL
    have you seen this page? http://www.music-folk-play-hymns.com/mandolin-tab_hymns.html
    if you scroll down you can get a lot of the tabs for hymns.
    wishing you well on learning to play! 🙂


  6. After Burl left me try out his a few years ago, I really wanted one too. I found one at a fair and purchased it for son, Brent. He never really learned to play it, but now you’ve motivated me to get it out of the closet and try to learn!


    • As musical as you are, Linda, you will not have any trouble learning to play the dulcimer. There are many books for beginners and oftentimes they come with an accompanying CD that is very helpful. Besides, you have a cousin that will help you through any rough spots. So get it out of your closet. Thanks for writing, I love hearing from you..


      • Thanks for all your kind words, Janine. I happen to know that both you and Matt know how to play a dulcimer. How you learned is a mystery to me. I liked your latest post on Joyful Wonder telling about spending your birthday in Florida. Keep writing them.


  7. Such a gorgeous photo of you and the dulcimer! That is wonderful that you are learning to play it. And you really didn’t have much time before! You have worked hard all your life. I’m so glad you are playing some now and learning and doing things you enjoy. You sure deserve it! ❤


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