Resources: Instruments: Dulcimer (lap)
The Appalachian dulcimer is a diatonically fretted descendent of the zither - an instrument with strings stretched across a box with no neck (unlike guitars, banjos, mandolins, violins, etc. - autoharps and hammered dulcimers are also in the zither family). As a diatonic instrument, fretting the instrument creates the tones of the major scale; some dulcimers have an extra fret that provides one note in addition to the eight tones of the Western major scale.
Instruments similar to the American lap dulcimer appeared as early as the 14th century and seem to have spread from Denmark to other parts of Europe. The scheitholt, a dulcimer-like instrument immigrated to America from Germany sometime in the early18th century. The common feature among the predecessors to the Appalachian dulcimer is a combination of melody and drone strings. They also all had simple, durable construction.
The exact time and place where the first contemporary lap dulcimer appeared is debated. However, at some time in early American history, people in the Appalachians (which most people consider as Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio) built instruments similar to the European precursors. The American instruments, however, had fewer strings and a raised fingerboard. Contemporary Appalachian dulcimers come in many shapes, sizes and tunings that are characteristic of the area from which they come: teardrop dulcimers from the Shenandoah Valley, hourglass dulcimers from Kentucky, rectangular dulcimers from Tennessee. German immigrants and their descendents in Pennsylvania, Ohio and the Virginias seem to have produced the greatest variety of dulcimer shapes, sizes, tuning and playing styles. The instrument continues to change even now.
New headstock, tuner, nut and tailpiece designs along with new ornamentation and tone woods appear regularly. Builders seem to feel no constraint to adhere to details of the preceding instruments. The most common wood in early instruments was poplar. Now, walnut, cherry, maple and redwood are common. In the 1950s, Jean Ritchie introduced the Kentucky dulcimer to a broader popular audience. The instrument continues to have strong popularity in the Appalachian areas where it took root in the US, and is now common in traditional music.
Cyndi Lauper's recent recording "The Body Acoustic" features the lap dulcimer, as did her televised performance in 2005 in Madison Square Garden. Lauper said, "But I was excited to be able to play, and it made it more of an Americana record. That instrument was made and invented by immigrants in this side of the world. It came out of the coal mines. The Scottish and the Irish were traveling to Appalachia to work and when they passed the Pennsylvania Dutch, they heard the sounds of the zither and realized that the instrument that they really missed they could do in a string. So they used a string instrument. They made that beautiful dulcimer sound."