The dulcimers on eBay range from about $100 to $900 dollars. Some are old and some new. With a little information it will be much easier to select one for your bid. The dulcimer received a few different names as people settled around the country. Look for Mountain Dulcimer, Appalachian Dulcimer, Lap Dulcimer, and Folk Dulcimer.
There are two basic shapes these dulcimers are made in: hourglass and tear drop. They look much like the shapes when viewed from the front. Cheaper instruments are made of plywood. It’s also called laminated or veneered. Plywood dulcimers are generally under $250. From about $300 and up, solid woods are used. You will see mid priced dulcimers with backs and sides of walnut, cherry, and maple. From about $500 and up you’ll find dulcimers of more exotic woods and woods that have beautiful figure in the grain.
The wood the top is made of is very important. Very traditional instruments may have tops of the same wood as the back and sides or made of pine. Today it is more normal to find instruments with tops of spruce, cedar, or more rarely redwood.
Tuning machines are very important. A beginner should hear the note of a string being tuned up or down change at a nice predictable rate that feels under their control. An advanced player should be able to finely tune when recording or with other players. The best tuners have sealed gears and buttons (knobs) that go down like a classical guitar or out to the side. They’re made by Grover (American), Shaller, and Gotoh (imported). Traditionally, headstocks and tuners that looked like a little guitar or ukulele were seen on cheap instruments. In the last ten years some expensive instruments have been made like this. It’s easier to make but less traditional looking. Another easier, inexpensive method has the buttons going up in the air much like a dead bug. Many of us think this is very un-musical looking.
The most traditional dulcimer and the one you’ll find the most music books for has four strings that are really three as the thinnest is a close-together double string of the same note. In the last twenty years it is normal to see the instrument made so it will convert to four separate single strings. There are now many books and songs written for this method. It has added new and exciting styles like Ragtime, Blues, and Jazz to the dulcimer’s music. It is very normal for a dulcimer player to quickly change tunings or stringing for a song or two. A good instrument with good tuners will make this quickly become natural to do.
Twenty years ago, more traditional dulcimers were simpler. To play more interesting music and tune less, makers started adding a 6 1/2 fret. Just about every book is now written expecting you to have this fret. It is still normal to name it this way and mention it as there are many older instruments around without one.
One of the nice things about our instrument is that makers are free to be artists. The poor violin maker will soon be out of business if his instrument doesn’t look just like a Stradivari. Dulcimer makers are free to make instruments in their own unique hourglass, tear-drop or any other-shaped designs. You’ll see sound holes in many styles of traditional hearts as well as violin f-holes, Celtic crosses, birds, horses, and every imaginable type of free-form shape. You get to choose.
The dulcimer has become a symbol of American traditional music. The instrument has different shapes and names in other countries. Most dulcimer players want an American-made instrument. There are a number of factories still making dulcimers and these can be quite good. In the last few years laminated dulcimers made in China have become available.
This has made local factories find lower-cost methods to stay in business. We’re seeing more work that looks made by a big machine and less that looks the work of a sharp knife in a skilled hand. But a fine American-made musical instrument is still something the average player can afford to have and can pass on as an heirloom to future generations.
Our music is the quality of our lives. To play a dulcimer rather than the radio is very special. The dulcimer is the perfect way for someone who didn’t get music lessons as a kid, or who hasn’t played music in years, to have a rich and rewarding experience. The dulcimer’s drone strings are the stuff of singer-songwriters from the earliest times to the present. From time to time, as Chevillier here on eBay (it means “pegbox”) I place a few of my instruments up for auction. I would be honored if my instruments were among those you considered. Thank you.