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Fret Patterns Explained For Dulcimer Players

September 22, 2023
Good Morning, Y'all!
I just received an email from a player (new to the dulcimer) who asked "What frets do I have on my dulcimer?" I know this is second nature to a lot of you, but for newer players, it can be pretty intimidating.
Here's the photo I was sent:

photo of a folkcraft customer's fretboard layout

So, there's nothing weird here. The dulcimer pictured above has by far our most common fret pattern these days.
Here's what I told the player. I kept it pretty basic and didn't go into much historical explanation. She was after fret numbers to play songs, not a huge history lesson (but I couldn't resist tossing in a bit, just out of principle):
Nut (black plastic looking material, called Micarta)
Fret 1
Fret 1.5 (spoken as "one and a half")
Fret 2
• A single position dot, between frets 2 and 3
Fret 3
Fret 4
Fret 5
Fret 6
Fret 6.5
• • Two position dots, between frets 6.5 and 7 - fret 7 plays an octave higher than the open string
Fret 7
Fret 8
Fret 8.5
Fret 9
• A single position dot, between frets 9 and 10 - fret 10 plays an octave higher than fret 3
Fret 10
Fret 11
Fret 12
Fret 13
Fret 13.5
• • Two position dots, between frets 13.5 and 14 - fret 14 plays an octave higher than fret 7
Fret 14
Fret 15
Fret 15.5
Fret 16
• A single position dot between frets 16 and 17 - fret 17 plays an octave higher than fret 10
Fret 17
Strum hollow (This is more for visual and acoustic design than it is for strumming - the usual best place to strum is above frets 15 - 17).
Bridge (the piece of Micarta near the tail end of your dulcimer).
Dulcimers built before 1980 (very roughly, and definitely "-ish") generally didn't have any of the "1/2" frets. The half frets been added over the years and make a dulcimer more flexible in what songs it can easily play.
Most dulcimer books after the 1980s make use of the 6.5 and 13.5 frets. Many dulcimer books after the 2000s make use of the 1.5, 8.5, and 15.5, too.
(Please don't hound me on the details in the previous paragraphs - this information wasn't meant to be an authoritative dissertation on musicological nuance - it was a "broad strokes" history lesson mixed in with the answer to "how do I count my frets...)
So - what should I have added - without getting too complicated - which might have made it easier for this player to get started? She had some beginning books, understood the concepts, but just didn't know how to count the frets. I'm open to suggestions!
Thanks for reading, Y'all - have a great weekend!
Richard Ash - luthier-who-thinks-about-fret-patterns-way-too-much!