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Recommended String Gauges For A Dulcimer

July 14, 2023 - Recommended Dulcimer String Gauges

Good Morning, Y'all!
As you're reading this, I'm in Michigan at the ODPC (Original Dulcimer Players Club) Funfest. The ODPC Funfest is a jam/camping/jam/classes/jam-oriented festival in Evart, MI. This event is hosted by a hammered dulcimer club (this summer marks their 60th anniversary) and has a (predictable) focus on hammered dulcimers. But, with all the jams going on, it has ended up being a magnet for all types of acoustic folk instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and mountain dulcimer, included.
Quite a ways north into Michigan's lower peninsula, the weather is usually pretty nice in July. And for me, going to Evart is almost like going home. I was born not far from there and still have relatives in that part of the state.
I had a question this morning where a mountain dulcimer player was asking about tuning her dulcimer. How far "up" or how far "down" can a dulcimer be tuned and not break the strings (going up)? Or losing too much tone (going down)?
I should have been an attorney, because the answer is "it depends."

There are several variables which effect the answer: string gauge, age of strings, and scale length. Heavy, old, long-VSL strings can't go up as much as light, fresh, short-VSL strings.
I usually offer this "rule-of-thumb:" You can generally tune up one note (from D to E, or A to B, for example) or tune down two notes (from D to B, or A to F, for example). Go up too far, you'll break the string. Go down too far, the string will be so loose that it starts sounding bad.

string gauges for dulcimer

I play with the standard Folkcraft 3-string set on most of my personal dulcimers: .012, .015, .024RW. I regularly re-tune (multiple times in a jam or concert) rather than use a capo. Bass and middle strings up to E and B, melody string down to A. This works on my 28" VSL instruments, and on my (single) 25" VSL instrument. I've even been known to tune a DAD dulcimer down to B flat, F, B flat and have it sound pretty decent, especially through an amplifier. (When the strings are that loose, you lose a lot of volume...)

string gauges for dulcimer

Best plan for finding out? Experiment. Strings are cheap - we sell a set of 12 really good plain steel strings for $8, so if you break a string or two experimenting, you're not out much money. And it is fun to experiment!

Thanks for reading!


Richard Ash, luthier-who-thinks-about-dulcimer-strings-WAY-too-much!