dulcimer strings

dulcimer strings

advice on strings for mountain dulcimers


I am often asked which string gauges I use on my dulcimers – this blog aims to answer that question – but I first need to explain some of the peripheral issues for my answer to make complete sense …

a little string theory

the pitch of a string is dependant upon 3 things: its length, mass and tension – my dulcimers have a scale length of 27.5 inches, which I believe to be standard

the mass of a string will roughly correspond to its thickness or gauge – a thick/heavy string will need greater tension – and this will result in a loud, clean sound, reducing fret noise – but it will feel harder to play – a light/thin string will require less tension – it will feel easier to play and will give a softer, richer more sustaining sound – but possibly at the expense of some fret noise

so there is a degree of personal preference as to string gauges, depending upon how you play and the sound and tone you seek – I play fingerstyle most of the time and only occasionally use a very thin plectrum to strum my dulcimers – I also play dynamically with noticeable difference in volume between quiet passages (piano) and loud ones (forte)

action needed  

the action is the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the frets, measured at the 7th fret – it is part of the set-up of an instrument and, again it’s a matter of personal preference – a low action will be easier to play but may result in less volume and more fret noise – a high action will feel harder to play but will probably sound louder and cleaner

the combination of low action and light strings will therefore only need the lightest touch to play – but will be most prone to fret noise – and, conversely, a high action and heavy strings may require considerable effort to play – but is likely to create a clean sound – in this balancing act, the maker sets the action but the player can choose the strings

my acoustic dulcimers have an action of 2mm – again, I believe this to be pretty standard – my electric dulcimer has an action of 1.5mm – this is lower, as a coil pickup is not especially sensitive to fret noise – the low action allows for faster, more expressive playing

materials & string ends

the plain strings I use are all high carbon steel and on my acoustic dulcimers the wound stings are phosphor-bronze – again, the choice of materials is of personal preference – I like the rich, resonant tone of phosphor-bronze over other materials – my acoustic dulcimers have pins to secure the strings behind the saddle – so I use loop-end strings for these

on my electric dulcimer the wound string is nickel, which is needed for the coil pickup to work at its best – this instrument secures the strings through holes in the bridge – and so needs ball end strings

my preferred brand

over the years I have tried many brands but, now that availability has increased in the UK, I use D’Addario strings exclusively and buy individual strings to make up the sets I need – for my acoustic dulcimers, these are (single) mandolin/banjo strings and for my electric dulcimer, these are (single) electric guitar strings

D’Addario are a premium brand whose quality of materials, design and manufacture are the best I have found to date – they come in sealed polythene packets and don’t deteriorate if stored before use – when played, they sound very good and seem to last longer than the other brands I’ve tried – they do cost a little more but, in the long run it pays off

tips on changing strings

as a professional performer, I use new strings for concerts and recordings to get the best tone and to have reliable pitch – I clean my plain strings using Fast Fret – this not only cleans them but leaves behind a thin layer of wax which makes the string more playable – the wound strings are cleaned using a dry cloth

I recommend you change wound strings before they become worn or discoloured – and change the plain strings at the same time – old strings will lose their tone and may become harder to tune – when you do change strings, clean the whole dulcimer, including the fretboard – both Martin Guitars and Taylor Guitars make a suitable product, which will not only clean your instrument but also wax it, protecting the woodwork

there should be no need to tie a knot in a new string at the machine head, but do ensure there are approximately 4 turns on the capstan to have optimum grip without slippage – once tuned up, pre-stretch new strings by pulling them in the middle, away from the fretboard by about an inch – do this several times and re-tune each time – they will then hold pitch well

DAD & personal preferences

all my dulcimers have only 3 strings and I don’t play in DAD at all – this blog post explains why – only having 3 strings affords me the luxury of greater flexibility of gauges for the (single) chanter string

(as you will see below) my preference, compared to the current norm, is generally for slightly lighter plain strings for expressive playing – and a heavier wound string for a strong bass – these preferences are the result of over four decades of experimentation and thirty years of professional experience

string gauges for my acoustic dulcimers in the tunings I use most 

key: ‘thou’ = one thousand of an inch

Ionian / DAA

bass – 24 thou, wound phosphor-bronze, loop end

middle & chanter – 13 thou, plain, loop end

Ionian / EBB, Dorian / EBA & Aeolian / DAC

bass – 24 thou, wound phosphor-bronze, loop end

middle & chanter – 12 thou, plain, loop end

in Dorian the chanter string is slack, which encourages bends (vibrato) for a more expressive style of playing – whereas in Aeolian, the chanter string is tight and gives a crisp, clean sound for the baroque style pieces I play in this tuning

EBB example: Spring Season

DAC example: Banks Of The Lee

Ionian / CGG

bass – 26 thou, wound phosphor-bronze, loop end

middle & chanter – 14 thou, plain, loop end

CGG example: Tumbling Skies

Bagpipe / BBB & Reverse Ionian / BBF# or CCG

bass – 26 thou, wound phosphor-bronze, loop end

middle – 12 thou, plain, loop end

chanter – 13 thou, plain, loop end

in Reverse Ionian the chanter string can be very slack and, like Dorian, this makes for expressive vibrato technique     

string gauges for my electric dulcimer (with coil pickup)

Ionian / DAA

bass – 22 thou, wound nickel, ball end

middle & chanter – 13 thou, plain, ball end

electric DAA example: Let It Be Me