Goodwill a Good Reason to Make Dulcimers


BROOKSTON, IN -- Rensselaer's Marvin Hayes has found he can spread music and goodwill, and have a great time, by making dulcimers.

"I like the music, and I love the people who buy them and play them. I teach them for free," he said.

Hayes, a former heavy equipment operator, started making the folk instruments three years ago, on the example of his friend, Charlie Alm, a retired industrial arts instructor from Lafayette's public schools. Alm has made dulcimers for 25 years.

Working in Alm's wood shop in Brookston, Hayes has now made 11 mountain dulcimers, four-stringed instruments somewhat bigger than a computer keyboard, and has started making his first two hammered dulcimers. Hammered dulcimers are larger, about a three feet long trapezoid, and are played with tiny wooden sticks, or hammers.

"We can make them out of walnut, cherry, or oak, and lately, redwood," Hayes said.

A hammered dulcimer, historically the first instrument to be called a dulcimer, has 113 piano key pegs, and 58 strings, tuned in groups of three, Alm explained. The 35 pounds of pull on each of a hammered duicimer's 58 strings adds up to 2,000 pounds of force stretched across the instrument's thin wooden panels; Hayes and Alm explained.

"That adds up to just over a ton of pull, and therefore it needs braces on the inside," Alm said.

Mountain dulcimers are an American Appalachian invention, with roots in German and English zithers and stringed instruments, the men said. Mountain dulcimers are played flat on a musician's lap, by strumming four strings on a set of intermittent frets, they said.

Dulcimers were first seen centuries before other more popular instruments in Western Civilization, Alm said.

"They were known in ninth century Iran. In China, they studied it the way people in our culture study violin," Alm said.

One thing they refuse to make is a decorative dulcimer. "We see people who want them just to hang on the wall. We won't make one for them," Alm said. "We want people to play them," Hayes said.

Alm, who published "The Hammer Dulcimer Book: How I Build the Things," said he takes his time and creates each instrument at a leisurely pace.

"We don't take any orders that have deadlines. They gotta figure it takes eight weeks to make one," Alm said.

Hayes said he has found recordings of dulcimers used for almost every kind of music, including folk, bluegrass, country, and blues.

"You can play anything on them," Hayes said.

Return to Charlie Alm's Hammered Dulcimer Book Main Page

Copyright © 2005 Charlie Alm