In the rolling hills of Appalachia, a unique stringed instrument was born—The Mountain Dulcimer. Are you ready to embark on an enchanting musical journey and discover its beautiful, melodic sounds? Join me as I explore its history, connection to traditional Irish music, and learn to play it in the mesmerising Irish style. Say goodbye to routine and embrace the fascinating world of Irish tunes with your dulcimer! In this post, I’ll share its captivating journey and teach you how to master this charming instrument, bringing the magic of Irish tunes to life.

So what are you waiting for! Let’s dive in!

Brief Overview of the Mountain Dulcimer and Its Connection to Irish Music

The mountain dulcimer, also known as the Appalachian dulcimer or the hog fiddle, is a stringed instrument that you can play by plucking or strumming the strings with a pick or a plectrum (or a feather quill as they did back in the day), and using a small stick or dowel, known as a noter, to hold down the strings.  

The dulcimer actually originated in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia in the early 1800s, and its modern form is based on the German Scheitholt. After the Civil War, makers in West Virginia and Kentucky started producing hourglass-shaped instruments with three strings.

Despite its German origins, the mountain dulcimer became closely associated with traditional Scottish and Irish music – due to the large influx of immigrants into Appalachia from these countries. In fact, it’s now becoming a popular instrument in Irish music back here in Ireland, where its sweet, melodic tone and simple, rhythmic style make it a perfect accompaniment to jigs, reels, and other traditional tunes. 

The dulcimer is usually made of wood and has a long, narrow body with a fretboard that goes all the way along it.

Players use the noter to hold down 2 strings (on a 4 string dulcimer) to play the melody. Two strings, the bass and middle strings are not noted when you play in the traditional style. These serve as “drones”, which have a constant sound reminiscent of bagpipes.

The dulcimer is usually made of wood and has a long, narrow body with a fretboard that goes all the way along it.

Getting Started

To get started, you’ll need to choose a mountain dulcimer that is suitable for playing Irish music. Look for an instrument with a rich, resonant tone. It’s also important to choose a dulcimer that is comfortable to hold and play, with a fretboard that is easy to navigate.

Once you have your dulcimer, you’ll need to learn the basic techniques and skills needed to play it. This includes learning how to hold and strum the dulcimer, how to read dulcimer tablature, and how to develop finger strength and dexterity. 

Sample of tablature for the mountain dulcimer
A sample of dulcimer tablature
4-string mountain dulcimer
Tuning your dulcimer

Tuning Your Mountain Dulcimer

I recommend DAD(D) tuning, which is best for playing traditional Irish Music.

Using an electronic tuner or tuning app, tune each of the four strings to the notes D, A, D, D from low to high. The two Ds together are the melody strings. They’re placed closely together on the instrument itself, as you can see in image above.

For more help tuning your dulcimer to DAD(D) take a look at this video. 

Please note: The mountain or Appalachian dulcimer is typically arranged in a diatonic scale whereas instruments like the banjo, mandolin or bouzouki are fretted chromatically.

How to Hold Your Mountain Dulcimer

Sit with the dulcimer on your lap, with the head of the dulcimer resting towards your left (if you’re right-handed) or right (if you’re left-handed). Hold the dulcimer with your left hand on the fretboard and your right hand on the strings.

How to Play Your Mountain Dulcimer


Use your right hand to strum the strings with a pick or your fingers. You can strum all four strings at once, or you can strum individual strings to create different notes.

Fingering the frets

Use your left hand to press down on the strings at the different frets to change the notes. Start by placing your index finger on the first fret, your middle finger on the second fret, your ring finger on the third fret, and your little finger (pinky finger) on the fourth fret.

You can also use a noter here.

Enhancing Your Appreciation and Enjoyment

As you master the techniques and skills needed to play the mountain dulcimer, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies that make trad music so unique and special. You’ll be able to appreciate the intricate interplay between different instruments in Irish music and understand the role that the dulcimer plays in creating that unique sound

Seek out prominent players of the mountain dulcimer, it doesn’t matter what genre music they play or their playing styles, and get a feel for the capabilities of this beautiful instrument. 

The Lark in the Clear Air- Arr. w/ Tab for Intermediate Mountain Dulcimer Players, Irish:

Playing along with your favourite Irish tunes on the mountain dulcimer can also enhance your enjoyment of the music and help you discover potential playing styles. You’ll be able to add your own personal touch to the music and feel like you’re a part of the rich and vibrant Irish music community.

Mastering Essential Techniques for Playing the Mountain Dulcimer in the Traditional Irish Style: Because Plain Old Strumming Just Won’t Cut It

Tips and Tricks for Perfecting Your Technique

Let’s face it, if you’re going to play the mountain dulcimer in the traditional Irish style, you’ll need to master a few essential techniques.

For instance, when holding the dulcimer, it is recommended to use the left hand to press down on the frets while the right hand strums or picks the strings. This allows for more control over the sound and helps to produce the desired melody.

Beginner Exercises to Improve Your Skills:

To improve your skills and build your repertoire of traditional Irish tunes, practice is key.

Simple exercises can help you build finger strength and dexterity while also establishing effective practice habits. So, grab that dulcimer and get practising! 

Two Easy Beginner Exercises:

Start with a simple finger stretch:

Begin by opening your hand and extending your fingers away from your palm as far as they can go. Hold this position for a count of five, and then release your fingers back into a relaxed, loose fist. Repeat this movement ten times. To add variation, try squeezing your fingers tightly into a fist after each stretch.


One beginner exercise to improve your skills on the dulcimer is to practise playing scales. Start by playing a simple scale, such as the C major scale, slowly and evenly. Focus on using proper finger placement and keeping a consistent rhythm.

Gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable with the scale. Repeat this exercise with different scales to build finger strength and dexterity. 


Another exercise is to practise arpeggios, which involves playing the notes of a chord in a specific order. 

This exercise can help you develop a better understanding of chord progressions and improve your ability to play accompaniment.

Practising arpeggios is a great exercise to improve your understanding of chords and their progressions on the mountain dulcimer. It’s also great to help get those fingers moving 

An arpeggio is when you play the notes of a chord one at a time. For example, if you were playing a D major chord, you would play the notes D, F#, and A in a specific order. 

Here’s an example of how to play a D major arpeggio: 

  • Start with your left hand on the D note, which is the root note of the chord. 

  • Play the D note with your left hand thumb. 

  • Next, play the F# note with your left hand middle finger. 

  • Finally, play the A note with your left hand little (pinky) finger. 

Irish Tunes for Mountain Dulcimer by Mark Gilston
Irish Tunes for Mountain Dulcimer by Mark Gilston

Expanding Your Repertoire of Irish Tunes: One Tune at a Time!

Get Your Feet Tapping: Using the Mountain Dulcimer to Play Traditional Irish Dance Music

As you become more proficient at playing the mountain dulcimer in the Irish style, you can begin to expand your repertoire of traditional Irish tunes.

These books by Mark Gilston are a wonderful resource for Irish music loving dulcimer players.

Irish Tunes For Mountain Dulcimer, Volume 1 & Volume 2 

The arrangements are great and the tablature is very easy to read. You’ve got about 80 tunes between the two books so it’s the perfect place to start building your Irish repertoire.

Another dulcimer book, The Irish Dulcimer by Lois Hornbostel, transcribes popular Irish fiddle tunes for the mountain dulcimer offering 31 selections include jigs, slides, hornpipes, polkas, reels, slow airs, harp tunes, and songs. Accompaniment chords and musical notation are also provided for other instruments.

You can also seek out opportunities to play with other musicians or join a dulcimer community, where you can share your love of Irish music and learn from other players. 

participants in the online Dulcimer Festival
Participants in the Dulcimer Festival

For example the Dulcimer Festival takes place at least twice a year online! Which is just perfect for those of us who can’t be jetting around the world to music festivals – much as we wish we could

The Mountain Dulcimer at an Irish Session

This is a tricky one! And I’d proceed with caution here. The mountain dulcimer is best used as an accompaniment instrument and as such it will rarely carry the melody. It’s not a common sight at traditional Irish sessions and may cause some alarm when it’s taken out.

Your fellow musicians will worry that you’ll interfere with the flow of the music and bring an unusual sound to the mix.

So if in doubt ask the group before starting to play your dulcimer.

Best thing to do is to strum lightly along with the music and make sure you know your tunes.

Take heart, another non-traditional musical instrument, the bouzouki, was also once viewed with suspicion at sessions. However, it’s now an integral part of a lot of Irish and folk music and is much loved! 

In fact, the only instrument that can really be said to be indigenous to Ireland is the harp, so keep an open mind and remind others to do that too!

Read More About Irish Session Etiquette 

Inspired to Buy a Mountain Dulcimer? 

Here at a McNeela Music we specialise in musical instruments for Irish folk and trad music, we also carry a great selection of world instruments.

We recently added the dulcimer to our stringed instruments range. With just four strings and a simple diatonic fret pattern, our mountain dulcimer for sale is perfect for learning the basics.

This lightweight 4 string dulcimer is also ideal for musicians on the go. Its compact size and lightweight construction mean you can take it anywhere. And with its traditional heart shaped sound holes it really looks the business!

The four strings are arranged as follows: melody string x 2, one middle string and one bass string.

The McNeela Mountain Dulcimer
The McNeela Mountain Dulcimer

Gold at the End of Your Rainbow

Playing the mountain dulcimer in the Irish style is like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow for lovers of Irish music. It’s so easy to learn yet it sounds gorgeous!

By honing your skills and building your repertoire, you’ll uncover new depths of appreciation and enjoyment for this beautiful music. 

And if you buy a mountain dulcimer like the McNeela Mountain Dulcimer, you’ll be making beautiful music with the best of them in no time. 

Who knows, you might even be the next Andy Irvine!

So don’t be shy – grab your dulcimer, start strumming, and let the music transport you to the Emerald Isle. 

Please note: the mountain dulcimer or lap dulcimer is not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer. They are two quite different instruments.

Mountain dulcimers (also known as Appalachian dulcimers) are positioned on the player’s lap whereas the hammered dulcimer is a large stringed xylophone-like instrument. Incidentally, the hammered dulcimer has plenty of history in traditional Irish music but is not seen so often these days.

the hammered dulcimer
The hammered dulcimer in action

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