Piano Dulcimer

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Piano Dulcimer

Postby dhayes3 » Fri Dec 03, 2010 10:03 pm

I'm thinking of purchasing a "Piano Hammered Dulcimer" for my wife. She plays some piano, and can actually read music pretty well, but she has no experience playing any hammered dulcimer.

My understanding is that the Piano Hammered Dulcimer has a different string progression than a traditional hammered dulcimer, one that is sometimes easier for those with some piano background to learn on. I myself have a pretty good music and instrument background and have looked both at the string progessions on the Piano Dulimer and the traditional Hammered Dulcimer, and I can more readily understand the playability of the Piano Dulcimer. Plus, it's fully chromatic, whereas a non-chromatic traditional Hammered Dulcimer might be more difficult for my wife.

The ones I've looked at (online only) appear to be just as well-built and the same size, etc. as the traditional models. Recognizing that a Piano Hammered Dulcimer might not have the same resale value as the traditional model, what might be some of the pros and cons of my purchasing the Piano model for my wife?
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby MarkH » Fri Dec 03, 2010 10:38 pm

From one beginner to another, a couple of things. First, if you're in the Seattle area, snap up this piano dulcimer on Craigslist: http://seattle.craigslist.org/skc/msg/2081784318.html A PD-40 with case, stand, hammers, and dampers for only $500! Almost makes me wish I a) weren't learning the regular hammered dulcimer, and b) lived on the other side of the country!

(This probably proves your point about the resale value, as I saw it not sell when listed at $600.)

Anyways, on to business. Some people might remember me as the person asking a lot of questions on Everything Dulcimer about piano dulcimers (I eventually got a Dusty Strings D35, however, which is three octaves in the traditional fifth-interval tuning). Like your wife, I had piano experience, a good background in music reading and music theory, and no hammered dulcimer experience. I will say that once you actually try a fifth-tuned dulcimer, the layout is a snap--for me, it was even easier playing the actual instrument than when I was trying to map out hammering patterns by looking at a tuning chart. Even though I had experience with a linear note layout (piano) and no experience on a more pattern-based instrument (e.g. guitar), I'll bet the normal layout was easier to learn than a piano dulcimer would be.

However, one of the pros of a piano dulcimer: it is the same price and the same size as Dusty Strings' D45 model, but it has way more notes (an extra half octave of range and it's fully chromatic throughout unlike the D45) and slightly fewer strings to tune. It is also as easy to play in Gb (which only a few people regularly do on a standard hammered dulcimer) as it is in, say G major. I personally was intrigued by its ability to play in all 12 keys.

The downside, besides the resale value, is a couple of things. First of all, I know most hammered dulcimer players recommend you play "horizontally" rather than "vertically" wherever possible. Basically, it is easier to hit the right note if you move over to the right and hit it on the bass bridge than if you move down five notes on the right side of the treble bridge, for example. You can't do that very much on a piano dulcimer. Second, you don't get the diatonic patterns that lend themselves to a lot of cool ornamentation and are easy to improvise in (and that most instructional material is written for, for what it's worth).

For me, when I was choosing, I basically thought about why I wanted a dulcimer. Did I really need something that was going to have the range and chromaticism of a "normal" instrument? Let's face it, a guitar has more range than your typical hammered dulcimer, and is still more portable, and has about a tenth of the number of strings to keep in tune. And a piano has several octaves of range even on a 5-octave JRS Concertmaster, and is fully chromatic too. There's a reason why the orchestral instruments, the typical concert instruments, are orchestral instruments, and the folk instruments are folk instruments: they are more versatile. So since I was really intrigued by the sound and playing motions (I love the feel of the hammering, and it's also fun to watch) of the hammered dulcimer, I figured I would go with the more easily available and the more traditional instrument and just make the most out of what I could.

Plus, there are people who play pretty intense music even on a traditional hammered dulcimer, so it's not like a non-piano dulcimer has no musical capability at all.

That was probably more than you needed to know and off-topic anyway, but in case it helps...

Good luck! Hope your wife enjoys whatever dulcimer you get for her!
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby mrchips » Sat Dec 04, 2010 1:33 pm

As far as one being more difficult than the other to play i dont think there is any real difference there. Granted, the notes are in different places and with either one you will learn where they are. The only down side of any HD thats not a nearly standard 5th octave setup is the lack of any tutorial material specifically for whatever tuning it may have if you need it. It is possible to adapt any 5th octave material though if you mentally adjust stuff in it that deals with the tuning.

The biggest issue Ive personally seen somebody who plays a piano has with the usual 5th octave tuning is its totally backwards to piano logic. The low notes are on the right and closest to you, just backwards from a piano. The diatonic tuning doesn't present any problems as they understand the concept of keys, or diatonic tuning, anyway.

The note sequence on a PD hd is somewhat linear compared to a keyboard. The real difference is you have to switch sides on the bridge to get all 12 notes in sequence instead of side by side. As there is no note duplication like on a 5th octave its possible to have a greater octave range in the same physical instrument size.

I play a 5th octave HD, some keyboard, a bit of chromatic picking stick, some diatonic MD, and have been known to mess around with a banjo and pedal steel some. With that stick I often mess with non standard tunings too. With all that the biggest problem I have when going from one instrument to another is just the mechanics of playing each. The tunings and note location differences are easily dealt with. Other than the Hd they are all linear in note layout, chromatic or diatonic.

The one thing I love about that 5th octave HD tuning is you can quite easily transpose from one key to another in most cases on the fly without even knowing the actual notes you are playing.. That is the same on most any stringed, fretted or non fretted interments Ive messed around with so far. Think capos and barr chords. :) It dont hold true on a keyboard though as often you gotta shift between a sharp and a natural so the relitave finger positions change.

Bottom line is go with what you want but dont get locked into the idea a PD HD is easier than a 5th octave for a piano player to play. The issue isn't the instrument type, its in the ability of the person to shift the thinking around as needed. Some can do it and others cant. :)
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby administrator » Sat Dec 04, 2010 2:05 pm

Folks, I'm absolutely not wanting to start a fight here, but have any of you who commented actually played a piano dulcimer?

I play both kinds a lot, and have no qualms whatsoever about suggesting piano dulcimer to a new or experienced player. In many ways they are so much more logical than 5th interval tuned instruments and, imho, the tone they produce is superior in a smaller form factor.

Mark, if I used your example about resale value, then I could show you the same thing about even the best and most coveted 5th interval HDs. It takes more than one example to make draw such a conclusion. The Craigslist instrument is a great buy though! Snap it up.
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby MarkH » Sat Dec 04, 2010 4:11 pm

[quote=administrator]Have any of you who commented actually played a piano dulcimer? [/quote]

No, I have not. I wish I had! That's why I always try to say something about "This is just from what I've read", or "I'm not that experienced", because I can't speak from actual experience in most cases. I just try to summarize what I've heard from digging through all the old forum posts, mailing list comments, etc. I also added my own personal line of thinking, which is how I thought before I had experience with any hammered dulcimer, piano or 5th-interval.

But I never claimed to have experience with the piano dulcimer and I would always insist on deferring to the opinions of those who do.

I would be willing to guess that once you play the piano dulcimer enough, hitting wrong notes becomes less of a problem. Even on the piano proper, I don't hit an out-of-key note very often, because I've played the scales so many times it almost has the same effect as physically separating the diatonic notes (like a 5th-tuned hammered dulcimer does). The difference, of course, is that on a piano the chromatic notes are easily accessible. This is probably what you'd say.

administrator wrote:Mark, if I used your example about resale value, then I could show you the same thing about even the best and most coveted 5th interval HDs.


It's interesting you say this because I know that one should never buy a Masterworks 15/14 or even a 16/15c new when I've seen so many great deals on used ones. I did see a Dusty Strings D500 sell for $600 + change on Ebay once. It is true that for all instruments, it's currently a buyer's market what with the economy and all and alert people are picking up great deals. I also have only seen two PD40's for sale (the other one sold for $550), so I have only a little data to extrapolate from.

However, I have seen D35s and D45s without dampers sell for more than that on Ebay.

Which "most coveted" 5th-intervals HD's have you seen cheap on the used market by the way? I'm curious because I've almost never seen a Rizzetta/Blanton HD for sale secondhand (for obvious reasons).

BTW, I would be willing to guess that the market for a piano dulcimer is even smaller than the market for a 5th-interval dulcimer, so from that point of view it is perhaps less of a surprise that even at $600 there were no takers. You could say, of course, that this is more a sign of the times and that there aren't many people who have the willingness and ability to even shell out that many Uncle Bens for a comparatively obscure musical instrument, whatever its tuning scheme.
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby MarkH » Sat Dec 04, 2010 4:12 pm

@Mr. Hayes: listen to what Dan says because it is true that he actually knows what he's talking about! :D
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby dhayes3 » Sat Dec 04, 2010 5:36 pm

Thanks for all the helpful information. While I'm generally very well informed about acoustic guitars, banjos, etc., I have absolutely no understanding of hammered dulcimers (at least before I read so much last night), nor does my wife.

After reading about and looking at the two different course layouts, and trying to "play" a tune or two in my mind using the different layouts, I now have a much better understanding of and appreciation for the traditional layout. In fact, I think it has certain strengths, notably, easily moving to a different key but playing in the same pattern just moved a string (or two) up, for example, and once understood it seems relatively simple as compared with the piano layout. To me, and I believe my wife would find this to be the case as well, it might be more difficult to learn to shift keys with the Piano Dulcimer -- the "pattern" wouldn't hold true, or at least it would be more difficult, speaking just for me, and probably that's how my wife would view it as well.

At this point I'll probably get her the traditional instrument, most likely a mid-priced but nevertheless respectable model. I'm sure she'll be happy with it.

Again, thanks for the replies.
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby Dan Landrum » Sat Dec 04, 2010 6:43 pm

You'll be happy with either choice, but just to clarify: Your hammer patterns easily translate to a few keys, from a few keys, but only a few keys on the 5th interval tuned hammered dulcimer.

Learn just two patterns on piano dulcimer and you can play in any key. Again, I don't have a dog in this fight, but I think this instrument has amazing potential. I'd love to see more people playing PD. It opens up a whole new world and I think it is ideal for anyone who wants to be completely versatile in terms of keys, such as church and studio musicians. They're also the most bang for the buck imho in terms of range and sound quality. Maybe I can get Sam Rizzetta to chime in here and talk about why this is true from a engineering standpoint.

I still play just as much 5th interval as ever - did two gigs yesterday alone and didn't take the PD because it wasn't the right instrument for the job, but sometimes it is, and if I had learned all my repertoire on it, it could be all the time.

I answered an email this morning from someone wanting to know what three different instruments I used to record three of the tunes on the DPN Summer Sampler CD. This was the tune challenge CD, and I was playing songs from the winning compositions. The answer was all three tunes were done on piano dulcimer. It was the fastest I've ever been able to go from sight reading to recording.

Please resume your normal 5th interval tuned lives now, but if I run into you at a festival, let me put some hammers in your hands so you can give it a try yourself!

much peace, Dan.
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby halfpint » Sat Dec 04, 2010 10:39 pm

You didn't say where or how your wife wants to play and that may also make an impact. For me, I play mostly chords and sing while playing my dulcimer, so I think that the 5th interval layout is easier for that. But I've 'played on' several piano dulcimers at different festivals, and found them fairly easy to pick out the notes, and think that for playing melody, it would have been easier for me to learn, especially for classical pieces with key changes and accidentals. Although I don't play much piano, I played mallet percussion (marimba's, xylophone, bells, vibraphone) for many years, so I would think your wife would be able to pick up either one easily. If she doesn't have a problem with mostly doing it on her own then the PD should not be a problem. If she wants to take classes/workshops, then there are few people that would be able to help her.

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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby WileyR » Sat Dec 04, 2010 11:50 pm

OK--so since I have a 12/11 and am really, really green ATM, when I am able to upgrade I should try both standard tuning HD and the PHD, or would it be difficult to convert? I do read music but I'm pretty rusty at that too as far as an instrument is concerned, and I'm wondering if the changeover would be difficult, altho I do like the idea of learning two hammer patterns and being able to go from key to key?
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby Dan Landrum » Sun Dec 05, 2010 3:02 pm

Wiley,

I used to think the transition would be difficult, until I tried it myself. The patterns are so radically different that they don't overlap in any way. You previous 5th interval HD experience will only help you in that you've gained hammer control. You are practicing rudiments, aren't you? ;-)
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Re: Piano Dulcimer

Postby WileyR » Sun Dec 05, 2010 11:17 pm

I'm trying but working from books is tough where technique rudiments are concerned----guess I need to get on the Dulcimer School, move my HD next to the puter and whale away!!!! :?
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