Sunday, 29 January 2012

The gentle ebb and flow of dulcimers

Dan Evans Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove

Saturday, 28 January

I've discovered that, when you tell people you're going to see a concert of dulcimer music, most people react by asking 'What exactly is a dulcimer?' Dan Evans, reportedly the UK's only professional dulcimer player, demonstrated the instrument admirably well in the cosy surroundings of the Artrix Studio in Bromsgrove last night. Some of the audience, it seems, had never seen or heard the instrument before. For my part, I've been trying to play one for nearly 30 years so I'd gone along hoping to pick up a few tips and to reassure myself that I hadn't been playing it in completely the wrong way all these years.

I was comforted to find Dan played in a similar style to my own, finger-style rather than strumming. I much preferred his renditions of some lovely traditional tunes -- Columbine and Blow the Wind Southerly among them -- to his choice of cover versions, and his original guitar piece The Garden Waltz was a particular delight.

My own relationship with the dulcimer has been a rather troubled one. When I lived in Brittany back in the early 80s I came into contact with traditional Breton music and a character (who was seldom sober) who rejoiced in the nickname Guinness. Guinness introduced me to the instrument and, captivated, I bought one from a music shop in St Brieuc.

I began teaching myself to play and compose tunes on it but, after 20 years of loyal service, my poor old dulcimer started to misbehave. Some of the frets had become very worn and the poor thing refused to stay in tune. A music shop offered to 'set it up' for me but, sadly, had no idea what they were doing and the dulcimer sounded unhappier than ever. So I traded it in for a new model from the excellent Hobgoblin shop in Manchester. It was only then I discovered, for two decades, I'd been playing the dulcimer back-to-front! My original instrument had been strung for a left-handed player so everything I had ever learnt now had to be inverted and relearnt.

Just to make it more interesting, I was persuaded to exchange my old three-string dulcimer for a four-string instrument. This opened up a whole new world as my new dulcimer is capable of lovely mandolin-like sounds (two of the four strings are paired in unison.) I used it on the album Untangle the Strings and my friend Phil Richards took a series of remarkable images for the album featuring puppets with the dulcimer (see above left) .

For an old battle-weary dulcimerist like me it was very heartening to see people turn out on a cold Saturday night to watch Dan Evans play, and it's inspired me to take my dulcimer with me — and give the guitar a rest — next time I go out to play on an open mic night.

I must, finally, point other dulcimer aficionados in the direction of Dan’s excellent website, which, among other things, finally helped me to understand why other musicians have always struggled to keep time with my playing. It seems it's due to a phenomenon called rubato which Dan explains is ‘rhythmic give and take’. As he puts it, ‘this gentle ebb and flow of the rhythm adds depth and interest to the music, making the song breathe and so come to life.’ So now you know.


  1. Rubato is also the reason I switched to wearing boxers.

  2. In the 2000 or so words that Percy A Scholes wrote in The Oxford Companion to Music on the subject of rubato, which he describes as 'elasticity in tempo and rhythm', some might see it as remiss of him to have failed to mention its significance in relation to one's choice of underpants (at least in my 1975 edition of the tome - which may mean that it was not regarded as significant at that time, or possibly that y-fronts were the only option . . . we may never know . . .)

  3. And now for something completely different ...
    Tony - there is something about the instrument's name and the way you write about it that makes me see the dulcimer as 'sympatico' with your writing personality. Am I right in deducing from your typically tangential reference that you have produced a CD of your music? If so, I would like to hear it.

  4. This blog reminded me of Brian Jones playing the dulcimer on Lady Jane, a great track from the Rolling Stones 'Aftermath' album. Not that I remember 1966! Linda


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).