There’s something about the sound of the dulcimer that draws people in. It has a distinct, sweet yet ancient sound. It may not be an instrument that a lot of people are familiar with but there are groups of dulcimer players all over the country that get together to play their instruments or go to festivals. There’s such a group in Denver, the “Denver Sweet Strings.” They meet weekly to play together and to attend workshops as a group. They hosted award-winning mountain dulcimer player Bing Futch Wednesday for a day full of workshops.
“Those people that play the mountain dulcimer are sort of a subculture,” Futch said. “Unless you know to look for them, you wouldn’t have any idea that they were out there, which is why the instrument is not as well known. The dulcimer players know where to look and where to go but they don’t really take it beyond the fringes of the festivals. There’s a lot of us out there playing but there’s only a handful of us that are highly visible and go outside of the community.”
The mountain or Appalachian dulcimer is an American instrument. It belongs to the “fretted zither” family of instruments, which means it has strings running across its body without a neck. The name “dulcimer” comes from the Greek “dulce” which means sweet and Latin word, “melos,” meaning song.
“It was based on their memories of other instruments from the countries they came from,” Futch said. “It was created right in the Appalachian mountains about 275 years ago. It’s truly an American instrument.”
The dulcimer “spoke to” Futch when he first heard it being played in the late 1980s. He thought it sounded “old as the hills and very barefoot in the dirt.” He fell in love with the drone of it.
In 1999, Futch formed a rock band, “Mohave,” and caught the attention of Stephen Seifert, who was a student of the late David Schnaufer, widely known as the best dulcimer player in the world. Schnaufer invited Futch to go to a dulcimer festival and there he got “plugged in” to other dulcimer players. He then started teaching dulcimer and has been doing it ever since. This is the second time he’s been to Denver in the past two years to teach a workshop.
“Whenever I find groups of people who either have a dulcimer club or don’t have a club but a lot of people around who play the instrument, I try to stay around there,” he said. “It’s like feeding and watering a group. When I find a group that’s very hungry to expand their knowledge, I try to make it a point to come back as often as I can.”
Futch insists that the dulcimer is the easiest string instrument in the world to play and even people who say that they don’t have any musical ability can play it. They don’t have to know music theory or have any previous musical experience. As simple as it is, however, Futch said that there’s probably no end to the level of skill that one can attain with the instrument.
“It continues to challenge me so I’ll never be bored with it,” he said. “It’s been my main instrument since I was just out of high school and I still haven’t found all the ways you can play it.”
The beauty of the dulcimer is that a person could just sit down, set the instrument on their lap start playing it.
“Just play around with it,” Futch suggested. “Move your fingers around, explore and try some things that you’ve never been taught but you figure that you might want to give a shot at because you’ve got this thing sitting there. It really reveals itself to you in a nice, nonthreatening sort of a way.”
The dulcimer can be an entry point for people to become legitimate musicians, Futch added. It’s easier to play than a guitar, mandolin, piano and many other instruments.
A lot of times, a person will end up at a festival because they acquired a dulcimer through a relative or found it in an antique store and were curious about it.
“It’s actually a big plot created by all the dulcimer people who’ve ever lived,” he said. “All we’ve got to do is place this thing in the hands of somebody or get it into the household. It may sit there for 20 or 25 years but someday, somebody’s going to look up and go ‘gosh, what’s that?’ and it’s going to lead them to a festival. That’s how we reel them in.”
Emily Gentry, who organized the workshop with Futch, starting playing the dulcimer with her neighbor about four years ago with an old dulcimer she had purchased at a flea market. When she was younger, she played the banjo and guitar a little bit, but wasn’t obsessed with it. When she was laid off from her job, she retired early and started playing the dulcimer on a regular basis with the Denver Sweet Strings.
“We meet every Wednesday and jam for about four hours,” she said. “We have snacks and some wine and just enjoy being together.”
Because dulcimers are usually handmade, they’re all unique and sound different so when the Denver Sweet Strings club members get together for their jam sessions, Gentry said it sounds particularly nice because they all have different tones.
“I think I enjoy it so much because it’s not hard on the ears,” Gentry said. “It’s a very mellow instrument. I recently started volunteering for a hospice and play to patients, mostly just one on one in a room with them. That’s been real nice and encourages me to learn more and get better at it.”
Futch travels about 30,000 miles a year across the country teaching and doing concerts.
“It’s a great life, you can’t beat it,” he said. “I’m always looking over my shoulder to see if someone’s going to come and arrest me. There’s no way this could be legal – that I get to travel around the country and play this obscure American instrument and have all this fun and meet all these great people. What’s wrong? Am I stealing somewhere? It feels like I’m having way too much fun.”