A New Force

I grew up in North Carolina and heard dulcimer playing most of my life. I even took it up for a time. All the players I ever saw/heard play placed the dulcimer on their laps. They often used a pick to strum and a small flat piece of word to fret the melody strings. The primary model for this style, of course, is Jean Ritchie, as seen below.

Today I encountered an entirely different style of playing and I feel like a whole new world opened up to me. It started when I heard a recording this morning by Quintin Stephens called “Event Horizon” from his CD Under the Porch Light. I’m not even sure how it ended up in my iTunes library, but when it came up on shuffle, I was intrigued. I listened to a few 30-second clips on iTunes then went off to Google to learn more. Here’s a video of him playing a tune he wrote called “Thunder Walk.”

Notice how the dulcimer is hanging from his neck and he is standing to play. The instrument also has a pickup mic and he may even have effects pedals because he reaches forward with his foot in that signature way that guitarists do when pressing one. He also strums hard and fast, not in the gentle way of Jean Ritchie. The dulcimer also appears to have six strings rather than the standard four. But what really caught my attention was the way that he frets. His hand looks stretched and awkward, but he is certainly achieving some very interesting melodic and chordal sounds. Gone is the constant drone from the old-style fiddle and folk tunes that typically follow this instrument everywhere.

I did a bit more searching and discovered Robert Force. He seems to be one of the earlier players to experiment with new ways of playing the lap dulcimer. Here he demonstrates how to play a tune he wrote called “Wellyn.”

In particular I am intrigued by his barre chords and how he plays a melody from that position. Though he is sitting in this video, he does not lay the instrument flat, and in fact, other videos show him standing to play with the dulcimer hanging from the strap around his neck.

I just might have to pull out my dulcimer and give it a try.


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