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Linear Chromatic Hammered Dulcimers

The above is a slide show of Linear Chromatics. Click on the image to view the show full screen with a black background.


Steve Shmania of Chapel Hill, NC and I have developed the Linear Chromatic dulcimer. We are stilll excited about the future of this new breed of hammered dulcimer and hope you will spend the time to become more familiar with its possibilities. I am currently the only builder of Linear Chromatic Hammered Dulcimers.


We feel that this instrument is ideal for the musician who has never played hammered dulcimer before, is looking for a fully chromatic instrument and wants to play other material besides folk and celtic. With this instrument, classical, jazz, klezmer, and other styles of music become possible.


I now offer a four octave plus Custom 10/19/18/8 Custom Linear Chromatic and a smaller three octave plus Custom or Student 10 or 12/14/13 LC. Options include either the Standard or Piano marking (for a comparison of the two different marking schemes go to the link Tuning Charts), 7/8" or 1" string spacing, dampers and all the wood choices you would normally have for any of my custom hammered dulcimers. I also offer an electric version of this dulcimer. There is no frontal sound hole on any of the LCs. This characteristic has little effect on the tone of the instrument as there is a tone slot in the front rail and hand hold in the back which act as sound holes. All Linear Chromatics utilize a stainless steel bar as a stop for the 10 or 11 courses of the leftmost treble bridge.

Check out my blog for another interesting option; the Flipped Linear Chromatic. This instrument is laid out the exact opposite of the 10/19/18/8. As a result the instrument mirrors a piano orientation with the bass on the left flowing left to right giving you a 8/18/19/10 or a 7/18/19/11 with either 7/8" or 1" string spacing.

 My Current stock page has the most up-to-date listings of what is available.  If you don't see what you'd like, I can always build one custom.

Quick LC Links
Tuning Range Linear Chromatic Hammered Dulcimer
Cat Tales - Dan Landrum
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The following tunes are two cuts of Dan Landrum and the band Hammer On which demonstrate the capabilities of the LC. He is playing a Custom 8/19/18/9 LC. 

Sandstone - Dan Landrum
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The Water is Wide - Christine Cole
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Christine Cole, who purchased a LC in 2015 sent me a recording of "The Water Is Wide" arranged by Ted Yoder. She is playing her 10/19/18/8 Linear Chromatic. Enjoy!


There are two things you want to be sure of before you consider ordering a Linear Chromatic. One is that in general the LC is outside the norm of hammered dulcimers in the US. It is fully chromatic and attractive because of that characteristic but there are relatively few of them out there. I've built a lot of hammered dulcimers most of which are with the more traditional layout. As a result you will be somewhat on your own to learn. The second issue is the notion of a Flipped LC. I've built even less of these.  Choosing this orientation puts you even further out of the mainstream and could make resale of the instrument difficult. These are all things I feel all potential purchasers of LCs need to know before making the plunge. There is a FAQ section at the bottom of this page which will hopefully answer many of your questions. I also suggest you read Steve Shmania's article on an Introduction to the Linear Chromatic. After reading all the material available on these pages, I recommend you call to talk if you are seriously considering the Linear Chromatic. These instruments aren't for everyone and I would want you to feel fully informed before making any decision.

Dan Landrum

Dan Landrum performing on the LC with band members Mark Wade, Randy Clepper and Bob McMurray at Ohio Wesleyan University

Comments on the Linear Chromatic by Dan Landrum

Even though I can still see the regular diatonic markings I find that much of what I try to transfer from the diatonic to the linear is coming from muscle memory and it takes awhile (months of practice) to 'open up' to the greater distances. Some of the old vertical reaches become impractical and have to be relearned on the linear. What I find though is that just about anything that I learned vertically on the diatonic can be played horizontally on the linear. It just takes some getting used to, and sometimes forces me to use a left hand, rather than a right hand lead system, which any good player should be able to do any way. Sometimes I get lazy though and rely too much on my dominant right hand.

Another issue is that when you miss a note, you miss it by a half step rather than by an interval that would have most likely fallen in the pentatonic scale on the diatonic instrument. In other words mistakes sound worse.

Improvisational playing on the linear is sooo much fun. All the standard jazz theory that other musicians learn now applies because of the consistency of the half steps. It is wonderful to be able to play any scale in any key. I'm now playing cool jazz pieces that I would have never done on the diatonic".



Can a existing traditional hammered dulcimer be turned into a Linear Chromatic?

Most likely not. The physics of strings means that most existing hammered dulcimers would gain too much tension with the resulting structural failures. The instrument probably would not have sufficient range as well. I don't recommend trying it.

Can I play both a LC and a traditional hammered dulcimer?

It is possible but certainly more challenging. If you are considering moving back and forth between the two, it is suggested that you use the Standard Marking system for the LC. If you choose the Flipped version, you won't be able to move between the two worlds. Even the Piano Marking makes it difficult to relate to a traditional diatonic hammered dulcimer.

When learning the LC, is it only more confusing to switch over and play on a diatonic layout? Is it better to stay with the LC until I'm more familiar?

The diatonic and LC layout are similar enough that moving from either one to another should be straightforward. However, a musician with a good theory, classical, jazz background or a good trained ear would find learning on the LC to be easier than the diatonic. For someone new to music, learning on the diatonic first might be the better choice. Certainly, learning on the LC first should make learning the diatonic a snap for most music, with some significant adjustment for highly chromatic stretches. Moving between the two again is facilitated by an LC with the Standard Marking System rather than the Piano Marking System.

The LC requires more accuracy for hammering the correct notes, because accidentally hitting a wrong note that is a chromatic can sound quite discordant - maybe this is why they call the additional chromatic notes in any scale the "accidental" notes! With a diatonic, wrong notes are often in the scale and can be more easily passed off as passing or grace notes. The LC develops hammering accuracy that makes diatonic play easier to transition to than the other way around.

How is the traditional diatonic hammered dulcimer marked in comparison to the LC? ( with "extended diatonic" or Standard/Diatonic marking)

The diatonic dulcimer is laid out according to the "circle of fifths" represented by the white notes up and down the side of a bridge. The black notes are the notes that fall between the white notes. Some builders only mark the white notes, and may use a color or marking other than white to mark these notes. Black and white are the most common ways to mark these notes.


On the Standard marking system for the LC, bronze is the color for the additional "in-between" chromatic notes while the black and white remain the same as the traditional diatonic markings. As a result hammer patterns are transferable between the diatonic and LC if you stick to playing the black and white notes exclusively. Where the LC shines is with those bronze notes. Patterns with chromatic notes are logical and easy to find and play with the LC and often difficult or highly impractical on the diatonic or chromatic diatonic. That is why classical, jazz or other highly complex music is usually compromised and simplified to make it playable on the diatonic and is why the hammered dulcimer is not taken seriously outside of folk and traditional music. The LC, however, is a truly universal instrument and is naturally suited to play all styles and complexity of music in logically and intuitively - in any key!


The Standard Marking system makes sense to those players already used to traditional diatonic marking. If you've played hammered dulcimer for years than this "extended diatonic" Standard marking will make the most sense and make the transition to the LC easier. 

Are their alternative ways to mark the instrument? (Piano Marking)

Steve Schneider and a student of Steve's Daniel Hirsh have come up with another way to mark the instrument which more closely resembles the piano. It must be emphasized that this is just the marking. The instrument is still tuned exactly the same and can be re-marked at any point. For those individuals who have had piano background this piano marking scheme makes more sense. White keys/notes are marked with white, black notes/keys are marked with black. If the wood of the bridge is dark, it will be left natural and become the representation of black notes. If the bridges are blonde maple, the black is painted on leaving the blonde to represent the white notes. Where you have fifth interval bridges the saddle is white on one side and black on the other (a split saddle). There are no grey markers. A continuous black saddle runs down the center of the marked bridge.

The piano markings take the instrument out of the realm of traditional dulcimer instructional materials (at least those materials that rely on tablature). If you are used to learning music through standard notation than much of the traditional dulcimer material is usually offered in standard notation as well as tablature making it accessible to those who can read music. The existence of tablature should not be a reason to dismiss the piano marking system. I have a tuning chart available which better illustrates the piano style of marking. Traditional hammered dulcimer players would feel more comfortable with the Standard marking system described in the previous question. There are two versions of Steve Shmania's book; one using the Standard marking and the other using the Piano marking system. Neil Simmons has shared his experience with both marking systems on this page.

Can the tuning arrangement be "Flipped" making it more like a piano in orientation?

Yes. I have started to offer this orientation but you should be aware that I've only built a few of them. Choosing this orientation puts you even further out of the mainstream and could make resale of the instrument difficult. You can read more about the"Flipped LC" on my Blog.

Do I have to be a skilled musician to tackle the LC?

Skill is a relative thing. A master musician and hammered dulcimer player such as Dan Landrum can more easily take advantage of the extreme versatility of the LC for playing patterns, keys, chromatic possibilities and music ranging from traditional to complex classical pieces written in odd keys and lots of accidentals. On the other hand, a beginner can learn and master play in all the scales and simple to complex chords more easily on the LC, that take greater skill to play - if practical at all - on the diatonic dulcimer. Being a beginner you will not be encumbered by previous learning. Having some musical background will make things easier as will a serious commitment to learn.

How difficult is it to tune?

The 10/19/18/8 LC has a total of 110 strings. This instrument is not meant for someone who struggles with tuning. It takes an effort to keep everything in tune and the relationships working. Since the instrument is fully chromatic, tuning is even more important. It is not like sitting down at the piano (which stays in tune for much longer periods of time). Obviously if you are committed to learning the instrument and playing it on a regular basis tuning becomes less of hassle as you'll stay on top of it. If you only play once a week then tuning becomes much more of a chore.

Does each builder have his own "version" of chromatic layouts? Is there no standard?

The fact is that most diatonic layouts are somewhat chromatic over most of their range, and the diatonic layout is reasonably standard up to a 16/15. Additional chromatic notes are added by each builder with not much attention to any standard making larger more chromatic diatonic layouts somewhat illogical. Learning to play those instruments often is instrument specific. There are other versions of completely chromatic hammered dulcimers out there such as Sam Rizzeta's Piano Dulcimer, Tsimbls, Cymbaloms, Hackbretts and Yang Chins each of which have a different take on how chromaticism is accomplished.

Why doesn't the LC have a sound hole?

Given the placement of bridges, there wasn't a good place to put a sound hole. Having a sound hole lower on the instrument seems to throw off the visual balance. We have discovered that the sound quality of the instrument has not suffered in the least. There are sound "slots" on the front and back rail as well as a hand hole in the back which together become the sound hole. Other added benefits are there is no additional visual distraction under the strings, and the structural integrity of the board has not been compromised. What is lost, though, is my and my customer's characteristic personalization of their instrument through some type of unique sound hole design. I am open to suggestions as to ways we might add personalizing elements to the instrument.

Am I going to have a tough time finding teachers and instructional materials?

By purchasing this instrument you will be somewhat of a revolutionary. As of this writing there are only a handful of these instruments being played. This is a groundbreaking instrument . Right now the only dedicated book is Steve Shmania's book and there are few players and almost no teachers who have had any experience with the instrument. All of the other dulcimer books, material, and methods are geared towards the traditional diatonic/chromatic dulcimer. You and your teacher can certainly continue to use that kind of material, but what the LC facilitates is all those other pieces that previously would have been difficult to play on a traditional hammered dulcimer. Most of this material is going to be in standard notation and may need to be arranged for the hammered dulcimer but now the whole world of music will be available.

Traditional teachers are initially going to be taken aback by the extra chromatics and reluctant to help you make the leap. Once they understand the relationship of the LC to the traditional dulcimer though they will be able to help you take those first steps by locating traditional dulcimer tunes on the the LC and helping you work on hammering technique.

Additional Thoughts

There are two things you want to be sure of before you order a Linear Chromatic. One is that in general the LC is outside the norm of hammered dulcimers in the US. It is fully chromatic and attractive because of that characteristic but there are relatively few of them out there. I've built a lot of hammered dulcimers most of which are with the more traditional layout. As a result you will be somewhat on your own to learn. The second issue is the notion of a flipped LC. I've only built even less of those, having started building them only a couple of years ago. Choosing this orientation puts you even further out of the mainstream and would make resale of the instrument difficult. These are all things I feel all potential purchasers of LCs need to know before making the plunge. Call if you'd like to discuss any of the issues relating to this instrument


This from Pam Ramsden in Great Britain

In terms of reading music at first I was trying to play piano music and then realized that music written for classical guitar was better suited - although there is chording in guitar music its not as complicated as the chording in piano music and its easier to drop off notes and still play the major chord- if that makes sense. Also guitar music is written specifically to be plucked - so it matches incredibly well with the dulcimer. The way you have placed the scales - you don't have to stretch to get the correct notes in the song as this is taken into consideration for the guitar - which is what I was doing with the piano music - it seems that nearly every piece of music has already been transposed to guitar - so it makes it so much easier. It's just a discovery - so if anyone else is interested in playing classical music - you can tell them that pieces written for guitar are so much easier to play. There is no base cleft which needs to be transposed - so it's tons easier. Even popular tunes are already transposed for guitar and generally guitar music is fairly inexpensive. Often you can get stuff for free off the internet.


This from Thomas DeGasperis (the rationale for his custom order of a 11/19/18/7)

By adding the E/B course to the bottom of T2 it allows you to play A major (A,C#,E), A minor (A,C,E), A suspended (A,D,E), C# minor (C#,E,G#), B suspended (B,D,E), F major7(F,A,C,E), F#minor 7(F#,A,C#,E) and so on working from T1 horizontally to T2 without going up into the upper square. When I was playing on T1 and went to play one of the above chords many times I would wish the "E" was there on T2 so I didn't have to go vertical. One of the things most apparent with the LC is the "stretched" Squares. Instead of 4 courses per square you now have six. (I know as the builder you are well aware of this, but as a player it is a big deal) This makes vertical leaps into upper squares more challenging. But with the LC you do not have to jump between squares to get notes because being fully chromatic in every square you are only limited by the range of notes in the squares not by diatonic keys. You can play almost 3 fully chromatic octaves from G3 to F6 just playing across the G3, D4, A4, (new)E5, B6 white markers up 7 courses to one course above the upper white marker of each square playing horizontally across. Being able to play horizontally across makes sight reading much easier and less likely to hit wrong notes. Anytime you have to shift out of a position chances of hitting wrong notes increase. 
I know to accomplish this we have to give up D3 on the bass2 bridge, but I feel this sacrifice is worth it as we have D3 on the Bass1 bridge. If you'd like to see a tuning scheme for the 11/19/18/7 click here.

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