top of page

Intro to the Linear Chromatic

excerpts by Steve Shmania
James Jones, Steve Shmania and Steve Schneider

From left to right: James Jones, Steve Schneider and Steve Shmania on a get together in Bedford, VA circa 2000 to work on the Linear Chromatic.

 The following material is from an instructional book Steve completed called Introducing the Linear Chromatic. Ordering information for the book is on the bottom of this page.

Excerpts from Introducing the Linear Chromatic 
by Steve Shmania

The Linear Chromatic is a simple, elegant, and evolutionary concept in the layout, construction and playability of the modern hammer dulcimer. Not only does it solve key and scale playing limitations of existing hammer dulcimer layouts it opens new musical vistas for playing in any scale in any key. It preserves the playing patterns already learned on the Diatonic hammer dulcimers, yet provides a truly chromatic layout that could set a new standard for the future of the chromatic hammer dulcimer in the new millenium.

Diatonic Layout Limitations

The "Diatonic" hammered dulcimer is built with a series of major scales up the bridge, with half of each scale on either side of the bridge. Each key is diatonic, meaning it has only the eight notes of that scale. The missing five notes needed to make the major scale chromatic can often be found in other areas on the dulcimer, but only over a partial range on a diatonic dulcimer. It is common for players to retune rarely used strings on their diatonic hammered dulcimers to add one or two chromatic notes for those occasional requirements needing these notes.

When chromatic capability over the full range of the instrument is desired, the "Diatonic Chromatic" hammered dulcimer provides the chromatic capabilities missing on the diatonic hammered dulcimer. It simply adds the missing chromatic notes to the tops or bottoms of existing bridges, or on additional bridges of the diatonic hammered dulcimer to make the instrument fully (or mostly) chromatic.

The diatonic and diatonic chromatic dulcimer layouts are ideally suited for traditional, folk and Celtic/world music which are typically played in the major, minor and modal scales. However, playing music in other keys and scales or with chromatic laden chords and chromatic runs qualifies as hammered gymnastics on either diatonic, chasing notes all over the layout with hammers flying everywhere! Clearly, a better layout is needed for music requiring chromatic playing beyond an occasional "accidental" or key change.

Chromatic Layout Alternatives

The hammer dulcimer as a world instrument has an amazing number of chromatic or chromatic-capable tuning layouts. The Hackbrett, Yanquin, Cimbalom and Santur are excellent examples of traditional world instruments with interesting chromatic layouts. They often provide chromatic capabilities geared to playing the complex music of their regions and traditions.

The hammered dulcimer as a world instrument has an amazing number of chromatic or chromatic-capable tuning layouts. The Hackbrett, Yanquin, Cimbalom and Santur are excellent examples of traditional world instruments with interesting chromatic layouts. They often provide chromatic capabilities geared to playing the complex music of their regions and traditions.


Unfortunately, the transition between playing the diatonic dulcimer and any of these alternative chromatic dulcimers may be challenging. Playing patterns range from being very similar to very different from the diatonic dulcimer, and are often inconsistent over the full range of the instrument.


Ideally, a truly universal dulcimer would have the best of both worlds - diatonic and chromatic. It would build on the simple and straightforward layout of the diatonic dulcimer, but expand or enhance it for chromatic playing simplicity.

The greatest advantage of the Linear Chromatic is that any scale, chord or chromatic run can be played in any key over the full range of the instrument using straightforward hammering patterns that are already familiar to players of the diatonic hammered dulcimer. The expanded playing capability of Linear Chromatic provides a truly universal solution to all equal temperament-based tunings, scales and music, including traditional, folk, Celtic, classical, blues, jazz, or other types and styles as well.


The Linear Chromatic is not without its challenges. Accuracy is more critical in both hammering patterns and tuning with the addition of the chromatic notes in all keys 12 notes per octave makes proper tuning a requirement, and wrong hammered notes have a greater probability of sounding 'wrong' without the excuse that they were 'passing' notes.Finally, diatonic playing patterns need to be 'stretched' vertically to accommodate the extra chromatic notes.

Alternate Marking System

An alternative to the standard marking system is the piano marking system, which provides note markings similar to the keys on a piano. Musicians who play the piano but are new to the hammered dulcimer may prefer this marking system, as it mimics the black and white markings of the piano keys.

Linear Chromatic Construction

The Linear Chromatic layout adapts well to 2, 3 and 4 bridge versions and different chromatic ranges, with a 4 bridge - 4 1/2 octave layout providing the best balance of chromatic range, playability and compact size. The 4 1/2 octave Linear Chromatic layout provided significant structural challenges that were compounded in its compact layout with the use of two bass and two treble bridges - both treble bridges are played on both sides. This created complex geometries and tensions beyond that of a Diatonic dulcimer. Proper string spacing is a critical on a Linear Chromatic in order to accommodate the extra notes up the bridge. Finally, it had to sound good, look good, be stable and play well.

The Future

The hammered dulcimer is firmly established in the traditional and folk music world and the diatonic dulcimer versions are ideal for playing this music. However, as hammered dulcimer players have matured in their playing abilities, so has the demand for playing more complex music with greater choices in instruments. Expanded octave range, extra chromatics, dampers, customized layouts and tone woods are becoming less the exception and more the norm. Advanced players attending dulcimer festivals are increasingly requesting instructors who teach more complex musical arrangements and musical stylings that go beyond the traditional and folk roots. Where is this leading to? The hammered dulcimer is getting nearer to being accepted in the mainstream of music as a serious instrument, joining the ranks of its stringed relatives: the piano, the guitar, the violin, the mandolin, and other fretted and non-fretted string instruments. These instruments have in common that they are fully chromatic, have well-structured and standard chromatic tuning layouts, and rely heavily on pattern playing that easily transposes into any scale and key. For the hammered dulcimer to break through, it must do the same. This is made possible by the Linear Chromatic.


The Linear Chromatic is the result of my dream, passion and determination to develop a truly chromatic hammer dulcimer layout with universal appeal and compatibility with playing the Diatonic dulcimer. Steve Schneider, exceptional musician and hammered dulcimer recording artist, has provided his excellent feedback, support and enthusiasm to the development of the Linear Chromatic. Ultimately, credit goes to James Jones, master luthier and innovator - whom I have worked closely with over the last year, for believing in my concept and breathing life into the wood and strings to make the Linear Chromatic a reality.

Copyright © 1999 Steve Shmania, Chapel Hill, NC – All Rights Reserved.


Introducing the Linear Chromatic tm are now available through my shop. It provides a music theory primer helping you to learn to play in any key in the equal temperament scale. The book defines scales, chords, inversions, enhancements, substitutions, progressions and their playing patterns on the Linear Chromatic. It also covers putting it all together to play traditional, jazz, blues and classical music. There are now two versions of the book; one using the Standard/Diatonic Marking and the other using the Piano Marking system. When ordering make sure you specify which version of the book you'd like.

Cost is $25 plus $4 shipping unless shipped with an instrument

bottom of page