Although the Appalachian dulcimer appeared in regions dominated by Irish and Scottish settlement, the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or Scotland.
The traditional way to play the instrument is to lay it flat on the lap and pluck or strum the strings with the right hand, while fretting with the other. The dulcimer may also be placed in a similar position on a piece of furniture, such as a table or chest of drawers, to enhance the sound.
There are two predominant methods of fretting. First, the strings may be depressed with the fingertips of the fretting hand. Using this technique, all the strings may be fretted, allowing the player to produce chords. Second, the melody string, the string closest to the player, may be depressed with a “noter,” typically a short length of dowel or bamboo.
The dulcimer hangs from a strap around the neck, and the instrument is fretted and strummed like a guitar. They also describe playing “autoharp style” where “the dulcimer is held vertically with the headstock over the shoulder.” Still other dulcimer players use a fingerstyle technique, fingering chord positions with the fretting hand and rhythmically plucking individual strings with the strumming hand, creating delicate arpeggios.
Contemporary players have also borrowed from chord theory and guitar analogues to create a variety of more complex ways to play the dulcimer. Some dulcimers are constructed with four equidistant strings to facilitate playing more complex chords, particularly for playing jazz. In another line of contemporary innovation, electric dulcimers have been used in rock music. The Appalachian dulcimer is both easy to learn to play, and capable of complexity, providing scope for a wide range of professionals and hobbyists.