The Mt Dulcimer is a "diatonic" fretted instrument.  It is specifically designed to play melody.  However, to play in all the various keys and modes that music comes in you will have to tune the strings on the dulcimer to the correct notes.

It is a good idea to tune your instrument EVERY time you sit down to play it!  

All wooden, stringed instruments go out of tune over time. With changes in humidity, the wood expands and contracts which causes the instrument to be slightly larger or smaller. Those very small changes in length cause the strings to go out of tune. By tuning every time you play or practice you are teaching your ears to hear what is and isn't "in tune".  

Strings are designed to be tuned to a specific note in a particular octave. They can usually also be tuned a few notes lower as well as a few notes higher than that original note but they can't be tuned a whole octave above the note as they will snap.  Also, if tuned too low, the sting will be too lose and not sound correct.

A good (and free "ad-supported") tuning app you can use on a smart phone is at: 


This tuner app includes the number representing the octave of the note you are trying to tune to. If you try to tune to a D that is too high you'll end up breaking your string. So having this "pitched" tuner with the octave number is very helpful.

Standard DAD Tuning:  

This is a "1 - 5 - 8" - Tuning  ... Meaning that the Bass string is the root at "1", the Middle string is tuned a 5th above the Bass string giving us the "5", and the Melody string is tuned to an octave above the Bass string giving us the "8"

This is the "Normal" (if there is such a thing as normal) dulcimer tuning and most dulcimer TAB is now written for DAD tuning.  

D (3 octave)      --- on the bass string (farthest away from you and usually a “wound” string)  

A (3 octave)       --- on the middle string (plain steel) 

D (4 octave)      --- on the melody string (closest to you and also plain steel)

How these notes relate to notes on a piano keyboard is shown in the following image:

Other Ways to tune:

There are many other ways to tune your Dulcimer. Other tunings that are popular are:   

DAA - 1-5-5 Tuning - popular when playing old-time fiddle tunes (some consider this the "original" tuning for the mt dulcimer) 

CGC - 1-5-8 Tuning - popular with people that like to sing with their dulcimer (most people sing better in the key of C)

Note: Any TAB that is written for DAD (1-5-8) can be played as is in any other 1-5-8 tuning. You'll just be playing in a different "Key".

DF#A - 1-3-5 Tuning - popular with people arranging modern and other non-traditional music for the dulcimer. 

Note: This is sometimes referred to as a "chromatic tuning" as it gives you more notes on the fret board than DAD. But don't confuse this tuning with a chromatic fretted dulcimer that has all the half frets!


This may seem obvious to most but it in case it isn't obvious to some ... when you tune your dulcimer to a different tuning all the notes on your dulcimer change! This is why many people don't bother learning the "notes" on their fret board. 

When playing by yourself you can tune to whatever tuning you like. Many people tune to something that they can sing with. However, In order to be "in tune" when playing with others, you have to agree on a tuning, key, etc. 

Strings of different sizes will be needed if you want to tune your dulcimer to a tuning that is several notes away from the tuning that the strings were intended to play. See the Strings page for help in choosing the strings you need. Tuning a string to high will snap it. Be sure to have your face out of the way!  Tuning a string too low will cause it to be floppy and not play well. 

Troubleshooting Tuning Issues:

If your dulcimer won't stay in tune or if you can't tune it at all, first consider when was the last time you changed your stings.  If you can't remember changing them, then now is a great time! See the Strings page for more information.

If on the other hand your strings are new-ish,  look to see if you have small screws on your tuning pegs.  If you do ---- very carefully and very slowly --- tighten those screws to see if the tuning pegs will then hold the string in tune.  I mean very, very slowly! You go as slow as you possible can, making very small adjustments to those screws!

If you have all wooden tuning pegs, you can try the following technique to wind the string on the peg to keep them tight.  This is demonstrated using a violin but also works on dulcimers

Fix Slipping Pegs on your violin