The Dulcimer

Photo by Kenneth Van Sickle
Richard Fariņa played the mountain dulcimer, which may also be referred to as a fretted dulcimer, lap dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, or Kentucky dulcimer. (The hammered dulcimer is an entirely different instrument.) The mountain dulcimer evolved out of a German instrument called Scheitholz in the early 1700s. The modern dulcimer has either three or four strings and can be played with a pick for strumming and a small stick, or noter, for fretting. The dulcimer is often played in various modes, such as the Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, or Lydian mode. Modal tunings contribute to the dulcimer's curiously foreign sound, creating that simultaneous strangeness and familiarity that is the charm of so much folk music.

Richard Fariņa blended several different styles of dulcimer playing. In her book, Dulcimer People, Jean Ritchie recalls how she first taught him the dulcimer:

"My friend Diane Hamilton, founder of the Tradition Record Company, had invited George and me to a party at her house in New York City. A new folksinger was present, Carolyn Hester, with her husband Dick Fariņa who was at that time a magazine writer. He seemed very shy, but got quite excited about our dulcimer, examining it and trying a few strums on it, saying he would like to learn to play one. Later on, while visiting Paul Clayton in Virginia, he listened to and played dulcimers with Paul, A.W. Jeffries and their neighbors, and his own unique style evolved."

Hajdu describes Fariņa's approach to the dulcimer:

"He largely ignored the dulcimer tradition and never listened to records of dulcimer players or learned music composed for the instrument. Using a chopstick as the "noter" and a guitar pick to strum, he played his own way, with a vigorous attack and propulsive rhythmic feeling. Hester listened in disbelief as he experimented, sometimes improvising instrumental dulcimer versions of "Hound Dog" or "Blue Suede Shoes," sometimes chanting the words of poems he had written over modal tones and a driving beat." (from Positively 4th Street, p. 80)

Fariņa's first dulcimer was given to him by Carolyn, who had received one as a gift from George Emerson. He once used this dulcimer to shovel his car out of the snow. He later had a dulcimer custom-built for him by Terry Hennessy. This dulcimer, pictured above (and also seen on the cover of Celebrations for a Grey Day), had a mahogany plywood back, sapele mahonany sides, a fretboard of African walnut, and a top made of Taiwanese spruce.

Fariņa's friend Paul Arnoldi, another folksinger of the period, built a dulcimer case for him that folded out into a performance stand so he could stand up and rock out at concerts. And he did! Fariņa also asked Hennessy to install a pickup so he could play electric dulcimer, but Fariņa did not live long enough to carry out this plan.

To learn more about Fariņa's dulcimer, see the article "Terry Hennessy--Luthier of the Fariņa Legend," by John Blosser.

Contemporary Dulcimer Players Inspired by Fariņa:

John Blosser
"I was bigtime influenced by Fariņa's music! Most dulcimer players pre-Fariņa were pretty traditional. Richard kicked all that out the window and played pretty much whatever he wanted to play. Before him, all my influence was Jean Ritchie, who is certainly the one person most responsible for single-handedly saving the dulcimer from the closets of history and keeping it alive. But Fariņa made it SING! And when I heard Fariņa play, I just went nuts. Fariņa taught me that the dulcimer could be free, could be whatever I wanted it to be, and play whatever I wanted to play, so I played some of his stuff--"Hamish" and "Celebration for a Gray Day" and "Bold Marauder"--and then followed the essence of his teaching, and went my own way."

Neal Hellman
Long story! See his memoir "Liberating Richard".

Brian Jones
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was legendary for his multi-instrumental skills. Many people today say that they first heard the dulcimer on Rolling Stones records. Brian Jones played dulcimer on "Lady Jane" on their 1966 album Aftermath. Keith Richard stated in a 1971 interview with Robert Greenfield in Rolling Stone that Brian Jones was listening to a lot of Richard Fariņa at the time.

Joellen Lapidus
"In 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival Richard Fariņa performed there. He was performing at that time with Mimi and Bruce Langhorne, and a whole bunch of people from that era that live here in LA right now, so I actually have had a chance to talk to them. I've jammed with Bruce which is really neat because that was my origin of mixing the dulcimer with middle eastern sounds, middle eastern drums, electric guitar. That was really my first exposure to great dulcimer playing. Then I got into the roots later, meaning Jean Ritchie and then it so happened that, if we fast forward a bit, you see I got this bug that I wanted to build some musical instruments, then in college I made little rhythm instruments. I had this professor who was a science professor actually, who made classical guitars and he and I drew up these plans of how to build a dulcimer. Then in Big Sur, where Richard Fariņa had hung out and Bruce and he had written the "Swallow Song" there, from what I know. There were a lot of people in Big Sur then, this was 1967, who knew Bruce and Dick Fariņa, and so I was following that music. It was a time of a lot of improvisation and putting a lot of Indian rhythms and Arabic rhythms to folk, you know, open tunings? And Joni Mitchell was also contributing to that music of that period, with her own opening tunings and her rhythms and her very interesting melodies. So she was a major influence for me in my dulcimer playing, as was Richard Fariņa."

(The above passage was taken from an interview on the Joni Mitchell Website. Lapidus also discusses Fariņa in the book, Lapidus on Dulcimer; for more information see the Brief Mentions in Books page.)

Don Pedi
From Don's website: "Don got involved with the Boston area folk music scene in the early sixties. 1964 was when he first laid eyes on a dulcimer. It was being played by Richard Fariņa at a live performance by Richard and Mimi Fariņa at the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston. That night in a conversation with Mr. Fariņa, Don was convinced that someday he would get himself a dulcimer."

Ed Rashed
"I was one of those musicians, a pianist originally, who was captivated by Dick Fariņa's music, lyrics, books, and story during the 60s and 70s. After a year of fending off the Jazz snobbery that prevailed in those days at Berklee College of Music, I closed up my jazz books as well as my piano and bought a dulcimer kit ($18.25 from Here, Inc.) and set out trying to make a name for myself as an heir to that rhythmic Fariņa dulcimer style, even playing in a couple of duos with guitarists. I think I did about everything that could be done on a 3-string dulcimer, including bottleneck style, chording, alternate tunings, whatever could be done to take that simple instrument to new musical plateaus. All this took place in and around Providence and Newport, RI. Fortunately, it soon became apparent to me that I was Ed Rashed, not Dick Fariņa, a pianist more than a folk performer, and I eventually put the dulcimer into its proper place in my life, which was not a bad place for a dulcimer, as such things go, but not the prominent place that I once had envisioned for it. But there is a song, one of my earliest and a favorite, that I wrote during those Newport folk scene days. It was inspired by a dream I had after seeing Mimi performing at a club called Salt in Newport, probably in the winter of 73-74. In the dream I was the ghost of Dick, walking by the club and seeing Mimi on stage through the window, going in to talk to her, realizing that she really was doing all right without me, and having my spirit set free, finally, so I could "go home" and rest. It was recorded on Martin Grosswent's 1979 Philo album "Dog On A Dance Floor" as "Waltz Of The Lost Partner," and again on my recent offering "Big Book Of Love" as "Few That Know Me Well.""

Jerry Rockwell
Jerry began his career as a jazz and rock guitarist when he discovered the dulcimer on a Fariņa recording. He found a dulcimer in a pawn shop and has been building instruments, teaching, arranging and recording for more than 20 years. He recently commissioned Terry Hennessy to build a duplicate of the Fariņa model, of which there are only two in existence. The other is owned by John Blosser, who wrote the article on the Fariņa dulcimer. A longstanding proponent of Fariņa's art, Rockwell says, "Fariņa was a great player. Nobody plays the dulcimer like Fariņa, even today. It's not a matter of technique or 'chops,' either--it's a matter of total committment to the instrument with every ounce of his life force." In the liner notes of Richard & Mimi's Complete Recordings, Jerry says, "When Richard got hold of the dulcimer, he changed the possibilities of the instrument forever--he catapulted the dulcimer into another galaxy." You can e-mail Jerry at "I'm always happy to talk to other Fariņa nuts."

Back to the Richard and Mimi Fariņa homepage