Dusty Strings makes a variety of Rizzetta hammer designs, including hammers with single-sided heads and hammers with double-sided heads. One of my favorite styles is pictured below.
Stiff shafts and medium weight double-sided heads facilitate advanced percussion and bounce techniques. They also suit a wide range of string spacings, and will be a good fit for most dulcimers. The medium size heads have decorative cutouts to lighten them to the ideal weight. Double-sided hammers can be flipped over to change sound while playing. Order direct from Dusty Strings at the link above.
Rizzetta Carbon Flexible Shaft Hammers
Top: single-sided hammers. Middle: double-sided hammers. Bottom: E-Grip hammers.
Left: singles. Middle: doubles. Right: E-Grip.
These are my favorite hammers, and I use them almost exclusively. They have flexible carbon fiber shafts and specially shaped heads that actually tune the striking surface. When these features are combined in the right proportions, flex hammers produce really wonderful tone and volume. With most dulcimers, the result is a noticeably more musical sound with great clarity and projection.
For someone already accustomed to stiff shafted hammers, flex hammers may take a little getting used to. Use them exclusively for a day or two and they begin to feel normal.
The shafts are carbon fiber laminated with a special aircraft/marine grade resin and cured under vacuum pressure. The heads and handles are carved from select hardwoods and bonded to the shafts with epoxy. Keep in mind that I constantly refine designs and experiment with woods, so the hammers you receive might look slightly different than hammers in pictures or my older hammers.
I now make carbon hammers with a choice of double-sided heads or single-sided heads. You can read about the tone differences below under “Hammer Tone and Playing Action: Head Weight.”
Double-Sided Carbon Flex Hammers have different paddings on each side and can be flipped over to change tone. They are available with two different hand grips and two combinations of padding:
Conventional American Thumb and Forefinger Grip:
striking surfaces bare wood (hard) & medium leather… $116.
striking surfaces hard leather & soft (leather/moleskin)… $122.
E-Grip (ergonomic 45º rotated cymbalom-style two-fingered grip):
striking surfaces bare wood (hard) & medium leather… $146.
striking surfaces hard leather & soft (leather/moleskin)… $152.
More information on the E-Grip is below.
Single-Sided Conventional Thumb and Forefinger Grip:
Specify striking surface; hard, hard leather, medium hard leather, medium leather, or soft (leather/moleskin)… $106.
Packing, insurance, and ground shipping via USPS Priority Mail (continental USA), one pair… $10. Add $3 for each additional pair.
Additional shipping costs for other locations.
For sales in WV add 6% sales tax.
Order Form for Hammers. Please print and use this order form if possible to help insure that we send the correct hammers. To order send your shipping address with check or money order to: Rizzetta Music, PO Box 530, Inwood, WV 25428. You are welcome to email me with your choices for handle grip and striking surfaces. I’ll reply with any special availability information; hammers are usually in stock.
Nicholas Blanton can also make carbon hammers of my design; Nicholas Blanton Instruments.
Carbon Flex Hammers with thumb and forefinger grip
Carbon Flex Hammers are available with conventional American thumb and forefinger grip, shown above, or with my E-Grip, an ergonomic, two-finger rotated cymbalom-style grip that is shown in the photo series below. It can make dulcimer playing more manageable for those with carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, arthritis, or thumb problems. Some players use it just because they find it more comfortable. A similar grip is common among the virtuoso players of the near east and cymbalom players of eastern Europe. If you are suffering any hand or wrist problems when you play, try out these hammers at one of my workshops. They have allowed many musicians to continue playing the hammer dulcimer despite physical problems.
Note, on American dulcimers the E-Grip works best with flexible shafts, so it is not available with conventional stiff wood shafts. E-Grip hammers are held a bit differently than the conventional American thumb-and-forefinger grip hammers.
First, hold the hammer between the forefinger and middle finger using the handle cutouts provided for the fingers as shown above.
Then the wrist is rotated so that the hammer head is vertical to the strings, as shown. Your knuckles will be at about a 45º angle to vertical, higher toward the thumb. Note that there is a left-hand hammer (marked L) and a right-hand hammer (R); they cannot be interchanged side-to-side and still work. The thumb can be used optionally if a more firm grip on the hammer is desired. This will even prevent hammers from being blown off target when playing outdoors in windy conditions.
For a very secure grip that requires no effort or strain at all, move the hammer farther up toward the knuckles as far as the hammer handle will go. See photo below.
The hand can be held in a natural loose claw position with no gripping effort or tension at all. This position causes the least finger strain or stress and is very secure. The playing action can be from the wrist or forearm, or a combination of both.
Hammer Tone and Playing Action:
Hammer Shafts: Stiff Versus Flexible
Hammers with stiff shafts, usually wood, are good for playing the widest variety of percussion techniques. All else being equal, they produce a tone that is more “thumpy” than flexible hammers, although head weight also plays a part. There is a greater amount of percussive “noise” relative to musical pitch. Some players like this percussive effect. Early American hammers were mostly semi-flexible. But I developed and introduced stiff hammers around 1970 because of their advantages with some percussion and bounce techniques, and they have been popular with American players ever since.
Shafts that are very flexible generally provide the most musical tone. There is less “noise” and “thump” relative to sound at musical pitch. After countless experiments and side-by-side listening and recording tests, Carrie Rizzetta and I feel that very flexible hammers sound more attractive and “musical.” And more often than not they also produce the greatest volume of sound. While some may disagree, and hammers do vary greatly, this is our judgement based on our long playing experience and feedback from players who hear the difference.
Head Weight: Single-sided Versus Double-sided
Head weight also influences tone and playing. My single-sided heads are relatively light weight while my double-sided heads are a heavier, medium weight. All else being equal, heavier heads produce a deeper, rounder tone that is a bit more thumpy. Lighter heads produce a brighter, sharper, more pure tone with minimal thump and a bit more volume. Light heads can be padded to be less sharp and bright; heavier heads can have harder pads (or no pads at all) to create a sharper and brighter tone. Heavier heads also bounce at a slower, more controllable rate making them nice for some bounce techniques. The carbon shafts are optimized for each head weight; lighter heads require a more flexible shaft for best playing action. For smaller dulcimers, the heavier heads can bring out a deeper sound. Large, deep sounding dulcimers sometimes sound most attractive with light weight heads that have some padding.
Tone is even influenced by the width and thickness of the striking surface. For my dulcimers I prefer a relatively wide, thin surface which tunes the heads in a way that promotes a slightly warmer and less sharp tone. A softer playing touch will also trend in that sound direction, but there are times when you just have to hit that dulcimer hard and play loud! Again, a softer pad will lessen the sharper tone of narrow hammers.
Some of the design features I’ve discussed may have a rather subtle effect on tone. However, they can add up to an audible and useful difference.
Suiting the Dulcimer
All the hammer design features must be combined to suit the dulcimer, the weight and resistance of the strings, and the intended playing styles. My hammers are well suited for my dulcimers, Dusty Strings dulcimers, and most American dulcimers. In other parts of the world with other dulcimer design traditions, hammers may be different to suit. For instance, large, heavily strung European cymbaloms are played with long, semi-flexible hammers with heavy, wide, and well-padded heads. Modern Chinese dulcimers are large and lively in tone but strung more lightly than cymbaloms. They are played with very flexible, very light weight hammers with narrow padded heads to keep them from being otherwise harsh and thumpy. And most Persian santurs are small with very light strings, requiring delicate light hammers to make them sound agreeable.
Fitting the Dulcimer: Length of Head Striking Surface
The length of the striking surface should fit the string spacing of the dulcimer. The head should be long enough so that it will not drop down in between two adjacent string courses. For the most part, the string spacings of American dulcimers vary from about 1 inch to about 1.2 inches. My hammers are made to fit this range. Heads with a relatively straight striking surface tend to fit a wider range of dulcimers, which is why mine are designed that way.
Although I may have pioneered the use of stiff hammers, I do like the sound of extremely flexible hammers. And, with the correct flexibility, head weight, and handle balance, the flexible hammers will play easily and still allow lots of percusion techniques. Today I play almost exclusively with carbon flex hammers and supply them for many performers.
Why carbon? It is possible to make flexible hammer shafts from cheaper materials like plastic and spring steel. But these materials are heavier and some are not as durable. And none of them provides the combination of flexibility with quick damping that carbon does. After the carbon shafts flex, they return to their original at-rest position faster than other materials, making it easier to play with both power and accuracy. The same attributes that make carbon the best material for high quality fishing rods also applies to flexible dulcimer hammers.
You may notice some minor differences in the shafts of different pairs of my hammers. The precise flexibility is determined by the fiber and resin content, thickness, and width of each shaft. Since shaft thickness can vary slightly between sets of hammers, the flexibility is fine-tuned by machining the width of each pair of shafts until the ideal flexibility is reached.
Flexibility can be controlled to produce different playing goals. For a given hammer head weight, more flexibility will produce a slightly brighter, more pure tone, and a slower more controllable bounce that suits playing with a softer touch. Less flexibility produces a slightly deeper, rounder tone, and the hammers can be driven harder for those who play with a heavier touch. As mentioned earlier, head weight (and padding) can also be varied to fine tune the tone. I generally supply carbon hammers with medium flexibility and head weight to suit all-around use with the greatest versatility.
Care of Carbon Hammers
Although carbon hammer shafts are moderately strong and durable, they are probably more delicate than stiff hammers. It is possible to break them, especially if they are bent too sharply or if someone sits on them! Keep them in the hardcase when not in use, and don’t let other people fool around with them without instruction or supervision. If you break a shaft, DO NOT throw the hammer away! A new shaft can be spliced into the old head and handle. Although costly, repairs will be less expensive than new hammers. You must send both hammers of a pair back for restoration, even if you only broke one. I will have to carefully match the flexibility of the repaired hammer to the good hammer so that they match in playing action.
Don’t let the hammers get stored in a twisted or bent shape for long or the shafts may become deformed. Keep the hammers away from heat which can do the same thing. If you need to restore a hammer shaft to original shape just hold it near a warm incandescent light bulb while twisting it back into shape. Warm slowly, carefully, and gradually. If your hands can stand the heat for several seconds, then it is okay for the hammers too. The resin in the shaft will soften and the hammer can be twisted or formed back to proper shape. Then remove the hammer from the heat while continuing to hold it to the proper shape. In a few minutes it will cool and hold shape. This process can be repeated any number of times to get the shape just right. If the shaft springs back to its previous shape rather than holding shape when cooling, then a bit more heat or longer heating is needed. It is best to start with too little heat and work slowly up to more heat until you achieve the proper results. About 125 to 140 degrees F are required.