We don't pretend to be experts, but my husband and I have purchased quite a few instruments over the past few years. We have new, used, and home-built. We're fortunate in that we've been able to purchase from builders we know and we've gotten to see and hear a whole spectrum of insruments built by other builders. Again, that doesn't make us experts, but maybe we can pass on some pointers.
First, if you are thinking about buying your first hammered dulcimer, you may want to consider buying a used instrument. You'll probably find that you'll want to up-grade eventually but a used instrument will get you started while you "look around." A rental is also sometimes an option, although in this area, I don't know of any that can be rented. If you find one, and the rate is fair, certainly consider that option.
You probably don't even know what "sound" you are looking for. You only know that you like the music from a hammered dulcimer and you want one. Once you have developed an "ear" for the instruments, you'll know what "sound" you prefer. (Some designs have more sustain; some have a more old-time sound. There's a big difference between them.) At that time, you'll probably zero in on a particular builder, but until then, you'll be content to have anything with strings and hammers.
For that reason, a used instrument may be the way to go. They are generally cheaper, and their small dings and imperfections will make it easier for you to haul them around without feeling that you have to be overly protective.
So, where do you go for a used instrument? Ebay, the newspaper, down south, where?
Although I'm sure that instruments are available on Ebay that are well-built, I'd suggest that you beware of instruments (new or used) unless you know the builder and/or someone can check it out for you.
Some folks head to Kentucky or Tennessee thinking that there are more instruments in that area. But don't be wooed by tourist attractions that display instruments. Often they aren't instruments that you'll be happy with. The poorest instrument we ever saw came from a tourist trap in one of the southeastern states. The store had assured the unsuspecting buyer that they'd be getting a top notch instrument. What they received was a pretty instrument but it wouldn't hold it's tune. The bracing wasn't sufficient. The builder was long gone, and the unsuspecting buyer had a real lemon.
Surprisingly, there are more hammered dulcimers in Michigan than any other state. Your best bet is to head to Michigan's festivals, if at all possible. You'll find the best selection at large festivals.
The best builders establish reputations that make buying their instruments reliable. If you buy from a well-known builder, you can count on the builder to stand behind his/her instruments. The instruments will generally be fairly consistent. Yes, you can even buy on line, because you'll know what you're getting.
But let's assume that you've decided that a used instrument would serve you well as you learn. Where do you go?
The internet probably provides the best resources for finding used instruments. Read on.
When I suggested that you "join a support group," an email list is one of the kinds of groups that I would suggest. Musicians have a "network" that is broad. Most of us know someone who has an instrument for sale. An email list with hundreds of hammered dulcimer players is therefore a wonderful resource. Of course if you have a hammered dulcimer club in your area, that's also a great place to head, but for those who are just getting started, an email list can be a valuable resource.
There is a large email list known as hammered_dulcimers. You can subscribe by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Once you have joined the list (which is free), take a few days to become comfortable with it. It's often best to listen for a few days before jumping in. When you're ready, post a message explaining that you're looking for a used instrument.
If you live in Michigan, there's also a smaller Michigan-based list called: email@example.com which you can join by going to the list's sign-up area, HERE! Dulcimers@yahoogroups.com is a friendly list that is primarily for folks who attend (or want to attend) the Evart Funfest. They will help you in your search, especially if you're from Michigan, Ohio, or surrounding areas.
Once you have a lead on a used instrument, you can go back to the list and ask questions about builder. Ask if anyone knows anything pro or con about that builder's reputation. It's best to suggest when you're doing any postings on this topic that responses come to you "off-list" since you don't want to disrupt the normal flow of messages with a topic that is of interest only to you.
Other resources for used instruments:
Festivals. We can't speak about festivals in other states, but used instruments are often available at Michigan festivals. At the Evart festival, before the starting day of the festival or after it's over, you may negotiate a campsite sale.
Elderly Instruments. This is a well-known, highly respected business in Lansing, Michigan. They handle instruments on consignment. They have a great website (http://elderly.com) and you can trust them to have fair prices and great evaluations of the instruments. They sell new, as well as used instruments.
Builders. You might find a used instrument that a builder has taken as a "trade-in" or a used one that they're aware of because its owner is up-grading.
Everything Dulcimer Web Site has a good Marketplace area.
Guy George's website also has a resale area.
This website (dulcimers.biz) has a new classified section.
Have questions? Need help?