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An acquaintance who has arthritis in her hands is interested in learning to play the hammered dulcimer and has asked me for an introduction to the instrument to help her decide. I believe I can teach her to manipulate the hammers even with her arthritis; this may limit how well she will eventually play, but I believe she can get to basic fluency and that may satisfy her.

However, I would be remiss if we don't also address the matter of tuning. Dulcimer strings are tuned via metal pins that are turned with a wrench, and a dulcimer has a lot of strings (anywhere from ~22 to ~70). There are two types of wrenches, a T-style one where you apply direct downward pressure while turning and a "goose-neck" one where you get the benefit of a lever arm but need to be careful not to apply sideways pressure to the pin. In both cases the adjustments you make can be tiny (barely perceptible) -- smaller with the longer wrench, but small either way. I have no trouble using either type of wrench, but I don't have any problems in my hands.

I'll be happy to let her try out both approaches on my instrument, but that might not tell her what the experience of tuning an entire instrument will be like for her. I'm not sure either of us wants her to spend an hour tuning my instrument as part of this introduction. :-)

Is one of these better than the other for someone with arthritis? Is there a third option, perhaps something mechanically or electronically assisted?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I took my kids to a slide guitar seminar by Tom Doughty this weekend. Possibly one of the most inspiring events I have ever attended - this is a man who through a spinal injury lost the use of his left hand, much of his right, and is wheelchair-bound, but he plays mean slide guitar.

He makes use of a wrench to turn pegs, and also in wedging his arm or hand against the chair or guitar to gain leverage when tuning. I know a guitar is much easier to tune, but it shows an example of what can be done. Watch this video, and have a look from about 35 seconds for an example of him tuning.

If your friend just has problems with the fingers, you could look at a t-bar with extended arms which both bend up at the end, then she could use both hands and the increased leverage. This would avoid pushing sideways on the pin, but also reduce the force required. And if downwards pressure is required, how about a ball on each end?

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Oh wow. Thank you for pointing out Tom Doughty to me, and also for the great suggestion about extending the T wrench. That sounds like it would work well and shouldn't be too hard to fabricate. –  Monica Cellio May 29 '13 at 1:37
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Yes, this approach works! For testing I duct-taped a longer dowel to my T wrench; that's not the long-term solution you want, but it was easy to experiment with. –  Monica Cellio Jun 18 '13 at 15:36
    
Brilliant. I'm really glad. –  Dr Mayhem Jun 18 '13 at 18:16
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