Sunday, February 15, 2009

R.I.P. Farewell, my old noter

Noters. Where would we be without them? Noterless.
Noters are the little sticks we use to slide up and down the dulcimer fretboard to make different notes. In noter-drone style playing, it is this sliding up and down with the noter that yields that marvelous zzing-zzzzingggg! sound we love. It's a silvery liquid sound that, try as you might, you just cannot get by sliding 'finger meat' up and down the fretboard. The way I play, I likely wouldn't have any fingers left if I used them instead of my noter!
Noters come in various shapes and thicknesses and materials. Most common are wooden dowel-like noters. People like to experiment with other noter materials like metal, bamboo, fiberglass, ebony violin pegs, bone, even glass. I have tried steel rods and glass rods, but personally I prefer the sound of a good hard wood noter. A good noter is like fine wine...nutty, silky smooth, with a hint of arrogance. lol!

Here's a picture of a few noters I have. At top is a wood noter...I don't remember where I got it from. Next down is a fat noter I bought on Ebay but I haven't used yet...

The blackish green one is a noter I bought at a dulcimer festival years ago. George Haggerty made it himself, and I think it is fiberglass or some sort of extra hard resin. So far, this noter has been used more than any other I have had, and has held up the best.
Once I was at an old-time music camp-out gathering and was playing in a session with friends, in the grass under the trees. As I packed up my stuff after the session, I discovered my favorite blackish green noter was GONE! I looked everywhere in my pockets and in all my stuff and could not find it in the grass either. I became agitated and some friends began to help me search in the grass. Needless to say, finding a dark green noter in grass is like looking for an egg in a mountain of ping pong balls. More friends helped in the hunt, and it must have been an odd sight. After a long and fruitless search, I finally insisted that they stop and I emotionally had to 'let go' of my special green noter.
Can you guess the rest of the story? Yes, later that day I FOUND the green noter, right in my dulcimer case
in plain sight, where it had played its cruel trick on me. Needless to say it would have been way too embarrassing to announce its miraculous reappearance to all the people who had spent all that time hunching over the grass. They likely would have killed me. I said nothing.

The bottom noter in the picture is cool...I was at a craft fair and looked at a wood turner's booth. He was selling wooden bowls, cups, and children's tops he turned himself on his lathe. I paid him to make me some noters from the hardest wood he could get, and we agreed on maple and ironwood, ironwood having been traditionally used for making ax handles. So I wound up with several very hard wood noters that were gracefully turned. The not-yet-used whitish one pictured was made from ironwood.

Three years ago I began using the first of the little group of noters turned by this craftsman- it was hard maple wood. I used it a lot. And then I used it some more.
One day I noticed it was getting grooves worn in it from sliding over the steel strings. These grooves formed a fascinating spiral pattern, and actually made it easier to use since the strings would naturally fall into the grooves and keep my place nicely. There must have been some mathematical formula producing this amazing spiral pattern, but I've always been lousy at math. I kept using the noter.

Eventually I accepted the fact that my lovely maple noter was ready to be put out to pasture. Due to the severe wear all around the string groove area, the tip was beginning to hit the fretboard and frets too much as it slid up and down. It reminded me of the oddly distinctive wear pattern I used to observe on my mother's lipsticks back in the 1960's, during her 'Marilyn Monroe period'.

My old maple noter is now officially retired. One day when I have a second one all worn and ready for retirement as well, I will give them both to my two grown daughters- mementos of the hundreds of hours, hundreds of tunes, and thousands of notes the humble little sticks gave their lives to.

Do you have a favorite noter?


  1. Two favorite noters. Many folks know I'm a fan of bamboo for noters, as the silicon in the 'wood' makes it extra hard. I have one made from a piece of Black Bamboo (Phylostachys nigra) that came from a patch of bamboo I found growing underneath the bridge over the Willamette R. in Corvallis, OR.

    My second favorite noter is made from a piece of Kwila wood I got when I lived on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Kwila is the local "ironwood" used whenever something really strong is needed. It;s not quite as hard as Ebony, but close.

  2. My favorite noter is cut from the hard plastic of a Dole fruit jar. The noter's 2.5" long and about .75" wide; a good size for my small hand. To make the noter ride slick on the strings, I take a swipe at my nose or the skin around my nose to lubricate it. (Got this idea off EverythingDulcimer from Missy Strothers who got it from David Schnaufer.)

  3. This is a post script to my comment about lubricating my noter and using skin oil to do so. When Missy wrote about David lubricating his fingers or a noter-- obviously, I'm sketchy on details here-- she wrote that David said, "Nose grease." At least that's how I remember it. ; )

  4. I've got small hands and short fingers, so the noter I use is an ebony violin peg. These can be bought very inexpensively, a set of 4 ebony violin pegs can be found for $3.25 + shipping at Since the pegs are real ebony, the noter is nice and hard, the tip of the peg slides on the dulcimer strings and the peg bulb end fits neatly in my palm. Those with longer fingers or larger hands might be more comfortable with a viola or even cello peg. I'm not very good at it yet, since I just started playing so I can't comment on fatigue and longer term ergonomics. But because I happen to have unfinished violin pegs lying around, I thought I'd give it a try. I gave one out to a beginner friend of mine also and she likes it too.

  5. Hi Lisa--you just posted a comment on my blog about zithers and gave me a link to your site.

    I just read about "noters" in your post--very interesting! At the Mercer Museum, the curator told me that zithers were often played with bone, but maybe they used turned sticks, too. In the photo with 4 noters, I believe the one at the top is Cocobolo and the one below it is Spalted Maple.
    I had always heard that Ironwood was really Lignum Vitae (which doesn't look at all like the one in your photo), but a quick check online shows that many trees are called Ironwood. So, I'm not sure which one you have.

    Take care,

  6. I have one made by a friend out of real hard wood given me by KenH. It's my favorite. It doesn't make my hand cramp and it stays where I want it.

    Rick (flyingcursor)

  7. If anyone is looking for Wood Noters, check out the Carrot Creek Dulcimer website and click on Noters by D.O.D.. I've bought three noters from them (Cedar, Walnut & Cocobolo) and they are beautiful. Each noter is hand made and there are many different types of woods, sizes and shapes to choose from. Happy Strumming, Drew

  8. Oh how interesting! A discussion on noters. I play DAA with a noter in a part of the country that is heavily populated with DAD players, so I'm something of an oddity - but no matter. I rarely get to discuss noters. I too have a couple that are getting pretty worn. Having worn out (then lost) my favorite noter, I was forced to look online. I've purchased 3 - one of Hickory, an Ebony one, and an Ash noter. So far the ash is not performing up to the other two. The ebony is of course quite hard, but the hickory is hanging in there too - and I work a noter pretty hard.

    One thing I've noticed is that the action of the noter is much improved by using it on a quality fretboard. My Fellenbaum dulcimer with a rosewood fretboard plays better and smoother with a noter than any other dulcimer I own. I'm sure the combination of hardwood fretboard and hardwood noter make the difference.

    I've often told beginners to purchase an inexpensive wooden dowel and cut it into lengths for use as noters, but these don't last long - unless the dowel is hickory. I don't know where you'd obtain one, but a friend uses a noter made from a hickory dowel, and it's holding up as well as my fancy noter.

    1. I am having trouble finding a noter online (except on Amazon!) at all. Where did you get yours?

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  10. I use a noter made from bamboo that grows around here. It grows wild, so I can take a hack saw, and cut as much as I want. Note: do not use a knife or regular saw as the bamboo will crack and split.

  11. For Anonymous, on hickory dowels: you can get them from muzzleloading suppliers. People make ramrods out of hickory dowels, and due to the variations in caliber they come in lots of different sizes.