Have dulcimer, will travel.
That’s Dale Palecek’s motto since he learned to play the hammered dulcimer and gave it a bluegrass twist eight years ago.
The Port Washington musician is so intrigued with the stringed trapezoid-shaped instrument he plays with mallets that he formed the Roller Mills String Band around it. The band plays music from the 1800s to 1930s with a bluegrass beat.
Palecek describes it as “old time music on steroids.”
“We’re not really a bluegrass band. We’re a string band,” he said.
When he formed the band in 2007, Palecek invited musicians he played with or listened to who were creative and willing to try something different.
“I was looking for people who wanted to play this kind of music, and I wanted to try the instrument in a band. It’s more fun to play with other people than to play alone,” Palecek said.
“All the guys in the band are great players. When we started, I had been playing (the dulcimer) only a year or two, and they had been playing for many years. I like being the worst player in the band because it pushes me to get better.
“I think in the beginning, they weren’t quite sure if it would work.”
Other band members are Mike Stern on guitar, Charlie Malac on stand-up bass and Jim Burch on mandolin, fiddle and clawhammer banjo. Burch also plays with Big Cedar Bluegrass Band.
Palecek, who played mandolin for 20 years in several bands and banjo for six years, fell in love with the hammered dulcimer in 2005 at a bluegrass festival in Indiana.
“There was a Michigan woman there playing it, and she was very good,” he said. “She and I played together for four hours. She asked, ‘Why is a banjo player playing with me at a bluegrass festival?’ There is something about the motion of it that is mesmerizing.”
He spent the next year taking lessons from her and practiced alone with only his wife Pru listening until he felt ready to face an audience.
“Dulcimers come in many sizes. I bought a small one and outgrew it in a couple of months,” he said. “As with any instrument, the bigger it is, the more range you have.”
Several instruments later, he’s still entranced by the dulcimer.
“My best instrument is the mandolin, but this is my favorite,” he said. “There is something about banging on it that is so much fun. There are other people who play it like I do, but what’s different is I’m playing it in a bluegrass setting and not stepping over the other players.”
He even made a dulcimer, but said he didn’t use the right wood and it doesn’t sound good. It’s a keepsake.
Few people have seen a dulcimer being played and Palecek gets questions wherever he plays. He enjoys educating people about it and encourages them to try his instrument.
The dulcimer has been around more than 2,000 years, Palecek said, and every country has a similar instrument that is part of its folk music. In England, it was plucked and used in classical music, he said.
The dulcimer’s popularity faded when other string instruments and horns came into vogue and jazz became popular, he said.
“The instrument died out in most places except Michigan because Henry Ford didn’t like jazz. He got a bunch of hammered dulcimers and formed a band to play country music,” Palecek said. “Some of the best dulcimer players are from Michigan.”
The largest gathering of dulcimer players in the United States is held in July at the Original Dulcimer Players Club Funfest in Evart, Mich.
The event features a variety of workshops in different instruments. Palecek, a staff instructor, teaches a class on how to play the hammered dulcimer with a bluegrass band. At the end of the week-long event, participants are invited to play in the outdoor Squirrels Nest, where silliness is encouraged, Palecek said. Two years ago, Palecek recorded the Squirrels Nest event and produced a CD titled “Squirrels Nest Live.” He’s currently working on a second CD, “Back to the Nest” from last year’s gathering. He also wants to form a Squirrels Nest band to perform at various events.
Palecek, who works in promotions for CBS 58 TV in Milwaukee, also produced “After the Storm,” a compilation of bluegrass music submitted by 15 bands to raise money for people in Moore, Okla., which was hit by a tornado that killed 24 people in 2013.
“We’ve raised $5,000 so far,” he said. The CD, which costs $15, is available at Roller Mills Strings Band performances, online at
and at the Chocolate Chisel in Port Washington.
“I’ve made 20 recordings so far, some more successful than others,” Palecek said.
A popular one in Wisconsin was “Christmas Carols for a Green Bay Packers Fan,” which he and his wife wrote and performed. The couple also wrote a song in 1982 titled “The Bart Starr Show” in an effort to keep Starr as the Packers coach. They performed the song on radio and TV shows throughout the state. Starr kept his job for one more year.
Palecek’s favorite songs to play on the hammered dulcimer are “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” during which he creates a haunting horse clopping sound, and the fast “Hangman’s Reel.”
“You get that motion going, and it’s so much fun to play,” he said.
The band will perform at the Port Washington farmers market on East Main Street from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23.
Image information: THE HAMMERED DULCIMER was played by Dale Palecek of the Roller Mills String Band with (back row, from left) Charlie Malac on stand-up bass, Mike Stern on guitar and Jim Burch on clawhammer banjo. The group played at Port Washington’s farmer’s market on Saturday and will make a return visit this Saturday, Aug. 23, performing from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Photo by Sam Arendt