The origins of this instrument are obscure; several versions of it exist in many different musical cultures, notably in the Arab world. It consists of an open trapezium-shaped sounding board strung with piano wire or similar material; the "hammers" are generally two lengths of wood or wire with a spoon-shaped head sometimes wrapped in wool. These are held in the hand and used to strike the appropriate string-course.

The hammer dulcimer can sometimes sound strange when played with other instruments, or, for that matter, by itself; since it has no damping mechanism, notes will be sustained beyond their useful duration, and interfere with the notes that are actually struck at any given time.