Roger Nicholson: Britain's most influential dulcimer player

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A notable performer in the folk-rock heyday of the early 1970s, Roger Nicholson helped to popularise the Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimer, adding to its repertoire and leaving a rich musical legacy remembered fondly by admirers around the world.

Born in 1943 in London and interested as a teenager in the music of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Nicholson taught guitar in the 1960s at Cecil Sharp House, the home of English folk music. In 1968, attending a folk festival at Loughborough University, he was introduced to the Appalachian dulcimer – a three-stringed instrument played in modal tunings, the repertoire drawing on ancient roots. "What a nice-looking and sounding instrument it was," he said. It became his instrument of choice and one for which he showed an amazing aptitude, the broadcaster John Pearse describing him as having "phenomenal technique and mastery without peer."

Nicholson worked with the guitarist Bob Johnson, who later joined Steeleye Span. Together they recorded an album, Nonesuch for Dulcimer, released early in 1972. It featured a number of Nicholson's compositions, including a requiem for the instrumentalist Richard Farina. The album was critically acclaimed – John Peel featured it on his show for a week. The New Musical Express called it "a double triumph, completely contemporary in spirit". For the now defunct Sounds, the revelation was how Roger's playing and compositions crossed modes and forms.

"I tried to show all the different styles and sounds you can get with the instrument" Nicholson said. These ranged from the baroque to more traditional drone-based pieces, reflecting modal and Eastern influences.

The success of the album meant that Nicholson was in demand as a performer, and he toured at home and abroad. His London base was the folk club Peelers, which his wife Kay helped to run. In the course of touring, he made close friendships with the American dulcimer players Jean Ritchie and Lorraine Lee, and recorded a succession of albums with them and others including Jake Walton, with whom he had a strong partnership, Andrew Cronshaw, Martin Simpson and Dan Evans.

Nicholson was an authority on musical modes and had great understanding of the roots of music. He wrote extensively and worked in the 1970s as the music librarian at the British Council. When economic crises forced the library's closure, he worked on behalf of the Foreign Office, where for many years he guided VIP visitors, including Nelson Mandela on his first tour of the UK.

After a hiatus in the 1980s Nicholson returned to touring the following decade, performing and teaching the dulcimer at festivals in America. More recently, he suffered ill-health and his activities were limited, but his passion for music remained.

Tom Elliott

Roger Nicholson, dulcimer player and teacher: born London 23 February 1943; married 1970 Kay (one daughter); died London 18 November 2009.