Here are some questions I’ve gotten from readers, either by direct email, or through the “Sweet Music” Mailing list over the last couple of years, along with my answers to them.
Disclaimer: I have no financial ties to any other performer, builder, author or retailer mentioned here, other than, of course, my own products.
Q: — If I want play a song that I arranged to play in the key of G, but now due to > the range of the kids voices, I need to play it in the key of B, what do I do? I’m thinking that I could tune to FCF instead of DAD. However, is this too high for the strings. Should I use a different gauge?
A: — Do I understand you correctly, that you play the tune in DAd tuning in the key of G? If so, and you want to play the same fingerings and have it come out in B, I think you’d need to tune to F# – C# – F#, not F-C-F. Lighter gage strings are probably indicated, but on most full size instruments a 10 gage melody string, 12 gage middle, and 22 wound bass string should work, although they might feel rather tight. You’d have to do the experiment to tell for certain, though. I often use a 12 gage string for my high D on my dulcimer. If you want to keep the same tension on the string, but have it come out an F#, it works out that you’d need to go to a 9.5 gage melody string. (If your string length is 28 inches.) 10 is probably close enough.
Another approach, if you want to re-work what you’ve been doing, is to stay in DAd tuning and play back up chords for the key of B while the kids sing the melody. The chords you are likely to need in the key of B are the B (of course) the E, and the F#. The simplest chord fingerings for these chords are to use the bar chords at frets 5, 1 and 2 respectively. Just hold down all the strings at the 5 fret for the B chord, for example. Another workable fingering for a B major chord in a lower position is 2-1-2. This approach allows you to backup someone who is singing or playing in the key of B, but will not allow you to play melody.
Q: — I would like to buy a mountain dulcimer but am totally confused about purchasing one. Since I’m not sure if this is a ‘forever’ thing, I’d like to spend under $200 but not end up with an instrument that sounds like a K-Mart blue light special. There’s a used one on consignment at a nearby store that’s priced at $150. It sounds better than some of the other lesser priced instruments I’ve been able to find but I know nothing about it. Do you have any recommendations for purchasing one that might help ?? Thanks a lot for any advice you might be able to give.
A: — $200 is quite a tight budget for a good instrument, one that doesn’t sound like a “blue light special.” In my opinion, some of the inexpensive “factory” instruments out there sound overly “harsh” and don’t have a lot of sustain. Buying such an instrument basically assures that it will NOT be a “forever” thing. On the other hand, if the instument you’ve noticed has an accurate fret scale, $150 is probably a fair price for it, if you like the way it sounds.
Keep in mind that opinions on dulcimers are just that, opinions. The type of instrument one likes is a very personal choice. What *I* think about an instrument is not nearly as important as what *YOU* think about the instrument. Try to play some on a variety of instruments before you commit your dollars. If you play in a “hell-bent-for-leather” strummed style, a dulcimer that doesn’t have a lot of sustain may be what you want. If you are into more delicate, finger picked or flat picked melodies, you’ll probably want more in the way of sustain and clarity of the notes.
Is there a dulcimer club near your home? Go to a meeting and ask the members about their dulcimers. Try out as many as the owners will let you play. Joe Zsigray’s web site has a mountain dulcimer club listing that should help you find one near you. Jerry Rockwell’s web site has a good buyer’s guide section, which is fairly generic, although his instruments are a bit above the price range you mentioned. See the “Links” page
Q: — I have just recently had a baritone dropped in my lap to learn Christmas songs on. I belong to a big group so chords will do for now. The owner had a 1 1/2 fret put in but, I am playing a AEA. This give’s me a low G do you have any arrangement’s written for the Baritone. I play in DAD and am also playing in DAA with a friend for christmas. Do you have any Christmas music in DAA? We are doing Angeles we have heard on high with DAA and DAD and the Baritone with her on one song and I don’t have time to figure out any chords for DAA and all she can do is strum the melody so I have the experience and have to add extra’s and my brain is fried trying to learn two new tuning’s in two weeks. If you have hark the herald and we wish you a merry christmas in DAA I’ll pay you for them by the sheet or by the book. I am in great need of some cheating.
A: — I’m afraid that I don’t really have any arrangements of holiday music for the baritone dulcimer. Linda Sigismondi has a very nice book of Christmas music arranged for the dulcimer, mostly for DAd tunings. You can reach her by email at [email protected]
Mostly, I play solo, so I just mentally pretend that I’m still in DAd tuning regardless of the actual open notes of the strings. My brain is pretty much hardwired into the key of D and DAd tuning, at this point. With a group, however, you’ll have to be a little less informal about your approach to the key you use.
Is the group playing in the key of D? If so, and you want to play chords on the baritone you can translate in the following manner. The baritone in the tuning you mentioned is an interval of a “Perfect fourth” lower than the other dulcimers tuned to D (either DAd or DAA). Therefore, a D chord on your Baritone tuned AEA would “look like” a G chord on a DAd tuned dulcimer. That is, for example, an 3-1-0 chord on the baritone would actually be a D chord, instead of a G chord, as it would be if you were tuned DAd.
Figure it out.
The open melody string is an A, the first fret on the middle string is an F#, and the third fret of the bass string is a D, and those are the three notes of a D Major triad.
Other chords can be translated using this as a staring point. The G chord on the Baritone “looks like” a C chord on a standard dulcimer, and the A chords “look like” D chords on a standard DAd dulcimer. You are fortunate that you have a 1+ fret on this instrument. This gives you a G chord in a convenient low position, at 3 – 1+ – 1 (You want to play low voiced chords, or else you wouldn’t need a baritone, right?)
Here is an abbreviated chord chart for AEA tuning: (use non proportional font to view correctly.) Remember, the chords are all “reversible”, i.e. a 4-3-2 chord is the same chord as a 2-3-4 chord, it’s just a different voicing of the same chord.
.. .. A Major: .. .. .. .. .. D Major .. .. .. G Major
0 .. 2 .. 4 .. 4 .. 7 …. 0 .. 3 .. 5 .. 7 .. .. .3 .. 6 .. 8
0 .. 0 .. 3 .. 0 .. 5 .. .. 1 .. 3 .. 6 .. 6 .. .. 1+ .4 .. 6
0 .. 0 .. 2 .. 0 .. 4 .. .. 3 .. 3 .. 0 .. 5 .. .. .1 .. 3 .. 6
.E Minor .. .. .. E Major .. .. .. B minor .. .. .. .. .. F# Minor
1 .. 4 .. 6 .. .. 1 .. 4 .. 6+ 1 .. .. 1 .. 1 .. 3 .. 5 .. .. 2 .. 2 .. 5 .. 7
1+ 4 .. 7 .. .. 2 .. 4 .. 7 .. 0 .. .. 1 .. 1 .. 4 .. 6 .. .. 1 .. 3 .. 5 .. 5
4 .. 6 .. 8 .. .. 4 .. 6+ 8 .. 1 .. .. 1 .. 3 .. 5 .. 8 .. .. 0 .. 5 .. 5 .. 5
If you have ever played backup in the key of G on a standard dulcimer while tuned DAd, this will be very much like that. You COULD capo your instrument at the 3rd fret, and then it would be very easy to play in the key of D, but this pretty much eliminates the advantage of using a baritone instrument in the first place.
In general, for a baritone tuned AEA and a “standard” dulcimer tuned DAd:
D on the baritone looks like G on a standard ( D -> G)
E on the baritone looks like A on a standard ( E -> A)
(F# -> B)
(G -> C)
(A -> D)
(B -> E)
(C -> F)
(C# -> F#)
If your group is going to be playing “Angels we have heard on high” in the key of D, there are a number of chord substitutions in that song, at least the way I do it. In the part where the words go “Glor — orrrr, orrrr, orrrr, ia…” I start out playing a D, go to an Em, to a G, to an F#m, to a Bm, to an Em, and finally end the phrase on an A.
Q: — Should the dulcimer have four screws for the four strings? Also, as I go past the 10th(?) fret, the dulcimer starts to lose its tune, is this common? this is a well made instrument (handmade by some people in 1979, abalone inlays etc) but maybe the intonation is off. This would probably involve changing the screw position, but I don’t want to mess with it. I have yet to change the strings, that might help a bit. Also when strumming the dulcimer it should lay on my lap with the strumming divot to my strumming hand, is there a special strumming technique or do people use picks or slides?
A: — Especially if you use doubled melody strings, there should be no problem with anchoring both melody strings on one screw. It should even work with equidistant tuning, but may be a bit more awkward. Any music instrument technician should be able to add an additional string anchor for you.
As for your question about intonation…
Does your instrument have a fixed bridge or a floating bridge? A floating bridge is one that can be moved forward or back along the fretboard to adjust intonation. If so, this might be off position. Your technician should look at this as well. In any case, it isn’t real uncommon for the high frets to be inaccurate. And changing strings is definitely a good idea.
The most common way of holding the dulcimer is for it to rest on your lap with the strum hollow to the right as you look at it. (On the left side from the audience’s viewpoint.) You strum/pick/bow with your right hand and use your left to hold the strings at the various frets to change the notes. This is not carved in stone, however. People can and do play it standing with a strap over the shoulder, or play it reversed, or “left handed,” etc., etc….
As for special strumming techniques, yes, they do exist. LOTS of them. If you were to assemble 50 dulcimer players together, you’d probably be able to get at least 51 different opinions on the “proper” way to strum the dulcimer. Then there are the ones who prefer to finger pick the instrument, and a few wild radicals that use violin bows. The key is to get something that works for you, and not worry too much about what others say you should do, or should not do.
Having said that, I’ll also say that if you get with a good instructor, you’ll probably be able to save yourself a lot of time in your experimenting by listening and watching what he does, and asking his advice, etc. You could also try a good self study book, like Larkin Bryant’s Dulcimer Book, for example.
Q: — My dulcimer is an hourglass handmade lap model labled “Handcrafted by Robert Bryan, Raleigh NC, #117 – 1971. It is made of solid wood –spruce top, walnut sides and scroll, and cherry back, with a varnished finish. The fingerboard is a laminate of these woods, and the tuner uses hand-cut walnut (?) pegs. The 4 strings are 28” bridge-to-bridge. There are 17 brass frets, but no 6-1/2. (Is it useful or expensive to add this fret ?).
A: — _I_ use the 6+ fret quite heavily. Many other fine players wouldn’t be caught dead with one. It is becoming pretty standard now, and much tablature is starting to assume it. It should probably cost around $10 to $15 to add one. (Just a guess, I haven’t done this myself.)
Q2: — . The tuning is erratic. One problem is that the instrument has probably not been tuned in 25 years! Any recommendations as to how best to care for the tuner? Oil? Liquid rosin? Fine tuning is difficult. Is it possible to add in-line fine tuners at the lower bridge –similar to a violin?
A2: — After 25 years, it is definately possible that the tuner’s need to be serviced. I’m afraid that I can’t give you much advice on that, I’ve never used friction tuners. You’ll need to consult a musical instrument technician or builder for that. I have seen fine tuners added to dulcimers, but whether or not it’s feasible in this case, I don’t know.
Q3: — I seem to have difficulty finding the right tuning notes. When in-tune should the tone of the strings be so close as to make it difficult to tell them apart? Is there a particular electronic tuning device that would help? What is the most popular key for the (unfretted) bass string, since other strings are relative to this one?
A3: — Yes, the doubled melody strings should sound like the same tone. You can get just about any music store to take your money for a chromatic electronic tuner. For the moment, though I’d wait before I dropped $30 to $100 plus on an electric tuner. I think the most common key for dulcimers is D. If you don’t have a source of pitch, like a pitch pipe, a piano or a tuning fork, you can tune your instrument “relatively” in the following manner:
1. Tune the bass string (heaviest) to a “comfortable” pitch, one that isn’t too tight, and doesn’t sound too loose and “floppy” when you pluck the open string. (that is, without holding down any of the frets.)
2. Hold the bass string at the 4th fret and sound the note on that string.
3. Before the note on the bass string has faded, sound the middle string and adjust it to match the note sounding on the bass string.
4. Repeat step 3 for the other strings.
This is the description for DAA tuning. (If you tuned the bass string to a “D”) This is probably the best choice for most major key tunes if you don’t have the 6 1/2 fret. This tuning is sometimes called “Ionian” tuning.
Q4: — .I added new strings to the instrument. Are all strings of the proper gauge equivalent, or are there preferred brands?
A4: — You can get sets of dulcimer strings at many music stores, but any steel strings that you can attach to your instrument will work. Steel strings for guitars or banjos are usually fine. Strings will have either ball ends, or loop ends, and the type you need will depend on the design of your instrument. Take it with you to the store and ask the sales person for assistance. For the tuning I described above, I’d suggest a 22 gage wound string for the bass, and 12 gage plain strings for the others. This is a matter of preference though, some like other weights for the strings.
Q5:– Is there a preferred correlation between string and peg? The original stringing seemed to criss-cross above the bridge. I straightened this out, but now have adjacent strings corresponding to pegs on opposite sides of the scroll. I suppose I could drill new holes in the pegs. Is this warranted?
A5: — The correlation between the strings and the peg is simply what works. There is no standard for this. However, from your description, it may be possible that the pegs have been swaped into the wrong holes. According to my (imperfect) understanding, they DO need to be individually fitted to their holes. Your instrument technician should be able to help you.
Q6: — . Should the 2 melody strings be absolutely parallel? I see about 1/16″ difference from bridge to bridge – widest at the base. Also the string “action” runs from less than 1/16″ at #1fret, to about 3/8″ at #17 fret. Is this OK?
A6: –This seems a bit extreem. Usually they are more parallel than this, but it isn’t a real critical thing. It should be an easy fix for your technician to manage, however.
Q7: — Is there a preferred way of caring for the wood finish? Recommended polish?
A7: — This will vary according to the type of finish the builder used. I can’t really advise you on this long distance. Your instrument technician may be able to make a recommendation.
Q: — I got to your site via a general search for info on how to tune a 11/12 hammered dulcimer. I don’t play one but a friend of mine picked on up at the local tip and I have rebult it. I play the accordion so music isn’t a problem.
I never did get a clear indication of how the thing’s tuned so I’ll work on the idea of D3 lowest, getting 5ths across the left hand bride and putting accidentals on the right hand course. I stick to a D scale so the thing can be played in D, G, A, C.
A: — I’m not a hammer dulcimer player, but I occasionally hang out with them, and I built one myself years ago. The most common tuning scheme for a 11/12 that I see here in the US is for the low note on the right bridge to be a G3 (or maybe it’s a G2, I’m not sure where the octave designations go.) The notes on the Right Bridge go up like this:
G A B C D E F G A Bb C
Notice that it’s F and not F#. The left bridge is, as you determined, tuned in fifths across the bridge. The low note on the Left bridge is a C# above your bass G on the right bridge, and they go up the low side of the left bridge like this:
C# D E F# G A B C D E F G
Which makes the high side:
G# A B C# D E F# G A B C D
The common major (ionian) scales can be played in G, D, C, & F by starting on the key note on either the bass bridge (rt bridge) or the low side of the treble bridge, and playing up four notes, then switch to the next higher bridge across from the starting note and play up the next four notes to finish the scale. Suppose we number the strings (courses, actually) up from the bottom and use B TL and TH for the Bass bridge, Treble Low side, and Treble High side. A G major scale is then:
B1 B2 B3 B4 TL2 TL3 TL4 TL5
The D scale can be played on the treble bridge as
TL2 TL3 TL4 TL5 TH2 TH3 TH4 TH5
There are two convienent places to play a C major scale:
B4 B5 B6 B7 TL5 TL6 TL7 TL8 or
TL8 TL9 TL10 TL11 TH8 TH9 TH10 TH11
The F major scale starts on the F-natural of the Bass bridge. By now youshould be seeing the pattern.
In this tuning you can also play an A major scale using a different pattern:
B2 B3 TL1 TL2 TL3 TL4 TH1 TH2
Using the same pattern you can play the key of D (starting on B5) and G (starting at B8).
You can play the minor scales (aeolian) in the keys of A, E, & B by starting on the lowest key note of the Bass, High Treble, and Low treble bridges respectively and going stright up the scale on that bridge. You can also play D minor in a similar manner starting on B5 and going up the bass bridge, but the final octave note is missing. You’d have to play it on the TL bridge.
You can play mixolydian scales in G, D, and A as you did for the aeolian scales, starting on the key note of their respective bridge and going straight up the scale on that bridge.
Finally, you can play the dorian scales of A, E, D & G as you did for the ionian scales, starting on the key note, go up four notes, switch to the next higher bridge and play the last four notes. To play D-dorian you start on B5, for G-dorian you start on B8, and A-dorian can start on either B2 or TL6.
As I said, this tuning is common here in the US, but it is by no means universal. I have seen instruments tuned in this manner for the Treble bridge, but with the Bass bridge tuned so that it starts on a low D and goes up as a major scale. This apparently facilitates playing in the key of D. I’m afraid I’m not competent to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of various tuning systems. There has been a series of articles on different HD tuning schemes in the Dulcimer Player’s News, whose website is linked in my site. This may not be of a lot of practical value to you, however, because I think they were discussing unusual variations on tuning the instrument.
Q: — I guess this is a technical question.. I’m looking for a decent sounding B chord in DAa without Capo.. ( low to high ) = 1 1 4 I R T … A= 1 0 2 I O T .. B= 2 1 1 p R P(ointer) with Index on fingering is awkward…
A: — Another possibility for a B chord is 5 5 5, although this is a little higher than the other chords you show. (The 1 1 4 chord, by the way, is an E chord, not a B) A B Major triad consists of a B, a D#, and an F#. On a standard dulcimer tuned to DAA, you don’t have the D# (the third of the B Major Triad.)
If you play fingerings that have Bs and F#s it will work OK as a B chord. It will also work as a B minor, since you don’t have the third in the chord to establish it as either a major or minor chord. Heavy metal musicians would call this a “Power Chord”, or so I have been informed. You have Bs on your base string at frets 5 and 12. You have F#s on the bass string at frets 2 and 9.
On the middle and melody strings you have Bs at frets 1 and 8, and F#s at frets 5 and 12. Any combination that you can reach with one of these frets on the appropriate string will work as a B chord.
I recommend against 12 . 1 . 5.
Q: — had an interesting experience with a fretless banjo. I discovered that the absence of frets was not hard to get used to (took 5 minutes) as long as I didn’t look at the neck. That makes me wonder if anywhere in the history of our delightfully sweet voiced instrument a fretless one was ever used …
A: — A couple of years ago at the Mountain Dulcimer Playing Workshop at Boone, I saw and heard one of these beasts. I forget the name of the person that had it, but I remember that Ken Bloom played it some in one of his workshops. It had a very soft, muted sound with very little sustain. It sounded good in Ken’s hands, but of course, everything sounds good in Ken’s hands.
That particular instrument was one that began life as a fretted dulcimer, but the frets had been pulled off and filled. (With a combination of wood glue and ground cinnamon, according to the owner.) This would be a reasonable thing to do to salvage an instrument that you might have around the house that has a flawed fret pattern. I’ve been threatening to do this to one of my early instruments for quite a while now, but after this much time, I think that instrument has stopped worrying.
One thing to keep in mind, a fretless dulcimer has a completly different character than a fretted dulcimer. Don’t do this expecting to get a chromatic instrument with no other change to its voice. It makes it a completely different instrument.
Q: — Can anybody comment on the advantage or disadvantage of adding a full or partial 1 1/2 fret, please.
A: –I have grown so used to the 1 1/2 (1+) fret that I am starting to have difficulties playing instruments that DON’T have one.
I originally added the 1+ fret to my instrument to facilitate playing the blues in the key of D, while tuned DAd. Later, I found that it had all kinds of uses for other music as well. For example, you can play in the key of C major (ionian scale) with this fret. You can also play in the key of D-dorian, starting the scale on the open string and playing the 1+ fret and not the 2, and the 6 and not the 6+. I usually play Greensleeves in this scale, for example. It is also useful if you want to play in the key of G while tuned to DAd. This allows you to play a C Major chord in a low position, (3 1+ 1) which you don’t have otherwise that low.
Another use for it is that it may allow you to play certain songs that have modal shifts in them. For example, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” has a modal shift from major to minor in it, which you can accomplish using the 1+ fret. (It can also be done on a dulcimer with a 6+ fret by capoing at the 4th fret.) The Harry Chapin song, “Cory’s Coming” also has a shift from major to minor, which can be done on the dulcimer with a 1+ fret.
>>> Commercial Announcement Warning <<<
My book, “An English Country Garden” has several arrangments of English country dance tunes that use the 1+ and/or the 8+ fret. You can find a complete description of the book, and a (poorly) scanned example of one of the arrangements HERE.
>>> End Commercial Announcement <<<
Every once and a while, I discover something unusual that one can do with this fret on your dulicmer. I have an arrangement for the Stephen Foster song, “Nellie was a Lady” which uses only frets 0, 1, and 2. This means that you can play this song in several places on the dulcimer, anywhere that there are two full steps together on the fretboard. By capoing at 1+ you can play this song in the key of F on your dulcimer while tuned DAd. You can also play it in the keys of G, C, and, with a 6+ fret, in A, by capoing at frets 3, 6, and 4 respectively.
Q: — Hello list, I have a question or two about chromatics, ohhh here we go again on the subject of chromatics. First let me give you a little history …
A: — I own a chromatically fretted dulcimer — uh, excuse me, a chromatically fretted four string zither — and find it a lot of fun to play, but it’s like learning to play an entirely different instrument. It doesn feel like playing a “standard” dulcimer (if such a thing really exists).
Mostly, I’ve been keeping my chromatic tuned D F# A d. Perhaps if I took off one of the strings and tuned it DAd it would seem more like a dulcimer to me. Or not. I have tried tuning it to D A dd, a tuning that I do use on my Rockwell 4 string, and it STILL didn’t feel like a dulcimer. In my case, since I don’t play guitar, mandolin, or other chromatically fretted string instruments, I find the chromatic fretting to be a bit, well, daunting. I’m used to getting my landmarks and reference points from the dulcimer’s diatonic fret pattern as I play. I find that with the chromatic I frequently get “lost” as I play.
Q2: — Why was the dulcimer fretted diatonicly in the first place? I’m sure there’s >a good reason!
A2: — I’m sure that there are others who can better answer this question, but the “pure” diatonic fret pattern of a traditional mountain dulcimer essentially give you an instrument that has no “wrong” notes on it. Every note on it’s fret pattern is in the musical scale for whatever key you are tuned to.
Variations of the dulcimer’s fret pattern are not new. Ralph Lee Smith’s column in the Dulcimer Player’s News once described a dulcimer possibly older than 150 years, that is chromatically fretted. I’ve heard of other old instruments that have a 6+ fret but not a 6 fret.
Q3: — Is the question of fretting a dulcimer chromaticly a tradition issue?
A3: — Not to me. It’s simply a tool for making music.
Q4: –Does the traditional dulcimer promote certain types of music?
A4: — Folk tunes without accidentals or modal shifts are the easiest to play on the dulcimer. Of course, they are the easiest to play on most other instruments as well. It’s possible to play pretty much anything on a standard mountain dulcimer with the appropriate tuning and some work. Some pieces are painfully difficult, however, and require non traditional tunings, such as D A A# d, or D F# A, to get the notes needed.
Q: — A friend of mine wants to keep his dulcimer in Daa. Do any of you know if he can capo to change keys. I have let him use a Schilling capo that can capo one, two or three strings and told him to fool around with it to see if he can get anything good, but I told him I would ask if any of you Daa players use the capo to change keys.
Any advice will be greatly appreciated. I play mostly in Dad and Dgd which I can capo to get different keys without retuning, but I have no experience with a capo in Daa.
A: — From DAA,
Capo at ..|.. Scale starts at ..|.. key ..|.. mode w/6 fret ..|.. mode w/6+ fret
….1 ………………….4 …………….E ………….Dorian …………..Mixolydan
….2 ………………….5 …………….F# ……….Phrygian …………Aeolian
….3 ………………….6 …………….G ………….Lydian …………….N/A
….4 ………………….7 …………….A ……….Mixolydian ……..Ionian (13+)
….5 ………………….8 …………….B …………Aeolian ……………Dorian
….6+…………………9 …………….C# ……….Locrian…………..Phrygian
..0 / 7 …………….3 / 10 …………D …………Ionian ……………..Lydian
For the case where you capo at 3 and use the 6+ fret, it doesn’t work to play the Locrian mode at the 6+ fret, because the capo would also have to move up to the 3+ fret for the drones to be right.
You also can’t play the Locrian mode with the capo at 6, because the Key Note is C, (the bass string), but there is no C natural on the melody string. You have to capo at 6+ instead.
For the Phrygian mode with the 6+ fet (13+, actually,) you have to move the capo to the 6+ fret.
For capos at 4 and higher you’d use the 13+ in the scale as you play up from the root, 6+ as you go lower than the root.
Probably more information than you wanted. Sorry…but try them out. See how they sound for yourself.
Q: — I started playing the dulcimer recently, and I’m confused by the term ‘mode’. I have a few beginner’s books, and have a McSpadden dulcimer which came with a book dealing a little bit with the subject, but I still don’t understand. If I see a tune written for a DAD or DGD tuning, doesn’t this refer to the key? I have tuned my dulcimer to an Ionian tuning, but I assume the songs don’t sound right because I’m not playing in the right key. In the Ionian mode, how can I play DAD or DGD tunes? Should I be using a capo?
A: — Yeah, modes can be confusing. Basically, a “mode” as we normally consider it, is a series of seven notes that go from a tonic note to a note an octave above it. If your dulcimer has no “half” frets, and you tune to DAA, you can play an Ionian mode scale by starting on the third fret of the melody string and playing each note note higher until you reach the octave. (I try to avoid calling tunings by mode names, by the way, but that’s just me.) This is the common Do Re Mi Fa Sol … major scale. Notice that on your dulcimer there are “wide gap” frets and “narrow gap” frets. We call the interval between two notes separated by a wide gap a “whole step” and the interval between two notes separated by a narrow gap a “half step.” A mode is, then, just a particular order of whole steps and half steps that together end up on an octave. The pattern for the Ionian mode is W W h W W W h.
If a tune is written out for DAD tuning, it may be either because it is in the mixolydian mode (pattern W W h W W h W), or, which is more likely, it uses the 6 1/2 fret in the scale so you can play ionian mode songs while tuned to DAD. If you want to play this piece while tuned DAA, you could play only on the BASS string and play the fret numbers as shown for DAD tuning.
If the tablature in DAD tuning has no 6’s in it, but has 6 1/2 (often shown as 6+) it is probably a ionian mode piece. This means you could play it while tuned to DAA by adding “3” to all the fret numbers for the DAD tablature, with this exception: When the DAD tablature is 6+, play on fret 9 in DAA tuning. (You probably don’t have a 9 1/2 fret anyway…)
If you have a tune written in DGD tuning, this is another type of Ionian tuning, in the key of G, in this case. If the tablature for DGD tuning is only on the melody string, (i.e., no chords played on the bass or middle strings), then you can play this in DAA tuning directly, no translation required. The only thing is, it will come out in the key of D, instead of G.
Q2: — P.S. Does anyone know of a good online explanation of modes?
A2: — I would blush to say it is a “good” explanation, but there is an article on this subject on my web site, in the “Virtual Classroom” section.