Basic Chords on the Mountain Dulcimer

[ The Major triad | The Chord slide rule | The minor triad | Fretboard map |
Chord Constellations | Seventh Chords | Other Tunings | Accompaniment ]

In this edition of the virtual classroom I’ll introduce a method of finding chords on the mountain dulcimer, and talk a bit about their use in playing accompaniments. I’m not going to present a long list of chord diagrams for you to memorize, rather, I’ll give you the tools to work these out on your own. A good reference for this topic is Jerry Rockwell‘s book, Music Theory and Chord Reference for the Mountain Dulcimer. I’d also suggest you check out the Chordal Explorations in D-A-D page of his site.

The mountain dulcimer, in its traditional form, is a dronal, not a chordal instrument. By this I mean that the “traditional” style of play for the mountain dulcimer consists of a single line of melody played against a “drone” consisting of (usually) the root and the fifth of the key in which the melody is played. In practice, what this means is that the performer plays the melody on a single string, or often, on a single pair of strings tuned to the same note, and the bass and middle stings remain unfretted, sounding the key note of the tune (the root) and a note an interval of a perfect fifth above the root continuously during the tune. Some early instruments didn’t even have frets under the bass and middle strings.

Modern mountain dulcimers have full width frets, and so can be played in a chordal style as well. That is, the performer plays a set of harmonically related tones simultaneously (chords) at various parts of the tune in some kind of arrangement that is pleasing to the ear. (a chord pattern)

Chordal playing is not “better” or “more advanced” than dronal playing. It isn’t even “more innovative.” It is, perhaps, a bit more difficult, since there is a little more to keep track of in terms of finger placement. However, good dronal playing is a skill that is not to be scoffed at either. The drones tend to emphasize the beat and can result in a strength of feeling that is difficult to match with chordal playing.

The Major triad

So, what is a chord, anyway?

A chord is simply two or more notes played at the same time, that have a harmonic relationship. A major triad, one of the simplest type of chords, consists, as you might expect, of three notes. The root is the note that is the chord name, i.e., an “A” chord or an “A-major ” chord has the “A” note as its root. Simple, right? The major triad also has a note that is a musical interval of a major third above the root. A major third consists of two full steps. On your dulcimer, a full step is the interval between two of the “wide gap” frets, for example, between the “1” fret and the “2” fret. If you count up from the root, it is the third note in a major scale, counting the root as “one.” The third note in the triad is a perfect fifth above the root. This is the fifth note in a major scale above the root, or a total of three full steps and a half step above the root. A half step on your dulcimer is the interval between two “narrow gap” frets, the “2” and the “3” frets, for example.

Take, for example, a D-major chord. The root, naturally, is a D. If your dulcimer is tuned to DAd, then you can find this note on the open fret of either your bass, or melody strings. Counting that note as “one,” go up the fret board. The note at the first fret is “two” and the note on the second fret is “three.” This, then is the major third, the F-sharp (F#). Continuing up the fretboard, we find the perfect fifth is at the four fret, the A. Therefore, the three notes in a D-major triad are D, F#, and A.

Following the same procedure for an A-major triad, we find it’s notes are A, C#, and E. For a G-major triad the notes are G, B, and D. Following this procedure, you can determine the notes in any major triad you might need.

Clear as mud?

The Chord slide rule

Here is a line of notes in “chromatic” order, i.e., all the sharps and flats in order. The sharped notes are shown with their equivalent flat version (their “enharmonic”) below them. For example, an A-sharp is the same note as a B-flat. (Bb) Below that is a graphical representation of the intervals between the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth. I’ll call this part the “interval ruler,” and the combination of it with the chromatic scale is a “chord slide rule.


At the moment it’s pointing to the notes in the A major triad. If you were to move the interval ruler so that the “R” points to the (for instance) D, the other two lines in the ruler point to the other notes in a D-major triad.


If your make a copy of the scale and the interval ruler you can use it to find the notes that make up any major triad, but hold on doing that for just a bit. There’s more to music than major triads, there’s also minor chords, for instance.

The Minor Triad

A minor triad is built almost the same as the major triad, with one exception. The minor triad has a root and a fifth are the same as in the major triad, but the third is, naturally enough, a minor third instead of a major third. An interval of a minor third is one and a half full steps, or the distance of a “wide” fret plus a “narrow” fret on your dulcimer. There is a minor third from the first fret to the third fret, for example. Minor chords are shown with a small m after the chord letter, Em, or F#m, for example.

Below is the two octave scale and the interval ruler modified so that it shows the minor third as well as the major third.


Now you can find either major or minor chords by sliding the interval ruler along the scale so that the R points to the chord you need. If you want a major chord, use the note that the “3” is pointing to. If a minor chord is what you need, then use the note above the lower case “m” (for minor). In the case of the Am chord, as shown above, the note you need to play are the A, the C, and the E.

Fretboard Map

This is all very well and good, but how do you find the notes on your dulcimer once you know what notes to look for? The diagram below is one solution.

This shows the letter name of the note that will sound at each fret on your dulcimer in DAd tuning, up to fret 11. If you need to play an A major chord, for example, the note you found using the scale and interval ruler are A, C#, and E. On the fret board map you see that you have an A on the fourth fret of the bass string, a C# at the second fret of the middle string, and an E at the first fret of the melody string. Therefore you now know that a 4 – 2 – 1 chord is an A major. There are other possibilities as well, 4 – 4 – 6+ for example, and 8 – 7 – 6+ are all A major chords. These fingerings all have all three of the notes in an A major triad.

It’s not always necessary to have all three notes in the triad for it to form the chord, however. A 1 – 0 – 1 chord has no C#, just Es and an A, but it often works well as an A chord. It is not always even necessary for the root to be present in the chord for it to sound OK. I will some times use a 0 – 1 – 0 chord as a G major, even though it does not itself contain a G. It has the major third of a G chord, (the B, on the middle string) and it has the fifth of the chord ( the D on the open bass and melody strings.) Be aware, however, that such fragments are ambiguous in their identity. This particular fingering may also be used as a B minor chord, because it has the root on the middle string, and the minor third of the chord on the bass and melody strings. Whether it works as a G chord or a Bm depends on the context of the music in which it appears.

Chord Constellations

Here’s another trick I learned from Jerry Rockwell. Say you want to see where you can play D chords. You can slide your interval ruler along your chromatic scale and see that you need a D, an F#, and an A for this chord. You can then search through the fretboard map above for the locations of these notes to work out your chord fingerings.

Or you could use this information to make a chart like the one below.

This is what Jerry calls a Chord Constellation. If you put your fingers down anywhere there is a dot and strum across the strings, the result is some kind of D chord, or D chord fragment. These chord constellations can be very useful when you are learning chord positions.

If you play in the key of D, the chords you are most likely to need are the D, G, and A7 chords. These are the chords built on the root, fourth, and fifth of the scale. They’re also called I IV V Chords

Seventh Chords


Ah yes, we haven’t discussed seventh chords yet, have we? Well, a seventh chord is a four note chord that contains all the notes we’ve used so far in major or minor triads, and adds an additional note that is, not surprisingly, an interval of a seventh (a flat seventh technically speaking) above the root. On your dulcimer this is the distance from the open string to the sixth fret.

Here’s what it looks like on the scale and interval ruler.


All right, NOW you can make a copy of it.

To play an A7 you need to have a G in the chord, along with the A, C#, and E. Unless you have a dulcimer setup for four equidistant strings, you can’t play a complete seventh chord, you are always having to omit at least one of the notes.

Here is a chord constellation for A7

The open dots are the ones that make it a seventh chord. It has to have one of these or it sounds like a plain old A major instead of an A7. (Which is not necessarily bad.)

While we’re at it, here are the chord constellations for G major, B minor, and E minor.

Other Tunings

So, what if I don’t use DAd tuning?

The basic principles shown above apply to any tuning. If you use something other than DAd, the fretboard map and the chord constellations will be different, however. You’d have to make up your own.

For example, lets say you like to play in the key of B, and you use an “Ionian” type of tuning. (I hate referring to tunings by mode names, but that’s another article.) In this case you’d tune your dulcimer to B F# F#, and the fretboard map would look like this:

And a chord constellation for an E major chord would look like this:


Notice that I marked the tuning, the chord and the fact that this is the IV chord of a B Major scale. As long as you are in a 155 tuning like this one, the chord constellations will be the same for the IV chord regardless of what key you are actually tuned into. If you were tuned to DAA, the IV chord would be a G, and this would be the chord constellation for a G Major chord in that tuning.

Personally, at this point I am so familiar with my fretboard in DAd tuning, that if I tune to some other key I usually pretend I’m still in the key of D, and translate as needed. For example, on my second CD, Shaker’s Fancy, I play the Bach Minuet in G from the Anna Magdalena notebook. I do this on a baritone dulcimer that is actually tuned to a low AEA, so the actual performance of the piece is in the key of A, instead of G. To be able to read the music, however I transposed it to the key of D. Believe it or not, this worked.

As you gain familiarity with your dulcimer, you eventually are able to remember the fretboard map and the chords on your own. These techniques should help you get to that point more quickly than simply memorizing chord fingerings. This will help you greatly when you play accompaniments.

When you play an accompaniment, you are playing music that is in support of some other line of melody. This might be a singer, another dulcimer, or some other instrument. Accompanists typically do NOT play melody.

I’ve already touched briefly on the concept of I, IV, V chords, and I’ll expand just a bit about them now. In 90% or so of all major key folk music the three chords you will need in a given tune are those built on the root of the key in which the tune is played, the fourth of the scale, and the fifth of the scale. In the key of D, these chords are D, G, and A. Usually, for the V chord, you use a seventh chord, but not exclusively. So in the key of D, the main chords to know are D, G, and A7. For the key of G they are G, C, and D7. See the pattern? In the key of D, the fourth note of the D major scale is a G, and the fifth note is an A. The same goes for the key of G. The fourth note is a C, and the fifth note is a D.

An easy way to accompany another player is to simply play the chords while the other musician is playing the melody. You could either strum along in a rhythm pattern, or simply play a good solid single strum at the beginning of the measure or every time the chord changes. In much printed music, the chords are printed above the line of music notation, so if you learn your chords well, you can follow the chord pattern this way. Playing a chordal accompaniment is also an easy way to join in in a jam session when you don’t happen to know the tune that they’re playing at that moment. Did I mention Jerry Rockwell’s Chordal Explorations in D-A-D site? This would be a good time to check it out.

Another way to do this is to “cheat” off of the guitar player. Many guitarists play chords in just about the same finger position every time. This allows you to watch the guitarist’s hand and tell what chord he’s playing and match him. To do this, you have to gain some familiarity with what guitar chords “look” like as they’re being played, but this is really not that difficult.

Another way to do this is to “cheat” off of the guitar player. Many guitarists play chords in just about the same finger position every time. This allows you to watch the guitarist’s hand and tell what chord he’s playing and match him. To do this, you have to gain some familiarity with what guitar chords “look” like as they’re being played, but this is really not that difficult.

Learning your chords is a skill that will expand the horizons of your playing immeasurably. Once you know how to find the chords in a number of different positions you are no longer limited to a single way of playing through a piece of music. Skillful use of chords can add a depth of expression to your music that cannot be matched otherwise.

The key, as with most things, is to practice.

[ The Major triad | The Chord slide rule | The minor triad | Fretboard map |
Chord Constellations | Seventh Chords | Other Tunings | Accompaniment ]

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