Blues on the Mountain Dulcimer, part 1

12 Bar Blues | Blues Scales | ASCII Tab ]

12 Bar Blues

The mountain dulcimer is not normally thought of as an instrument for playing the blues. That’s all right, though, we can do it anyway. The 12 bar blues pattern is easy to do, is fun to play, and sounds great on the dulcimer.

Here is a quick “thumbnail” description of the 12-Bar Blues pattern. I’ll describe it in terms of the chord progression first, and then go on to describe a couple of blues scales and how they can be played on the mountain dulcimer in DAd tuning. Other tunings can be used, but this is the one I like, and am most familiar with. Some basic knowledge of chords on the mountain dulcimer is helpful here. If you need to, I’d suggest you check out Jerry Rockwell’s Music Theory and Chord Reference for the Mountain Dulcimer.

The basic chord progression is in three, four bar sections. It starts out with 4 bars of the “one” chord. (Often refered to as the “I” chord, that’s Roman numeral one.) The one chord is simply the root chord for whatever key you are playing in. If you will be playing blues in the key of D, then the one chord is the D chord. If you’re in the key of A, then the one chord will be the A chord. It’s as simple as that. Most of the time when we play the blues, we like to use chords that include a flatted seventh in the scale. I’ll start my examples in the key of E for reasons that I hope will be clear a little later, so an E7 chord has the notes E, G#, B, and D. Obviously, on a three course dulcimer we can’t play all those at one time. That’s OK, just play as many as is convenient. You need to get the D note in there for it to sound like an E7 chord, but don’t get too hung up on that right now. In DAd tuning, a good simple chord fingering for the E7 chord is 0 – 1 – 1, from the bass string to the treble string. Another one might be 7 – 6+ – 5. All of the examples here, by the way, are in DAd tuning.

The next section of 4 bars contains two chords. It starts out on the “four” (IV) chord of the scale for two measures, then goes back to the “one” chord for the other two measures. In the key of E, the four chord is the A chord, and remember, we like to play A7 chords if possible. It’s called the four chord because it’s built on the fourth note of the scale. For example, in the key of E, start counting on the E, that’s one, F# is two, G# is three, and A is four. A good fingering for an A7 chord is 3 – 4 – 4, or 3 – 0 – 1.

The last section has three chords in it. It starts with one measure of the five (V) chord, (a B7 in the key of E), goes to one measure of the four (IV) chord (A7), and ends with two measures of the one (I) chord (E7). A B7 chord can be fingered 4 – 5 – 5, or 2 – 0 – 5.

The majority of the time 12 Bar Blues is played in a 4/4 time signature. To start, use a simple quarter note pattern, but you’ll want to get into some kind of more involved rhythm pattern before very long. Try a dotted quarter – eighth note pattern, or a dotted eighth – sixteenth note pattern and go from there.

Blues scales

There are two common scales that are used to play the blues, the blues pentatonic scale, and the blues hexatonic scale. As the name implies, the pentatonic scale has five notes in it before it gets to the octave. The hexatonic scale is just the same as the pentatonic scale with one note added in the middle. More on that later.

The notes in the blues pentatonic scale are the root, the minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and flat seventh. In the key of E these would be E, G,A, B, and D. On your dulcimer tuned to DAd these are at the 1 fret, the 3 fret, the 4 fret, the 5 fret, and the 7 fret. Notice how nicely this works out in the key of E on a DAd tuned dulcimer? The root is at the 1 fret, the minor third is at the 3 fret, the perfect fourth is at the 4 fret, etc.

OK, here is the part to really pay attention: To improvise blues on the dulcimer, form the chord required for what ever point you’re at in the chord progression with only the base and middle string. That is, for the E7 hold the middle string at 1 and leave the bass string open. (For example) For the A7 hold the middle string at 4 and the bass string at 3. I’d suggest using your index and middle fingers, but use whatever fingering you find comfortable. Now, for whatever melody notes you improvise, keeping only to those notes within the blues scale, it will work. Of course, some will work better than others, but that’s the nature of improvisation. Try it and see what it sounds like. As long as the chord fragments formed by the bass and middle string fit the 12 bar chord progression , and the melody notes you play are within the blues pentatonic scale it will fit together on some level.

Re-capping, then, the chord progression starts with four bars of the I chord (E7 in the key of E), two bars of the IV chord (A7) followed by two bars of the I chord (E7). Finally, the last section has one bar of the V chord (B7), one bar of the IV chord (A7) and two bars of the I chord (E7). The melody notes are on frets 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7. In the next higher octave the scale starts over at frets 8, 10, 11, 12, and 14. The open melody string is also in the blues pentatonic scale, it’s the flatted seventh of the scale.


Below is “ASCII Tab” for a very simple 12 bar blues piece. Each dot in the line just above the tablature represents a sixteenth note and the slashes are the beat markers (quarter notes). Of course, a blues instrumentalist typically would put some syncopation in the rhythm, the blues is almost never played this “straight.” This shows the basics of the pattern, though.

Blues Study, DAd tuning




A more “bluesy” rhythm pattern might start off more like this:


The rythmic and melodic possibilities are nearly limitless.

The next section of this series will introduce the hexatonic scale, other keys, and talk a bit about “turnarounds.”

12 Bar Blues | Blues Scales | ASCII Tab ]

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