The question regularly comes up about how do you use tablature written for DAA tuning if one is tuned to DAD? A little less common is the opposite question, how do you handle DAD tablature if you are in DAA? This can be done in a couple of ways, and is not really that difficult, so let’s dive in and do it!
The first thing to realize about DAD tuning is that, despite the fact that it frequently called “Mixolydian tuning,” the greatest majority of the time when you play a song in this tuning, you are playing an IONIAN mode song. If your DAD tablature has you using the 6+ fret (six and a half fret), then in all likelihood, the song uses the ionian scale rather than the mixolydian scale. There is a discussion of modes in a previous Virtual Classroom article, which you can read HERE.
Let’s start out by considering a piece that is tabbed for DAA tuning in a “dronal” style, i.e., only the melody string is fretted and the bass and middle strings are allowed to drone throughout the piece. Let’s say that you are tuned DAd and you don’t want to retune your instrument for some reason. Maybe the melody string is too light to tune down to A without sounding too loose and floppy. Perhaps it is the only one of a set of pieces you are performing that is in DAA and you don’t want to stop and retune for just this one song. Maybe retuning is against your religion.
One simple way of handing this situation is to play the tablature just as it is written on the MIDDLE string instead of the melody string. The middle string in DAd tuning is the same as the melody string in DAA tuning, so the notes all work out right. The drones now are the bass and melody strings, which are an octave apart instead of a fifth, which may take some getting used to, but works well enough. For melody notes lower than fret 3, you might want to play only the middle and bass strings. For these notes your high D drone (the melody string) is higher in pitch than the melody note that you are playing on the middle string. Your ear tends to hear the highest note in a group played simultaneously as being the melody note.
For example, here is tablature for the first 8 measures of Silent Night, arranged for DAA tuning.
Go ahead and try playing this on the middle string of your DAd tuned dulcimer. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, that worked out pretty well, didn’t it? This way you don’t have to do any actual rearranging of the piece to play it in DAd tuning, you just play it on a different string.
For those of you who are mathematically oriented there is the “subtract 3” method. For this, as the name implies, you subtract 3 from each of the melody note tab numbers for DAA tuning to get the proper fret number for DAd tuning. There are two exceptions to this rule.First, if the DAA tab number is less than 3, you have to play that note on the middle string of your DAd tuned dulcimer. At least, I haven’t yet seen a dulcimer with negative fret numbers.
Second, when the DAA tablature number is 9, you go to 6+, not 6.
First, if the DAA tab number is less than 3, you have to play that note on the middle string of your DAd tuned dulcimer. At least, I haven't yet seen a dulcimer with negative fret numbers.
Second, when the DAA tablature number is 9, you go to 6+, not 6.
With practice you can do this technique quickly enough to be able to play almost as if you weren’t having to translate. This method has an advantage over the middle string method in that it works better if you are translating a chordal arrangement, rather than a dronal arrangement. Theoretically, you could subtract three from the melody string tablature, and play the middle and bass string chord tones as written in DAA and it would work. In practice, the fingering for some of those chords will be incredibly awkward, if not outright impossible. Some readjusting of the chords will almost certainly be necessary.
A trick that works for me, relating to this method, is instead of subtracting, to mentally change the starting point for the fret numbers. That is, if you’re tuned to DAd, and you want to play something that is tabbed for DAA, simply pretend that your open melody string is “3”, instead of “0,” and just continue the fret numbers up from there. I’ve found, however, that some of people have more trouble doing this than with the subtraction, so use your judgment here. Don’t knock yourself out trying to do this if it doesn’t work for you.
If you don’t mind doing some retuning, but don’t think you can successfully tune your melody string down to an A, you could try tuning the MIDDLE string from A down to G. This is a much less radical change, and the middle string should carry this note perfectly well. Your tuning is now DGd, which is sometimes called a “reverse ionian” tuning. Instead of the key note being the bass string, the key note is on the middle string. If you do this, you can now play the DAA tablature (dronal style, now) just as it is written. The kicker is that the piece is now in the key of G rather than the key of D. Why don’t you go ahead and try this with the tablature for Silent Night shown above. I’ll go get myself a cup of coffee and come back in a few minutes.
Finished? Good. This method has the advantage that no actual translation is required once you retune. The trade-off is that the key changes. This is okay if you are playing the piece by yourself, but may be a problem if you are playing in a group or with a vocalist.
Okay! Now let’s suppose you want to go the other direction. You’re tuned to DAA, but the tablature you want to play is for DAd tuning. It should probably come as no surprise that there are techniques to do this that are analogous to each of the techniques for going from DAA tab to DAd tuning.
For example, one technique is to play the DAd tab numbers on the BASS string of you dulcimer. In this case the melody will be an octave below what it would have been in DAd tuning. Below is tablature for the first part of Old Joe Clark, which is a mixolydian mode tune. Take a few minutes to try playing this on your DAA tuned dulcimer and see what it sounds like. I’m going to refill my coffee cup and I’ll be right back.
Following along with the DAA to DAd method above, there is also the “Add three” technique. At this point, this method should be pretty much self explanatory, but briefly, you take the DAd tablature numbers and add three to the notes on the melody string. Again, there is the exception for fret 6+, which goes to fret 9. You probably don’t have a 9+ fret on your dulcimer anyway…
Alternately, you could think of the 3 fret of your DAA tuned dulcimer as “zero” for the DAd tablature, and go up from there. With DAd tab, any notes in the song that are lower than D will be played on the middle string (sometimes on the bass string). For those notes, you play them as shown on the melody string on frets 2, 1, or 0 as necessary.
Finally, you can retune your dulcimer so that you can play the tune as shown by the tablature. Of course, if you tuned your melody string to a high “d” your tuning will match the tablature, and there is no problem. However, for various reasons you might not want to do this. If your melody string is “comfortable” tuned to A, it might be too heavy to work well tuned to a high d. As with the “reverse ionian” tuning, there is a corresponding “reverse mixolydian” tuning that you can use instead. To go to this tuning, you raise the BASS string one full step to E, so that your dulcimer’s open strings are tuned to EAA. You now can play (dronal style) songs tabbed for DAd tunes directly, no changes of the tablature required. The only thing is, the song will come out in the key of A instead of D. Give it a try. EAA tuning, or one of its relatives in other keys, is actually a very interesting and useful tuning.
Using one or the other of these methods, you should be able handle the greatest majority of published tablature, which is generally for one or the other of these tunings. Regularly, however, you will come across tablature that is written for CGG or CGc tuning. These are just like DAA and DAd respectively, just transposed down a full step. You can play the tablature just as it’s written, without retuning, but the result will be in whatever key you’re tuned to, i.e., in the key of D if you’re tuned to DAd. This is only a problem if you are playing with other musicians who are reading the notation line, or the range of the tune in the transposed key is too high or low for a singer to handle.
I welcome questions. I’ll try to answer them on a time permitting basis,
so bear with me if it takes a bit to get back to you.