Using Chord Shapes

[ Bar | Diagonal | L | Stretch | Vee | Arrow | How to Apply ]

Chord shapes are an easy and fairly intuitive way of finding chords on your dulcimer, without having to think too much about what you are doing. For as you should know, one should never think while playing music. Thinking gets in the way of the creativity, and takes too long anyway. Thinking can come later, after you’ve worked out your composition, arrangement, or whatever. Create first, think later.

Many people have used and taught this system before me, but I basically stumbled upon the system I worked out on my own. Jerry Rockwell certainly must have had a hand in my understanding of this, for example, but his specific input has been assimilated into my subconscious long ago. 

The names I use for the chord shapes are Bar, Diagonal, L, Stretched, Vee and Arrow. There are chords that do not fall into these descriptions, which is why you should also learn how to construct chords from basic music theory as well. See the Chord Building article in the Virtual Classroom for example. Jerry Rockwell’s Music Theory and Chord Reference book is also a good reference. What I’m going to discuss here is limited to DAD tuning. You could work out a similar system for other tunings, but they will all be specific to that individual tuning.

For reference, here is a “fretboad map.” It’s just a diagram of a dulcimer fretboard with the names of the note at each fret marked on it:


The Bar shape is the simplest. You just hold down all the strings at the same fret. The chord name is the same as the note that is on melody string. (Or the bass string, in this case.) For example, if you hold down all the strings at the first string, the chord is an E. This chord is ambiguous between major and minor, since it doesn’t contain a musical interval of a third between any of the notes. There’s a root, on the bass string, a perfect fifth on the middle string, and an octave on the melody string. This means the chord can be used either as a major or minor chord. Note that an open strum on your dulcimer is a Bar chord


The Diagonal shape is where you hold down all the strings on successive frets. For example, 2 3 4, or 5 6 7. The name of the chord is the same the note that’s on the middle string. Some of these chords will be major, some minor. You should be able to hear the difference if you try playing some of them. The 2 3 4 chord, for example is a D chord, since the third fret of the middle string is a D. This one happens to be a major chord. The 3 4 5 diagonal chord is an E chord, but this one is an E minor.

Generally, where there’s two full steps between the three frets that make up a diagonal chord (wide gaps on the fretboard) the chord will be a minor chord. There’s a wide gap between the 3 and the 4 frets, and also between the 4 and the 5 frets, so the 3 4 5 chord is an E minor. If there’s a narrow gap (half step) between two of the frets in the diagonal chord, it may be either a major chord or a diminished chord. The 2 3 4 chord is a D major, while the 1 2 3 chord is a C# diminished. Here again, trust your ears. You’ll hear the difference.

If you have extra frets, you may need to work around them some. For instance, a 4 5 6 chord is some kind of F# chord (5 on the middle string is an F#), but it’s a very tense sounding sort of chord. Technically, it’s an F# diminished. If you use the 6+ fret, you have an F# minor. You need to be careful how you count extra frets, using this system. For instance, a 6 6+ 7 chord does NOT count as a diagonal chord according to this, because the 6 and 6+ sort of count as the same fret. It sounds pretty of rough anyway. The thing is, sometimes it’ll be the 6+ and the 7 fret that count as the same one. Don’t worry too much about this. Trust your ears and you’ll do OK. If you have a 1+ fret, the 1 1+ 3 chord is a C major, while the 1 2 3 chord is a C# diminished, as I mentioned above.

Note that in DAD tuning, chords are “reversible.” That is a 2 3 4 chord is the same as a 4 3 2 chord. If you start with the bass string at the fourth fret and go down to the second fret as you go across the fret board to the melody string, you still get a D chord, it’s just a different inversion of the chord. This is because the bass and the melody string are tuned to the same note, just an octave apart. This principle holds for all of the chord shapes, and any other chord as well.


The “L” chord is the next one I’ll mention. This one has two strings, the middle and either the bass or melody string, held at the same fret and the other string held at a fret two fret numbers higher. The 3 3 5 chord is probably the most familiar, but the 0 0 2 chord is also an “L” chord. The chord name is the note that’s on the “toe” of the L. In the case of the 3 3 5 chord the 3 on the bass string is a G, so this one is a G chord. Like the diagonal chords, some of these are major and some are minor. If there are two full steps up to the top of the L, (two wide gaps) the chord is a major chord. If there is a wide gap and a narrow gap, the chord is a minor chord. 1 1 3 is a minor chord, for example, and so is the 4 4 6. The 4 4 6+ is a major chord, however.


The Stretch chord starts out like the diagonal, with the fret on the middle string one higher than that on the bass string, but then you go up two frets on the melody string from there. For example, the 1 2 4 chord, the 2 3 5 and the 4 5 7 are all stretch chords. The name of the chord is the same as the note that’s “stretched” to. The 1 2 4 chord is an A chord, the 2 3 5 chord is a B chord, and the 4 5 7 chord is a D. Of course, these chords are reversible as well. You can make the stretched note on the bass string as well as the melody string and it works the same way.

Like the Diagonal and the L chords, some of these are major and some are minor. If the interval between the two “non stretched” notes is a half step, the chord is a minor chord. As before, trust your ears. 1 2 4 is an A major, while 2 3 5 is a B minor.


The Vee chord has you hold the bass and melody strings down at a fret one higher than the one at the middle string. The most familiar example of these is probably the 1 0 1 chord. The name of the chord is the same as the note on the middle string. The 1 0 1 is an A chord, the 2 1 2 is B chord, and the 3 2 3 is a C#.

These chords are ambiguous. The 1 0 1 chord could be either an A major or an A minor. If there’s a half step between the two frets, the chord is diminished. You might think of this chord as a fragment of a diagonal chord, except that instead of the note below the middle string, the note above the middle string is duplicated on the other side. Since the bass and middle string are tuned to the same note an octave apart, the harmonic relationship is still preserved, just shifted an octave. (Of course, in the case of the 1 0 1 chord, there is no note below the middle string.) 

The last chord shape I’ll mention is one I call the “Arrow” chord. This one is essentially the inverse of the vee chord, in terms of shape. The bass and melody strings are held at a fret one below the one on the middle string. 0 1 0 and 4 5 4 are examples. Figuring out a name for this chord shape is a little different from the other types, since the root note of the chord you are playing is not necessarily included within the actual tones you are sounding with the chord.


Like the vee chord, you can also think of this chord shape as a fragment of a diagonal chord, but this time with the top note of the diagonal omitted and the bottom note doubled. In this case you would consider the 0 1 0 chord to be a B chord, since the middle note of a diagonal chord is the name of the chord. To figure out if it’s major or minor the easiest thing to do is to look to see if the diagonal chord from which the fragment is taken was major or minor. In the case of the 0 1 0 chord the corresponding diagonal chord is 0 1 2, which is a B minor chord. For the 4 5 4 chord the corresponding diagonal chord is 4 5 6, which is an F# diminished.

It’s more complicated that this, however, since you could also think of an arrow chord as a fragment of a stretch chord. In this case the name of the chord is on the (now omitted) stretched note. For the case of the 0 1 0 chord, corresponding stretch chord is 0 1 3, which is a G major. For the 4 5 4 chord the corresponding stretch chord is 4 5 7, which is a D major.

This means that arrow chords are also ambiguous, but not just between major and minor of the same chord. The 0 1 0 chord could be considered either a B minor, or a G major depending on the context of the tune you’re playing.

How to Apply

So. I mentioned earlier that this system keeps you from having to think too much, then I threw a pile of theory at you anyway. What gives with THAT? Well, to actually use this, you don’t need to worry about almost any of the above. All you really need to remember are the actual shapes.

Let’s say you’re working on an arrangement of some tune on your mountain dulcimer tuned to DAD. How about, oh, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? Here’s the basic melody in the key of D, with the tablature notes on the melody string. Print this out, and use it to write in your selections for the chords where and how you see fit.

You want to make a chord-melody arrangement of the tune, so you need to put in some chords. Chord changes usually occur either at the beginning, or at the middle of measures. Otherwise they occur where ever it sounds like they should occur. Trust your ears. 

The melody note at the point of the chord change is almost certainly one of the chord tones at that point in the song. This means that if you try out the various shapes that include the melody note, you are likely to find the chord you want after a bit of trial and error. You don’t need to know the chord name at this point, just that, “Ooo, the L chord at the fifth fret of the melody string sounds good at the beginning of the second measure,” or what ever. Later on, when you’re writing down your arrangement, you might, if you want, take the time to figure out that this is a G major chord, but that’s not your main issue at the moment. 

Actually, you might be working on an edgy, mournful adaptation of Twinkle, and have decided on a diagonal chord with its top note at 5 on the melody string for this position in the tune. (An E minor, if you’re wondering.) 

This is actually one of the best things about knowing this system. It gives you intuitive tools to make your own variations, almost on the fly, once you get comfortable with the shapes. As you play the tune, you can try out different chord shapes at various melody notes, and see how they sound. Just trust your ears. (Have I mentioned before that you should trust your ears?) Later, if you want, you can figure out what the chords actually are. 

Below is a modest attempt of mine at doing this with “Twinkle.” I figure there are already enough “straight” versions of this tune out there, so I took a few liberties with the chord progression. This is all the traditional melody, I just had some fun with the chords. I marked what chord shape I used below each chord in the Tab, and also the standard name of the chord above the notation line. I call it, “The Twinkling Stars of Sadness.”

Have fun.

And, oh yes, trust your ears.

Steven K. Smith

[ Bar | Diagonal | L | Stretch | Vee | Arrow | How to Apply ]

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