Monday, March 2, 2009

Get Out of Jail Free

You now know how to re-tune your dulcimer in order to play Liza Jane in either mixolydian mode or ionian mode in the key of D. Next we will re-tune to do the very same thing but in the key of G!... Here are two charts I made up so you can visualize how to re-tune into G ionian and G mixolydian. (remember just click on it to enlarge it)

The first chart shows how to re-tune from regular D ionian and D mixolydian (DAA and DAD) into regular G ionian and G mixolydian (GDD and GDG). Tune DOWN three steps from any D notes to G notes, and tune UP one step from any G notes to A notes.Keep in mind that on a typical dulcimer, you cannot tune your high strings higher than about a high E note without being in danger of them breaking with the tension. Thus, if your melody strings are already tuned to DD and you see in the chart that you need to change them to GG, then you have to tune them DOWN to GG, not up! That also means that when re-tuning the A middle string to a G, you should tune the A string DOWN one whole step to G. (remember: the musical scale goes up like abcdefgabcdefgabcd...etc, so G is the note below A)

The second chart shows another way to get into G which is a bit unconventional but which means you will be re-tuning your strings less and for shorter distances. This method is to use what is called a "reverse tuning". Most tunings have your bass string match the note of key you are in, and the middle string is a fifth higher than that- hence D ionian is DAA. (from D to A is five steps up in the alphabet- a fifth) In 'reverse' tuning, you switch the bass string to be the fifth, and the middle string becomes the key/tonic note. D 'reverse ionian' tuning would then be ADA instead of DAA. (the last letter of the three usually meaning the melody string(s). The reverse tuning does change the sound a bit if you are playing with a heavier bass string (as opposed to Galax style where all strings are the same gauge and same octave), but it might be a little easier to go from D to G and vice versa.
Here is the chart to go from regular D ionian and D mixolydian (DAA and DAD) into G reverse ionian and G reverse mixolydian (DGD and DGG):
If this whole business about reverse tunings is too confusing to you, then just use the first chart to change between regular D and G tunings. Come back to this later on and you might understand it better then. It's really very useful and worth understanding at some point (especially if you prefer your strings to be all the same gauge and tuned in the same octave).

The point of all this re-tuning is- when for instance you tune from D ionian to G ionian, you are in a different key, but still in the same MODE, which means your tune will still be home-based on the same place on the fretboard and your tonic/key note will still be on the third fret. What does this mean to you? It means you can then play Liza Jane in EXACTLY the same way in either D ionian or G ionian, on the same frets. You can even use the same tab as the one below in D ionian! The fret/tab numbers will remain the same, but you will actually be playing in the key of G rather than the key of D. This is very handy to be able to do. If you learn to play several songs in the key of D in mixolydian mode, why then, you can just re-tune a couple of strings quickly and play the song exactly the same way but in the key of G! Imagine how much this will open up playing situations for you if you get the chance to play with friends in folk jams and old-time groups.
No longer will everone roll their eyes when you mumble that you can only play in the key of D. Now, you can play your favorites tunes in either the keys of D or G, and in two different modes!

If you have come this far with me, then you have gotten through what I feel is the most 'brainy' part of playing music on your dulcimer- understanding the basic concept of modes on your dulcimer, and re-tuning to change modes and keys. Getting over this first hump of understanding why we might want to re-tune is a major victory- it frees us from the DAD 'prison' that so many new dulcimers players find themselves in today. In many ways, it gets easier from now on. So relax and congratulate yourself! Practice playing the tunes you already know and practice re-tuning to play them in the two different modes and two different keys we've been using so far. And if you break a string once every couple of months or so because you re-tune frequently, that is actually pretty normal what?- guitar and banjo players break strings all the time! Never breaking strings to me is a sign of a timid player who's stuck in a rut. Be proud, have fun!
We'll slowly learn more about playing in different keys, using capos, playing 'spooky' murder songs in the very beautiful aeolian mode.... but next post I want to discuss some of my own quirky little playing preferences that I have come to after playing for a while.

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