Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why I ditched my 'bass' and 'middle' strings

This is going to be a little tricky to explain, but to really understand the logic and background behind my particular tuning methods and my personal old-time playing style, this issue must be elaborated upon a bit and clarified.

First, I must remind those who have not read my blog from the beginning, that years ago when I first started playing the mountain dulcimer, I learned to play it in the manner that is currently so pervasive and popular - playing flatpick/chord-based style and tuned mostly in DAD. Seems everyone I observed back then was playing that way, most of the learning materials, dulcimer clubs, and workshops were geared towards it, and honestly it didn't even occur to me to learn any other way. Nobody mentioned there was any other way to play the dulcimer. I actually became pretty good at playing the dulcimer chord/melody style, with a flatpick. It sounded very pretty to me, and I enjoyed it.

However, when I fell in love with old-time ballads and old-time fiddle tunes and began trying to play those, my chord based dulcimer playing just didn't sound right with it.
I thought my dulcimer playing sounded too modern and 'folk guitar-ish'. To my ear, it did not blend well at all with the more archaic ballads and fiddle tunes. Something sounded wrong to me, but I just assumed it was just the nature of the dulcimer's sound and was something that couldn't be changed.

Thus it was that I hung my dulcimer on the wall and let it gather dust for seven long years...
I took up old-time clawhammer banjo and was thrilled by how perfectly it blended with the old-time music I was growing to love so well. I became a passably decent old-time banjo player and slowly forgot my old dulcimer playing skills.

After 'seven years of ringing the banjo', mostly accompanying fiddlers (primarily my husband who is an excellent old-time fiddler), more and more I explored the older Southern Appalachian ballads, avidly listening to field recordings of singers such as Almeda Riddle, Texas Gladden, Nimrod Workman, Dillard Chandler, Dellie Norton, Jean Ritchie, and many others.
At some point it registered in my mind that Jean Ritchie's dulcimer playing didn't sound so modern, that it blended perfectly with the very old ballads she was singing. This got me to thinking (finally! DUH!) about how perhaps playing the dulcimer a different way might produce the older sound I was looking for- a sound that would stand on its own but would also sound right with fiddles and banjos or with traditional sung ballads.

This revelation triggered me to learn more about the older more traditional styles of playing the Appalachian dulcimer. By this time, I was quite familiar with the concepts, beauty, and use of drones and open or modal tunings on my banjo. As I read, listened, and learned more, it dawned on me that I must start over with my dulcimer from square one and re-learn how to play it in a more traditional drone based manner. I learned about noter playing, I listened to many recordings, and I fell hard under the spell of the quicksilver liquid sliding noter dancing alongside the steady open powerful drones. What an intoxicating sound it was! I was totally hooked, and I felt the door to a whole new world had been suddenly flung open before me.

I began to play with a noter and open drones. I felt so awkward and hopelessly lame!
I had to start all over again! The results were embarrassingly bad, but I kept at it relentlessly. The noter hand and the strumming hand were both equally difficult! I practiced s-l-o-w-l-y and repeated the same babyish moves over and over for weeks, and eventually I began to improve. I realized just how vastly different this playing method was from my old DAD chording/picking style.
I quickly found that when playing melody notes only on the melody string, I often needed several notes that were lower than the tonic '1' note- so I began to tune more often to DAA (ionian mode) instead of DAD (mixolydian mode), which then made those lower notes available on my melody string.

As I listened to more recordings of fiddle tunes played on mountain dulcimers, I then discovered the playing of Bonnie Russell, Phyllis Gaskins, and Jacob Ray Melton, all of whom played 'Galax Style'. This style originated in the area of Galax, Virginia, and the dulcimers they used from that area were of a certain build and were strung all in the same gauge strings, usually tuned dddd. They played them with long flexible whip-like picks, in a sort of egg-scrambling motion. The sound was described by others as a 'swarm of angry bees'. The intense droning sound all in the same octave really appealed to me, and I imagined this was a good way for me to bring my fiddle tune accompaniment style up to speed!

By this time it had been been around nine years since I had first picked up a dulcimer, and I still had just my one very beautiful curly maple teardrop dulcimer. I felt it was time to get myself a Galax style dulcimer and really cut loose. I had Ben Seymour of North Carolina make me a beautiful cherry Galax dulcimer:

What a lovely inspiration this cherry dulcimer was!
It was strung all in .010 strings, all in the same high octave. No heavier low bass string, no heavier low middle string. It had a 26" scale length, so I was planning to use it mostly for playing in the keys of A and G in ionian tunings. the 26" scale would allow me to tune up to ionian aeee (or eaee) without breaking strings, as had been happening sometimes on my 28" scale teardrop dulcimer.

As I played it over the first few weeks, I realized that the sound of having all the strings in the same high octave was very appealing to me. It dawned on me that part of the reason I found my old chording style to be more modern and guitar-like sounding was in fact that lower bass string/middle sound, combined with playing full chords...the low strings did indeed remind me of guitar playing! Not only that, but the low bass octave sound also reminded me of the sound of a bass fiddle thumping along in bluegrass string bands. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it was not jiving with the older drone based feeling I was seeking for my own music. I found the all-high-octave sound meshed very nicely with both old-time southern Appalachian fiddle tunes and sounded 'right' to me somehow.

So there I was, playing my Galax dulcimer but not exactly playing it in strict Galax style: I was tuning it mostly in ionian rather than bagpipe/mixolydian, I was using various modes and retuning to them as opposed to capoing. I was not using the usual Galax long quill style pick or that egg scrambling picking technique either. What's more, I was using my own unique brand of percussive picking in a sort of syncopated flatfooting rhythm, sort of what a banjo player uses in their 'cluck/chuck' strum. This I believe evolved from my banjo playing. I have never seen or heard anyone else use this strumming technique on the dulcimer, so I like to think of this as the one thing I can proudly say I have actually invented for myself. :)
But though it is not strictly Galax, the style and method I developed for myself is working for me, and it is working very well for me. I eventually changed my teardrop dulcimer over to the same all-high-octave stringing as well. Once recently I strung a wound bass string back on it again to try it and I hated it and went back to all .010's again immediately.

If you want to hear a more 'pure' Galax style in action, listen to the amazing clip here of Phyllis Gaskins playing full speed on the website. Also, listen to the two lovely clips of Kimberly playing true Galax style that I have linked on the right column of the home page of this blog.

Now, I have posted often enough about the importance or retuning into different modes if you want to play in various keys when playing the dulcimer noter/drone style. Please go back through this blog and read about some of the reverse tunings I have recommend that would make your life easier when tuning into different keys and modes. Now I must explain something- many people do not like to use 'reverse tunings' (such as GCG instead of CGG for ionian mode in the key of C) for a perfectly good reason: they don't like the bass string to be sounding a fifth interval note instead of the tonic "1" note. Yes!-Now it all becomes quite obvious why this doesn't make a bit of difference to me at all....because I have no lower 'bass string' or 'middle string'!
All my strings are the same gauge and the same octave! Thus, I don't give a rat's ass whether I tune my drones GC or CG! Ha ha ha ha hah!! I have freed myself to use whatever tuning will be easier to get to from the tuning I am already in, one that requires the least amount of distance to travel for each string. I can't emphasize enough how convenient this is! It not only enables me to retune much more quickly and easily, but I also wind up hardly ever breaking strings.

Now ye who still maintain their heavy wound bass string and heavy middle string and don't wish to make the 'bizarre' transition to all high-octave bee swarm stringing- you can STILL use the 'reverse tunings' I describe throughout this blog. You just have to get a little used to the sound of having your tonic drone be on your middle string and your 'fifth' interval drone being on your low bass string. I actually did this for a while before I was willing to give up my heavy strings altogether, and I got used to it just fine. But some people strongly dislike the sound of the bass string being a fifth instead of a tonic note, so you'll just have to try it for yourself and see!

Then again, lots of people are repelled by the unison/bagpipe/Galax type 'angry bee swarm' sound altogether. Hey, there's no accounting for people's taste! I can assure you there was a time when I would have found it simply awful to listen to as well.
A few years ago I played a recording of the late great Jacob Ray Melton playing Galax dulcimer for a musician friend of mine. He was such a good musician that I figured surely he would be impressed and would, like me, find Melton's playing entrancing. He listened for a minute or so, then said simply "That's incredibly annoying." =8-o


  1. Hi Strumelia, My neighbor, Cindy, and I attended Mt. Airy Fiddlers convention, NC, last weekend. I saw Phyllis and Jim Gaskins for the first time in about 20 years. We camped together. One look at my Dulcimore, handmade by Alvin Harmon, Floyd Co, VA, and Phyllis exclaimed, "Galax Dulcimore!"- and held up her traditional Galax Dulcimore for comparison. We tuned up in DDD and and gave my friend Cindy as lesson on playing "Eliza". I caught it on a video clip here: (look for Mt Airy). Martha Harris and Steve Parks won 2nd and 3rd place resp. at MtA. More grapevines brought me to your blog- which I am enjoying very much. Thankyou, Bob

  2. Wow Bob, that is so great! I really envy you, camping and playing with Phyllis and Jim, whom I have never had the pleasure to meet or even communicate with. :) I'm up here in the Northeast and I don't tend to travel too much.

    I watched some of your YouTube videos. Hey, you should be playing my tab for Froggy Went a Courtin' to those beautiful tree frogs!
    I'm so glad that mysterious 'grapevines' twined you over here to my blog, and I'm very happy you are enjoying it. It's good to know that people are actually reading it! =8-o

    thank you!

  3. Hi Lisa;

    I'm convinced a lot of the "mellow" sound we keep hearing people want is coming from that heavy wound bass string. I recently acquired a vintage 3 string with wooden pegs, and it was built for thin, unwound strings on all course. The notches for the bass string are made for a 13 or 14 ga string and the mid and melody are 11s. From experimenting, I'm convinced that a part of the olde tyme dulcimer sound we love comes from NOT having a wound heavy gauge bass string - the Galax style stringing of thin gauges. This 29" VSL vintage dulcimer tunes to the GDD above DAA and sounds like that swarm of bees! Actually sounds better tuned to that GDD than the DAA, although it's not bad in DAA.

  4. Hi Ken,
    I stumbled on my preference for no heavy middle or bass strings while trying out my Galax dulcimer, but like you I have come to prefer the all-high-octave ('high octane'?) sound for old-time music. I changed my other dulcimers over to it as well, even though they are not Galax dulcimers.
    I too feel that the preference for a 'mellow' sound with lower strings and the craze for baritone dulcimers may well be rooted in a general familiarity with a folk guitar sound.

    A guitar sound definitely falls within the comfort zone of most people. "High lonesome' sound most definitely does not.

  5. Hi, Strumelia --

    I've been following your blog for a couple of months and meaning to write ... it's like a rock in a weary land and I'm going to take what you're saying here about your own "unique brand of percussive picking in a sort of syncopated flatfooting rhythm" as permission to keep playing the way I've started playing lately.

    You see, I've been using the Galax tuning almost all the time lately but I've never been able to get the "eggbeater" strum down -- my wrist just doesn't go where I think it ought to -- and I wind up strumming about the same way I've always done in DAA. (Play in DAD with the local group but almost always an octave higher since I use a noter.) I love the old fiddle tunes, but I like them best when they're played a little slower and with more of a lilt than Galax style, and I've been noodling around a lot this summer with modal tunes (by using a "reverse capo" raising the 2 outside strings up to E). But that's getting too technical, and from a guy whose technique is practically nonexistent!

    Mostly just take this as fan mail from someone else who loves the traditional sound of the Appalachian dulcimer and is really, really glad to find a kindred spirit.

    -- Pete Ellertsen, Springfield, Ill.

  6. Hi Pete,
    Hey, I totally hear what you are saying!
    Sounds like you should just keep doing what you're doing and inventing ways to make your own technique work for you. That's what I did too. You just gotta do what you gotta do!
    I love playing in A with my melody strings up in ee. :)

  7. This also was fascinating. I didn't like the sound of the G strumstick with a 0.23 bass string, so I swapped it out for a 0.14 and eventually put all three strings at 0.10, tuned GDG for "major' and GDF for "minor", with all three in the same octave. It sounds much better, and as you say, more ancient and eerie.

    I also use a goose quill as a pick!

    I use the technique you described as "scrambling eggs", which BTW is a great name for that technique. (We have geese, so it was a natural thing to try.)

    Again, great blog!

  8. Hi Lisa

    I'm a new dulcimer player and have been reading over your blog. I found a used Folkroot which is baritone. The soft, mellow sound is what drew me to it. I did not like the sound of the bass, as it sounded to guitarish, so I switched all my strings to .010. I find I have limitations to how low I can go with it.

    I just purchased a used McSpadden and just had new strings put on .012s and a .023 Yuk! I do not like the bass string. I would like to switch it out.

    I don't know if I am putting the proper size strings on or not, and if I'm playing in a good key. My Folkroot I play in dddd, and my McSpadden with the bass string, it's tuned aaaD.

    I LOVE playing MD with a noter. Tried a chord workshop, but my heart is with noter playing by ear. I would really appreciate any direction you can offer.

  9. Hi there anonymous,
    it would be very helpful to know what the VSL or 'scale length' is on your two dulcimers. Measure in inches from the nut to the bridge and then let me know here. I suspect the McSp is about 28 1/2". The baritone I would need to know the scale length in order to recommend strings for it.

    When you name the notes of your tuning, it is usual to name them from the bass side to the melody side. Thus, I think you may mean Daaa when talking about your McSp tuning?

    The other question I would ask you is if you have any ideas about what keys you would like to play in? Are you planning on singing with your dulcimer (what keys do you sing well in?) or are you planning on playing with a group of dulcimer players (thus needing to play in D a lot)?
    I'll watch this place for your answers. :)

  10. My McSpadden VSL is 28 5/8 and the baritone is 29 1/4.

    The lady who got me started knows nothing about music, but plays everything by ear. She tuned me to something around Eflat/ Bflat, but that was with a bass string. I seemed comfortable singing to that, but not sure I want to do much singing, and I am content right now being a loner in my playing. Maybe sometime in the future if I find anyone in the area. My son is a beginner in clawhammer banjo and it is our hopes to hook up at some point.

    Another question, can you have all the same strings, but tuned differently?


  11. Came back to read this again today. Just took delivery on a 2001 double-back, Ben Seymour Galax off ebay. It's in good shape, a big, beautiful instrument.

    Needs new strings, which I ordered in bulk yesterday. The strings are 12s and 14s and are sticking in the nut a little, so I'll be putting 10s on it.

    It's a whole different kind of dulcimer, that's for sure! I think I'm going to enjoy it a lot.

  12. FlintHill,
    Oh, you are very lucky indeed to have snagged that Seymour Galax on Ebay!
    I have to say, having heard your singing and playing, that an all .010 strung Galax dulcimer would be a really lovely match to your style and sound. Have fun with your new beauty!
    Post some pix on FOTMD!!

  13. Thanks, Lisa.

    I was really happy to get it and pleased to see that it is near-mint condition. I ditched the mother-of-pearlicious tuner buttons and put on ivoroid buttons which are a good match for the instrument's appearance.

    It's going to take some time to sort out playing the thing, but I'll post pix soon.

  14. Boy Howdy! Like a pig in slop here. The options discussed have me absolutely GIDDY! Being new to the dulcimer, I think that big ol' fat string has been the one thing that I didn't like and really didn't know what it was that I wasn't liking. I DID put a lighter guage, unwound string on one dulcimer as the base ... and it's still there! I think I will play with lighter strings some more. I'm already pretty sure that I will prefer the sound. Strings are cheap, I have some time ... there is no reason NOT to do this.

    Thank you Lisa for your whimsical 'no nonsense' way of showing through doing. Several good views expressed here. Appreciate the access to so much experience all in one place.


  15. I started to learn my dulcimer two years ago with a year off in between.
    I love notes and drone...I cannot read music....The teacher did not advise playing noter and drone..So I played the melody line and then the cords. At this time I have decided to go back to what I wanted... Drone style. Could you give me a few tips for this? Sincerely, Celia S

  16. Hi Cecilia, thanks for reading!
    I do give a whole lot of playing tips for drone noter style in this blog, so I'd suggest you begin with the earliest dated posts, which have a great deal of tips for beginner noter players, plus lots of my free tab and videos included in the blog posts. Have fun with it! :)

  17. Thanks Strumelia, that is what I will do... But, do I have to play by ear, or can I stick with Sheet music in Daa, Celia

  18. Try my tab sheet for Hot Cross Buns, Celia. Then if you can play that and understand the tab/fret numbers...then you can move on to the next tunes and tabs. It doesn't get any silmpler than Hot Cross Buns, especially if you can hum it. :)