Saturday, February 28, 2009

Liza Jane looks good to me

As I said in my previous post, being able to play a tune in more than one tuning or mode, and in more than one key, is a great thing to be able to do if you want to be able to play with others, especially if they are playing other instruments like fiddles, banjos, or guitars. Old-time tunes are not usually complicated and this fact, combined with the simplicity of a noter/drone style simple melody line, makes it not that hard to learn how to do... if you are willing to experiment just a bit. It's one of those things that sounds harder to do than it really is...

Remember how we saw that you can often play a tune equally well in DAA as in DAD tuning? Remember that DAD is mixolydian mode and is based around the open string (the 'zero' fret). And DAA is ionian mode, based around the third fret.

Here is a tuning chart for the mixolydian mode, key of D:
Tune your dulcimer to DAD and try to get comfortable playing the old-time favorite Liza Jane as noted in the tab below. Notice the strumming pattern changes slightly in different places- we don't want to strum the exact same way all the time, that would be tedious to listen to.
Play Liza Jane a lot and see if you can play it without needing to look at the tab anymore. Tab is just a way to figure out how a tune goes when you forget it or haven't tried it yet. When you are in a restaurant, you look at the menu to help you decide what to order, but when the food arrives it's time to put away the menu and enjoy eating!
Next post we'll switch to playing the very same Liza Jane in ionian DAA tuning. Maybe you can already figure out how to do this on your own? (Hint: remember that the melody lies three steps higher up on your fretboard in ionian mode.)

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Friday, February 27, 2009

DAD and DAA can often play together

Have you ever gone to a dulcimer session where everyone is tuned to DAD and you've gotten into a panic because you are in DAA and you think you have to retune in order to play with them? Well never fear! If the DAD'ers are playing a tune that uses the 6 1/2 fret, you can play right along with them even though you are in two different tunings. This is because if they are using their 6 1/2 fret, they are really playing in ionian mode, so you are both playing in the key of D in ionian mode. Your D scale tonic note simply starts on the third fret while theirs starts on the open string. Often you can both play the exact same melody notes, side by side, just on different frets...
Take Mary had a Little Lamb as an example. In DAD tuning, you would play it on these frets:

You would play the exact same notes and sound exactly the same in ionian DAA tuning by simply playing it on these frets instead, 3 steps higher on the fingerboard, but you'd get very same sounding notes:

Also, you can play your noter style Mary Had a Little Lamb right along with the other people's chord style version. Usually they will work just fine together, as long as you can hear yourself and don't get distracted by all the extra chord notes going on around you.

NOTE: If others are playing a tune in DAD and using their 6th fret rather than their 6 1/2 fret, then they truly are playing in mixolydian mode. The tune Old Joe Clark would be a good example. In this case you cannot play along with them in DAA ionian, because you are then both in different modes and you cannot play Old Joe Clark along with them in will be missing some notes. But there are many more ionian folk songs than mixolydian ones, so interestingly enough, 'most' of the time you will find DAD players using their 6 1/2 fret and playing in ionian mode even though they are in a mixolydian tuning. They would not be able to do that without their extra 6.5 fret, by the way.

When you change your tuning from DAD to DAA, you are tuning your melody string DOWN three steps from D to A. That means in order to play the same thing the DAD player is playing, you have to move your song UP the fretboard by three steps/frets to adjust for your lowered string. DAD mixolydian tuning songs are home-based around the open string (written as the 'zero' fret in TAB), while DAA ionian tuning songs are home-based around the third fret.

The point I am making is that modes are nothing terribly mysterious. Practically speaking, they just mean you are starting your song on a different place on your fretboard.
And because the dulcimer is diatonically fretted (meaning it is missing some frets in certain places), you might be better able to play some songs in one place on your fretboard, and other songs in another place, in order to be able to get the notes you need for that tune without 'missing' any notes because of a missing fret. So you change modes or tunings to find a good place for that song to lie, where you can get all the notes that song needs.
This works particularly well in noter/drone traditional playing style.

Next post, I will present a simple key of D, DAD noter tab and words to a really fun old-time song that many of you may know already- Liza Jane! Then we'll see how we can play the same thing in DAA ionian mode. Then after that, maybe we'll figure out how to play it in the key of G. Without a capo. (!)
Once you understand how to do this (and it's not that hard if you take it one simple step at a time), you'll be on your way to playing along in most keys in typical old-time music jams.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Thursday, February 26, 2009


The mountain dulcimer is an instrument full of grace in every way. It soothes the soul and makes the heart glad. Doesn't matter how fast or how slow you play, how fancy or how simple you play. This is part of the dulcimer's ageless beauty- it is both willing and able to express anyone's inner music, young or old, absolute beginner or experienced musician. It lends its grace to every person's music...
Here is a very simplified tab for beginners to play the beloved and inspiring hymn Amazing Grace. Click on the picture to enlarge it. This version is in DAA in the key of D. Play it often and feel its beauty:

Once you are comfortable with playing it, try to learn to play it without looking at the paper- just work on one line at a time, it's really not that hard once you've played it many times. Most of you know the hymn already in your head. For beginners, it's often easier to learn a single simple melody line without peeking than to remember chord fingerings. The drones will make it sound heavenly without any fancy playing at all!
You will be proud when you can play it by ear and make it your very own!

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What happened?

Ron left a comment after my last post in which he said:
"I want to enjoy the dulcimer, not make it a project or an ordeal...No one told me that if I want to learn dulcimer, there were two ways to go---chording or melody/drone."

This got me to thinking...What has happened in the past several decades to so completely change the way beginners are introduced to the Appalachian dulcimer, to the point where many beginner dulcimer players aren't even told about the existence of traditional melody/drone style playing anymore? How did these changes happen, and what is the result? I fear this will take more than one post for me to ponder...

Let's start with some of the verified facts we do have about how the dulcimer used to be played long ago in Appalachia. One reliable source for this information is Jean Ritchie, who has written a great deal about her family, neighbors, and music players near her childhood home of Viper, Kentucky. Much of Jean's information comes from both before and after the 1920's when she was born.
We know that Jean's father Balis Ritchie (born 1869) used to play his dulcimer in melody/drone style, without playing full chords, and that according to Jean he only played in one tuning: CGG, which is the ionian tuning for the key of C. This is identical to our DAA tuning for the key of D, but tuned one whole step down on all strings, to play in the key of C instead. Many early church hymns and simple older folk tunes were played in the key of C in the old days.
Jean grew up in a time when people in the mountains were beginning to listen to the radio, and when she was a young lady she said that many of her friends scorned the 'old' music that their parents played in favor of more modern dance music and swing that was on the radio during the 30's and 40's. Jean experimented with different dulcimer tunings and with playing harmonies to compliment her singing. By the late 1940's the folk music boom was beginning, and Jean went to NYC with her dulcimer and her mountain repertoire and became a hit with the burgeoning folk scene there. Guitar playing folk musicians were everywhere, and they accompanied most songs with full sounding guitar chords.
Most of us have grown up deeply influenced by this folk boom era of the 1940's-60's, and we all grew up hearing our popular music framed in neat and resolved chord structures. Non-chordal 'archaic' drone based music was heard less and less. When it was heard, the usual reaction was that it was lacking something, or that it would sound more complete and thus better with a guitar chording backup.
This appetite for full chord structure spilled over into the dulcimer of course, and by the 1960's-1980's, a whole new generation of young urban dulcimer players were busy building dulcimers and exploring new frontiers of playing modern music on the dulcimer. This did a lot to popularize the dulcimer beyond even what Jean Ritchie might have imagined. But these talented young folk players overwhelmingly liked their music accompanied by standard Western chords, and chord playing/flatpicking guitar-like style was what most people could relate to- especially people who did not grow up hearing an older generation's traditional Appalachian music sounds. The addition of the 6 1/2 fret made this transition to chords even easier, as it enabled people to play in ionian mode while in mixolydian DAD tuning.

Thus it was that between about 1945 and today (over sixty years later) there has been a steady movement away from the more archaic interval and drone based music, and towards modern Western chord-based music. One could say that this is neither 'good' nor 'bad' just is.

Looking at dulcimer insruction books, one can clearly see this trend in action. Books written in the 1960's and 70's (starting with some of Jean Ritchie's instructional materials), will often be structured around the key of C, in ionian tuning (CGG or DAA) and playing noter style- or at least presenting the first chapters in learning/explaining the dulcimer in noter style, even explaining how to tune to the different modes. Some had their songs written out in standard music notation, with a single melody line. Later books begin to emphasize the key of D instead of C, the mixolydian tuning of DAD, and encourage the use of chords over the 'limited' use of a noter, and they often encourage the use of capos and the addition of added frets to change keys as opposed to re-tuning. If the book did contain a chapter about modes and other tunings, the reader would likely skip over that part as being too full of complex and unnecessary 'music theory'. Stuff for eggheads or music scholars. Chording the diatonically fretted dulcimer while playing the melody too was hard enough as it was without having to learn various new sets of chords for different tunings and keys!
The generation that learned dulcimer from these later books of course became the new teachers, and they began to teach DAD chording style to the legions of beginner players attending the new popular music camps, festivals, and workshops, and buying CD's, teaching DVD's and more books.

The end result of all this is that the beginner dulcimer player of today is typically presented with learning material that focuses heavily on chording/flatpicking style of playing, in the key of D and tuned DAD. The occasional switch to DAA or the idea of tuning to another key or mode is now seen by beginners as being scary and difficult- something to be avoided if at all possible.
Instead of learning only a simple melody line and letting the drones flesh out the sound, students must now keep giant binders full of tabbed chords in front of them at all times. The older beginner especially, with limited musical experience, may find the many chord fingerings to be daunting and complex and he/she winds up having to juggle flat picking on various strings, stretching fingers into difficult-to-reach chord formations that change quickly, and keeping track of the tabbed chord fingering numbers on the page...all at the same time. Yikes!
More about simple playing in my next post.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DAA in birdland- Hush Little Baby

Here is a simple diagram I made up to show the ionian mode DAA tuning for playing in the key of D:(If you click on the images on this blog, the images will show up larger and clearer on their own page.) The "do" note of a do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do scale would begin on the third fret. Most simple folk songs in the key of D will END on a D note, at the third fret... (Some D songs will also begin on that D note, but many do not begin on the tonic note, so it's more reliable to go by the note the song ends on.)

Here is a nice folk song to play in the key of D in ionian tuning DAA...Hush Little Baby: Notice how in this song you will play the open string a couple of times- which is 3 steps lower than the tonic note D on the third fret. This is a perfect example of where DAA ionian mode tuning is more practical for noter/drone players than the common DAD mixolydian mode tuning. Notice also how like most simple folk tunes, it ends on the tonic note- in this case the D on the third fret. Hush Little Baby is one of my favorite songs to sing and play on either dulcimer or banjo. I just love the story in it's words.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Changing tuning from DAD to DAA

First I recommend you read yesterday's blog post about why I like DAA tuning. Now, if you are in the common DAD tuning already and you want to try DAA, just tune your two melody strings DOWN to match the same A note that your middle string is. This might feel like less tight tension on those strings as you play, but it should still play fine on any normal sized dulcimer.

If you have any TAB that is written for DAD noter style playing, you can 'translate' that TAB into DAA tuning simply by increasing each fret number on the paper by three... In other words, a DAD noter style tab which is written 0-1-3, will become 3-4-6 in DAA tuning. If you have a favorite tune in tab notation, this is a good way to figure out how to play it in a different mode.
Modes need not be some complex and mysterious theory puzzle....Instead, just think of modes as having the starting note "Do" of your do-re-mi scale start in a couple of different places on your fretboard instead of always on the open melody string. Doing this is pretty easy if you are only making fretted notes up and down the melody string, as in noter/drone style playing. People who play dulcimer in chord style have to learn a whole new bunch of chord fingerings for each mode or tuning- no wonder they hesitate to try out different modes! We noter players have it easy when trying out various tunings.
On this blog, I am mostly going to stick to only two modes anyway for a good long while- starting with ionian (like DAA). Later on I will go into the haunting and lonely sounding aeolian mode (DAc). There are enough beautiful and delightful songs in ionian and aeolian modes to keep anyone busy for many years of thrilling and deeply satisfying playing!

Modes are not hard to play in at all, and you don't need to learn everything about them, far from it- only a few key things that are useful. In fact, modes actually make things easier for us to play on our dulcimers! More about this later on. For now, don't worry, just try the DAA (ionian mode) tuning.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why I like DAA tuning so much

These days, the majority of beginner dulcimer students are started out playing in the DAd tuning. This is the mixolydian mode. That means that if you are playing in the key of D, the beginning D note of the do-re-mi scale is at the OPEN melody string, which is tuned to the D note. In the key of D, that first "do" note of the do-re-mi scale is a D.
These days, we name the strings of a dulcimer tuning from bass string first to melody string last. If I were to say a tuning of DAd, then that last d is the melody string (the string or pair of strings which is closest to you with the dulcimer in your lap). So, if you tune your dulcimer strings DAd (or DAdd), then the first note of your D scale on the melody string will be the open string- or "0" (zero) in dulcimer TAB notation. In the key of D that first D note is also called the tonic note.

Most songs and tunes end on their tonic note. For example a song in the key of C will usually end on a C note (the tonic note for the key of C). But many tunes have notes in them somewhere that go a step or two below the tonic note... For example, sing the song Frere Jacques to yourself. The last line ends in "Ding, dong, ding". The song ends on the tonic note on that last "ding"....but the "dong" right before it is three steps below the tonic note. If the key was D and the tonic note was a D, then that "dong" lower note would be an A note 3 steps lower. Many traditional folk tunes and many fiddle tunes or old ballads that I like to play have these lower notes in them that are 1, 2, or 3 steps lower than the tonic note.
Now if your melody string is tuned so that it plays the tonic note when it is open (as in DAd tuning), well then that string can't play any notes lower than that tonic note. Thus you would have to go looking on your lower middle or bass strings to find those lower notes. People who play dulcimers in a chording style are used to fretting lower notes on the other strings. So to them, DAd is a perfect tuning which enables easily fingered full chords on all the strings. Lower-than-tonic notes do not present a problem to folks playing in chording style and fretting all the strings.

In typical noter/drone playing, however, the middle and bass strings are not usually fretted at all as part of the melody line, but are simply left open to drone. This droning gives the music an archaic sound that is distinctive and appealing to those who enjoy noter/drone playing. So where would we go to play those occasional notes that dip below the tonic note?

Well, if we tune our melody string(s) a little lower to begin with we can get those lower notes right on the melody string, like that "dong" note in Frere Jacques!

Thus, when I want to play in the key of D, I most typically tune either DDA or DAA, tuning my open melody string(s) to the A note which is 3 steps below the tonic D. This is not the mixolydian mode anymore. If your tonic D note is on the third fret now instead of the open string, then we now are in the ionian mode. :)

Here is another example of how handy this becomes-
Sing the first line of the song "I've been workin' on the railroad". The first and last notes ("I've" and "road") are the tonic note, and the "been" is a note 3 steps lower than that. If I was tuned DAA then, I could play all those notes right on the melody string, and in TAB the fret numbers for "I've been workin' on the railroad" would be: 3.../0/3/0/3/4/5.../3...
I hope this helps explain why I like tuning this way!

If we tune the melody string so the open string is the tonic note, it is in mixolydian mode. If we tune the melody string so the third fret is the tonic note, it is in ionian mode.
Another example... let's keep in mind that in music, notes go up the alphabet until the letter G, and then they start repeating from A again, but in the next higher octave, like abcdefg-abcdefg-abcd....etc. So if I were playing in the key of A and my open melody string was tuned to A, then I'd be in mixolydian mode. If I lowered that melody string to be three steps lower than A (and look at my alphabet layout above), I'd tune it down to the E that was lower than the tonic A. Then my tonic A note would be found on the third fret instead of the open string, and again I'd be in the ionian mode, but in the key of A this time, and again being in ionian mode would enable me to play some of those lower notes on my melody string.

So far, the TABS I have posted have been in the key of D, and in ionian mode. The tuning is DAA, with the last A corresponding to your melody string.
If you have any confusions about this so far, please do post a comment or question and I will get back to you on it and try to explain better.

continue reading the rest of this post here...