Saturday, March 14, 2009

scoundrels... The Butcher's Boy

Here is another old ballad in Aeolian mode... (Hey Ellemmbee!) I've put it in DAC key of D, and it's on the low side for singing- fine for me though. Remember, if you want to raise it a bit for your voice, try tuning up all strings one step to E aeolian: EBD. Don't tune higher than E or you may break a string unless you have a shorter dulcimer than the normal +/- 28" scale length.

This melody version of Butcher's Boy is a bit different from the usual versions. It's got a couple of quirky notes in it that I find appealing. I adapted it partially from Buell Kazee's recording of it in the Harry Smith Anthology. Notice that later in the ballad the villain becomes 'that railroad boy'...well this switching around of lyrics is common in older traditional folk music, feel free to switch it back to 'butcher's boy' if you want.
There are two extra lines of verse at the end, about the dove. If you repeat the last part of the melody you can sing them- start the dove lyrics right at the part in the tab where the first verse says "He courted me....". It'll sound like doing the ending twice at the end of the ballad. A pretty thing to do in a song, even without any singing.
And as always, you can always just play the ballads I post without singing them if you prefer. It's your music!

Girls, let this sad tale of woe be a warning to you...(to be safe, you'd better watch out for both butcher boys and railroad boys!)

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lost at sea

I turned my back on my beautiful curly maple dulcimer for seven years, after having learned to play quite prettily in modern chording/flatpicking style. I had become disillusioned with it. During those seven years that my dulcimer gathered dust, I fell in love with the raw and archaic lure of drones... I finally became newly determined to re-learn to play my dulcimer in traditional noter/drone style. Having been very active during that interim in listening to older field recordings, playing old-time banjo, and singing Appalachian ballads, I was now familiar enough with this older music to finally have a real sense of direction for my dulcimer playing.

I searched out material to learn from. What I discovered is that yes, there was indeed some very good teaching material out there concerning drone style and traditional playing...but it was scattered all about, often comprising a page or two in this book, a small chapter in that book, an article, an isolated web page on dulcimer history, etc. Much of the more helpful material was in older books. There were not many comprehensive recordings to be had either- a handful of good ones from a handful of traditional players, but even those consisted of varied styles between players. And often on a CD there would be one or two traditionally played tracks buried in with a dozen modern playing style tracks. It was frustrating. It was a challenge to gather a cohesive body of information to learn from. I wound up skipping all around from place to place, trying to fill in the blanks- of which there were many. I picked up a tidbit here, a tidbit there. Sometimes the tidbits didn't fit together well, and I had to figure that out too.

In stark contrast to this, during my search I encountered a seemingly endless sea of learning material geared towards helping beginners learn to play in chording/DAD/capo/flatpick style, the playing style so popular for the past several decades.
I began to wonder how on Earth any musical beginner with less experience than I in gathering traditional music information could ever manage to get started in traditional dulcimer playing on their own.

As I sought information in first one place and then another, I slowly began to find my own path through the teaching material and information maze. I am certainly no expert, and I'm not a professional musician either...but somehow I've managed to steer my way along, kept afloat by my strong interest and admiration for the logic and beauty of the older simpler ways of the dulcimer. I've had to overcome some puzzling musical obstacles, and lately I've had a steadily growing sense that others might benefit from and enjoy hearing about some of what I have learned (and continue learning), and my experiences along the way. Thus, on Valentine's Day I started this blog. Instead of writing books, an online blog seemed to me a more logical and efficient open-ended vehicle for freely sharing what I can offer, and for me to learn from you as well.

We all have our own musical journey to travel, but if we can share a little of what we've found with others, then each of our unique journeys will be that much richer. I still have a lot to learn- there are so many gaps in what I know. I hope to continue learning from others for the rest of my life.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

a dreadful wind and rain...

Let's play one of those great old spooky ballads from Appalachia. You know, the kind where someone kills someone, usually in a gruesome manner!

Wind and Rain, often called The Two Sisters, or Twa' Sisters, is a very old ballad from across the sea, from Britain, Scotland, or thereabouts. The oldest surviving printed example, a 'broadside', is from 1656, so it likely originated even before that... Over the generations it has evolved and branched out into many versions with many different verses and even several different melodies. Here I've chosen a simple but lovely version with only a few of the key verses included. You can search the web and find other traditional verses for it if you like and add them into the version you sing. That's one of the wonderful things about traditional songs and tunes- there are so many versions and you can feel free to play one you especially like. There is no official 'right' version and no one can tell you how to play your version. Make it your very own!

Now when you look at this tab you are going to gasp when you see the tuning: CGG.
Don't panic. This is SUPER EASY! CGG is merely DAA but tuning all the strings one step down (in the alphabet, C is one step before, or 'lower' than D). You are re-tuning from D ionian mode to C ionian mode.
Why am I doing this? For two good reasons:
One, when I sing it in the key of D the high part is a strain on my voice so bringing it down a step to C makes it way easier for me to sing. You too may find this useful when you sing with your dulcimer...and
Two, I'm trying to get you used to the idea of re-tuning to play in several different keys. You already play in D, and you've learned how to tune to play in G. Now you can tune to C just by tuning whatever D tuning you are in down one step on all strings. So now you can play in D, G, and C! This works for all modes, so if you happened to be in D mixolydian tuning DAD, to play in C mixolydian you'd just tune all strings down one step and you'd be in CGC. See, it's not that hard! Don't chicken out....try tuning down from DAA to's thrilling when you see how easy it is!
(Note: this is one of those unusual folk songs that does not end on its tonic/key note, in this case C. Instead it ends on a spooky G. Don't let that throw you, it's still in C ionian.)

And so....a dreadful wind and rain.

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

All the Good Times

Here is a very nice simple traditional song- All the Good Times Are Past and Gone. It's especially good for beginners (are you with me, "papabill"?). I've presented it in the key of G, because that's the key I usually see it written out in. Also because you don't want to get stuck in the rut of only being able to play in the key of D... I've tabbed it for G 'reverse' ionian tuning (DGD). I presented a chart a few posts ago showing how to make the change from D 'regular' ionian into G 'reverse' ionian. Using the reverse ionian tuning sometimes can make the re-tuning process a little easier by changing the strings a bit less than going from regular D ionian to regular G ionian. I know that statement might be confusing- I am going to explain that a little further one day very soon. But do notice again that the song ends on fret 3, which gives us a hint that it's in ionian mode.
I know you probably are loathe to retune your dulcimer into the key of G from your 'comfort area' of being in D...but getting over the natural tendency to want to avoid re-tuning is going to allow you much greater freedom to play all kinds of songs and tunes later, and will give you the ability to play in fun jams of other music playing people... people who play in several different keys on other instruments. It's only hard and scary to change tunings the first few times you do it. After that it becomes much less of a big deal.

By the way- did you know the difference between a 'tune' and a 'song'? A tune is a piece of music usually with a melody, and a song is the same thing but with words/lyrics added to sing it. You sing a song, you play a tune. If you play a tune and then add words to it, it becomes a song!

"All the Good Times..." is a very good song to try to singing to while you play, since the first verse is pretty easy to memorize and sing on 'autopilot' while you play. Being able to sing a song while you play it is an immensely helpful skill to practice. It doesn't matter if you don't sing well at all, you can just sing by yourself all alone if you prefer. Having a slightly crude and rustic voice is actually something that's admired in old-time music! You'd sound pretty lame if you sang these old country songs in a trained operatic voice.
Practicing singing something simple while playing actually helps cement the song into your brain so that you can better play it without tab, and it helps you to keep rhythm better. Think of how easy it is to remember little children's songs from your youth- this is much the same thing. Plus, there may well come a time as you get to be a better player when you will actually want to sing songs with others, and if you practice this here and there during your early learning stages it won't be so hard to pick up the skill later.

As will all things, my advice is the same- start simple and slow, and don't get more complex until you feel comfortable. Remember this: it's far better to play 3 simple slow tunes well than to stumble awkwardly through 8 fancier tunes.
In this case, I'd suggest singing just the first few words with your dulcimer playing over and over: 'all the good times have past and gone'. Once you can play and sing that phrase comfortably, add the 'all the good times are o'er' to it. And so on. If you never get past the first verse, that's fine too!- at least you have shown yourself that you can do it.
Here is the song, in the key of G, ionian mode (but remember you can play the tab exactly the same way if you are tuned to D ionian tuning, DAA, as well):

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why is it?

Ok, so why is it?....

...that when i was just starting out, played gently, and was so afraid of breaking a string, I would break strings about three times as often as I do now? I don't get that.

...that I never seem to be in right key when a playing session starts?- you'd think the odds would favor already being in the right key at least sometimes!...

...that I tend to bring my dulcimer to larger gatherings since I figure there'll be more than enough banjo players already there...but then every session has at least two loud banjos and I can't hear my dulcimer at all then and wish I had brought my banjo so I could at least hear what I'm playing?

...that as soon as I put my dulcimer away and take my banjo out, they start playing all my favorite dulcimer tunes? (and vice versa)

...that I seem to be able to remember how to play a fiddle tune ok, but can never remember it's name?

...that people seem to think that dulcimer players can only play in the key of D? (well actually we do know why, don't we?- but let's pretend we can't imagine why anyone would think such a thing!)

Wish I had time for a longer post, but I've been extra busy and now I'm too sleepy and just want to go to bed!

continue reading the rest of this post here...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The beautiful aeolian mode

If you've been following along with this blog, you have already tried playing in two different modes: the mixolydian mode (such a DAD) where you tune so that the base/tonic note is located on the zero fret (open string)....and the ionian mode (such as DAA) where you tune so that the base/tonic note is found on the third fret.
Now I'd like to get you playing in the truly beautiful and haunting aeolian mode. The base/tonic note of the aeolian mode is found not on the open string or the third fret, but on the first fret. Remember how I said most songs end on their base note or tonic note? Notice that the tab below for Shady Grove in aeolian mode ends on the first fret then.
The aeolian mode has a minor sound to it, often mournful, sad, or spooky. It's probably my favorite mode. Many of the loveliest and oldest ballads of them all are in aeolian mode... Some modern guitar players don't quite know how to accompany aeolian mode tunes, and as a result they sometimes play non-modal-y minor chords to them that are close, but don't 'quite' match, and they wreck the delicately mysterious aeolian sound of special intervals and dissonance, instead making it sound rather peppy and cheerful. Ugh. Try this tuning on your dulcimer and see how very special and wonderful the aeolian mode is just by itself. I bet you'll get hooked on it like I did.

Here is a simple tuning chart to help you get into aeolian mode. It is in the key of D because you are probably already familiar with tuning and playing in DAD, key of D.To get into aeolian mode from DAD mixolydian mode, all you have to do is tune your melody string(s) DOWN one whole step from D to C.
To get into aeolian mode from DAA ionian mode, all you have to do is tune your melody string(s) UP two whole steps from A to C.
Your end result either way will be DAC. DAC is an aeolian tuning for the key of D.

If you are now in DAC aeolian mode, you can play Shady Grove, one of the most beloved old-time ballads from the hills of Appalachia where the dulcimer itself was born. Shady Grove has various versions of lyrics that have been passed down, and I have collected a few of my favorite traditional verses here for you to enjoy. See if you can sing a verse while you play. See if you can play it after a while without looking at the tab anymore.
The beauty of noter style playing is that it is less complicated than constant chord fingering, thus it is easier to learn to play a tune without reading the tab. This is worth repeating:
We are giving up 3-finger chording here in favor of using open drone strings- but to use drones effectively we have to be able to tune into 2 or 3 different modes. After the first little learning hump, it is a much simpler method of playing. Is it not a ballad that somehow touches the very soul in a lonesome way? I could play it for years and never get tired of it.

Now I'll point a few things of interest...
You may ask Why should I have to learn to play in different modes? Why can't I just play Shady Grove in DAD or DAA anyway? Well, if you try to play the same ballad Shady Grove in mixolydian DAD tuning or ionian DAA tuning, you will quickly discover that it's impossible- you are missing some of the frets you need to play the tune, as though it were a piano with some of the keys missing. This is what they mean when they say the dulcimer has a diatonic fretboard. It is missing certain notes on the fretboard and was intended to be played in open tuned modes. If the dulcimer had no missing frets, in other words if it had a fret for every note and every half note on the fretboard, then it would have a chromatic fretboard instead of a diatonic one. A piano is a chromatic instrument, so is a guitar. They have 'all' the notes. That's why you can play them so easily in all the different keys with minimal fussing.
Some people have additional frets installed on their dulcimers to enable playing in various keys and modes without re-tuning so much. The most famous additional fret to the diatonic dulcimer is the six and a half fret (and it's corresponding 13 1/2 fret one octave higher). Most mountain dulcimers made today do have the 6 1/2 fret, but before 1965 or so it was almost never seen. We'll look more at why it's so popular and how it's used later on in this blog.
Other people have a couple more frets added, such as a one and a half fret (and it's corresponding 8 1/2 fret one octave higher). I myself have dulcimers with these added frets. I'll discuss their use much later on as well. We can get along just fine without them, so don't get all worried. ;)
Going to the end extreme we have the fully chromatic dulcimer, with no missing frets at all. Some people like them, especially people who like to play more complex modern music on their dulcimers, such as blues, jazz, klezmer, etc.

Besides having extra frets, another way to avoid retuning to play in different modes is to use a capo. A capo is a little clamp that raises the string pitches across all the strings at once without re-tuning them. Capos can be convenient, and we'll discuss them in the future as well, but for now we are learning simple basic things and we don't really need to mess with capos yet. Besides, capos really change the sound of the dulcimer- making it less resonant and more 'shut' sounding, so let's enjoy learning to do things without capos for a while. I actually never use a capo, so don't get all worried about capos either. ;)

So far on this blog we have been playing only simple folk music that can be played on traditional diatonic fretted dulcimers having no extra frets. We've been playing only in three modes: mixolydian, ionian, and aeolian. We won't be complicating our lives with having to learn any more than just these three modes until quite a bit later in this blog!
We've learned that we can re-tune from D ionian down to G ionian for instance, and then play a song using the very same tab/fret numbers...because we are in the same mode, just a different key. Thus, we have begun to understand that we can re-tune to play in a key other than D while still playing in the same mode (more on that later on).

The good news is that've already gotten past the most difficult part of playing your dulcimer in the traditional way! If you can re-tune your dulcimer into ionian, mixolydian, and aeolian modes, then you can play most common tunes easily on your melody string, and you will find there are more than enough beautiful and exciting traditional dulcimer tunes and songs played in these three modes to keep you thrilled and busy for a long time to come!

Although there are several other interesting and useful modes you could learn, just knowing these first three that we've tried so far is enough to cover most typical playing circumstances. The fourth mode that you'll probably discover you need eventually is the beautiful Dorian mode, but for now, using just these first three modes is fine. Another reassuring fact is that in old-time traditional music, you can usually get by just fine if you can play in only four keys: D, G, A, and C. And most old-time so-called "modal songs" or "minor songs" can probably be played in your aeolian mode tuning, if you can get into the key that's called for. Now, remember, if you find yourself in a jam with singer-songwriter guitar players with big egos who like to sing songs they wrote in keys like F sharp and E flat, then run like the wind. I tell you this for your own good. Just stay away from them and play your Shady Grove until it erases the strains of their whiny frou-frou songs from your brain.

Now, lest you start thinking I'm a stuffy old poop, I feel compelled to include here one of my favorite versions of Shady Grove....but it has almost nothing in common with the Aeolian beauty we are talking about in this post. But I still think it's darned cute! Here it is- Charlene Darling from the old Andy Griffith show, singing Shady Grove. Has anyone else ever been as impossibly perky as this??

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