Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sugar Hill

Here's a fun old-time song, Sugar Hill. I've put it in the key of C, in ionian tuning. I can sing it better in C than in D. Maybe I'll try to do another version in the key of G for other singers' voice ranges, what do you think?

My 9 year old banjo student loves this song because everyone is knocking each other upside the head and being all rowdy like... It should be played and sung with gusto...no funeral procession renditions, please!

Click here to listen to a peppy little version of Sugar Hill played by two good friends of ours, Beth and Woody from New Hampshire.



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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Top Secret (don't make me have to kill you)

I want to add a note to my last post, but I felt it was interesting enough to deserve its own separate little post, so as not to confuse people.
In my last post about the tunings I use most frequently in mixed old-time music sessions, I wrote...
My longer scaled dulcimer will be usually tuned to DAA or DDA to play in the key of D, ionian mode, and can be lowered one step down to CGG or CCG to play in the key of C.
My shorter scale dulcimer will be often tuned to AEE to play in the key of A, ionian mode, and lowered one step down to GDD to play in the key of G, ionian.
Now, do you notice how for the keys of A and G I give just ONE tuning each? That tuning consists of a bass string tuned to the tonic note (G or A) and then the middle string tuned to a "fifth" above that (five steps up from the "1" tonic note). The fifth in the key of A is E, and the fifth in the key of G is D.
Now notice that for playing in the keys of D and C, I give not one but TWO choices of tunings for each key. First I give the equivalent of the same thing I suggested for the keys of A and G- in other words, the tonic "1" note on the bass string and the "fifth" for the middle string. (DAA tuning for D, and CGG tuning for C)

Now here's where the difference comes in- why did I also give a second tuning choice for the keys of D and C? The second choice I gave consisted of tuning the bass string to the "1" tonic note and also tuning the middle string to the tonic 1 note, thus eliminating a 'fifth' in the the open drone strings. In keys of D and C, this is a DDA tuning and the CCG tuning. With this type of tuning, when you fret the tonic '1' note on the melody string in ionian tuning at the third fret, what you hear will be DDD or CCC. This sounds like what people call a 'bagpipe tuning'.

I actually prefer this tuning for the keys of D and C- without the middle drone string sounding a 'fifth'. Why?...
Because when I play with fiddlers in the keys of D and C, the tunings they use sound a bit more resolved and cheerful than what I hear when I use a fifth in my open drone. My 'fifth' note in a drone sometimes sounds a little sour to me in old-time D and C tunes, especially when banjos and guitars are involved as well.

Don't ask me why this is...I honestly don't know! I just know what does and what doesn't sound good to me. But I do know that my 1-5-5 tunings sound really good in the keys of A and G (especially when the fiddler is using a 'cross tuning' such as AEae), and that a 1-1-5 tuning sounds more consistently agreeable with D and C tunes.

I didn't want to emphasize this in my last post because things were hard enough to explain in a simple way as it was! ;) But now you know the whole story...and
here I now reveal to you my personal most used and useful tunings in the four most common old-time music keys:
Key of A: AEE
Key of G: GDD
Key of D: DDA
Key of C: CCG

(note- these tunings are not for what most folk musicians call "modal tunes"- those lonesome spooky sounding ones...for that you'll need to be tuned in either Aeolian mode or Dorian mode, not Ionian mode like those I list above, but we'll get more into that issue later on)

Hey, this is Top Secret Information that took me several years to figure out on my own, and I hope that my revealing this information will help enable more dulcimer players to break free of the unfortunate artificial chains that prevent them from playing in all kinds of fun jam sessions with other instruments! YAY! If you divulge this valuable information to undeserving, rude, or unpleasant dulcimer players...I might have to kill you.

Do give these tunings a try when you find yourself itching to change keys!


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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The tunings I use most often in old-time sessions


People often ask me what tunings I use in order to be able to play fiddle tunes in mixed old-time music sessions. I will try to give a simple basic answer here that is easily understood.

As we all know, mountain dulcimers have a reputation of being only played in the key of D. This was not always the case... Before 1960 most dulcimer players were more adept at changing keys and tunings than they are today. If you read my previous post titled "What happened?" you will understand how the dulcimer evolved into its current state where it has earned a reputation of being an instrument forever stuck in the key of D. But I am assuming that anyone reading this blog will want to at least experiment in playing in other keys as well.
Since this blog is about noter/drone style playing, we don't have to worry about chord shapes and chord fingerings when considering various tunings. We only have to consider where the melody falls on the melody string(s), and how to tune the open drone strings to go with it.

Now- I see traditional and old-time dulcimer tunes as falling into basically two categories: 1) ballads and songs which may be sung to, and 2) old-time tunes which tend to include a lot of fiddle tunes and dance tunes (not songs or ballads) and are often played in groups of musicians. The ballads seem to have a slightly higher proportion of Aeolian and Dorian melodies, and the fiddle tunes seem to have more Ionian and Mixolydian tunes. They do overlap a great deal, and so let's keep in mind that this is a generalization just to help us get our bearings.

When I play ballads and songs, I most often play them without other instruments playing along, and I try to tune my dulcimer to a key that I can sing in. The key of D is usually the very worst key for me to sing in. Men seem to find D a bit less difficult. So finding a key I can sing in and can tune my dulcimer to can be tricky. In addition, I am still struggling in my ability to sing and play at the same time. It's something I have to work hard at and Iam not very accomplished at it! For me it's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Add to that this challenge of trying to find a tuning I can sing in well on the dulcimer, and you can understand why this skill is a constant 'work in progress' for me. I truly need to work on this more and can never seem to find enough time to devout to improving my dulcimer/singing skills.

But let's put aside the issue of singing with the dulcimer for now, and instead let's discuss the tunings I most often use for playing old-time music in group sessions with other musicians....
As you may or may not know, I am very lucky to be married to a wonderful old-time fiddler. We have lots of friends who play old-time music as well, on fiddles, guitars, banjos, etc. We often play with these people at gatherings and potlucks and such. Of course some singing is always done in these sessions, but most of the music we play together consists of American fiddle tunes from the 1800's to today. There are enough old fiddle tunes to keep us plenty busy!
Most of these fiddle tunes are played in four different keys: G, A, C, and D. There are quite a few 'modal/minor' tunes too, but for simplicity let's not discuss those now. In old-time sessions, the musicians often will play many tunes in a row in one key, then re-tune and switch to another key for a long while. This is because the banjo player is tuned to a particular key and would find it hard to keep re-tuning all their strings every other song or so. Also, many old-time fiddlers are in "cross tunings" as opposed to "standard tuning" and thus would have to re-tune to change keys as well, just like the banjo player. This works to the dulcimer player's advantage, since we too tend to have to re-tune to change keys, especially if we are not using capos. Indeed, the tunings I use most often are quite similar to the 'cross tunings' that old-time fiddlers sometimes use, such as AEae.

Now we get to the meat of the matter.... Notice how the keys of G and A are only one step apart in the musical alphabet. (The musical scale notes go: abcdefgabcdefgabc...etc.) Also notice how the keys of C and D are only one step apart as well.

I have found that the most practical solution for me when playing in long old-time sessions is to have TWO dulcimers with me- one for the keys of G and A, and one for the keys of C and D. I have also found that the most practical all-around mode for me to play fiddle tune sessions in is ionian mode.

I have one dulcimer with a scale (VSL) of 28" to 28 1/2", and one dulcimer with a slightly shorter scale of 26" to 27" long. The scale length is the length in inches from nut to bridge- the part of the string that vibrates freely.
If you have a (+/-) 28" scale instrument AND a (+/-) 25-27" instrument, then you will be able to tune and play easily in pretty much any key.

My longer scaled dulcimer will be usually tuned to DAA or DDA to play in the key of D, ionian mode, and can be lowered one step down to CGG or CCG to play in the key of C.
My shorter scale dulcimer will be often tuned to AEE to play in the key of A, ionian mode, and lowered one step down to GDD to play in the key of G, ionian. A shorter scale of 26"-27" enables you to tune up to E easily without breaking strings, to play in the key of A. I used to break too many when tuning up to E on my 28 1/2" scale dulcimer, that's why I had my slightly shorter one built (26 1/2").
While certainly possible to tune back and forth on one dulcimer between the keys of A, D, G, and C, I did this for a year and found that I was breaking strings enough to make it annoying for me (like once or twice a month maybe). I think it was not so much from tuning up to high E as it was the accumulated stress on the string caused by tuning up and down and up and down so often between notes like from G to the E five steps higher and back down again. Thus, keeping two dulcimers for the two close 'pairs' of keys (G/A and C/D) led to my very seldom breaking strings and made my life a lot easier. I bought this lightweight padded double dulcimer case which is very handy to cart my pair of dulcimers around in. It might seem like a hassle to haul two dulcimers around at group gatherings, but actually it's not so bad when they are in a double case, and dulcimers weigh less than guitars and MUCH less than banjos. For me, the convenience of having the two dulcimers for the four most common keys far outweighs the extra bit of weight to carry.

I chose my shorter scale length dulcimer (26 1/2") for tuning to A and G, since a high EE was the highest note of all that I'd be tuning to in the four keys I'd be playing, so the shorter length kept less stress on the strings tuned up that high.
And I chose my longer scaled dulcimer (28 1/2") for tuning to C and D, since GG was the lowest note of all that I'd be tuning to in the four keys, and a shorter scale would help avoid those low G's from feeling too floppy.

Yes there are times when I tune both my dulcimers to keys and modes other than the ones I'm describing above, but these are my practical "working tunings" that I play in most often with others, so I wanted to tell you about the tuning layout I worked out for myself after a couple of years of trial and error. You may well find a better plan that works for your particular playing situation!

The 4-key tuning plan I use works quite well when playing old-time tunes with other instruments in group sessions in the keys of A, D, G, and C. If I need to play in minor keys there are other solutions which I'll discuss later on.
When I play alone at home or when I am working on singing ballads with my dulcimer I can tune to anything I feel like trying out, of course.

I hope this outline of my own practical tuning habits helps someone somewhere to find some good solutions for themselves when playing with others. Perhaps it will give you some good ideas for experimenting in tunings.

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