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

continue reading the rest of this post here...