For my songwriting buddies...

 If you either have a dulcimer or are thinking of getting one, here are a few tips about tunings and chording and generally getting the feel for what a dulcimer can contribute to your songwriting tool belt.

I’ll be addressing the three string dulcimer – or any greater number of strings as long as they’re arranged in three courses of strings. (A “course” is two strings played as one, like on a mandolin.)

There are several ways to hold and play dulcimers, as the instrument is early in its evolution and no “standard” method has yet solidified.

First sit with your dulcimer in your lap with the tuners pointing to your left. Pull the base of the instrument in to you and let the peghead angle away from you. This will allow you to play with your left hand moving away from and towards yourself at an angle, which is much more ergonomic and comfortable than straight back and forth from left to right.

I’ll start you with DAD - the most commonly used tuning in the dulcimer world these days.

You can use an electronic tuner, or tune to a guitar or other source of pitches.

The bass string farthest from you will be tuned to D

The middle string is A or a fifth above your low D

And the first or melody string nearest you is tuned to D an octave above your bass string.

You can tune your dulcimer lower in pitch if you prefer to accommodate your vocal range. It will tune as low as A below D. As long as the intervals are the same bass = tonic, middle = fifth, melody = octave all the chord instructions will still work.

Tuning the “old fashioned” way.

                        (Or - we don't need no stinking 'lectronics!)

First get your bass string where it makes a clear tone, neither feeling like it’s about to break nor so floppy that it buzzes.

Now fret the bass string at the 4th fret and tune the middle string to that pitch. (Remember if you have that funny partial fret it is counted as 1 1/2 not 2.)

Now fret the middle string at the 3rd fret and tune the first string to that pitch.

[If you know how to play a "harmonic" you can match the bass string harmonic to the melody (1st) string open.]

Now that your dulcimer is tuned let’s explore the fingerboard.

You’ll notice that the fret spacing is different from what you may be used to seeing on guitars or banjos. Instead of all the frets getting gradually smaller as you go up the fingerboard, some are larger and some are smaller. This because it is a diatonic instrument rather than a chromatic instrument – which is a fancy way of saying it’s like giving us the white keys of the piano, instead of all the keys.

Now this is both a limitation and an advantage. Yes, it limits the number of keys you can play in without retuning, however it also makes it so that almost anything you do will sound pretty decent since you can’t easily play outside of your chosen key or mode.

I'm about to give you a link to a page full of chords to help get you started. But before you run off to learn all the "right" places to put your fingers, I invite you to be aware that you are at a very powerful point in your relationship to your dulcimer. It could be called "beginners mind." Unlike any other instruments you might play - you have no ingrained habits and patterns burned into your neural pathways. I invite you to deliberately enjoy that for a while. Give the "critic" the day off, turn up your appreciative hearing and experiment with your dulcimer and see what sounds live in that little box.

Strum, it pick it, frail it flick it - try feathers and combs or maybe beat the strings with a chopstick. Be a kid again... let your ears be your guide!

Don't forget my two word theory of music...

Beauty Recurs...

 Here's a link to a page of chords:

Dulcimer Resources on the Web.

If you google "mountain dulcimer" or "mountain dulcimer lessons" you'll find an amazing amount of information. There are books, magazines, podcasts and blogs... Below are a few that I've found helpful.

Jerry Rockwell has a pretty involved study of music theory applied to mountain dulcimer with an emphasis on improvisation.

Many dulcimer players are not musically literate. That is they don't access music through traditional staff lines and dots on a page. Some still learn by ear from other players, but a growing contingent teach, learn and pass around songs via various systems of tablature. Tablature is specific to the instrument and actually tells you where to place your fingers on the strings.

Here is a great software program called Tabledit - the reader is free.

The program shows the tablature - plays a midi file - and also has lettered dots jumping around on the dulcimer fingerboard showing where your fingers go. Since it's midi, you can slow the speed down and loop it to help you master a piece or section.

If you spring for the full version, you can input any song you write and it will also let you print out tab, musical staff or both. This can be helpful to create lead sheets for other musicians.

There's a ton of stuff at "Everything Dulcimer."

Steven Smith – has a nice page on chords and chord theory on the dulcimer:

Stephen Seifert and Dan Landrum have put together a cool site called "Dulcimer School" that's worth checking out.

Dulcimer Chord Book
Neal Hellman
Over 500 mountain dulcimer chords for the five widely used modes--Mixolydian, Ionian, Lydian, Dorian, and Aeolian--plus jazz and four-string chromatic tunings. Includes an explanation and history of modes, transposition, using a capo, playing dulcimer in jam sessions, and more. Special case size (41/2 in. by 12 in.).*lN5DQ5&p_id=MB94662&xm=on&ppinc=search2

There is a “Chord Wizard” here. (It works better in Explorer than Mozilla.)

Here's another chord finder - you can ask for a chord in a given tuning and it will show you where to put your fingers. Or you can tell it where you're putting your fingers and it will name the chord for you.

I hope these are helpful. As time permits I hope to create some short video clips demonstrating some strumming and finger picking techniques and also demonstrating decorations like slides hammer-ons, pull offs etc. And also explore some other tunings, modes and more.

Until then - keep singing and writing!!!


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