Volume I, No. 2, Winter 1973




Playing The Modern Dulcimer

by Jim Baldwin

The mountain dulcimer is played by ear. What little music there is available for it has only recently been prepared for the beginner to learn on. When he learns how to tune for different modes or keys, the position of the notes on the fretboard for each mode, the basic strum and thumbing techniques, and if desired the more modern picking and chording methods, he will then throw away books and music and play the music as he feels it.

Part of the beauty of the dulcimer is that it is relatively easy to play. Several of us have learned the basic techniques of the traditional method of playing from Bill Graves and the modern variations from Lynn McSpadden. The following pages include the elementary instructions for playing this inexpensive, beautiful and satisfying native American folk instrument.

[42]

TRADITIONAL

Most native traditional players play by ear and like Bill Graves say, "You're out of my category when you ask me about notes." They played other stringed instruments and picked up the dulcimer, or they learned from someone who gave a few instructions and encouragements. Many musicians grew up in musical families, like Bill, who said he learned to play from his mother. "They only had one violin when I was a kid. My mother was a violin player and Dad was too, also my brother at Conway, he played the fiddle and he played and called at dances. They were so afraid for me to touch that fiddle or I'd knock it out of tune. I didn't get to learn to play the fiddle for years. So Mom said, 'Well, if they ain't gonna let you play the fiddle, you can learn to play the walking cane.' So I learned to play it."

HOW TO HOLD

The first thing to know when learning to play any instrument is how to hold it.. When playing a dulcimer, you have a choice.

The first and most common way is to hold it on your lap. This is a more personal way of playing for your own enjoyment. If this way appeals to you, you will need a low seat, so your legs will provide a level resting place for the dulcimer. Lay the dulcimer on your lap with the scroll end on the left. The instrument should be at an angle, with the scroll end farther away from your body. This allows more room for your left hand to move while noting, and your right hand will be at a more comfortable angle. Your knees should be slightly apart to provide more support for your dulcimer.

Another way of playing a dulcimer is to place it on a low table. Bill much prefers to play this way. He puts small legs on the bottom of his dulcimer.

"Take a spool," he explained, "and cut it in two, glue it on there (underside) and put you a plug in that hole and put a little tack in the plug to set it on a table. You put two little legs up here (bridge end), and one over there (scroll end). This clears your music up. It gets rid of all that ring sitting up on a table."

NOTER AND PICKS

The tools needed to play your dulcimer are the pick and the noter, though you can use your fingers alone. The pick, held in the right hand, can be a guitar pick, a thumb pick (for modern playing styles), or, if available, a turkey quill.

A turkey quill is often used in traditional styles of playing. To prepare a quill for use, first pull off the feathers. Then clip off the small end at the desired length and thickness, using this end for strumming as it gives the needed flexibility.

How to pull the feathers off.

[43]

The purpose of the noter is to hold down the melody string. On a four-string dulcimer, there are two melody strings which are played as one. By holding down or fretting the melody string, a change in pitch results, producing the tune. The noter may be one of several materials, but most players use a Piece of wood that is tapered on the end to move smoothly up and down the fretboard, and carved to fit the hand. Wood gives a more mellow tone than either plastic or metal.

The noter is held in the left hand. The fingers are underneath and the thumb on top. This way, the thumb exerts pressure to hold down the melody string. The index finger held lightly against the fretboard keeps the noter from slipping. In playing the notes, the noter slides along the fret-board giving the characteristic sound of the dulcimer, that of one note flowing into the next. However, the noter may be lifted occasionally to give a break in sound. Coming down again with the noter gives an emphasis to the note and a slight twang, an almost oriental sound.

How to hold the pick.

How to hold the noter.

TUNING

A dulcimer should be tuned frequently. Changes in heat and humidity can throw the wooden instrument out of tune. Also, if the strings are tightly adjusted for long periods of time, they are apt to slip.

There are many ways to tune a dulcimer. Since the tuning must be changed to play songs in different keys, there are obviously too many ways to list. Below are the three most common tunings needed by the beginner.

1. Major or Ionian tuning-Tune the bass string to the pitch most pleasing to you. Then fret the bass string at the fourth fret. The remaining strings are tuned to this' pitch. To tune to a piano, the bass string is tuned to C one octave below middle C, the other strings to G below middle C. The key is C, and the scale starts on the third fret. The Major tuning is the most useful for beginners.

2. Minor or Aeolian tuning-Tune all strings to a low Major tuning. Fret the bass string at the sixth fret, and tune the melody string to this pitch. The middle string is not changed. The key is C minor, and the scale begins on the first fret.

3. Mixolydian tuning-Tune all strings to a low Major tuning. Fret the bass string at the seventh fret, and tune the melody string to this pitch. The middle string again is not changed. The scale begins at the seventh or open fret.

[44]

STRUMMING

In discussing strumming, we are talking about the simplest and most traditional style of playing the dulcimer, the way that is as old as the dulcimer itself. The strum is used principally on fast tunes.

When using the strum, all strings are played but only the melody string is noted with the noter. (The other strings may be noted in chording which is discussed later.) The other strings, therefore, sound constant pitches, a fifth apart.

Songs that employ the strum are written in 4/4 or 2/4 time, using similar strums, or in 3/4 or 6/8 time.

In 4/4 and 2/4 time each beat is sub-divided. As each measure is broken into beats, each beat is broken into strum movements.
A. Strum toward you across all strings, stressing the melody string. This beat receives the heaviest accent.
B. Strum away from you across all strings. This beat can be silent to add variety to the tune.
C. Strum toward you across all strings.
D. Strum away from you across all strings.

In 3/4 and 6/8 time, each beat is also sub-divided, but into two parts instead of four as in 4/4 time.

3/4 Beat 1

A. Strum toward you across all strings. This beat will receive the accent.
B. Silence.

Beat 2

A. Strum toward You across all strings.
B. Strum away from you across all strings.

Beat 3

Repeat beat 2.

The 3/4 pattern doubled is used for 6/8 time.

Strumming with a turkey quill.

[45]

THUMBING

Thumbing is another old and traditional way of playing the dulcimer. It is very good on slow tunes and ones in 3/4 and 6/8 time.

The melody string is plucked with the thumb, sounding the melody note. If a note is sustained, the thumb should continue softly over the remaining strings.

A variation of thumbing, used by Bill who calls it "thumping," is to sound all strings instead of just the melody string. He cautioned us, "If you don't watch it you're going to wear a blister. I tell you, when I learned that I had all the hide torn off that right there. You might not think there's quite a trick to that, hitting those strings, but brother, I had that off clear to the quick more than once. But, I was anxious to learn to play and that's a lot of it I guess."

Bill Graves shows Jim how to "thump."

[46]

{Bill Graves is featured playing and singing on the sound sheet page 59.}

Thumping

"I saw the light, I saw the light, No more darkness, No more night..."

Whipping

"Oh, Jeese had a wife To mourn for hie life, Three children they were brave..."

[47]

MODERN

With the recent revival of interest in the dulcimer, and the influence of the guitar and banjo, other styles of playing have developed from the traditional thumb and strum.

DOUBLE-THUMBING

One of the modern styles is double-thumbing. A thumb-pick may be used, but is not necessary.

The thumb is all that is required.

In double-thumbing, as in strumming, each beat in 4/4 and 2/4 time is sub-divided into four parts.
A. The thumb picks the melody string away from you.
B. The index finger plucks the bass string toward you. This beat can be, silent to add variety.
C. The thumb picks the middle string away from you.
D. The index finger plucks the bass string toward you.

Double-thumbing may also be used in 3/4 and 6/8 time. As in strumming, each beat is divided into two parts.

Beat 1
A. The thumb picks the melody string away from you.
B. The index finger plucks the bass string toward you. This beat may also be left silent.

Beat 2
A. The thumb picks the middle string away from you.
B. The index finger plucks the bass string toward you.

Beat 3
A. The thumb picks either the middle or melody string away from you.
B. The index finger plucks the bass string toward you.

THREE-FINGER PICKINGAnother of the modern styles is three-finger picking. It is borrowed from guitar playing styles, as is double-thumbing. The sound is only slightly different, but contains less bass.

The following is the pattern for three-finger picking in 4/4 time.
A. The thumb picks the melody string away from you.
B. The index finger plucks the middle string toward you. This beat may be left silent.
C. The middle finger plucks the bass string toward you.
D. The index finger again plucks the middle string.

Below is the pattern for three-finger picking in 3/4 time.

Beat 1
A. The thumb picks the melody string away from you.
B. Silence.

Beat 2
A. The index finger plucks the middle string toward you.
B. The middle finger plucks the bass string toward you.

Beat 3
A. The index finger plucks the middle string toward you.
B. The middle finger plucks the bass string toward you

Again, 6/8 is just 3/4 time doubled.

The pattern for double-thumbing.

[48]

CHORDING

The last modern style is chording, which may be used with the strum, thumbing, and double-thumbing and three-finger picking. All strings may be fretted with the thumb and fingers to change their pitches. Below are the chords for Major usage. With them you will be able to accompany many songs.

One of the C chords.

CHORDS FOR THE DULCIMER

Elliott Hancock of The Dulcimer Shoppe demonstrates chording.

We are indebted to Lynn McSpadden and his book, FOUR AND TWENTY, SONGS FOR THE MOUNTAIN DULCINER, for help in preparing this article.

[49]

TWO SIMPLE SONGS FOR THE MOUNTAIN DULCIMERSKIP TO MY LOU & BARBARY ELLEN

The numbers indicate the number of beats per note. The melody and middle strings are played with the thumb, the bass string with the index finger.

[50]




Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues


Local History Home