A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Mon Mar 14, 2016 5:40 pm

Robin the Busker wrote:... So I think the question should be 'why is the chromatic not popular?'


Hi Robin,

An interesting question, but the answer's probably not too mysterious. Fashions change over time, and music changes with them. It took 400 years for the guitar to gain it's 6th string, but when it finally did you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a six-string guitar. The seven-string guitar was wildly popular in Russia a hundred and fifty years ago; after the revolution, only 6-string guitars were made. In the US, up to about 30 years ago if you wanted a 7-string instrument you practically had to have it custom made; now you can buy one on Amazon any day of the week.

And yet... there are still people devoted to 5-course Baroque guitar, and there are still people devoted to playing Russian classical music on the seven-string G-tuned instrument.

Developing new art means we develop new tools with which to make it. But developing new art doesn't mean that you have to burn all the old art, or bury all the old artists.


The lack of frets may leave you stuck in one key but, boy, does it make that key easy to play!!!!! The shift to the contemporary instrument certainly eased playability and opened up the instrument to the broader 'folk music' being played in the 60s/70s. It was easy to play and sing 'Blowing in the Wind' from DAd on dulcimer if you could strum three simple 2 finger chords - and it sounded 'right'. For those folks who have tried, it is actually far more difficult the play a vintage Appalachian dulcimer tunefully that it is to knock out something sounding reasonable on a contemporary dulcimer in DAd.


This is not unlike what happened with the development of "equal temperment" intonation. This is how modern pianos (and most modern Euro/American instruments) are tuned. Before this development (around J.S.Bach's day), an instrument that sounded really good in one or two keys sounded wretched in most of the other keys, unless you retuned it. This could be quite a chore on something like two-manual harpsichord with a hundred or more strings. Wind players (trumpets; clarinets; etc.) had to carry around a whole suitcase full of versions of their chosen instrument, pitched in different keys.

Equal temperment (ET) made it possible to play in any key, relatively in tune. There was fierce debate over the use of ET, with opponents arguing that it in fact made instruments play relatively out of tune, in every key. Both sides were right, to a point. ET eventually came to dominate in the west, but even today the debate rages, and there are still many devotees of earlier tuning systems, instruments that support them, and concerts of music given using them.

It's very true that "extra" frets can actually get in the way when playing certain kinds of diatonic music, and that certainly can be used to argue in favor of using certain configurations of instrument in certain circumstances, and different configurations in others.

More important to me than ease of playing, however, is that different configurations of an instrument will suggest different musical ideas to a player or a composer. Being primarily a guitarist/keyboardist myself, when I'm composing for orchestra I find myself writing very different chord voicings for strings if I conceive of them being laid out on guitar, than I do if I conceive of them being laid out on piano. And my approach to a solo on a diatonic instrument is very different than my approach to a solo on a chromatic instrument. You work with the tools you have, and try to make the most of them regardless of any perceived "limitations". Indeed, limitations are often a spur to creativity.

Evolution tends to happen to make certain things easier, as in this case, but there are gains and losses with each change. The 'gains' to be had from switching to DAd, equal temperament and adding the 6+ were far greater then the losses of altering older fret layouts because you could always continue to play in melody drone on the new instruments if you wanted to (although I think we have shown recently that melody drone on a contemporary dulcimer is a compromise). However, the gains to be had from moving to chromatic do not, for the vast majority of players, outweigh the losses of doing so - therefore I very much doubt that we will see the instrument 'evolve' into one that is chromatic in years to come.


You'll have both instruments co-existing, side-by-side. The electric guitar evolved from the acoustic guitar, but it certainly hasn't replaced it.


OK so lets get back to that thread title "A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer" Well, of course it is a dulcimer simply because that's what the musicians who play it call it; and within the folk instrument world it is the 'folk' who ultimately decide what something is called.


To some extent. There are also more objective organological reasons for calling it a "dulcimer". ET Fretted, Just Fretted, fretless, acoustic, electric, and 12-string are all still guitars. Pure diatonic, contemporary, and chromatic are all still dulcimers. The fundamental construction, and means of playing haven't changed.


So there you go. "They've put the extra note in. In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it's not quite a dulcimer anymore." For Jean, the addition of the 6+ changed the nature of the instrument to move it away from how she wanted to play. From her perspective the change to the fretboard was not 'evolution' but a new species.


As regards dulcimers, certainly no one is more entitled to their opinion than Jean Ritchie.

Still, I would note that evolution is how we get new species. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two concepts are intimately related.

Humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor, and while we're certainly different species, we're nonetheless both still primates.

Now that's just my opinion, which of course is a valid opinion because it is based on empirical evidence :lol: :lol: :lol:


That's a pretty good basis, IMO. ;)
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Mon Mar 14, 2016 5:59 pm

strumelia wrote: and you'd definitely have a harder time playing jazz or Mozart on a fretless banjo than on a regular fretted banjo.


I dunno... violin players have been doing a fair job on both jazz and Mozart for a long time, without any frets. :)
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Ken Bloom » Mon Mar 14, 2016 6:04 pm

Thats because they get sustain and dynamics from the bow. Plucked instruments have more of a problem without frets when it comes to sustain unless the tension is rather low, like the oud.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Dr_H » Tue Mar 15, 2016 4:01 pm

Ken Bloom wrote:Thats because they get sustain and dynamics from the bow. Plucked instruments have more of a problem without frets when it comes to sustain unless the tension is rather low, like the oud.

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Just have to start playing that fretless banjo with a bow, then. :lol:
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby strumelia » Tue Mar 15, 2016 4:24 pm

People do play banjos with bows, usually experimentally. They sound 'interesting' and distinctive, particularly suited to a drone-y/percussive sort of vocal backup. The sound reminds me of the Harmonium or pipes, but much less resonant.
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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby philips » Tue Mar 15, 2016 11:45 pm

What can be done on a 3 string chromatic dulcimer?

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby kwl » Wed Mar 16, 2016 9:13 am

Sam is a skillful player and plays many different songs on his 3 string chromatic instrument.

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Re: A chromatic dulcimer is not "really" a dulcimer?

Postby Woodcricket » Fri Apr 22, 2016 12:15 pm

I started out with a diatonic and now I have a chromatic. I love them both. One is old, the other new. But they're both great instruments. They're different, but one is not better than the other.

This is as silly as the argument over whether the Nigerian Dwarf goat is a modified pygmy goat or a separate breed. Believe it or not, people actually go into hysterics over that topic. :roll:
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