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Carolina Rockman

How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player - 9 The Pentatonic Scale

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How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player - 9

The Pentatonic Scale

The majority of dulcimer jams that I have attended are usually fast and furious. There are a lot of songs played that you may not be familiar with. Someone calls a song and they start playing immediately  Either you know the song by heart or don’t. For the most part, written tab is usually not used at a jam. So what is a person to do?

1. If there is a guitar player at the jam and you can visually recognize the chord changes, you can play backup chords.

2. You can try playing the melody by ear (if the song is played often enough). For whatever reason, songs are usually played three times. OR

3. You might try playing within a pentatonic scale.

What is a pentatonic scale? A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave,  in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which has seven notes per octave (such as the major scale and minor scale). For our purposes we will use the key of D and the key of G.

D Pentatonic Scale: D-E-F#-A-B

On the melody and bass string of our dulcimers this equates to the following frets:

0-1-2-4-5

On the middle string of our dulcimers, this equates to the following frets:

0-1-3-4-5

What do these number have to do with playing at a jam? I am glad that you asked. If you don’t know the melody or don’t know the chords, you can play any of the notes within the pentatonic scale for that key and it will usually sound OK. You won’t be playing the melody; however, it will let you participate in the jam. The song itself does not have to be within the pentatonic scale; however, many songs have been written that fall within that category.

The following list contains some songs that are pentatonic:

A La Claire Fontaine (French Canadian )
Amazing Grace
Auld Lang Syne (Scottish)

Cotton-eyed Joe

Derby Ram, The
Git along little dogies (trad cowboy)
Go Tell It On the Mountain

How Can I Keep From Singing
Land of the silver birch (Canadian)
Loch Lomond
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (spiritual)
“Old Chinese Song” by Marcel Grandjany (based on Chinese trad. tune)
Old gray mare, The

Old MacDonald

Rain, Rain, Go A Way

Ring-A-Round The Rosie
Sakura (Cherry Blooms, Japanese)
Skye Boat Song
Sukiyaki
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
The Cherry Tree Carol
They Stole My Wife Last Night (Scottish pipe tune)
Wha wadna fight for Charlie?
Wayfaring Stranger
Ye Banks and Braes

…. plus numerous other spirituals, Scottish pipe tunes, Japanese and Chinese songs, etc.

Give it a try! It will let you participate in a jam and will help you become a better dulcimer player.

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Great idea Carolina.  Your article assumes we're all tuned in DAd, which many people are not.   What is the Key of G pentatonic scale?  Is that G-A-B-D-E? 
That would be frets 3-4-5-7-8 on the open D string(s), correct?

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21 hours ago, NoterMan said:

What is the Key of G pentatonic scale?  Is that G-A-B-D-E? 

Yep, those are the notes for a G Major pentatonic scale.

21 hours ago, NoterMan said:

That would be frets 3-4-5-7-8 on the open D string(s), correct?

That's a way to play it.  You can also play it in "the box" with 3 on the bass, 4 on the bass, 5 on the bass, 3 on the middle, 4 on the middle. And catching 3, 4, and 5 on the  melody for higher notes.  The 5th fret on the middle string is F# and not in the scale.

The E minor pentatonic scale can be played similarly at the first fret.  It's the same notes, but in the order E G B A D.   Those are at the  1, 3, and 4 frets on the bass, middle and melody.

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The G as well as all pentatonic scales are the same no matter what the tuning. If one is tuned to other than DAD,   i.e. DGD, CGC, etc. the scale notes are the same; however, they will be on different frets than those in DAD tuning.

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