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How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player - Part 2

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How To Become A Better Dulcimer Player – Part 2

This is the second of three articles that I have written on how to become a better dulcimer player.

Please bear in mind that the opinions expressed are just that – my personal opinions based on 20 years

of playing the mountain dulcimer. If you find the thoughts helpful and applicable to your playing, then

I have achieved my goals. If you disagree, our dulcimer community would welcome your thoughts.

The majority of dulcimer players are intimidated by their fret boards. They rarely learn which notes are

associated with each fret. We limit our ability to become a better player by not learning our fret boards.

Do you have to be able to read musical notation to accomplish this? NO! With all of the songs that we

play, there are but eight notes in each key. All you have to do is to be able to count from 1 to 8. I will

say that learning to read musical notation will help you to become a better player; however, it is not

necessary. That will be a subject for a future article.

As you know, our dulcimers are tuned to DAD. The middle and bass strings are the same notes with an

octave difference. The middle string (the A string) is always five notes from the melody notes. This

makes it easier in as much as we only have to learn the notes on two, instead of three strings.

The melody string: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C-C# - then repeat going up the fret board.

The middle string: A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G-G# then repeat going up the fret board

The bass string: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C-C# then repeat going up the fret board

By first learning the notes on our melody string, all we have to do is count to five and we have

identified the note on the middle string. The bass string is a repeat of the melody string, one octave


If you know which notes are where, you can play any song as long as you have the tablature. Should

you memorize songs? That will come by repetition. I feel that memorization often limits our ability to

play the song differently each time we play it. If you know your fret board, you can substitute notes and

chords as you play to make each song sound more colorful.

The most common chords that we play in the key of D are D-G-A-Em-F#m-Bm. If you know your fret

board you can substitute the relative minor chord for each of the major chords. Say what! Simply stated

there is but one note difference from a major chord to a relative minor chord. The difference is subtle in

sound; however, it can make economy of motion much easier when playing all over your fret board.

This is particularily true when jumping from frets 1-2-3 to frets 7 and above.

Major chord Minor chord

D=D-F#-A Bm=B-D-F#

G=G-B-D Em=E-G-B

A=A-C#-E F#m=F#-A-C#

As seen in the above examples, the relative minor chords are but one note higher than its corresponding

major note.

In the D chord, the A is replaced by a B.

In the G chord, the D is replaced by an E.

In the A chords, the E is replaced by an F#.

This holds true for every musical key. It is all mathematics. It will only take a day or so to memorize

your fret board. It will make you a better player.

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I fully agree that both beginners and experienced players alike are holding themselves back by not understanding where the notes are on their fretboard.

I do hope that somewhere in your article series you will address the fact that there are many, equally valid, tunings for the mountain dulcimer besides DAd, and that there are several other ways to play the instrument besides Chord-Melody.  We don't want beginners to think that DAd and Chord-Melody are the only ways a dulcimer can be used!

If you write the tuning as DAd, instead of DAD, I've found -- over 40 years of dulcimer playing -- that  beginners will tend not to try and tune the bass and melody strings to the same note in the same octave; and then wonder why it sounds bad....   

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Thank you for your suggestion concerning a future article of different dulcimer tunings. I purposely omitted optional tunings in my first two articles, as I wanted to address beginning to intermediate players and not overwhelm them with information. Future articles will address alternate tunings; using a 1½ fret; bending notes; chromatic, baritone, and bass dulcimers.

Part 3 will contain my thoughts on finger placement. Hopefully I will upload it next week.

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Thanks for posting these.  Definitely a good next step for someone to learn the layout of the fretboard and note locations.   One quick thing I noted: You wrote "As you know, our dulcimers are tuned to DAD. The middle and bass strings are the same notes with an octave difference."   Did you mean the melody and bass strings?

Looking forward to part 3 🙂

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