Music nerds, please help me figure out chords on the mountain dulcimer
June 28, 2014 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I would like to be able to tune my 3-stringed diatonically fretted mountain dulcimer, typically stuck in the key of D, to other keys such as G, C, A, F, E, and Am. Then I would like someone to teach me how to figure out the notes on each fret so I can build the chords to play whatever song I'm in the mood for.

Hey friends!

I'm going on a trip for a month and I don't want to bring my overly large guitar. Since I'd die without playing something, I figured I'd bring my mountain dulcimer, a fun little instrument I play with from time to time. My mountain dulcimer has a diatonic fret style (bottom image), and is typically tuned DAD or DAA. This means the instrument is essentially tuned to the key of D, and you're limited to only a subset of the chords (for my purposes, D, A, G, Bm, Em). However, it is possible for me to capo the first fret on my dulcimer (no higher!!), so that gets some extra mileage. Furthermore, I can tune the low string anything between D and A, the middle string anything between B and E, and the high string anything between E and G.

First question: from those tuning possibilities and the capo, can any music genius teach me whether/how I can tune it to the majors keys? I'd love G, C, A, F, and Am.

Second question: Can you teach me how figure out the notes along each string given the open tuning of that string?

Third question: Once I have those notes, can you teach me how to build the basic chords?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Buckt to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
I would approach it in how you tune the guitar, interval wise, rather than tuning it to keys or chords. For example, the bottom three strings on a guitar are tuned in 4ths (E - A - D)

Your dulcimer is typically tuned with a 5th up from the low string (D to A) and then a 4th up from that for a D or an octave for the high A.

So, instead of learning all new chord shapes and tunings for each key you want to play in, it would likely be easier to tune the lowest string to the key you want, and then tune the other two relative to that. The chord shapes you are familiar with would still work, they would just be transposed up or down depending on how you tuned the lowest string.

So, given the chords/keys you want, from low to high:

A E A (the high A falls outside your tuning parameters)
C G C (the low C falls outside your tuning parameters)

Am relies on a flatted third, so if you wanted to strum an open Am chord on your dulcimer, the tuning would be (low to high) A C E (1,3,5) , but you would need to figure out all new chord fingerings, which could be fun.

Does that make sense? I may have been reading your question wrong.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can already play simple three-chord songs in the key of G. You have the G, C and D chords, and for a lot of things in G that's all you need.

Another trick you can use to buy yourself some flexibility without retuning is to use open fifths (a.k.a. "power chords"). If you just strum the dulcimer with the strings unfretted, you're playing a power chord on D. That will actually work as a D major chord or a D minor chord. If you strum it with your finger all the way across the neck at the first fret, you're playing a power chord on E. That will work as an E major or an E minor chord. Etcetera.

Using that trick you can play three-chord songs in the key of A, using the E power chord as if it were an E major chord. Or you can play three-chord songs in the key of E, using the E and B power chords as if they were both major chords.

Tl;dr: you effectively have twice as many chords as you think you do, even without retuning. You have real, fully voiced versions of D, A, G, Bm and Em. And, using the magic of open fifths, you can plausibly fake Dm, Am, Gm, B and E.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:41 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, if you really want to experiment, pick up a glass or metal slide from your local music store, you can tune your dulcimer accordingly and play the slide blues in D

Major Blues: D F# A
Minor Blues: D F A
7th/Jazz Blues": D C F# (which is 1, 7, 3, since you can't tune that high C)

open chord is the root, slide over the 5th fret for the IV chord, slide over the 7th fret for the V chord. I - IV - I - V - IV I ..... throw in some heartache and you've got yourself a blues song.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 3:42 PM on June 28, 2014

Honestly, though, for a lot of stuff it's probably easier to transpose the music rather than retune your instrument. If you can sing something in E, you can probably sing it almost as well in D.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:44 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are dulcimer capos, and a Fiddlewidget to help with transposition. Dulcimers are often of vernacular construction, and aren't usually built for retunings to higher tension.

In Search of the Wild Dulcimer is pretty decent on chord theory.
posted by scruss at 3:41 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tough question. The Diatonic Dulcimer is really inherently limited in its flexibility. You are almost kinda stuck playing the basic keys and progressions from the base tunings that it wants to play in, and you can stretch its capabilities somewhat if you are devious, but I think you will probably not be able to play any song/in any key, at least not without some pretty serious fudging/artistic license. If you tell it to play a reasonably sophisticated jazz standard, it will probably say "I don't feel like it". If you tell it play a song with anything more than a basic modulation, it will just say "Nope." Sure, with tuning you can set it up to hit any essential triad, but the tricky part is getting to the next triad, and if it's a stretch, sometimes your fingers just turn into pretzel logic from there. So it's just not as functional for campfire karaoke as a guitar is.

Sorry, enough gloom. If you want chord charts, we've got chord charts: The Appalachian Dulcimer Book by Michael Murphy also has plenty of swell illustrations and historical anecdotes.

(So for me personally I just play what it tells me to. If I cut a few corners I can almost get a passing version of Rush's 'Subdivisions' out of it.)
posted by ovvl at 10:51 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is helpful, thanks for all the tips!
posted by Buckt at 5:13 PM on June 29, 2014

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