Tuning Mountain Dulcimers
There appear to be a couple of different ideas about tuning mountain dulcimers.
We like the Ionian mode of tuning which is traditional and easy to play. In this tuning the 3rd string, the one farthest from you as you play, is tuned to the do of the major scale do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do. The 2nd string in the middle of the fret board is tuned to sol, and the first or melody string is also tuned to sol. To tune to the key of G with a piano, one tunes the 3rd string to G below middle C on the piano and the other two strings are tuned to D above middle C.
When playing a melody, you will place your finger or noting stick on fret 3 to produce a do. If you now move from fret 3 up one fret at a time through 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, you will have played the 8 notes of the major scale. The tuning we have just described is traditional and is mentioned in several books such as:
- The Dulcimer Book by Jean Ritchie
- Dulcimer Maker the Craft of Homer Ledford by R. Gerald Alvey
- How to Make and Play the Dulcimore by Chet Hines
- The Appalachian Dulcimer Book by Michael Murphy
Now, about that extra fret….
There are several different modal tunings and some of the books listed above describe them. One tuning in particular has become popular for some reason which we have not yet discovered. That tuning is called the Mixolydian mode. In this mode, the 3rd string is tuned to do, the 2nd string to sol, and the 3rd (as well as the 4th on some dulcimers) is tuned to do one octave higher than the 3rd string. What this does is shift the first do of the melody string to an open string, that is, the zero fret. It complicates the traditional fretboard because one must add an extra fret between the frets traditionally numbered 6 and 7 in order to get a complete major scale. What also happens though, is that one loses the notes below do that one had below fret 3 using the Ionian mode. The Mixolydian mode is recommended in books such as:
- In Search of the Wild Dulcimer by Robert Force and Albert d’Ossche
- The Mountain Dulcimer by Howard W. Mitchell
When Chet Hines published his book in 1973, he had been making dulcimers for 25 years. He felt that the addition of the fret to create the “black key” needed for Mixolydian was a
“forced evolution” that “might appear to be a solution to many of the limitations of the dulcimore. However, each musical instrument has its own set of limitations and efforts to modify it beyond basic improvement of structure and materials often result in changes to the very characteristics that define the instrument.”
The author of one modern book on playing the dulcimer calls us “disreputable” for selling instruments without that extra fret. We don’t understand this attitude and disagree with it. We can’t see any advantage to Mixolydian tuning and feel that the extra fret complicates the instrument unnecessarily. But we will be glad to add the 6 1/2 fret as well as the 13 1/2 fret to one of our dulcimers if a customer desires it.
Yet another advantage for our way of doing things is that Sharon has worked out a very simple retuning for playing tunes in a minor key. With DDG tuning just tune the first string down one full step so you have CDG and use the 4th fret as do.
In her book Sharon’s Mountain Dulcimer Book there are 2 minor key songs and 23 in major key. Five of the songs in her book include harmony parts so two people can have different things to play. The songs in her book require only that you can read numbers and count. You do not need to read music. These songs come from Sharon’s classes where she teaches people to play, so they have been tested many times. And they don’t fudge on some tunes like a few books do.
We need to talk about string gauges because they affect what range of tunings one can have without breaking strings. Our dulcimers come with .011’s for strings 1 and 2, and .013 for string 3. These are good for DDG tuning where G is below middle C.
We buy individual plain strings for our dulcimers. If you buy a package of dulcimer strings it will probably have a wound string for the 3rd or bass string. This works fine for D below middle C but not for G below middle C. Most of these wound strings are .022 or greater although SIT and GHS strings come with a .020. We have found that if you are careful you can tune an .020 up to G below middle C but you would be better off with an .018 if you want a wound string for the 3rd. Strings that are .022 or greater will break if tuning up to G is attempted. The tension has to be too high for the larger wound string to reach G.