Pentatonic Scales on the Mountain Dulcimer


Pentatonic just means “5 tones” !! The Major Pentatonic is a great one to get started with: it is FUN, it is HAPPY, and there’s no way of getting into trouble with “wrong notes!”

For me, pentatonics have always meant FREEDOM:

  • Freedom to Explore
  • Freedom to Improvise
  • Freedom to Try Something!

On the DAD dulcimer the five notes in the D Major Pentatonic Scale (D, E, F#, A, B) are laid out very nicely on the bass and melody strings:

fret: 0 – 1 – 2 – 4 – 5 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 11

On the middle string we have:

fret: 0 – 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 7 – 8 – 10 – 11 – 12

Here are some easy fingerpicking exercises to get you started going up and down the major pentatonic. If you are a flatpicker, make sure your pick direction is always alternating, even when crossing strings! Once you get the hang of it, you should make up your own exercises–these are just to get you started:

jpeg of D Major Pentatonic TAB exercisesThe first four 4-measure sections should each be played as many times as you can stand it. Take the tempo as slow as you need, making sure that the quarter-note and half-note sections breathe some and don’t feel too anxious (I always have to remind myself to take a conscious breath!)


Dulcimer TAB: Ideas for Hey, Ho, Nobody Home


There are many possibilities for melodies to go over the Em – D chords that accompany the round Hey, Ho, Nobody Home. Here are some of my ideas on this with your DAD-tuned dulcimer with a capo on the first fret. The basic idea is that you go right up the basic 6-tone (or hexatonic) scale (E – F# – G – A – B – D), and then come right back down. You can go up to the 5th of the Em chord (B) and then come down if you want, and then you can decorate these bare-bones lines a little bit. This is basically how the TAB is set up, but try to use your imagination, remembering that two beats on Em – then two beats on D —- this is the basic reference structure.  (this could be played on any instrument that plays chords, or on another dulcimer, but for our purposes here, it is a silent little structure that runs in the background)

dulcimer tab for getting through Em - D chords

Hexatonic Scale with Em and D Triads


I found a very interesting way to build a hexatonic (or 6-tone) scale using just two adjacent triads, with no overlapping notes or common tones. Here is the diagram of the six tones from low to high, and a diagram showing how the two triads are complementary and how they are interlocked:

Diagram of D and Em Triads complementing each other to form a hexatonic scale

Diagram of D and Em Triads complementing each other to form a hexatonic scale

The dulcimer TAB below the notes is for DAD tuning, and the important thing here is to see the 7 – 5 – 4 of the D, and then the 8 – 6 – 5 of the Em. Each triad adds three essential ingredients to the hexatonic scale: there is no overlap. I’ve been using this scale referenced to Em as the tonic chord, so we have: the notes E (Root) – F# (2) – G (b3) – A (4) – B (5) – D (b7).

So for the great round Hey, Ho, Nobody Home–which does an endless cycle of Em / D / –this scale works wonders going consecutively down or up, and in many patterns that can be sequenced over the repeating chords.

Just Starting Work Here

I’m just getting started now with a mountain dulcimer oriented blog After some research and reading of some other blogs (as well as reading the excellent WordPress the missing manual, by Matthew MacDonald, I have decided to make a kind of “blog-in-progress” and let the structure and categories gradually sort themselves out.

We’ll see what happens with this. In the meantime, you may want to check out my main web site:

As time goes on, I’ll try to share lots of stuff about mountain dulcimers and dulcimer music with you. Thanks for reading!