This time we’ll have a go at some variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I’ve been improvising over this one for decades, and it’s always fun. When you’re doing variations on a well-known folk melody like this, the process is a little “tighter” than improvisation: you are working with some of the main pitches that the original melody has, but you are connecting them with passing tones, sometimes moving them around a bit in the measure, and sometimes going up or down a 3rd (two frets on the dulcimer) for a bit of harmonic color.
Before we get to the two full variations on the pdf, I’d like to show you a little bit of the process I use — with just the first two measures in TAB on the melody string (tuning DAD):
one possible variation:
So it’s not really that hard: you just keep some of the main notes in place where they should be and throw in a few different ones of your own choosing—connect a few notes of the original with eighth-note connectors. Try it!! The sky’s the limit, really…..see what you can come up with!
Here are my two 12-bar variations in music and TAB, with a blank second page so you can continue on your own. Try playing this as slow and dreamy as you can:
Dulcimer capos are interesting devices, because they work very closely with the modal nature of the mountain dulcimer’s mostly diatonic fretboard. I had an GREAT question from one of my email newsletter subscribers recently:
“I am intrigued by the notion of using a capo on my dulcimer as you mention in your recent post. As far as I can make out, this enables you to achieve the melody scale for Dorian mode without retuning? Isn’t that the tuning for Shady Grove and Pretty Polly? Is there any other advantage to using a capo? Since by using it you are raising the entire instrument by one whole step, that gives Eminor. I’ll have to try it.”
Here is my response:
It seems to me from the depth of your questions that you truly “get it” with the capo on a dulcimer: when you are tuned DAD, you are in D Major open in (also known as D Ionian, but I’m talking about the mode across the fingerboard and NOT the DAA tuning!). If you put the capo on 1, this shifts everything up a whole step to an EBE dronal environment, and the dulcimer frets — particularly across the fingerboard — give you E dorian.
On the piano keyboard, if you play a D Major scale in the right hand and put a DAD drone in the left, you have the Ionian or major…… if you then play up the D Major scale from E to E, and put an EBE drone in your left hand, you will have an E Dorian environment on the piano analogous to what happens with the capo on the dulcimer!
Now think about what a guitar capo does. If it doesn’t create a massive migraine headache for you, you’ll notice that the chromatic frets of the guitar do NOT suggest any modal environment when you put the capo two frets up (a whole step for the guitar). Sometimes I think of the diatonic fretting as a FILTER.
The other main advantage of the capo (in a tuning like DAD), for me, is the fact that chords indigenous to the mode are everywhere, and ALL notes fit the mode!!! When you go into one of the traditional modal tunings for the dulcimer — like DAC “Aeolian” or DAG “Dorian” — your pure mode notes are to be found mostly on the melody string. The other two strings contain MANY notes borrowed from other modes. This makes it hard to do pure modal chord progressions like the ones I feature all the time.
If you have any thoughts or questions on the topic of dulcimer capos, let me hear from you:
I’m curious about what other dulcimer players and builders think about the whole range of dulcimer-like diatonic instruments that you basically strap on and play underneath like a guitar. There are some interesting new instruments that have gotten on my radar recently:
…and of course the well-known McNally Strumsticks, which have been around for a LONG time:
…and then the Olympia Dulcimer Company with their “walkabout” dulcimers (I have a bit of a problem with these very mandolin-like instruments being called dulcimers, but then, I’ve heard they sound great, so what the hey?):
Speaking for myself, since I still play the guitar, mandolin, and uke, I generally go to them for a play-underneath experience, though I ‘m not so sure I like the idea of having missing frets! I think I’m so used to the full chromatic range of fretting on these instruments. Everyone is different though, and these kinds of preferences are what makes life interesting.
What do you think about these “play-under” diatonic instruments? Do you think guitar players would be more likely to play one of these than learn the dulcimer in the traditional over-the-top lap style….if they were looking for something unique and folky?
In this video, Jim Miller shows you some of the basics of music theory, and how it relates to the mountain dulcimer. I can’t believe it took me so long to find it!