Axis of Awesome!

Four Chords for a mess of pop songs!

This Aussie comedy act is really amazing. Butch Ross told me about them in 2007 or 2008, when I was obsessed with my little four chord circular progression D – A – Bm – G… that I used for Light Into Darkness, Tapping at the Edge of Paradise, and Tapping Into The Light on electric dulcimer. I just found more and more melodies that went with these chords – and bass lines with chord inversions to make it WAY more interesting.

Now in 2017 it seems like new ideas are again coming forward when I mess with these chords. I even have a more detailed version now, with sub-cycles of chords on each of the four main chords.

Most of the work I’ve done directly on the mountain dulcimer, but its fun with guitar, keyboard (which I can barely play!), or whatever chording instrument is nearby.

So even if the mountain dulcimer is your main instrument, why not play around on a piano or little electronic keyboard and see what happens? I usually resort to the white keys when I work with keyboard, so in C you have: C – G – Am – F. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!!

Two Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

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:


or another:


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:


E minor Hexatonic Jam-A-Round

I think this 6-tone or hexatonic Em – D Jam-A-Round is the most fun of all so far!! The Jam-A-Round idea is very simple: over a repeating chord progression, often using a descending scale, we just plug in parts where the 8-bar progressions begin. You never know how parts interact until you try, so if you have a playing partner with another dulcimer, you are in for a fun time! With a room full of dulcimers and a little imagination, there could be some amazing music!!

ThisĀ EminorJAR1 is the first melodic sketch around these chords:

Em / / / | D / / / | Em / / / | D / / / | Em / / / | D / / / | Em / Bm / | Em / / / :||

There are basically three parts here: part one is measure 1 – 8, part two is measure 9 – 16, and part three is measure 17 – 24. If you do it as a traditional round, you can play all 24 bars as written, with 2nd and 3rd players coming in on measures 9 and 17. The most fun, though, is where you assign one player to part one, one player to part two, and one to part three. With a little playful messing around, each part can vary according to each players’ ability and imagination. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have one or two of these parts just repeating without variation, because this will act as a great anchor for the more daring improvisers!

Measure 24 is an incomplete measure: I have beat 4 wide open for you, in case you want to put in those high B or E pickup notes into variations of part three from measures 17 through 24. Have FUN!!!

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!)