I’ve been doing this kind of chord reference chart for the mountain dulcimer since about 1975, and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to render them on the web:
These charts go along with a little composition project we’re doing currently. I asked my newsletter subscribers if anyone wanted to do their own version of my Light Into Darkness and Tapping at the Edge of Paradise compositions, and there was a very healthy response. So here are the reference charts in the order that you play the chords.
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!!
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!!
This 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!!!
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:
One Life 4/4 Study
Here is a great chord progression I’ve been working with for almost a decade:
Bm / / / | / / / / |D / / / | / / / / |G / / / |D / / / |A / / / | / / / / :||
I call it the “One Life” progression, but you can call it Fred or Marjorie if you want!! It is one of those extremely hypnotic, mesmerizing progressions that I can play all day and never get bored.
Over the course of time, I have written many different sorts of melodies to go with the One Life progression: waltzes, hornpipes, shuffles, bluesy jams, jigs, and more. This one, though, is a short quasi-classical study which has an upper melody part (which we’ll have this time), and a lower bass part (which we’ll probably get to soon).
Here is the music and TAB for the upper melody:
One Life Study in 4/4
If you play a little keyboard, try the melody part and see what happens (even I can play this one, and my keyboard chops are very minimal). On your dulcimer, you might try filling in the bare-bones single-string melody with a chord tone here and there–that’s why I put the chord symbols on top! Have fun with it and let me know how it works for you, OK?
The Challenge From 2 Weeks Ago
Here’s the challenge from the last newsletter: take this same progression (the Cabbage Chords) (you can put it in 4/4 time if you want), and try ascending bass lines. Did you have a chance to try this?
Happy Pickin’ – Spring is J U S T a b o u t H E R E !
This was a real joy for me – being able to tell my story easily and freely, with just the right questions. The interviewer here is BT Fasmer, who has a GREAT New Age Music portal he runs in Bergen, Norway:
Interview with Jerry Rockwell
I have always been a fan of Gary Ewer’s online resources for learning basic music theory and improving your songwriting skills, but when the subject is very close to my heart, like Modal Chord Progressions, all of my lights and buzzers start to go off simultaneously!!
Gary Ewer has a post about how to get Lydian Mode progressions to work. I’ve tried some of these ideas over the years with limited success, but Gary goes into some detail about the specific problems with the Lydian, and how your ear can get easily led to the relative major (Ionian) or other relative mode.
If you want to try Lydian Chord Progressions on your DAD-tuned dulcimer, I suggest G Lydian as your tonal center. This way, you might have a home G chord, going to an A chord, then to something other than D. Why don’t you want to go to D? Because it will sound like a progression that comes HOME to D!! (IV – V – I)
What you really need to do is get the G chord to sound like HOME: even if it has that unsettling #4 (C# which you can find on the 2nd fret of the middle string) somewhere in a melodic element that goes over the G chord!
Let me know if you have any success with Lydian chords, but you might also have a look at Gary Ewer’s other GREAT articles on Modal Chord Progressions, linked on his blog below the article.