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 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.