Jazzing It Up A Bit:
On Diatonic Dulcimers
MouNtain Dulcimers in FAC Tuning
by Steve Eulberg
Hammered Dulcimers and the ii-V-I Progression
ow!” he exclaimed at a recent workshop I gave on FAC tuning for mountain dulcimers. “I put myself through college as a drummer in a Big Band and I never thought I’d be able to play those tunes on the dulcimer!” Maybe you are like many people who struggle to play the music they love on the dulcimers they love. If you are, this one’s for you! Jazz is a specialized genre of music with a rich history and broad horizons that came to birth in the rich cultural crucible of New Orleans, Louisiana. Not known as a hotbed of dulcimer-playing (although Lois Hornbostel is doing her best to share her beloved Cajun tunes from the area!), this rule-bending kind of music just won’t stay within diatonic boundaries (like the white keys on the piano!). But, that doesn’t mean that modal instruments like dulcimers are excluded from playing the music. The only true limit to what is played on any instrument is the desire and industriousness of the player. In this article I want to unlock the possibilities for playing a typical chord progression that is used in a great deal of jazz music. But first let’s talk about how to form the chords on each instrument. Mountain D ulcimer in 1-3-5 Tuning In the last issue of Dulcimer Player's News, Steve Siefert made reference to playing a 1-3-5 tuning that allows the player to have full chords at every fret. In the past I had explored this tuning briefly, but was so focused on learning the ins and outs of traditional diatonic music on the mountain dulcimer that my explorations were more those of a tourist reading a guide book than a student of the tuning. Like many people I first explored the 1-3-5 tuning by leaving my bass string at D (below middle C) and tuning my middle string down to F# and leav-
Rob Brereton has an excellent article on www.dulcimersessions.com in the October 2007 issue entitled, Playing Chromatic Music on Mountain Dulcimer in 1-3-5 Tuning (using D-F#-A). There is a very informative website dedicated
to the benefits of this tuning hosted by: Merv Rowley, John Sackenheim, Gilbert Mathieu, Ruth Randle, Suzanne Campling, and Elizabeth DiPetri. www.mountaindulcimer-1-3-5.com
ing my melody strings tuned to A. (If you are normally a DAd player, that is a bigger jump down.) Because the mountain dulcimer has come to be associated with tunings that let us play in the key of D, the tuning most often referenced is D-F#-A. When I was working on my master’s degree in music education, I was given an assignment in our jazz arranging class to create an arrangement of a standard tune for an instrumental ensemble. Wanting to incorporate dulcimers, I decided to see what I could do with a Bossa Nova tune by guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim and began experimenting with a mountain dulcimer tuned to 1-3-5 tuning. The rich chord possibilities got me excited about the variety of sounds I could produce on my dulcimer. Then I began trying the same chord possibilities on my hammered dulcimer and was delightfully surprised to find them accessible there, too!
B eyond the Key of D The side effect of this task was the awareness that if I used a different 1-3-5 tuning (FAC), I would actually be playing many of the songs in the keys in which they had been originally written, rather than transposing everything to D. These chords are also readily available on the hammered dulcimer, too! This means that, with a little bit of horizon-broadening for my brain, I can sit down with my horn-playing friends and play quite a few jazz standards with a minimum of fuss! (Now the REAL BOOK series of jazz standards becomes an accessible resource for dulcimer playing!) Because there are several aspects of playing jazz on dulcimer to cover, in this article I will focus on just one: chord progressions.
The easier way I have found to re-tune to FAC is to first tune my dulcimer to the more familiar DAC tuning, from either DAA or DAd. Then, on the melody string at the 3rd fret, I can get the F pitch that used to be missing on the instrument. I re-tune the bass string up a minor third to F natural and I’m set to play. (Some people may fear breaking their bass string when tuning it up more than two half steps. Although I've experienced
this challenge, I have found that I prefer playing in this tuning on my shorter scale, McSpadden Ginger (a Ewing Dulcimette or a Clemmer Sweetie can achieve the same tuning and result.) These smaller instruments were built to resonate the best in the keys of F or G, so the FAC tuning can truly open their voices. The shorter scale length has the added benefit of providing an easier reach for playing interesting chord voicings.
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