2010-04, Dulcimer Players News, Vol. 36 No. 4

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Playing Back-up on Dulcimers Part I: Walking the Bass by Steve Eulberg


usic played on both kinds  of dulcimer is sometimes  characterized as being  melody-focused. In fact, there are some  styles of music where our instruments  are not welcome to play in the jam circle  because in those musical communities  trading or sharing the melody is the  value, and people take turns playing  the melody then step back from leading  to play back-up and make space for  others to have a shot at it. Therefore,  learning to play back-up effectively and  harmoniously with the style or genre of  the group, and moving between back-up  and lead playing can help you be more  equipped, feel more comfortable, and  be welcome in the jam. An added bonus  is that you can pave the way for future  dulcimer players to be welcomed and not  shunned! This lesson will be the first in a 4-part  series on playing back-up on both kinds  of dulcimer. Today we will introduce bass  lines and a simple way to “walk between”  chords in common, or 4/4, time. The benefits of knowing and playing BASS LINES The bass line is the lowest-pitched  musical line in a song or tune, providing  a solid foundation for the rest of the  ensemble. If you have ever played in  a jam or an ensemble in which a good  upright bass player is thumping away,  you’ve been able to keep the beat because  the bass player plays ON the beat, (a.k.a  the “downbeat” or the strong beat) on the  1 and the 3 (first and third beats in 4/4  or common time). (Sidebar: In bluegrass,  old-timey or boom-chuck music, the  bass is playing the BOOM.  More on  the “chuck” next time.) A solid sense of  timing is an asset for anyone playing the  bass line, and a metronome is a good  16 DPN

friend to have (and use!) to help develop  your timing. The second benefit that  you’ve received from experiencing good  bass playing is a sort of premonition of  when the chords will change AND what  the destination chord will be! DULCIMERS and BASS Where do I find these low notes? The hammered dulcimer has a bridge  named bass (the one on the right) and  notes that reside on the bass clef.  If your  dulcimer is a 12/11 or a dulcimer with

“G” as the note on the lowest marked  course on the bass bridge, this is the G  below Middle C.  [Fig A] If your dulcimer  is a 15/14, 16/15 or other standard size,  the lowest marked course on the bass  bridge is usually a D below Middle C.  [Fig B] Likewise, the standard mountain  dulcimer has a string called the bass string (the thickest string that is furthest  from the player when seated.) Its lowest  note is usually tuned to the D below  Middle C. [Fig C]