Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer

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Beginner players

Members: 1030
Latest Activity: yesterday

Not sure how to tune your first dulcimer?...

Are you totally lost as to how to tune your dulcimer to begin learning to play?
Most players these days start learning in the key of D, choosing either DAA tuning or DAd tuning. But you also must be in the right octave or you may break your strings!
Click on THIS LINK to find a very handy online tuning aid. See the piano keyboard pictured? Click on the key marked "D3". That's a low sounding note of D that you can tune your heaviest bass string to.
Next, click on the key marked "A3" and tune your middle string to that note.
Lastly, you can tune your single or double melody string(s) to either A3 A3 as well (for a DAA tuning), or to D4 D4 if you want to tune to DAd (also known as DAdd if you have 2 melody strings).
Your melody string or pair of melody strings are closest to you when the dulcimer is in your lap. The bass string is furthest away from you with the dulcimer in your lap.
Notice the open heavy bass string has the lowest sounding note on your dulcimer. Also notice on the piano keyboard how D4 sounds a whole octave higher than D3. And notice how A3 sounds somewhere in the middle between those two d's.
There is also a nice clear Youtube demonstration HERE showing step by step how to tune your dulcimer to DAA.
Now you can start playing your dulcimer in either DAA or DAd!

Much of this same info on how to tune your new mountain dulcimer can also be found in THIS POST of my Noter-Drone BLOG.

Discussion Forum

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Comment Wall


You need to be a member of Beginner players to add comments!

Comment by Mark Ash on December 10, 2014 at 7:06pm

Happy Holidays ... from Louisville!

This week, because one of my strings broke, a music store person persuaded me to try playing with a fourth string.  My instrument has space for six strings.  But I have never installed more than three.  It will be interesting.

Another adventurous thought occurred to me ... since I've taken the fourth string plunge.  Should I used the flat head screw adaptation the previous owner added to cinch up my DAD tuning ... while focusing my practice on Bing Futch's BLUES 101 method book which sticks to that tuning?  

Is that a good idea?  Anyone else out there using a tuning adaptation like that?  Are there risks I might not be aware of?

Comment by Alan Nation on December 2, 2014 at 5:00pm

My thanks to Strumilia & Ken!

Comment by Strumelia on December 1, 2014 at 11:44pm

Alan, it's not always true, but in about 85% of traditional folk tunes, the song ends on the key note. (also called the tonic or tonic note)

Comment by Ken Hulme on December 1, 2014 at 10:12pm
Comment by Alan Nation on December 1, 2014 at 9:36pm

learning modes. How do you know what the keynote is?

Comment by Gail Webber on October 27, 2014 at 5:48pm

Dorothy, I have very small hands.  I have a Ginger that I like, but also have bought a McSpadden with a 26 inch VSL that I like very much.  I would recommend either of these, but for a main dulcimer I would recommend the 26 inch VSL. You can play only on the melody string, which sounds very nice, but I think being able to add some chords adds some depth to your playing.  Some chords are still unreachable for me, but I can reach most of what I want to do.  I hope this helps.

Comment by Ken Hulme on October 27, 2014 at 4:24pm

Geri, you might want to look at the article I wrote here a number of years ago, called I Just Got A Dulcimer, Now What?  It is an illustrated glossary of dulcimer terms, plus answers to many beginner questions about tuning, playing care and feeding of your instrument.  The article is here:

Start simple and work up.  You do not have to finger chords to play dulcimer, or strum back and forth.

The easy way to start playing is ignore the middle and bass strings, and start picking out simple tunes just pressing down on the melody string and strumming the melody string.  Frere Jacques, for example is

3, 4, 5 3....repeat

5, 6, 7...repeat

7876, 5, 4... repeat

3, 0, 3

Comment by Susan Gatling on October 27, 2014 at 4:05pm

Hello, Geri.   I am also a new beginner, and started by taking a class at the local community college.  It was a huge help, and by taking the class, it helped prevent me from making mistakes from working on my own.  During the last class, our instructor provided us with a number of books - at reduced costs - for us beginners.   I chose the Larkin's Dulcimer Book, 2012 edition with CD.  It is very informative, and provides a solid range of music in different keys.  Good luck!


Comment by Geri Sailer on October 27, 2014 at 3:20pm
I have tried to learn from. Video. Is there a good book that explains the dulcimer better. Th video was to fast. I do better with books. I will play this instrument.
Comment by Colleen Hailey on October 27, 2014 at 3:15pm

Hi Dorothy, I'll jump in, as I'm also a newish player with small hands.  It really depends on how very small your hands are.  My first loaner dulcimer had a 27 or 28 inch VSL, which was really too long for me.  My first student dulcimer has a 26 inch which is much more comfortable.  My second student dulcimer (don't judge me) has a VSL of 25 3/4 inch which seems the most comfortable of all.  Even on the shortest VSL, though, there are some chords that I still cannot reach.  But making things more complicated is the fact that eventually most peoples' hands can make those difficult chords--it just takes lots of stretching and practice.  I guess what I'm trying to say is, unless your hands are exceptionally small you should probably try out a midrange VSL of 25-26 before settling on the 23" VSL of the Ginger. That said, I've heard people rave about their Gingers, so take my opinion for what it's worth.


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Visit Strumelia's Beginner Noter-Drone dulcimer Blog

I have a main blog for Traditional style mountain dulcimer playing here: Mountain Dulcimer Noter-drone Blog This is an old style of playing where you only fret your notes on the melody string, while letting the drones strings ring open. In my blog, I express my personal views about playing, I offer free TAB and free beginner videos, and I try to help beginners understand in a very basic simple way the 'mysteries' of playing the mountain dulcimer in traditional modal noter/drone style.

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