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How to finger-pick "Handsome Molly" on an Appalachian dulcimer using a pinch-picking style based on Travis picking. I'm using a Galax dulcimer but any other dulcimer will work just as well.

Base tuning is dddd (D4, D4, D4, D4) with the outermost drone reverse-capoed on the third fret to raise it to a G. The final tuning is G4, D4, D4, D4. This starts an Ionian scale in the key of G on the third fret of the paired melody strings. The same fingering will work in DAA, CGG, bagpipe tuning, or in other tunings intended for the Ionian mode.

The tune is pentatonic, lacking the 4th and 7th scale degrees. Its tonic or key note is G, but it ends on the fifth (D) below the tonic. The mode is plagal, pentatonic Ionian (Bronson π1), aka Hypoionian.

Lisa has some well-thought-out noter-drone tab for this song HERE. Lisa's tune is a little different, but the picking works OK with either tune.

"Handsome Molly" is a folk song in the public domain.

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Tags: finger-picking, fingerpicking, galax, handsome, molly
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Comment by Flint Hill on September 14, 2010 at 8:24am
Thanks Lisa, and BTW, thanks Robin. Robin, sorry about my hit-and-miss brain, but it's the only one I have left.

I learned a lot by figuring out how best to teach this -- and you always do, which is why teaching something is one of the best ways to learn it at a deeper level.

The first video I posted on finger-picking was woefully inaccurate and incomplete because i literally had no idea what my fingers were actually doing. I took apart three or four tunes to see if there was any consistency how I was playing them. Once I found these three rolls, I could see that all I was doing was stringing them together in a sequence so that they made the song's meter work out right while playing most of the melody notes. (There are missing melody notes that get replaced by metrically correct drone notes.)

Once I had figured out that this is what I was doing, I could test it against every four-beat song that I play, and I found that these three rolls covered 90% of what I was doing.

I later discovered that the only other thing I was doing was crossing over with the index finger to pick additional notes on the melody string when I needed a melody note other than what was provided by the unmodified roll.

With the addition of this cross-picking trick, I could account for 100% of my playing. It also showed my why there are certain tunes that I can't finger-pick. Those are tunes that can't be played using the three rolls and the cross-picking trick.

I'm not sure at this point whether I need a fourth roll, or another cross-picking trick to pick up some of those songs.

It was a fun exercise, and I hope it helps someone to learn this stuff.

Playing this way is genuinely EASY because you're getting a free ride on the drone strings. The drones fill in the tune's meter naturally without your having to think about what you're doing every step of the way.

A final tip on this playing is that most songs sound better if one or both of the drone strings are tuned to the tonic. For example in the key of D, DDD sounds better than DAD or DAA.

Another example: In Galax tuning in the key of G, GDD and GGD (obtained by reverse-capoing one or both of the drones on the third fret) sound better than DDD on most songs.

Anyway, that's all I know at this point.

Thanks again everyone for your kind comments.
Comment by Strumelia on September 13, 2010 at 10:30pm
Ken, you meant to thank Robin there for her comment, not me.

But I too say how great this video is, as both a beautiful thing to listen to AND a wonderful learning tool.
Wow, you spent weeks preparing and analyzing those rolls just so we could understand and see how it's done? THANK YOU! So many people will love learning this picking style thanks to your dedicated and patient efforts.
Comment by Flint Hill on September 13, 2010 at 10:00pm
Thanks, John Henry and Lisa.

I've known this song since I was about 10. Learned it from my older brother who probably learned it from somebody who learned it from Grayson and Whittier.

I'm still learning how to play dulcimer, and I haven't begun to figure out how to teach it. I do this finger picking sort of on autopilot without thinking about what I'm actually doing.

It took a long time -- weeks -- to break it down into the three rolls, but I do think that these three rolls are all you need to play 90% of folk tunes that are in 2/4 and 4/4 time.

My guess is that if you get these three rolls really burned into your muscle memory, you'll began to be able to stack up a series of them that will fit the beat of the song. What I don't know yet is whether this is a reasonable way to learn finger-picking.

About modes. Last year when I was recuperating from surgery for about three months, I decided to buckle down and see if I could finally understand modes. It was something I had been meaning to do for years.

There's really, really simple high-school math that underlies the theory of modes, but I don't know how to explain it in a non-mathematical way. I recently got Bertrand Bronson's book, The Ballad as Song, and this guy really understood modes as they related to folksongs. Unfortunately, his chapter on modes is a pretty tough slog that I had to read several times before I could understand what he was saying.

I don't think modes are hard to understand, but they're hard to teach.

One day I'd like to write an article on it, but I need to let it soak in more before I do that.
Comment by Robin Thompson on September 13, 2010 at 9:23pm
Ken,
Thanks for this-- it's wonderful! I happened to have a dulcimer tuned to DGG (no 6+ fret) on my lap while watching so fiddled around a bit for fun. It'll be a long while before I could finger pick this-- might sound good out of DGG (starting on fret 4)?

I'd like to take lessons on modes from you-- wish I knew enough to understand what all you're writing about the tunes. I'm glad you include the information because, little by little, I might come to understand more.
Comment by John Henry on September 13, 2010 at 5:31pm
Ken ! A perfect illustration of why this site is so good, just about all the information one needs to start out on an 'unknown' tune. On behalf of all beginners who view this, thank you !
JohnH

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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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