The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #112168   Message #2373800
Posted By: JohnInKansas
25-Jun-08 - 02:59 AM
Thread Name: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
My impression is that in the oldest traditional(?) playing of the dulcimer, the 2d and 3d strings were used essentially as drones. The first string (lightest and nearest the belly) was used with a noter to play the melody, and strumming across all of the strings produced a more or less constant "drone" in the manner of a bagpipe.

The mode of the song is changed simply by changing the "starting point" for the scale on the first string.

It would seem reasonable that the "lowest drone string" should be tuned to the tonic, fourth or fifth of the (modal) scale of the tune, with the "middle string" picking the third, fourth, or fifth from whatever's left over for "completing" the "drone chord."

Especially with modern steel strings, there are some limitations on how far a given string can be tuned, so for modes that start "up on the frets" it might be necessary to tune the melody string down (or rarely up) to let the drone strings reach something appropriate without breaking a lot of strings.

As long as the drone is "in harmony"1 with the melody, it shouldn't make a lot of difference how the drone strings are tuned; but of course some tunings may sound a little "more pleasant" than others, and pracitice gravitates toward the ones a.) that actually sound better or b.) to the ones used by other players who "perform better."

Although the noter can be used to "bar-chord" to limited extent it's not, from my observation, much used in that way by "traditionalists."

An occasional "low flyer" note that's off bottom end of the melody string can be picked off the second string with a noter if the second is tuned so that the first few frets offer an "overlap/extension" with the scale on the first string. This is quite frequently used by even the most primitive players, and usually works well with the second string at the fifth (octave down) of the first string - hence the popular D-A-(D?) tuning and variants thereof.

If the noter is abandoned, and strings are "fingered," the tuning becomes much more critical since a usual purpose of "fingering" is to have convenient and consistent finger patterns for "chords." This change in playing method may restrict the choice of tunings in some cases, or may introduce new (sometimes rather bizarre) tunings to meet some special needs or simple personal preferences.

There are several "standard tunings" that are most commonly used, and that generally work well for most tunes. There are also a few tunes that almost demand "different tunings" giving one the option of retuning or just not playing the ones that "don't fit" the tuning you choose to use.

A saving grace of the dulcimer is that it's difficult (but not impossible) - playing in the traditional manner - to find a tuning that really sounds bad - but you'll know it immediately if you find one.

1 "In harmony" may seem like a non-sequitor after the comparison to a bagpipe, but you get the idea.