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How to tune a 3 string dulcimer

20 Jun 08 - 02:35 PM (#2370925)
Subject: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: lefthanded guitar

I hate to admit that I've forgotten how to tune my home crafted three string Appalachian dulcimer .Since I am performing at Make Music NY tomorrow, it may auger well if I can do so.

I tune the first two strings to each other. Forgot what the 'bass' string is.

Help please help, thanks in advance, & many blushes of embarrassment.

Don't worry folks, I can PLAY it,I ...ah.... jest can't remember how to tune it.

20 Jun 08 - 06:05 PM (#2371055)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: Jack Blandiver

See Here & elsewhere...

20 Jun 08 - 06:41 PM (#2371078)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: Bill D

3 string should be tuned to other two when fretted at 4th fret, if I remember correctly.

21 Jun 08 - 03:45 AM (#2371263)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: Little Robyn

Bing bing bong!
I think I used EEA but it might have been AAD.
I can't check because it's on loan to a friend who's a music therapist and she's using it in her lessons.
Well I've only used it about once in the last 5 years or so.

23 Jun 08 - 02:03 PM (#2372628)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: lefthanded guitar

Thanks all.

I think the way Bill described it is the way I used to tune it.
And I printed out the info from Sedayne for future use. As it turned out I didn't get these helpful messages in time (was just leaving as I noticed I was untuned lol) so I brought my harmonicas instead. Probably just as well, since I don't think I've replaced the strings on my poor dulcimer since say...1974.

Had a GREAT time singing at MakeMusicNY - what a fun event.

And as far as my harmonica playing,ah.... well...let's just say....I don't play any worse than Bob Dylan. A course, I don't play any better than him either, but with all the traffic, I'm pretty sure no one noticed.

24 Jun 08 - 11:11 AM (#2373260)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: GUEST,leeneia

Lefty, you have provided a source of comfort for the rest of my life.

When I wake up for church with a frog in my throat and a blocked nose, I can say 'I didn't sing any worse than Dylan.'
Most days I tune my dulcimer DAA (the D is the same as the D string on a guitar. The two A's are both the A above that.) DAA lends itself to extremely simple chord patterns. If you are really interested, you can get a book or find it on the web.

Somedays I use DAG. This is for minor tunes. The chord patterns here are more arbitrary, and I stick children's stickers under the strings to show me where the harmonies are. (I use very small, very thin stickers and I stick them at the left end of the fret so they don't get mooshed around.) If you know any music theory, you can easily find these chords. Or if not, get a book once more.

I find that after a leisurely breakfast is a good time to get out the dulcimer.

I'm glad to hear you had a good time at MakeMusicNY. It seems that people who actually make music are seriously outnumbered in this world.

Maybe you can get an Arts Foundation grant to get new strings.

24 Jun 08 - 02:34 PM (#2373428)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer

Thanks Jeeniea!
There's comfort in numbers for sure.

I think the DAA tuning is the most used one and that's the one I shall use. I may try that DAG tuning sometime. In the link Sedayne sent, it said there's actually no one'standard' tuning for a dulcimer- no wonder I was confused!

I think I have a copy of Jean Ritchie's fine book on dulcimer somewheres in my piles of ...stuff, just have to find it again.

Yes the MakeMusicNY was a terrific event, and I would be happy to do it again. Lots of good feeling all around.

Hmmm an artist's grant - lol - not a bad idea, as long as it comes with someone who can get the finicky strings ON the dulcimer.(This is a homemade model with wooden tuning pegs. Gasp)

Thanks again for your good thoughts,J, & I totally agree with the good time to play a dulcimer. Best place of course, on a porch swing, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains - but for me, the Hudson will have to suffice ;-)

24 Jun 08 - 02:36 PM (#2373432)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: lefthanded guitar

Ah, that was me, forgot to sign in.

PS never heard of using childrens stickers before; that's an inspired idea.

24 Jun 08 - 02:45 PM (#2373438)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

For most people, one would say that you tune a three-string dulcimer exactly like a four-string dulcimer, since a four-string dulcimer is a three-string dulcimer but with the first (nearest to you in normal playing position) string double-coursed.

Even the rare five-string dulcimer (I've seen a couple of them) is usually tuned/played as a three-stringer, but with two of the strings double-coursed.

For occasional solo use, the tuning is not particularly critical, if you can follow the dulcimer mantra - - "just find a pleasant tone."

Tuning becomes much more critical in the presence of other dulcimists, as there is some need to "find the same pleasant tone others have found." This latter imperative eludes many beginners, and is not helped by the resistance on the part of some players to finding agreement on a more or less specific pleasant tone; but usually can be achieved with practice (which apparently is not a prominent ingredient of the application for which the request first appeared).

Of course, specific and precise tuning is absolutely critical if one wishes to make a dulcimer sound like a fiddle - or guitar - but the dulcimer is of such special character that it deserves to be heard in its solo - one might say "primitive" - form, so only the wannabees (or serious performing professionals) are likely to need to move on to that kind of nonsense.

It's to enjoy.


24 Jun 08 - 06:42 PM (#2373606)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: The Fooles Troupe

ROFL.... I have one of the dual beasties... :-)

24 Jun 08 - 07:17 PM (#2373627)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: Bill D

My dulcimer has grooves for it to be set up as a 3 string with 1st string doubled OR 4 separate strings with many variable tunings. I never got around to learning the 4 string tunings and fingerings.

25 Jun 08 - 02:59 AM (#2373800)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

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.


25 Jun 08 - 10:23 PM (#2374477)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: GUEST,leeneia

I play mine by putting a thumb pick on my right thumb. It plucks the melody string and brings out the melody. Other fingers pluck the middle and D strings to produce harmony. I use however many picking patterns I can think of - the more the merrier.

A lot of people put two strings close together to be the melody string, but I found that to be unnecessary. It's easier to keep in when there is just one melody string.

I love my dulcimer and have about 170 songs on my list - from

Since I Met You Baby to
Salve Regina to
Minuet in G by Bach to
Old Joe Clark to
When I Fall in Love, It Will be Forever by Nat King Cole

and finally, let us not forget 'Scheherazade Suite' arr by leeneia.

'Scheherazade' takes four or five different thumbpicks.

26 Jun 08 - 01:02 AM (#2374550)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: GUEST,Hummer

I was at a garage sale of an Amish family last weekend, where they had one for sale. A guy asked the father how to tune it, and the he replied "I'll have our expert show you".

Out came a 7 year old girl, who gave a quick "how to" workshop to a load of us who stood there with our jaws down to our knees.

Made me think hard about how complicated we adults make even the simplest things!

(Not that I'm saying I could tune a 3 string dulcimer after watching her, mind you).

26 Jun 08 - 08:16 AM (#2374697)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: GUEST,leeneia

Maybe she had perfect pitch. A few people do. Don't beat yourself up about it.

Once I was riding on a bus with a conservatory student. Something on the bus was emitting a pure, high squeak. I was worried about the bus breaking down, and I said,'I wonder what that is.'

She said, 'It's D.'

That's perfect pitch.

12 Sep 09 - 03:14 AM (#2722111)
Subject: RE: How to tune a 3 string dulcimer
From: GUEST,Sandy Andina

I use the most common Mixolydian modal tuning, DAD (low to high, with the high D as a unison pair). Lends itself best to adapting the widest variety of songs, especially Celtic and those played in open tunings on guitar. I play mostly two-finger chords with either the bass or the treble pair as drones, and I play melody notes on all three strings. (This was the method championed back in the mid-70s by Force & D'Ossché in "Stalking the Wild Dulcimer," where they advocated holding and strumming the dulcimer like a guitar). Traditional players originally used Ionian, or DAA, playing the melody usually only on the treble pair (sometimes a single treble string), with a single finger or a stick called a "noter." David Massengill uses a "reverse Mixolydian," or ADD (or since he prefers to sing in C, CGG, with a single treble string). He usually chords using the bass and treble, with the middle as a drone, except for more complex chords. He plays his melodies using mostly chords rather than single notes. Janita Baker pioneered the use of equidistant 4-string Mixolydian (D-A-D-D) as well as variations, in order to play more complex jazz & blues chords & scales.

Those are primarily major modes, which also allow you to play in the relative minor keys and the keys a fourth above the bass string. Dorian mode is the most common minor mode. and have much more info as to various tunings.