Benefits and Limitations of Different Tunings on Mountain Dulcimer? Part 1

Epinette scroll head

by Steve Eulberg

So how does one choose between the benefits and the limitations of different tunings when playing mountain dulcimer?  To me the most important factors in this decision are:
1)  What kind of dulcimer do I have?  Is it "traditional" (with no extra frets like 6-1/2 or 1-1/2)?
2)  What kind of music do I want to play?
3)  In what style do I want to play this music?  Do I want to play in the traditional noter or drone style?  Do I want to play back-up chords?  Do I want to play Chord-Melody Style?
In this post we'll examine just the first of these factors.  What kind of dulcimer do I have?

If your dulcimer is a "traditional" one....

...with no extra frets, then you'll need to use and play in different tunings in order to play the songs you want to play.  The typical major key songs will require the 1-5-5 (often D-A-A) tuning for which the Ionian scale starts at fret 3.  Typical minor key songs will require the 1-5-b7 (often D-A-C) tuning for which the Aeolian scale starts at fret 1.  Mountain minor songs will require the 1-5-4 (often D-A-G) tuning for which the Dorian scale starts at fret 4.  Mixolydian tunes like Old Joe Clark will require the 1-5-8 (often D-A-d) tuning for which the Mixolyidan scale starts at fret 0.


If your dulcimer has a 6-1/2 fret... have the option of getting two different modal possibilities from each tuning.  For some people this is a big benefit because it means less retuning, but then remembering when to use or avoid the 6 or 6-1/2 fret.

Here are the 4 most common tunings that produce the widest modal variety on your mountain dulcimer:
If you tune 1-5-8 (often D-A-d) you can play Mixolydian of D (without 6-1/2) OR Ionian of D (with 6-1/2) without re-tuning by starting at the zero (0) fret and playing to the 7th fret.
If you tune 1-5-b7 (often D-A-C) you can play Aeolian of D (without 6-1/2) OR Dorian of D (with 6-1/2) without re-tuning by starting at the 1st fret and playing to the 8th fret.
If you tune 1-5-5 (often D-A-A) you can play Ionian of D (without 6-1/2) or Lydian of D (with 6-1/2)  without retuning by starting at the 3rd fret and playing to the 10th fret.
If you tune 1-5-4 (often D-A-G) you can play Dorian of D (without 6-1/2) or Mixolydian of D (with 6-1/2) without retuning by starting at the 4th fret and playing to the 11th fret.
(For reference, here are some tunes that belong to the different modes:
Ionian:  Joy to the world, Barlow Knife,
Mixolydian:  Old Joe Clark, Banish Misfortune, Sandy Boys
Aeolian:  God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Dorian:  Drunken Sailor, Scarborough Faire
Which other tunes can you name?  Please comment below.
What other benefits and/or limitation of different tunings can you name?  Please comment below.



Maggie K.

Can you put up a couple links to some of these songs- I don't know their melodies and would like to hear quickly what you are talking about re the mode differences. Thanks!
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Steve Eulberg

Excellent idea, Maggie K. I'll get to work on it. Thanks for your suggestion.
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Steve I think you have misstated or over looked the obvious........ 1. A traditional dulcimer refers to one not only without 61/2 and 11/2 frets but with frets that do not go all the way across the neck........what is played today is already nontraditional dulcimers...... 2. The difference between mountain minor and regular minor is?..........Modality? 3. You left out 1 4 8 (D G D) which is used way more than 1 5 4 .......even 1 3 5 (D F# A) gets more action......... Rediscover, Ehukai
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Steve Eulberg

Hi Ehukai, You are right that pre-revival traditional dulcimers did not include frets that crossed the whole fretboard. However, there was a period following WWII before any extra frets were added. It is to this part of the tradition that I was referring. "regular minor" is called "natural or pure minor" and is the same as the Aeolian scale: 1 - 2 - b3 - 4- 5- b6 - b7 "mountain minor" is another name given to the Dorian mode: 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - b7 My guess is that because several tunes from the British Isles that landed and took root in the mountains were in the Dorian mode, it was given this extra nickname. You're correct, there are many more tunings like DGd (which is actually 5-1-5, because the tonic is located on the middle string, hence the reason it was called reverse ionian) that are very useful and becoming increasingly popular. I will focus on them in subsequent posts. Thanks for the conversation and your interest! Cheers, Steve
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[…] the first post addressing this topic, we examined the kind of instrument you have.  Now we’ll look at the […]
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