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Lesson 1 -
"How to Play Scales in One Key and Then in Many Keys"

Let's start by having you look at a diagram at of the Rick Thum Traveler model. The Traveler plays in the keys of D (2 1/2 octaves), G (2 1/2 octaves), A (1 1/2 octaves), C (2 octaves plus 2 notes), F (1 octave plus 4 notes), plus some in Bb.

To understand what I mean, let's look at the diagram. Start with the gray shaded areas - they're equal to bridge marks which most dulcimers have. If you start with the key of D (if you understand music, you know that the an octave in the key of D starts with D and goes D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D). Your instrument may have a different layout but you can adjust these instructions to fit any fifth tuned hammered dulcimer.

Start on the first (lowest) D which is on the right-most bridge and you can follow what I mean. You'd go up D, E, F#, G then you'd move to the middle bridge across from the D and you'd strike A, B, C#, D. That's one octave. But continuing on up, you can see that if you stay on the middle bridge there's another octave. You just struck the D but the next note is a E, then a F#, and G. Now you move across the bridge (and four notes down), directly across from the D, there's the rest of that octave: A, B, C#, D. But guess what? If you continue up from that D, you'll see: E, F# and G. Now continuing on up from there, you'll see an A and B. Unfortunately the next note is a C so that wouldn't fit in the key of D so that's where the key ends. (Although sometimes you can pick up another higher note just not a continuous sequence).

If you followed me, you can see that you could play 2 3/4's octaves before you hit a note that didn't fit.

On a dulcimer, in certain areas of the instrument, it is played like a diatonic instrument (meaning, that as you play the scale, the notes are correctly sharped for that key). Hum a scale: "Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do." A scale will sound like that. Harmonicas are an example of a diatonic instrument. Have you ever noticed that harmonica players generally carry a whole slew of instruments in a belt? When they are playing a D harmonica (remember an octave of D goes D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D), their instrument is appropriately set-up so that the F's are F#'s and the C's are C#'s. That's the why a D diatonic harmonica can only play in D.

If you want to see how it works for the key of G (which starts with G and has all the F's sharped), start on the G which is the second gray mark up the right-most bridge. Follow the progression: G, A, B, C, jump over to the middle bridge which is directly across from the first G and go up D, E, F#, G. Continue right on up from the G to A, B, C. cross the bridge and you'll see D, E, F#, G. Then comes A, B, C, D. You just played two and a half octaves in the key of G. It started with G and was all in the key of G - meaning all the F#s were sharped.

If you learn to play a tune in one key, you can move the same pattern up to another key and if you play it exactly the same way using same strings in "relationship" to each other, the key will be changed but the melody of the tune will be the same. If you keep the patterns the same, you can move the tune from key to key!! (Examples will follow in Lesson #3.)

For the key of C, move up to the third gray mark on the rightmost bridge.

For the key of F, the fourth mark.

The key of A only fits on the center bridge but you'll see a full octave of A. Start with the first string. Go up four and cross the bridge. You can play an octave of A.

When I started, I would sit down and figure out how to play each of the keys. It is sometimes awkward to play smoothly because, for some keys, you'll be jumping all over, but good players are so comfortable with their instrument's layout that they aren't limited. They can play most anything.

Many players look at an instrument like the Traveler and feel it will give them suitable range. Of course there are some folks who want huge range. But in the end, they have to carry those monsters and believe me, for many of us, the advantage isn't great enough.

If you decide you want a dulcimer, and you want to play with other players, guess what?? Most all of the tunes that dulcimer players play are in the keys of D, G, sometimes C, and rarely but occasionally A. plus the minors like Bm, Em, Am and occasionally F#m. (I won't get into minors but those minor keys play just like D, G, C, and A.) You can check which keys are most popular by going to http://dulcimers.com/tunes and you'll see what I mean. So if you can play in D, G, C and rarely A, you'll be set.

Side note: Dulcimers are usually set up with two or three strings tuned to the same note. (To save weight, some of the small instruments only have one wound string to replace the two or three standard strings.) Pairs (or triplets) of strings are arranged closely side-by-side. The two (or three) strings make up what's called "a course". In referring to "Notes" in this tutorial, I am always referring to them being played on "courses."

NEVER would two side-by-side strings be tuned to different notes. Those close-together strings are tuned to the same note and struck as one. So when I talk about a G note, I'm talking about courses which can be one, two or three strings that are all tuned and played as a single note.


Starting to Play

The first exercise was just a visual one but now it's time to start playing. Hopefully, you have a hammered dulcimer. If you don't, just pretended you're playing. Go ahead. (No one is watching.)

Generally, for smoother playing, you should try to alternate hands. Start with the lowest bass D. Play it with your Right hand, then the next note with your Left, then Right, then Left, etc. Try it.

Notice that when you get to the fourth note, which should be "G" and then cross over to the center bridge, your hammers cross. It's not comfortable. It's not smooth. But if you look at your layout, you will notice you have another "A" which is exactly the same pitch just above the "G" on the bass bridge. For smoother playing, most dulcimer players, would prefer to use the "A" on the bass bridge and then move over and continue the scale with the B on the treble bridge. Other folks prefer to start with their left hand. There is no wrong way.

Here's another good exercise: When you have time, take your keyboard layout and find all of the duplicate notes. Those notes are called "unisons." I've color coded all "like" notes in the diagram on the right. Knowing your instrument's layout, will help you play smoothly.

Notice there are two notes that are repeated three times (once on each of the three bridges) they are the "A" and the "E."

Some players re-tuning one of these unisons (the one on the bass bridge) to a note they don't have. Looking at the Traveler, the "E" on the bass bridge could easily be changed to a D#. You have two other E's and you don't have a D#. It's risky to tune a note up more than a note unless you also adjust the string gauge. Of course, once you mess with the tuning, you lose the advantage of the "moveable" patterns. But if you make the switch, it won't take you long to get used to playing the E on the treble bridge and you won't even miss the third E on the bass bridge.

But let's not think about re-tuning any strings now. Let's go with the original tuning scheme and practice some scales. Starting with the "D" on the bass bridge and making sure to play the first note with your right hand let's play two octaves of the "D" scale. (Let's hum along "Do, re, me..." You'll go R - L - R - L - R switch to the treble bridge bridge L - R - L - R - L - R switch to the other side of the treble bridge L - R - L - R.

Repetition helps it "stick" so let's do it again and then come back down. Keep going. Again and Again.

Now let's try two octaves in "G." When those are smooth, try two octaves in "C" - up and down.

Move over to the treble bridge and do one octave in the key of "A." In "A," Travelers don't have two octaves, but you can play one octave up and down. Same thing is true of the key of "F." With "F" you start on the bass bridge and play four notes, then cross over to the treble bridge bridge and play four.

Many players start every practice with scales, like piano players do. It's a good routine. Vow to play the scales in each key ten times, or until they are smooth. Try them starting on the left hand and on the right. Make sure your hammers never "cross."

Coming soon... Lesson 2.

In the future, it's my hope that we can learn a simple tune, and play it in several keys. We'll eventually get to some chording. I hope to invite more advanced instructors to contribute to these "lessons."

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