The mountain dulcimer has “Half the strings, and half the frets, but ALL the music,” so quipped my friend and colleague, Joe Collins at the Western Carolina Dulcimer Week this summer in Cullowhee, NC.
He was comparing a 3-string, diatonic mountain dulcimer to a 6-string, chromatic guitar.
Many people like ask me if a dulcimer is “easy to play.”In my experience there are no instruments that are “easy to play.” But, there are some instruments which are more accessible than others.
A devout appreciator of a wide variety of music, my father was someone who believed he was a musician who could only play the radio. But once when he came to visit me, I coaxed him to start playing my mountain dulcimer. He looked up, surprised and exclaimed, “this is fun, Ole Buddy!” He had discovered that the dulcimer was accessible to him because he could play the music he knew very quickly!
He was so motivated that he went home and built two dulcimers to play!
How could this lover of music, but one who felt he had no musical talent make such a sudden shift in his 60’s?
While it is not impossible to play a “wrong” note on a dulcimer, as Mike Clemmer of Wood-N-Strings Dulcimers in Townsend, Tennessee likes to say, “they took off the bad notes,” and it is easier to find the songs you want to play.
The genius of modal or diatonic instruments (which have only 7 steps in a scale, compared to chromatic instruments which have 12 steps in a scale) is that all the notes belong to the scale or mode one is playing. If you accidentally go too far, or not quite far enough on the fretboard, you are probably close to the note you intended to play, so you can just quickly slide to it!
This makes it easier to play by experimentation, which I call “noodling.”
On a chromatic instrument, however, the player is always worrying about which notes NOT to play, skipping over the un-needed ones and if accidentally landing on them, hearing some sour tones, which can be very discouraging.
So even though the guitar, as a chromatic instrument, has more notes to choose from, I can get a whole bunch of the music I want to play on a dulcimer, which has fewer notes! It is just more economical that way and I save a whole bunch of energy that is not wasted on worrying and channel that into playing the music!
Less actually IS more!
I’ve got to agree with Joe: the mountain dulcimer has “1/2 the frets, 1/2 the strings, but ALL the music!”
(If you want to know more about the modes visit the Available Lessons section of dulcimercrossing.com and explore the Music Theory and Map of the Mountain Dulcimer free lessons.)