by Steve Eulberg
Once we have learned the melody of a tune we can begin adding notes in order “fill out” the sound of the tune. The easiest way to do this is to play “drone style“. This is actually the traditional way to play the old mountain dulcimers which did not have frets that extended all the way across the fretboard, but only were present under the melody strings.
On the mountain dulcimer, the player plays the melody on the string(s) which are required for the melody and simply strums all the way across the strings to hear the drone of the unstopped strings, which often are reminiscent of bagpipes. It doesn’t matter which D tuning is being used, either DAA or DAd, the drones will sound the same, because while the melody is being played on the melody strings, while the middle and bass strings are ringing on the same pitches.
Drone-style is possible on Hammered Dulcimer, too!
On the hammered dulcimer, after each melody note that the player plays a drone note can be added as an answering tone. This is a perfectly legitimate way to play this instrument, too and it is what can make the hammered dulcimer sound so exciting and full.
“Which note should I choose?” is the question most commonly asked by my students.
The first note to try adding is the tonic or the root of the chord which is being played at the moment, or which is the home chord for the whole song.
The next note with which to experiment is the fifth (5th) step of the chord or the dominant. If the chord that accompanies that part of the melody is a D chord, the root or tonic will be: D and the fifth or dominant will be: A. Another interesting variation is to play the drone note above the melody, in the next octave.
This is certainly not the only way to play music on either instrument, but too often (in my opinion) we forget about this option when we are arranging and performing our favorite tunes.
As one of my mountain dulcimer students used to say: “Play drone-style looks too easy, but it sounds SO nice!”
To which I replied, “so go forth and drone!”