Range & Tuning Schemes

An instrument that can play all the sharp and flat notes within its range is called chromatic. When only the notes of one certain major scale are available, the instrument is called diatonic. The standard hammered dulcimer lies somewhere between these two classifications, as it offers a number of major scales but does not have all the possible sharps and flats. Dusty Strings makes dulcimers in three different tuning schemes: traditional (or fifth-interval), chromatic, and piano dulcimer.

Fifth-Interval Tuning

diagram-5th-interval-tuning.jpgThis is by far the most common tuning scheme used for the hammered dulcimer. It is called "fifth-interval" because the treble bridge is positioned such that the note on the left side of the bridge is a pefect fifth above the note on the right. Similarly, each note on the right side of the treble bridge is a fifth interval higher than the adjacent note below it on the bass bridge.

The instrument is tuned in major scale sequences. The scales available on most dulcimers with the traditional tuning are D, G, C, F, A and sometimes E. B minor, A minor, D minor, F# minor and other modes associated with the major scales are also available. The fact that there are multiple diatonic scales available means that each scale also has some chromatic notes, which it borrows from other scales. For instance, the diatonic scale for the key of G has an F#, but you can also play an F natural, since that note shows up in the neighboring diatonic scale for the key of C. Playing in alternate keys is usually possible, although inconvenient, by re-tuning one or two courses of strings up or down a half step.

This fifth-interval style of tuning works very well with traditional fiddle tunes, old-time, bluegrass and dance music. People also enjoy playing original and improvisational music and arrangements of hymns, popular and classical music.

The Prelude, Apprentice, Overture, D10 and D45 are configured in this traditional way.

Chromatic Tuning

Fully chromatic hammered dulcimers use all kinds of tuning schemes to achieve the availability of all sharps and flats. The tuning scheme we use on our Chromatic Series instruments is a variation on the traditional fifth-interval tuning. The chromatic notes either replace duplicated notes or are added by means of new bridges. Players accustomed to the traditional fifth-interval scheme usually have little difficulty adapting to this style of chromatic tuning.

A chromatic instrument allows for a somewhat wider range of musical styles, including classical, ragtime, blues, jazz and certain styles of ethnic music.

The Dusty Strings Chromatic Series includes the D300, D500, D550, D600 and D650.

Piano Dulcimer Tuning

Another approach to a fully chromatic dulcimer is the Piano Dulcimer tuning scheme invented by long-time dulcimer designer and builder Sam Rizzetta and licensed to Dusty Strings. While the Chromatic Series is pattern-based, like the traditional tuning scheme, the Piano Dulcimer is laid out in a more linear fashion, modeled after the keys on a piano.

diagram-piano-dulcimer-tuning.jpgThe tuning pattern uses half-step intervals across the bridge, so a string played on the left side of the bridge sounds a half-step lower than the same string on the right side. Each course of strings crosses two bridge markers, which are white for the natural notes, or C major scale, and black for the sharps and flats, just like a piano. To play a C scale, just follow the white markers up the instrument. Once you learn the pattern for any scale, it's easy to change keys, since all the scales follow the same pattern or a mirror pattern. And the sharps and flats are where you'd expect to find them, next to the naturals.

Our piano dulcimer model, the PD40, can be a less expensive way to achieve full chromaticism, and tends to attract people who have a piano background, or who want to compose music that doesn't fit very well with the traditional tuning patterns. It's also a relatively new instrument and there is very little, if anything, in the way of instructional materials out there, so be prepared to be self-sufficient in teaching yourself and working out your own arrangements. Most teachers you will find teach the traditional tuning.