Playing Duets on a Baritone Dulcimer

My new baritone dulcimer from McSpadden Dulcimers has provided a chance to try out playing several songs. Songs with a deep pitch such as Grandfather’s Clock especially sound appealing when played on a baritone dulcimer. I thought of lullabies, too. Here are two duets for baritone and standard dulcimer along with an explanation of the tunings used. Bill Taylor Dulcimer - IMG_4705_1

What’s a Baritone Dulcimer?

A baritone dulcimer is the same instrument as a standard mountain dulcimer; it has wound strings and is pitched lower. The baritone dulcimer is a relatively recent phenomena, becoming more popular in the past 10 years or so as musicians experiment with new ways to play the mountain dulcimer and extend the boundaries of this instrument.

Several years ago, I converted a large standard dulcimer to a baritone one. The wood is wormy chestnut with a maple back and an old man is carved into the fretboard. This dulcimer is shown above; it is a beautiful dulcimer with a great tone. It was made by Bill Taylor of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

I don’t recommend a do-it-yourself conversion–it is probably wisest to have a luthier help to make sure the dulcimer is suitable for conversion to a baritone one; the larger diameter wound strings may not be adaptable for standard dulcimer. There are plenty of dulcimers made specifically for baritone tunings these days.

Now I have a beautiful walnut baritone dulcimer from McSpadden. It has the same body size as a standard dulcimer with adjustments on the nut and bridge.Walnut Dulcimers - 4 - IMG_4439_1It is time to learn some new songs on the baritone dulcimer. Here are two duets for the baritone and standard dulcimer. The first is Grandfather’s Clock. I’m playing the baritone dulcimer which is tuned to AEA in the Key of A. Helen Bankston is playing the “clock” or chords on the standard dulcimer. It is tuned to DAD and she is playing chords in the A scale.

The second duet is two lullabies. The first song is Rain, Rain Go Away. I’m playing this tune on the baritone dulcimer tuned to ADA. This tuning is “Reverse Ionian” (equivalent to DGD on a standard dulcimer). The song is in the Key of D and the scale starts the 3rd fret. Helen is playing Brahms Lullaby on the standard dulcimer in DAD tuning in the key of D. In the second repeat of Rain, Rain Go Away, Helen adds improvised harmony–yes, you can do that on the dulcimer. Then we switch to 3/4 time with Helen playing Brahm’s Lullaby and I’m providing chords on the baritone dulcimer. In the last part of the song, we play the two songs together; Helen changes timing of the Brahms Lullaby in waltz time to 4/4 time. Enjoy!

Baritone Dulcimers

Baritone dulcimers, with wound strings on the bass and middle strings, are pitched lower than a standard dulcimer–typically to the Key of low A. This extends the number of musical keys for playing. The mountain dulcimer is a diatonic instrument and is limited in how much tension the strings can be tightened or loosened to change keys. The baritone dulcimer is one solution.

The wound strings give the instrument a beautiful deep, sustaining sound. The dulcimer adds a bass or deep tone to an ensemble music piece. However, the sound is quiet and this dulcimer can quickly be drowned out in a crowd. And the wound strings squeak if you are not careful with how you move up and down the fretboard. It takes some practice to play one–which is why I probably didn’t pursue it several years ago. I really didn’t know what to do with the dulcimer.

Here is some technical information on tuning the baritone dulcimer.

Playing a Baritone Dulcimer in the Key of A in AEA tuning

For mountain dulcimer players who are used to playing in the key of D, playing a baritone dulcimer means learning another key. This isn’t so difficult if you learn to think in a new concept.– keeping in mind the relationship of the melody and middle strings to the bass string. On a baritone dulcimer pitched to the key of “A”, the bass string is “A”, the middle string is pitched 5 notes higher to “E” and the melody string an octave higher to “A”.Baritone Fretboard - AEA - revised-3This is the same pitch relationship as a standard dulcimer tuned to DAD. So with the same relationship — the 1-5-8 notes on a scale — then the same tablature works for both instruments. Just change the names of the chords and notes — the same fingerings work for both dulcimers and keys. Any song you can play on a standard dulcimer, you can now play on the baritone in AEA tuning. This is extremely helpful when playing accompaniment chords or back-up chords. Here is a chord chart:Baritone AEA and Standard Dulcimer DAD Chord Chart

Playing a Baritone Dulcimer in a Duet

Playing a baritone dulcimer in a duet creates a dilemma. Both dulcimers must play in the same key. In the first song above, Grandfather’s Clock, the song is played in the key of A. The baritone dulcimer had the melody in the key of A. Helen played a standard DAD dulcimer–tuned to key of D– she selected chords in the Key of A scale.

Typically there are more standard DAD dulcimers around. To play a baritone AEA dulcimer in the key of D along with a standard DAD dulcimer there are several ways to do this. One solution is to place a capo at the 3rd fret on the baritone dulcimer. This moves everything up to the key of D. The disadvantage is that you lose the open strum; the first several frets and the deep, resonating sounds are lost. That’s the main advantage of playing this baritone dulcimer in the first place. So my opinion is that I don’t care for using a capo on a baritone dulcimer. Here are two other suggestions for playing a baritone dulcimer in the Key of D:

  • Play chords, and even the melody, in the Key of D while maintaining the AEA (Key of A) tuning. This is comparable to playing a song in the key of G while tuned to DAD on a standard dulcimer. It is workable–just no open or drone strums. You must play chords along with the melody. Here is a chord chart:Chord Chart for Baritone AEA and Standard DAD for keys of D and G-cropped

Re-tuning a Baritone Dulcimer to ADA to play in the Key of D

  • A second option is to re-tune the baritone dulcimer to ADA. Now the dulcimer is pitched to play in the Key of D starting at the 3rd fret. Open and drone strums sound fine. This is comparable to the term, “Reverse Ionion”, or DGD on a standard dulcimer. So any song in standard dulcimer DGD tuning can be played on a baritone dulcimer in ADA tuning.Baritone Fretboard - ADA tuning - revised 3The downside of this method is that new chords and fingerings are needed for the songs.  Here is a chord chart for this tuning:Chord Chart Baritone ADA and Standard Dulcimer DGD for Keys of D and G - cropped-correct

Plenty To Think About

All this information about keys and chords can quickly make your head spin. It can become very confusing. My suggestion is to learn one thing at a time; learn several songs on the baritone dulcimer well in the key of A, learn new the chord names for this key. etc. Then go on to a another challenge. In any event, it is helpful to have chord charts handy and chords written out on the tablature.

If you would like tablature for either of these duets; let me know — I can FAX or send a PDF file.

The baritone dulcimer has a beautiful deep, sustaining tone. It takes some effort to find songs which sound appealing on this dulcimer. And it takes alot of practice but it is worth the effort. I’ll start on a new song!

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