I recently visited my mother, who lives in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and was fortunate to sit in on a Galax-style dulcimer and old-time string band jam. I was told that the dulcimers would be tuned to DDD — all the strings pitched to the same note — for this jam.Galax-Style Dulcimers
These jam sessions are organized by Phyllis Gaskins and are held weekly. All instruments in a string band are usually present at the jam sessions — fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and Phyllis’ Galax-style dulcimer. Phyllis wasn’t there that evening, but another dulcimer player took the lead. The dulcimer is large and very loud and can keep up with the other instruments in the room.As you can see, the dulcimer is a large boat-shaped instrument. The sides of the dulcimer are much deeper than most other dulcimers. Unique to Galax-style dulcimers are the holes drilled into the fret-board, the lack of a strum hollow and the curved tailpiece. The dulcimer player uses her finger as a ‘noter” playing the fiddle tune notes on the double-melody strings. Phyllis can strum as fast as any fiddle player can bow; she’s won numerous contests at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Virginia.
Phyllis is the leading authority on playing the dulcimer in this style. She’s traveled and played traditional music extensively with other fiddle players in southwestern Virginia for many years. From her wealth of knowledge and experience, Phyllis compiled a book of these tunes and shared the history of this dulcimer. This is “Galax Dulcimer: Job of Journey Work.”It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of dulcimer makers in rural southwestern Virginia and Appalachian fiddle music for the dulcimer. Contact Phyllis for purchasing the book–See references.How did the Galax-style dulcimer evolve?
Ralph Lee Smith included a chapter on Galax-style dulcimers in his book, “Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions.” Ralph has studied the history of the mountain dulcimer extensively — and has assembled a large collection of old dulcimers and photographs. His conclusion is that these southwestern Virginia dulcimers represent the oldest direct link to the German scheitholts–the antecedent to the modern mountain dulcimer.
Ralph believes that German immigrants, in the 1700’s, brought their musical instruments along. They pioneered down the Shenandoah Valley and across the Appalachian mountains to North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Here are some of those mountains — this photo was taken at the town of Draper, in southwestern Virginia. The Appalachian mountains are very isolated — and the over the years, different styles of dulcimers evolved from the German scheitholts. The family most famous for making Galax-style dulcimers is the Jacob Ray Melton family.
Ralph Lee Smith has re-written the book, “Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions.” It is published by the University of Tennessee Press. Ralph says that it can also be purchased on Amazon.com
My Own Virginia-Style Dulcimer
My first dulcimer was actually a Virginia-style dulcimer which my father purchased for me for $50.00 at a flee market in Verona, Virginia. We couldn’t keep tension on the strings with the peg tuners; so my father changed them to geared tuners. The fret board was well-worn and bowed–I couldn’t play the dulcimer anyway. But you see the familiar features of Virginia style-dulcimers: holes in the fret-board, S-shaped sound holes, semi-circular tail pin. Now the dulcimer is a show-piece on my wall.Tuning a Dulcimer to DDD
For the Galax-style old-time string band jam in May in Virginia, I tuned a dulcimer I frequently play to DDD. Just lower the middle string to D. That’s it. Then I tried to keep up. Interestingly, I knew many of the same fiddle tunes the Virginia folks knew–so it was easier than I thought.
How Do You Play Songs in DDD — What’s the Catch?
Any tune that is played in a standard DAD tuning can by played in DDD. Just play the melody on the melody string and use the other strings as drones. The catch is that you can’t play below the bottom D note. So, most melodies must be moved up and played an octave higher, with the scale starting at 7 and going to the 14th fret. Ouch! You quickly become familiar with higher fret numbers. The tunes sound better when a dulcimer with a longer fret board scale length is used.
What Songs Can Be Played in DDD?
Many songs sound just fine in a DDD drone tuning–Scottish tunes, Irish tunes, some hymns, fiddle tunes, several lullabies. Songs with many chords and key changes don’t work. Experiment. For fiddle tunes, the easiest method is to learn the tune from someone else. However, there are several references for fiddle tunes that I recommend. “The Fiddler’s FakeBook” is a very extensive source of fiddle tunes. “The Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook: Fiddle Edition” by Dix Bruce is another reference.I made a copy of the song and added dulcimer tab notes to the melody. The author of this book, however, embellishes the tunes with extra notes–the basic tunes are much simpler. So listen to the song on a recording or You-tube, for example, and then delete notes. It quickly becomes your own version–most of these songs are in the public domain. “The Fiddler’s FakeBook” includes an extensive discography for each song, as well as the style of song.
The old-time string band jam was a good time. It’s rewarding to see dulcimers blend in and played with other instruments–Phyllis does this well. Perhaps I’ll try more of this tuning. And I have a long history with Phyllis Gaskins. Years ago I purchased a dulcimer for my mother and she took lessons from Phyllis. Phyllis told us about the Appalachian State Dulcimer Workshop in Boone, North Carolina, in the summers–that’s how I got my start.The rest is history.
I had a very nice visit with my mother as we sat outside on the porch and watched the sun set. I played my dulcimer and we enjoyed the evening.
Smith, Ralph Lee. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. 1977. Landham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
NOTE: The 1977 edition is out-of-print; Ralph just released a new version!
Phyllis Gaskins Dulcimer Player and Historian: The Galax Dulcimer
Brody, David. The Fiddler’s Fakebook. 1983. New York:Oak Publications.