Slate Creek Dulcimers

Virginia Hogfiddles, and Folk Instruments

How to play your dulcimer:

Get Noterized


Ken Hulme

Kwajalein Atoll, RMI



Chord ─ three or more notes sounded simultaneously which create a harmonious sound. Anytime you fret the melody string and strum across all three strings, you are creating a chord.

Drone Chord ─ a chord formed by fretting the melody string and leaving the drone strings open.

Barre Chord ─ a chord created by simultaneously fretting all of the strings at the same fret, whether by hand (one or more fingers) or noter.

Fingerdancing ─ Playing technique using two or more fingers to play the melody on the melody string(s) only, allowing the other two strings to drone. Sometimes called Melody-Drone style.

Noter & Drone ─ Playing style using a short length of wood, metal, plastic or glass to fret notes on the melody string(s) while the other two strings drone in accompaniment. Using one finger to fret the melody string is not playing in the Noter & Drone style; it's Fingerwalking compared to Fingerdancing!

Chord-Melody ─ Playing style using three fingers of the left hand to form chords for each note of the melody. Developed by players who found the traditional diatonic fretboard and dronal style "limiting" but who were unable or unwilling to play guitar/mandolin/banjo, and instead applied chordal technique to the dulcimer.


“The more I play and learn about the mountain dulcimer, the more I appreciate noter style playing. I started almost 30 years ago with noter style playing, and picking out all those melodies on one string for months made me a good by-ear player. That's a skill many who immediately go to chord-melody style miss out on.” -- Lois Hornbostel

Noter & Drone is a very old and traditional technique of playing Appalachian dulcimer as well as its European predecessors (hummel, langleik, epinette des Vosges, zither, hommel, etc.) that dates at least as far back at the late 1500s.

Noter & Drone is NOT just for playing "simple tunes with no chords". Listen to a competent hummel or dulcimer player perform O'Carolan or any of the European classical composers' material using Noter & Drone style! Or Robin Clark the Welsh dulcimer player zinging out a fast fiddle tune.

Nor is Noter & Drone style only for DAA tuning. It is a very effective and beautiful way to play all of the Modal Tunings (Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian, or Lydian) in any key. It's also a great way to Bagpipe tunings like Ddd as well as the traditional way to play a Galax style dulcimer.

N&D is a much more challenging technique than just playing chords, and so it is not suited to everyone. It demands precise control of the noter – which requires practice to perfect. You also need to learn a bit about Modes and Modal Tunings, and be comfortable tuning and re-tuning your instrument.

You simply cannot get the "haunting whine" of traditional dulcimer using fingers, no matter how hard your calluses get. Nor can you get really “zingy” slides with just fingers. And for playing fiddle and dance tunes nothing beats a noter slip-sliding from one end of the fretboard to the other. Also N&D isn’t as painful for beginners or for long playing sessions as using your fingers.

"Playing with a noter is often touted as an "easy" way to play and thus, strictly for beginners. Au contraire! Whether you do it with fingers or a noter, playing the melody on a single string I think is quite a challenge. I think anyone checking out a langleik tutor would be amazed at how complex and challenging one string playing can get.

“The next time someone gives you guff for being a noter player, look at them with a sad pitying look, gently shaking your head and know that they are people of limited vision. There is great beauty in simple things.”

“In the end, it's the music that's important, not a technique, style, or personality. When all of the last three fade, the music will still be here." — Ken Bloom

The Naked Noter

A great part of the fun of being a Noter & Drone player is experimenting with new materials for noters. There are round noters and flat noters, even ergonomic noters for folks with hand problems like extreme arthritis, missing fingers, or digital paralysis. Noters run from 2" to 6" long in varying thicknesses and diameters. Since the noter is sort of a substitute finger, many N&D stylists prefer a noter about the length and diameter of their index finger; but like many things in the dulcimer world, “use whatever works best for you”.

A selection of the author's noters.

Left to right – Black Bamboo, Ipe, Ebony, chopstick, Snakewood. Bottom – Malachite.

Noters can be made from hard woods, hard plastics, metal, glass or other materials. Different materials will give you different sounds.

Traditionally noters were made from two materials – “river cane” and feathers. River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea), the native American bamboo, can still be found along the banks of the Kentucky and Illinois rivers and other streams in the South and Midwest and even into Texas and Oklahoma. Exotic bamboos make excellent noters, and they have been planted almost everywhere from Connecticut to Florida and Washington to Baja. Some exotic bamboos are much tougher than River Cane. For durability and looks I prefer Black Bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra. Bamboo contains a lot of silica (like glass), and may be the ideal noter material as it is also light and easy to work. Most homeowners with a patch of bamboo in their yard will be more than glad to let you cut a culm (stem) or two to make noters - use only the mature older culms, not young soft ones or the old dead brown ones. Bamboo chopsticks make great noters if you like a small diameter.

A large turkey, goose or swan feather gives you both a noter and a plectrum or pick. Choose a primary feather (the long one at the tip of the wing) or a center tail feather.

The large, hollow butt end of the feather becomes the noter. Cut it off just where it starts to change from hollow to solid white.

The thin, solid end of the feather, stripped of its barbels (feathery bits), makes a great the plectrum or pick. Rather than being held like a pen and “whipped” across the strings, the thinnest end being swept across the strings almost parallel to them.

Complete feathers, including those from sea and shorebirds. can be sharpened like a quill pen and held vertically in the Jean Ritchie manner (from the famous photo of her playing with a quill). Here's a link to a video by Robin Clark of Snowqdonia, Wales, illustrating how to strum with a quill:

Wooden noters should be made from the hardest wood you can find. The birch dowels sold in various diameters at lumberyards and hobby shops are barely hard enough. Oak, cherry, walnut, hickory, and ash are only hard enough to last for more than a month of serious playing. Teak, ebony, olive, mesquite, madrone, “ironwood” (every region and country has an 'ironwood'), hophornbeam, and blue beech are much more suitable (but less common) woods. Persimmon heartwood is a particularly beautiful and extremely hard wood for noters. Ultra- hard exotic woods that make beautiful noters are Snakewood and Lignum Vitae, two of the toughest woods on the planet. Ipe or Brazilian Cherry is also very good, as is Jatoba and African Blackwood. Check a table of Janka Hardnesses (such as the one at )to determine the toughest woods available to you. A trick for “toughing up” a noter is to soak it overnight in a light penetrating oil such a 3-in-1 (don’t use vegetable oil).

Don't run out and buy exotic hardwoods to make one or two noters unless you just have to! Ask your woodworking friends, local cabinet shops, etc. if you can scrounge their scrap bins for suitable pieces of noter wood. A good source for small pieces of exotic woods for noters is to explore the Ebay and Etsy auctions for "pen blanks" - pieces of wood used to turn fancy wooden ink pens. Pen blanks are about 3/4" square and 5-6" long. Use a pocket knife, rasp or belt sander to round off the corners, or slice lengthwise into 3 pieces for a flat noter, before sanding smooth.

Glass tubes or solid rods give notes an eerie sound, as do Apache Tears and other forms of volcanic glass. Certain kinds of polished stones make beautiful noters, such as malachite and onyx. The author has a malachite noter that was originally the pestle from a Mexican molcahete mortar and pestle.

Metal rods, tubes and bars are almost indestructible noters, although brass and copper will be notched by steel strings. Large spikes or bolts are good sources for solid metal noters. Many Big Box Stores have a place where they stock a variety of metal rod, bar and tube stock.

Flat noters are often made from Popsicle(tm) sticks or tongue depressors, although they are not really hard enough for long service. Flat noters are readily custom-made to your specifications with a saw and sandpaper.

Up to a point, a heavier noter is better than a light one. The malachite pestle mentioned above, at nearly an inch at its largest diameter and 4" long, is so heavy I can almost just let the weight of it depress the string(s)! It's great for long playing sessions.

Hmmmm, I wonder about a bamboo noter cast full of melted lead or pot metal… Got a couple of wheel weights I can borrow?

Adaptive ergonomic noters are individually shaped to the hand or finger configuration of the user. Ergonomic noters may incorporate holes for anchoring fingers, bulges to fill palms, or extensions to compensate for lost digits. Simplified versions of the ergonomic noters are those round styles which incorporate a notch at the string end intended to prevent the noter from slipping into the middle drone(s). Lisa “Strumelia”, in her Noter & Drone blog, touts what she calls a “Noter dog” - a noter wrapped with a layer of foam rubber and duct tape, with the wood bit extending beyond the end. These are very handy for folks who have trouble holding a grip.

Get A Grip On It!

There are two basic ways to hold the noter – underhand and overhand. Neither is "better than the other”, but they are different.

The Underhand way is sometimes called the Jean Ritchie method because it was popularized in Jean's landmark The Dulcimer Book © 1963. This "thumb on top" style is very useful if you have a very tall (3/4" or more) fretboard, with depth enough for your fingers to clear the top of the instrument. The knuckle of the index finger acts as a guide to keep the noter from going too far into strings. However, many modern fretboards are only 1/2" – 5/8" tall, and most people have fingers thicker than that! Some players also feel that this technique does not give a particularly sensitive feel or control as the noter is pressed and moved.

Underhand or Thumb on Top grip

Photo by Lisa “Strumelia”

The second way to use the noter is the Overhand or Galax hold:

"Hold the noter with the index finger on top, with the side of the end of the middle finger as a brace along the side of the fretboard for stability. Just enough of the noter protrudes to cover the strings..." — Mary M. Mason, Noter & Quill, Mountain Dulcimer Southwest Virginia Style, © 1995.

The overhand style works on both shallow and tall fretboards, and with the dulcimer in your lap or on a stand. This style is more ergonomic because the index finger pushes down using gravity to help hold the noter, rather than a sideways or palm-up grip where the forces tend to pull the noter out of one's grasp. The overhand method also provides good control of noter placement - almost as if noter is a hard finger tip. As Mason emphasizes, the middle finger also acts as a guide to keep the noter from extending into the middle strings. The Palm Down or “lazy overhand” style is obviously related to this style of noter grip.

I suspect that some of the reason for the tall fretboard height in early dulcimers came because a significant part of the player population was using noter in the underhand grip, and playing the instrument in their lap. European noter players, with the frets imbedded directly into their instrument top, played standing up, with their instruments on a tabletop, using the overhand grip, which needs very little clearance.

It’s Not What You Do, But How You Do It

The noter should be held at right angles to the strings, and close to the fret, to avoid strange overtones if the string between the fret and the noter, has room to vibrate. This means the wrist must be relaxed and flexible.

To prevent “clicking and clacking and bumping sounds” the plane (surface) of the noter must be parallel to the plane of the fretboard =====. If the nose end \ or tail end / comes down first, the result is a “bump” every time you cross a fret.

If you have doubled melody strings, being parallel to the plane of the strings is even more important. If the noter is not parallel as it presses down, either the inner or outer string may not be fully depressed, which can create some real discord and buzzing!

Another reason you may be getting “speed bumps” is because you’re pressing down too hard. White knuckles are NOT a requirement for good N&D playing!!

Relax….release….let all the tension flow away….. As Lois Hornbostel says, “Noter style playing should be a restful, melodic experience.”

Reason #3 for experiencing the bumpy side of life may be that you’re not easing up your downward pressure slightly as you slide from fret to fret.

Don't maintain a sold downward pressure; back off the pressure just a bit as you start sliding to the next fret. Using a noter is not just "one press and hold it", and it's not just "shove the thing down as hard as you can". It's as subtle as fingerdancing or chord-melody style playing, and takes just as much or more practice to become expert.

The “speed bump” syndrome decreases as you get more comfortable with your noter and your dulcimer. You’ll eventually relax your death-grip and start moving more fluidly. At the same time you’ll stop feeling a clunk every time the noter crosses a fret.

Start slow and work your speed up. Rome was not built in a day; neither are good Noter & Drone players (or dulcimer players of any style). We blithely talk about how easy it is to learn to play the dulcimer. And, comparatively speaking that’s true. But we must never forget that it does take playing experience. Forget “practice” – just “play”. The best way to tell how your technique is coming along is to tape record yourself periodically and then listen to and compare the tapes.

Sliding Down the Fretboard of Life

The most asked question about Noter & Drone style is "Do you have to pick the stick up and put it back down for each note, or can you just slide the stick along?" The answer, of course, is a resounding "Yes." Picking the noter up between notes versus sliding between notes depends on the effect you want to create or the song employs. Compare, for example, the "bounce" of the first few notes of I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing to the 5 note slide of the opening phrase of Jock O Hazeldean.

If you're trying to keep up with a fiddler playing Mairi's Wedding or jigs at full speed, keeping the noter to the strings is the fastest way to play. Remember to keep your wrist sideways flexible as you slide up and down the fretboard so that the noter stays relatively at right angles to the strings as you press them down.

If you want the song to sound more stately, especially if you're fingerpicking or flatpicking with the right hand, then by all means pick the noter up between notes. Work at just barely lifting the noter, so as not to waste time and energy moving too broadly.

You can get some interesting Hammer effects by plucking an open string and then "chopping" the noter down to cut off the open note with the fretted note (Hammer On); or plucking the fretted note and then quickly lifting the noter to change from the fretted tone to the unfretted tone (Hammer Off). Hammer Ons and Hammer Offs take place quickly, in the time of a single note, as a way to decorate special notes in a phrase.

Another interesting effect is the Ghost Note, which is especially effective if your dulcimer has good sustain. Let's say the Tab calls for you to play frets 3, 5 and 7, with a strum at each fret. You could Ghost Note this phrase by strumming the 3, sliding to the 5 in tempo without a strum, then sliding to the 7 and strumming again. If you do the sliding to the 5 quickly, you get that note with nearly the volume of a strummed note. You can Ghost note both up and down the scale, and sometimes Ghost more than a single note, depending on the sustain of your instrument.

Similar to Ghost Noting are the techniques of Sliding On or Sliding Off a note. Say, for example, the tab calls for you to play that same 3, 5 and 7, with a strum at each note. What you might play instead is  3, 5, 67, with the strum coming as the noter is at the 6th fret before sliding into the 7th. Going down scale you might play 7, 5, 43, with the strum coming as the noter is at 4 sliding down to 3. Some people think this technique developed because people had trouble remembering where a particular note was! He/she kept playing the wrong note and then sliding into the right one just in time. Whatever the origin, Slide On and Slide Off can be useful techniques for your noter repertoire.

After you've been playing Noter & Drone style for awhile, you'll begin to notice that not all Drone Chords are melodious. As you play the scale, especially in Ionian Mode above the 8th fret, the Drone Chords sound less and less pleasing to the ear. One solution is to change to another tuning such as the DGD, so-called Reverse Ionian. However, that changes the "flavor" of all the Drone Chords because a plain steel string sounds completely different than a wound string tuned to the same G note.

An easier solution is to change the angle of attack; not of the noter, but of the pick on the strings. As you go up the scale, strum less and less of mid and bass drones; so that by the time you pass the first octave, you're playing just the melody string(s). As you come down the scale, play more and more mid- and bass drone until by the 7th fret you're playing all strings more or less equally.

No matter how much you love playing Noter & Drone style on the melody strings alone, there will always come that song. You know - the one that requires a note or three from either the mid- or bass drone string. The only solution is to reach over and play those notes with a fingertip. this can be cumbersome if the tune is particularly fast! Something to experiment with is a noter with a beveled nose that can be tipped over so that the bevel contacts the non-melody string.

Come on over to The Dark Side. Pick up a stick and give Noter & Drone style a try for a few months. Betcha can't play just one tune that way!

Modes and the Traditional Dulcimer

Ken Hulme

aboard s/v Dulcemore

Fort Myers, FL

The traditional Appalachian dulcimer (one without any 'plus frets') is one of the few remaining Western diatonically fretted musical instruments which regularly uses the concept of modal music. Even so, within the dulcimer community, forces are afoot to remove the modal nature of the instrument and subsititute the chromatic 12-tone system. The aim of this article is to celebrate and explore the origins and nature of the modes and modal music for which the dulcimer is eminently suited.

The concept of modes and modal music goes back to beyond ancient Greece. The names the Greeks gave to the modes are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, and they derive from geographic or ethnic regions in ancient Greece. Aristotle, Plato and Phythagorus were among the early authors who wrote about modal music.

We can only guess what music from ancient Greek and Roman times really sounded like. They didn't leave any recordings, of course, nor did they write down their music. But they did write about music, so we know that they used modes based on tetrachords. A tetrachord is a mini-scale of four notes, in descending pitch order, that are contained within a perfect fourth (five half steps) instead of an octave (twelve half steps)

A thousand years ago or so the concept of modes made its way to Rome where the Catholic Church picked up the idea and applied it to church music. The Church kept the old Greek names - Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and Ionian - but we know that the “pre-church” or medieval modes were not quite the same as the modern modes.

The tuning system used in medieval Europe was not our familiar equal temperament system. It was a 'just' intonation system, based on a pure perfect fifth. In this system, half steps are not all equal to each other. Slight adjustments are made in tuning and intervals to make them more pleasant to the ear; and the medieval ear had different preferences than our modern ears. This is another reason that modes sounded very different from each other, although that difference may be missing today when music is played on equal temperament instruments. If you want the ultimate in a traditional sounding dulcimer, ask your luthier to fret it with 'just temperament'. However, be aware that such an instrument probably not sound quite 'right' if you play together with folks who have the more common 'equal temperament' fretting

For hundreds of years, the modes other than Ionian and Aeolian had limited use, except in ethnic folk music.

But don't get the idea that modes are just for old music. Modern players have re-discovering the beauty of the structure of modal music. The Beatles used Dorian mode in Eleanor Rigby. Performers like Carlos Santana and Paul Simon use modal music all the time, not to mention bands such as ABBA, Queen, Metallica, and The Greatful Dead.

Mixolydian mode is quite common in jazz and most other forms of popular music. Because of its dream-like sound, Lydian mode is often heard in soundtrack and video game music.

It's important to remember that medieval mode theory, just like modern music theory, was not trying to invent a logical system of music. It was trying to explain, describe, and systematize musical practices that were already flourishing because people liked the way they sounded.

General Mode-iness
A Mode is an octave scale in diatonic music. The notes of the scale can be numbered from 1 to 7 and are also named as in the song from The Sound of Music - Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and Do again - to form an octave.

Modes are divided into two groups – Major and Minor.

Major Modes........Notes

• Ionian mode is the same as the Major Scale in tonal music - no sharps or flats.
• Lydian mode is identical to Ionian, except the 4th note of the scale is sharped. If, in the Key you are tuned, that note is already a sharp – say F#, and you tune to Lydian Mode, the note will not be an F# any longer it will be 'sharped' into a G. If it is a C it becomes a C#
• Mixolydian mode is identical to Ionian, except the 7th note of the scale is flatted. If the note in the Key you are using is Bb for example, it is 'flatted' into a B, etc.

Minor Modes.........Notes

• Aeolian mode is called the Natural Minor Scale in tonal music. Compared to Ionian, its 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes are flatted.
• Dorian is identical to Aeolian, except the 6th note is sharped.
• Phrygian is identical to Aeolian, except the 2nd note is flatted.
• Locrian is identical to Aeolian, except the 2nd and 5th notes are flatted. Because the 5th note is flatted, this mode sounds very unstable, and isn't generally used for melodies.

Modes are defined by the pattern of Whole steps and Half steps (or intervals) in the scale, not by the actual pitches (notes) used.

Going back to The Sound of Music for a moment. Each syllable of the song (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) represents an interval in the major (Ionian) scale. These intervals are not evenly spaced, thus giving each one a specific relationship to each other. "Do" sounds very finished and solid, for instance. "Ti", by comparison, sounds very unfinished and unresolved. It is called a leading tone, which means it wants to lead the melody back to the final note "Do". It is the relationship between these intervals which give the modes their musical interest.

In Ionian mode, the intervals are divided into a very familiar pattern of whole and half steps. Most of us would instantly recognize the Ionian mode when played on a piano. The other modes retain this familiar pattern, but their scales start on different notes. Here's a quick breakdown on each mode and its relationship to the original Ionian intervals:

Ionian Mode (W-W-H-W-W-W-H)
The Ionian mode defines the familiar major scale pattern we hear as do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. The half step between Ti and Do gives the scale some tension and release. The majority of popular songs are written in Ionian mode.

Lydian Mode (W-W-W-H-W-W-H)
Lydian mode is the complete opposite of Ionian, so it feels as solid as a major scale but the intervals are surprising and unexpected. This is a popular mode for jazz musicians who enjoy mixing major and minor progressions in inventive ways.

Mixolydian Mode (W-W-H-W-W-H-W)
Mixolydian (Mixed Lydian) is similar to Lydian with its major scale feel with minor intervals. Mixolydian is popular with solo instrumentalists creating a counterpoint to an Ionian song. That is to say Ionian and Mixolydian in the same key play well together!

Aeolian Mode (W-H-W-W-H-W-W)
Aeolian mode is referrred to by many people as “the minor key”. Aeolian intervals create the same feel as many modern blues songs. Songs in Aeolian mode have a strong sense of sadness. The final note of an Aeolian scale feels resolved in a completely different sense than the Ionian. If Dorian mode sounds melancholy Aeolian mode reeks of despair!

Dorian Mode (W-H-W-W-W-H-W)
Dorian is most commonly heard in Celtic music and early American folk songs derived from Scots-Irish melodies. Dorian mode sounds melancholy because the final note (re) doesn't quite resolve itself. The song may be over, but the singer is still unsettled.

Phrygian Mode (H-W-W-W-H-W-W)
Modern composers and guitarists use Phrygian mode because it works well with Ionian. Guitarists use Phrygian mode to create interesting solo lines to be played against melodies in other modes. Composers find Phrygian mode to be as useful as Aeolian, but without the inherent sadness.

Locrian Mode (H-W-W-H-W-W-W)
Locrian mode is considered so “unstable” and unsatisfying that most composers consider it unworkable. There are very few songs written in Locrian mode, which has lead some music experts to label it a 'theoretical only' mode. It exists because all seven notes of the Ionian scale could form modes in a mathematical sense, but the relationship between intervals in the Locrian mode is simply not that interesting musically.

In all discussion of dulcimers and modes, you must ignore the 6+ fret. It is not part of the true diatonic scale. It is called the 6+ or “six-plus” fret precisely because it is an addition to the normal sequence of intervals between diatonic frets.

A true diatonic fretboard has the sequence of spaces between the first ten frets of:

wide, wide, narrow, wide, wide, narrow, wide, wide, wide, narrow

A dulcimer with a 6+ fret added to its fretboard has the following sequence eleven spaces for the same 10 frets:

wide, wide, narrow, wide, wide, narrow, 6+ narrow, narrow, wide, wide, narrow

The Wide and Narrow spaces correspond to the Whole and Half tones of the scales.

To repeat – on the dulcimer, a Mode is a scale played on any single string. All modes are available on any one string at any time.

Modes are a sequence of whole and half intervals (wide and narrow spaces between frets) equivilent to the intervals of the white keys on the piano.

Each mode starts on a different fret and has a different sequence of wide and narrow interval spaces:

Mixolydian starts at the Open and 7th fret
Sequence W W N W W N W

Aeolian starts at the 1st and 8th fret
Sequence W N W W N W W

Locrian starts at the 2nd and 9th fret
Sequence N W W N W W W

Ionian starts at the 3rd and 10th fret
Sequence W W N W W W N

Dorian starts at the 4th and 11th fret
Sequence W N W W W N W

Phrygian starts at the 5th and 12th fret
Sequence N W W W N W W

Lydian starts at the 6th and 13th fret
Sequence W W W N W W N

Mode vs Modal Tuning
One problem that arises when we talk about modes and the dulcimer is that many people confuse the term Mode with what the author calls Modal Tuning. The reason is that many people today play chords across all three strings, and no longer think of the middle and far strings as drones that accompany the melody being played on the closest string.

A Mode is a scale, as we saw above, played on a single string.

A Modal Tuning describes the relationships between open tuned notes of the Bass drone, Middle drone and Melody string(s) which sound “pleasant’ together when using a particular mode scale as the basis for a song. “Pleasant” to most Western ears means notes that are separated by 3rds or 5ths, and occasionally 4ths. Modal tunings are note independent (it doen’t matter what the notes are as long as the relationships between the chosen notes are “pleasant”.

For Example, Ionian is a Mode. DAA is one of seven possible Ionian Modal Tunings - AEE, BFF, CGG, DAA, EBB, FCC, GDD.

The actual Keynote (A-G) of a Mode depends on the note to which the open Bass string of the dulcimer is tuned.

Each mode has a "traditional Keynote" (low 'do') associated with it:

Aeolian A.........traditional tuning AEG
Locrian B.........typical tuning Bb F G
Ionian C...........traditional tuning CGG
Dorian D..........traditional tuning DAG
Phrygian E.......typical dulcimer tuning E Bb G
Lydian F...........typical dulcimer tuning F E Bb
Mixolydian G...traditional tuning GDg

In the last 30 years or so, there has been a shift away from playing Ionian mode in the key of C and Mixolydian mode in the key of G. There are thousands of players who have had it drilled into them that the key of D is the only ‘good’, or ‘useful’, or ‘acceptable’ key in which to play. Which is pure bull, of course!

However, since so many people have become “D-sensitized” (all puns intended) to the traditional keynotes of the Modes, here are the Key of D Modal tunings:


As you see, only Locrian and Dorian remain in their traditional keynotes.

What Mode Is This?
If you’re tuned in Ionian mode and are tabbing out a song...

If the first note of the song is on the third fret, but the last note is on 1 or 8 then play the music in Aeolian Mode.

If the first note of the song is on the third fret but the last note is a 4, play it in Dorian.

Moods of the Modes
The idea that different Modes have different moods to them dates back to those ancient Greeks; although their ideas of what mood a particular mode expressed is not much like our modern idea of mood.

When you play the mode scales with the appropriate Modal Tunings, you experience a spectrum of sound “emotions” ranging from bright and happy to dark and dissident. Generally, modes with no or few flats are happy and bright sounding. Modes with a lot of flats in them tend to have darker moods.

Brightest ------------------------------------------------------------------------Darkest

Lydian – Very bright, upbeat. Good for pop, contemporary praise, kid’s music, etc.
Happy, bright. For love songs, children’s songs, contemporary and popular tunes.

Mixolydian – Middle of the road bright - for light rock, pop, country, etc.

Dorian - The perfect middle ground. Not too bright, not to dark. Good for country, rock, blues.

Aeolian – A gritty, bluesy, warm-sounding rock mode. The standard for rock and blues.

Phrygian – Dark, classical metal sound. A Randy Rhoads favorite.

Locrian – Very dark, dissident, brooding - great for heavy metal, dark classical, etc.

S'more a la Modes
This bit of modal humor has been floating around the Internet probably since the time of Plato!

All You Ever Really Need to Know About Modes -- Hopefully the Final Word on a Distressing Subject

(Sorry for the false advertising in the subject line. Footnotes available on request to adults only -- proof of age required.)

The five original modes were Androgynous, Bubonic, Carthusian, Derranian, and Eucalyptic. All except the Derranian were quickly abandoned when it was discovered that they required a nine-note scale (although you could get away with eight and a half in the Eucalyptic if you had to).

The reason for this anomaly was never made clear, but after an initial flurry of curiosity during the first few months of 43 B.C., no one really seemed too interested in pursuing the matter further. The Greek philosopher Ctesiphon (or "the big C," as his friends used to call him) reportedly wrote a lengthy treatise explaining the whole mess, but most of the scrolls comprising the only extant copy of this work were erased and re-used for a collection of really dirty Corinthian limericks. (i.e. "A daring young girl from Mycenae / Wore naught but a bright purple beanie," etc., etc. - the translation work continues).

The Derranian mode survives today, but it is used primarily by finger-pickers blessed (cursed?) with seven fingers on each hand, for which reason it is also referred to as the Polydactylic. Cats may also experience this condition, but surprisingly it does not seem to enhance their finger picking abilities.

Fascinating Mode Facts
- Efforts by Pythagorean mystics to unite the properties of the mathematical relationship between a circle's radius and its circumference with the arrangement of musical tones led to history's first known example of pi a la mode.

- Playing of tunes in the Euthanasian (a.k.a. Kevorkian) Mode is not presently permitted within the city limits of Columbus, Ohio. But is encouraged in Michigan - go figure!!

- Bodhrans are usually played in the "duh" mode (also called the Jurassic mode) which consists of two notes (duh and DUH) and a rimshot (whack!). This is believed to be the most ancient mode, according to some experts, predating even the Amoebic, which apparently makes it pretty doggone old.

- Princess Di, Edgar Allan Poe, Mickey Mantle, and Leonid Brezhnev were all born to women whose first names rhymed with various edible fungi and whose initials comprise the first four notes of the Cetacean mode! Coincidence...? Or conspiracy?

- Newsweek magazine recently reported that secret Chinese labor camps were heavily involved in reproducing counterfeit modes in violation of all cultural treaties. "We know nothing of this," said spokesperson Wei Lin Chung, "and we accept no responsibility for interference in your decadent Western music. Long live Socialist pentatonic-ness!"

- Biologists recently discovered that removing the two hind legs from a certain species of Amazonian frog resulted in a noticeable change in its mating call. Musicologists who should have known better have christened the new note series the "Slowed Toad Mode".

I hear the phone ringing. I hope it's a telemarketer -- I get so lonely sometimes.


It is a fact of physics that if you have a string tuned to a particular note, and you then fret that string, the new resulting note will be sharper than it should be according to the mathematics of the distance from the nut to the fretted location. What should, according to physics and mathematics, be a perfect C for example, is actually a C-slightly-sharp. People with perfect pitch, and other perfectionists, really want to hear and play that perfect C. How much 'slightly sharp' the note is depends upon several factors including the height of the action, the VSL of the instrument, the gauge of the string(s), and the open note to which the string is tuned.

Sounds almost impossible to fix, doesn't it? Change any of those variables and the intonation changes. Practically speaking, it is impossible, unless most of those variables become constants. This is where you hear about instruments that sound best in a particular tuning, a specific key note, or set of strings.

A luthier has three practical choices he can make – one is the traditional method of using a fixed bridge set at right angles to the strings at the mathematically correct VSL distance and his chosen action height – and let every tuning and string set produce slightly-sharp notes as the instrument is played. The player must then learn (although this is not often taught) to tune the open strings a few cents flat (rather than dead on) to compensate for the sharpness when fretted.

The second choice is to use a floating bridge to a specific action height, and then “intonate” the bridge for a specific set of string gauges and a specific tuning. When viewed from above, the bridge is angled slightly back at the bass side of the fretboard, making the bass string slightly longer than the melody string. The fretboard is then marked to indicated where the bridge should be replaced if it should accidentally be moved. How much the bridge is “slightly angled back” depends on the other factors – string gauge and action height. If the player uses the recommended string gauges and 'home' tuning, the intonation will be much closer to perfect.

A third choice is to build a tiny separate bridge for each string and move each bridge to the optimum position for the given string set, action height and open note (Home) tuning.

Slate Creek Dulcimers takes the second approach. Even though it takes a bit longer, we think you'll be happy getting your perfect sound. We ask you to give us your Home tuning and Key, and (if you know from experience), which string gauges you prefer for your new Hogfiddle.

Which key do you most commonly play in – C, D, or G? Which Home tuning do you normally use – 1-5-5 Ionian or 1-5-8 Mixolydian? Dorian or Aeolian? Do you prefer 10s or 12s with a 20W or 24W on your other 26” or 27” VSL dulcimers? Or do you like an 18 plain steel bass string with a 14 middle drone and an 11 melody string?

When you receive your new Hogfiddle it will be intonated for the Key, Tuning and set of strings you choose.