Friday, January 21, 2011

Living In The Future or What They Can Do With Sound Nowadays

Sucks to have missed NAMM this year. Still, the Anaheim Convention Center could scarcely hold back the pure flood of new inventive gear on the market for today's musician. Again, sort of swinging between two very distinctly different approaches to sound: the pure preservation of natural acoustics versus jack your signal into something other than what it actually is. The twain do meet, which makes for wonderful tonal contrast. The primal versus the chordal capitalist.

The solo show has evolved from the keyboard-and-backing-tracks whimsy of the 90's to something that's more organic, yet still very much wired-in. As an 80's kid, there was this huge embracing of synthetic music, with subsequent rejection as the next decade welcomed shabby, dirty rock as the new mainstream. I've discovered that while audiences unfamiliar with mountain dulcimer take to it very quickly - it's lacking the same kind of full-spectrum sound that a guitar puts out. With fewer strings of a lighter gauge and a smaller sound box, the dulcimer sounds typically quaint when on-stage. My approach was to get something to boost and function as the voice of a bass guitar (Octave pedal), a delay for creating tight acoustic sequences and a loop pedal to orchestrate it into parts. Along with drum loops and live percussion samples, this is a multi-layered approach to creating music. It's like the music exists beside itself in a parallel universe. You lay down eight or sixteen measures of chord changes, then start the loop, adding chops, a melody and maybe a harmony. Then, lay down a bass track and then pick up another instrument and solo while all of that is going on.

It's like tap-dancing. As if it isn't hard enough to play an instrument and sing with focus; then all this gandy-dancing going on.

And each little gee-gaw has its own instruction manual, software and little twirly knobs with levels to be set. By the time you factor that into a P.A. system (with or without monitors) and begin to play your set, you just never know how well you'll hear anything. Sometimes you go an entire set, tweaking things on your end to get it right. If you can't hear well, it's a block between you and the music, not to mention you and the audience.

Gee-Gaw #1: Gee-Whiz!

As part of the next phase of evolution for the solo show, I've been using more chromatic dulcimer as a way of keeping the road paved ahead. The modal structure of diatonic dulcimer is not something I'd gladly give up, but taking the same approach and applying it to a chromatic scale serves up multiple layers of benefits, from giving you a foundation based on chord shapes and scale to training you how to recognize chromatic patterns on the standard dulcimer. More mountain dulcimer players should give it a try - it's really not as hard as you might think.

So, Folkcraft has built me a new double with one side diatonic (with a 1+ and 8+) and the other side chromatic. This will be a 29" VSL, which should be interesting, stretch-wise for the fingers, but the tone should be fantastic.

Installed as the pre-amp is the Fishman Aura Pro. The Prefix Pro has been what I've been using and it's been incredible having that control over sound and tone right there on the instrument. Guitars have had it for awhile, why not mountain dulcimers? So many different tones for so many different rooms and surfaces. Shiny floors and glassy windows, wide open tile or tight wooden bunkers, they all change your sound. Being able to adjust the sound of the dulcimer in each different space is invaluable for performers. Not long after, Fishman debuted a pre-amp called the Prefix Pro Blend, which included the under-the-saddle pickup along with an actual microphone inside, which allowed you to blend the signals together.

With an ear towards replicating and amplifying the natural sounds of a gentle wooden instrument so that the original tone is pure and fresh (which makes even better source signal for all the crazywacky effects that you can channel it through - acoustic guitars make for the best distortion - it's true!) the Aura Pro takes that concept a step further. Dulcimers have been hooking up with USB computer ports for some time now, but are increasing in number. The irony is, the closer we get to preserving and projecting natural acoustic audio, the more goo-gads it seems to involve (at least they're getting lighter.)

Gee-Gaw #2: Good-God!

The first time I ever heard a Bose system it was like walking into the path of a bolt of lightning, struck in awe, left standing there thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. Many years later, a friend and I went to a Bose home theater demonstration and actually left with tears in our eyes. Bose has got a very interesting history. I'm convinced that there is more than meets the eye with them, but in the meantime, they can keep making cool stuff for us gear heads.

Like the L1 System.

By putting the speakers behind you, getting rid of the need for monitors and distributing the sound in a tightly packed configuration of speakers that send sound forward, not up and down, you get a cleaner, purer sound without needing to be loud. It doesn't need to be loud to be heard - it just needs to be clear.

The L1 Personal Amplification System blew my mind when I first heard it demoed and it's been a lusty number of years. After socking away savings and a massive fire sale in December, I chose not to settle for anything less than the Legend. Two bass modules give me support in the bottom end for drums, percussion and bass, one stand. Pedals and microphone, clear space, clear sound. After assembling the parts (the instructions literally are illustrated with pictures), Jae's eyes went wide as I put in a Peter Gabriel song and slowly began to crank it up. At low level - everything can be heard. At medium level - it's putting out a solid amount of sound, yet we're still able to have a conversation standing just feet from the speakers. Getting into more aggressive levels, slowly, the two subwoofers begin pushing more air and the room begins to pump. Extraordinary clarity.

The quest for tone and the communication of sound is something that performers must dance with for all of their careers. If it's not plugged in and demanding adjustment, it's unplugged and needing setting up or redesigning. We're hard wired as humans to push for perfection, however unattainable. The journey that we take while on the quest for anything is part of the training for enjoying those moments when everything becomes clear. With your music, which is close to the bone and next to the heart, you want to present it in the way that you hear it first. And when they come out with the consumer-level tech that allows music signals to be beamed right into the vibrations of your skull, you can count me out on jumping that bandwagon but I'll sure as hell be there for the demo.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stompin' In The Garden and Barkin' At The Moon

There's always been stomp-box-loving people around me. Stomping. Looping. One-man-banding. I've done a little tap-dancing in my time, but never so much as to necessitate an actual "pedal board."

Well, they make a lot of sense, actually. And I knew exactly what pedals would be right for the job.

The mountain dulcimer is a magical, feathery instrument that has no problem capturing the attention of informal audiences. Its sound spectrum, however, is much narrower than that of comparable instruments that might be up on a stage with a solo performer. When not performing dulcimer in the traditional style, I opt for incorporating the instrument as a controller for this wild array of stuff. At the heart of the operation (for right now, anyway) is the Boss RC-20 Loop Station. I pre-load it with beats and bits, leaving some tracks empty for laying in multiple tracks of dulcimer; leads, rhythms, harmonies, sound effects, whatever comes to mind. Not only can you record your main instrument, you can also plug in a microphone or MP3 player and sample from other sources. Awesome sauce.

After weighing several options, I went with a Boss OC-3 Super Octave. Es chocolate polifónico, you can choose between mono and polyphonic modes and work multiple octaves of deep, fat bass. I kick this in and play on the bass string to lay in foundation on loops or live as a lead. It supports full chords with an earth-shaking pedal tone that, with proper E.Q., can turn your three strings into a seven-string, drop-D monster.

Finally, as a long-time owner of the classic Boss DD-3 Digital Delay pedal, I traded up into a DD-7, which includes a tap tempo feature for matching beats and routing for true stereo effects.

Create a beat on the drum that's being recorded into the loop pedal, now stop recording and switch on the octaver - hit record and play bass string on the dulcimer, switch octaver off and then layer in some normal dulcimer while tempo matching on the delay pedal - activate delay and you've got a shimmering, sparkling echo of your dulcimer playing, locked in to the rhythm track that you've just created. Of course you can see where this would allow for no sleep at the most crazed phases of the moon, it is simply an absorbing experience. It's you as the orchestra.

Anywhoo - there's a couple of Danalectro pedals in the picture up there - a tuner and a Daddy-O distortion pedal. I think I gave the tuner to Stephen Seifert. I don't remember. What I do remember is that I never did like tap-dancing. It has been a learning experience and for the bottom line question: has it accomplished what I was going for? It sure has. And probably in ways that I haven't even run into yet.

Is There Anybody In There?

We live next to an interstate, a fire station and a gentleman in a giant 4x4 who's fond of music with deep bass and, at the most horribly unexpected times, his real McCoy Amtrak air-horn. Floor space is at a premium, so building isolation booths never even entered the equation. After seriously considering giving up a chunk of the studio floor space in order to create a vocal booth, I ran across the VoxGuard.

In order to get that rich, open sound - we needed to be using condenser mics, which are notoriously good at recording everything in a mile radius. Still, with perhaps some more reflection and sound focusing (and post-production E.Q. tweaking on the occasional Silver Meteor) it could be pulled off. After reading several reviews at TweakHeadz, I settled (and why is that?) for the Studio Projects B-1.

This is all great gear, make no mistake about it, but in most of these upgrades, I'm stopping way short of pie-in-the-sky dreaming in the quest for the most excellent set-up. Money is usually the deciding factor, followed quickly and exuberantly by specs and word-of-mouth or good reviews. If people are generally digging it, you know? I'd love a studio pair of AKG-414 mics. At my bracket, 't'ain't hap'nin'.

Doesn't matter though, there's no jadedness here. The first real tests of the mic with VoxGuard have been extraordinarily good (and with that Tube Pac shaping the sound - it gets back to that "preserving" the audio side of things.)

Next Up: Living In The Future

Let Me In The Sound

When it comes to music, sounds as a general sort of array, you're either trying to preserve and present the sound with fidelity or you're attempting to change the sound in one or many ways and create something that's hopefully unique as much as it's familiar enough to resonate with the listener. Most folk musicians are in the former camp, keeping gentle company with acoustic music without amplification or amplified in such a way that it retains as much of its natural quality as possible. I'm down with that. When it boils right down to it, nothing beats the sound of an instrument au naturel.

But face it - sometimes, it's helpful to plug in so that you may be heard. Proper amplification takes whatever it is that you are doing and presents it to the listener as you intended it to be heard. Anything less and you might be settling, but there are many fine reasons for that too.

Take, for example, Audio 2000's AWP6040. I got this from Mike Clemmer at Wood 'N' Strings after he told me about how he uses it when teaching workshops.

It's a little 25 watt battery-powered wireless P.A. system that comes with both a lavalier and a lapel mic plus inputs for guitar cable both 1/4" and 3.5" - aux MP3 player jack - you can get one of the mics on you, clip the transmitter to your belt, plug your instrument directly into the box or splitter into the pack, set the tone, individual channel volumes, add a little slapback to the voice and, if you're strolling - you've got 100 feet to wander while you play and sing or speak.

I use this when I teach workshops at festivals and also in the past for ceremonies, house concerts and, tonight, a birthday party. It's truly surprising just how well this unit punches the sound out there. Better still: I don't know what Mike's selling these for now, but last summer, it was a steal at under $100. Right?

This is the *gear* post, so it's going to get tweaky in here real quick. It'll all end with the story of why I'm expecting a delivery in about twelve hours. Here now, the beginning of the past four month's deeper trip to get into the sound.

Let me in the sound
Let me in the sound, now
God, I’m going down
I don’t wanna drown now
Meet me in the sound - Bono

Is It Warm In Here?

If you haven't seen them already (and you can always access these kinds of posts by clicking on the "gear" label in the label cloud on the right) the Tube Pac probably started this whole move to upgrade, so this has been over the course of a year then. Recording mostly with dynamic microphones (Shure SM-57, SM-58Beta) left me wanting to capture more depth and richness in the studio, which led to this single-channel tube pre-amplification and compression unit. Right away, the difference in sound quality was amazing.

Then came the Digitech Vocalist 4, which is really quite funny to sneak into tunes and watch as people try to figure out where your other singers are.

Finally had to break down and get another audio interface. With one fried channel, the PreSonus Firebox was only half useful, not to mention glitchy. After a horrible side-trip into the world of M-Audio, I settled (a-ha, that word again) for a PreSonus Firestudio Mobile because they didn't have the Saffire Pro 40 at the Guitar Center near the house. Let's not chalk this up to impatience - album deadlines dictated that a glitching interface needed replaced, like, right then. And so you do.

There's still the occasional glitch - but nothing that harms recording quality. Just quality of non-frustration levels while waiting for Apple's Audio/MIDI program to connect the dots. No big. Play a round of Words With Friends. Right?

By the way, that P.A. pictured at the top of this post? That was mine - Fender Passport PD150. Nice unit - 4 channels (well, 3 channels and a stereo auxiliary), great for vocals and light duty work, but don't try and put anything that resembles bass through it. Nuh-uh. And unfortunately, that's exactly where I was attempting to go through all of this tone building and developing performance additions. As much as there is a time to strum the mountain dulcimer unaffected and free of cables, there is also much rejoicing to be had when you can really throw it through a heap of processors and turn it into the paintbrushes of your musical dreams.

Next Up: Stompin' In The Garden and Barkin' At The Moon

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pursuit of Tone and A Minor Event

Good week to you!

The focus has been on the key of "C." It's the only one out of fifteen keys that has absolutely no sharps and no flats. It's all the white keys of the piano, pure and uncomplicated. To a point. As promised in the last post, we get to the dark side of things now.

Quick recap - we number the seven notes of the Major scale, beginning with the root note or tonic, which is "C".

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am - Bdim
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°

Each of the seven notes can be used to build a chord or a scale. Because of the relationship between notes, scales/chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th notes are Major; scales/chords built from the 2nd, 3rd and 6th are minor. The 7th note yields the mysterious-sounding diminished chords and scales.

It's because of this particular sequence of distances (or intervals) between notes that the Major scale has its up, happy and bright sound. Now, change the sequence and watch what happens.

If you begin this scale on the sixth note and use all of the same notes as the Major scale, you get the relative minor scale (also known as the natural minor or Aeolian mode.) Since the sixth note of the C Major scale is "A", then this will be known as the A minor scale (note the lowercase "minor" - this is important.)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The order of notes has changed, yet it is still the same seven notes of the C Major scale. When played in this order, the steps between notes become altered slightly, which gives minor chords and scales a darker, more somber tone. Now remember - the point at which we begin on the scale has changed, so the notes have not. Which means that each of those notes retains its Major/minor/diminished quality. You'll just encounter them in a different order like so:

Am -  Bdim  -  C   -  Dm   -   Em   -   F   -   G
i  -   ii°   - III -  iv   -    v   -   VI  -  VII

Leading the way...

Chords have an interesting relationship with each other. Some lead to one another in a natural, expected way while others have a prickly sort of chemistry that seems forced and rough. It's the push and pull of these elements that creates musical tension. Our ears are attracted by (and spirits moved by) certain types of musical conflict and a good road map for that is this charting of chord progressions:

I chord leads to any chord
ii leads to IV, V, vii° chords
iii leads to ii, IV, vi chords
IV leads to I, iii, V, vii° chords
V leads to I chords
vi leads to ii, IV, V, I chords
vii° leads to I, ii chords

These rules were made to be broken, of course, and there's more down the road about borrowed chords and note replacement, but generally speaking, when moving chords through a piece of music - the above standards for western music apply.

So, in crafting a look at the world of the natural minor, I went totally overboard and composed a three-part arrangement for mountain dulcimer ensemble called "A Minor Event." Tuning is CGC. The file has individual pieces for the chords, lead and counterpoint as well as the .tef file for TablEdit users. Even if you don't have the registered version of the program, you can download the free TEF Viewer to listen to the piece.

First off - go to Play > Relative Speed and set it for 62. Experiment with different tempos and see how it sounds to you. If you're not familiar with multiple modules with TablEdit, take a look at the top right hand corner of the main screen when you open "A Minor Event." You'll see three green tabs with numbers. Each one of those represents a part of the arrangement. You can click each one to bring the tablature to the front (unfortunately, no way to watch all three at once, unless you print it out, but then it's not moving and scrolling and playing music, is it? No fun there.) Slowing down the playback will allow you to practice difficult passages.

The arrangement is a demonstration of chord progressions in A minor, how to grow melodies and harmonies out of those chords. A song should be like a little adventure that takes the listener on an exciting journey. Where did that come from? Where are we going next? The twists and turns with each new emotion draw us further into the journey and then, at the end, a logical conclusion, a resolving of conflict and tension to reach the root; our home. Just as long as this trip brings everyone back home, allow your song to roam the hills. Keep melodies moving in nearby clusters of notes - make it easy to hum.

Think of the root note as home. As you begin to chart your way from that root - certain paths will work better than others until you finally bring it home. Once you lay down the chord progressions - weave your melody out of the scales associated with each chord. When the chord changes to C, pick notes out of the C Major scale. When the chord moves on to D minor, concentrate on notes picked from the D minor scale. Of course, some notes will overlap between keys, but this is a good road map for creating melody, rules made to be broken again, of course.

This was written for an orchestra of mountain dulcimers, with several playing each part, but it can be done with just three instruments. With the chords - I've just indicated the fingerings for each one in whole notes. You can either play it just like that, one strum every four beats, or you can apply a bit of rhythm in the form of quarter notes, maybe arpeggiate through the changes. I've tried to create movement mostly with the other two parts - so the whole notes, while not entirely interesting, allow those chords to breathe. Play the tablature as written - so the lead part is sometimes played on only one string at a time. The lead harmonizes with the counterpoint, which also serves as bass for this piece. None of these parts played by themselves is much of a head-turner - it's how they interweave, dance and pronounce the movements of the chords, as mirrored by melody and harmony.

If you don't have two other people to play this with - try recording it! (They have an app for that. And if you're reading this blog you probably do have some kind of digital audio workstation. If you don't, you probably want one and know where to look.)

Instead of hanging out in the key of C and its relative key of A minor, we're going to travel through the different keys and continue to explore how it all works together. Next - we're getting sharp with a look at the key of G.

Tools Of The Trade-Off

I've been living in a cave on eBay for the past few months, carefully implementing a plan that would step up my game a bit here at the studio. Living in the city is hell on recording studios and my modified car port wasn't designed to be sound tight. Since we won't be moving to the country anytime soon, I decided to make a huge sacrifice and invest in a major upgrade for both my recording and live performance rigs.

Jae and I love to watch HGTV for all of the shows about people buying and selling homes, re-designing and decorating, adding on, etc. With an eye towards better space management in the studio, with the side benefit of fund raising for one of the upgrades, I began selling some of the mountain dulcimers from my personal collection. Dulcimers with names like Nikki, Bridget, Kamalani and Helen. Each with their own stories, sometimes caught in a moment and posted on a Facebook page somewhere, some of the instruments used to write and record albums, they went flying off the shelf to some eagle-eyed folks on eBay and now, I can almost see the chromakey blue of the walls.

A few people seemed surprised that I would part with a part of my musical history so easily. Taking a page from the great Pixar film "Toy Story 2"; great instruments were meant to be played and enjoyed. These instruments have now gone on to places where they will be a vibrant, living part of the melody of love instead of stored in a dark case for most of the time.

The money doesn't hurt either. Needed that.

Here, on many different levels of importance for doing the dance that is the dance with music, some of the gear-head stuff that I've been embracing to step it up.

Genius App

Music Theory Pro can be addicting and, for an application that is basically drilling pure music theory, that says a lot about its draw. A real bargain at 99 cents, this application is sort of like having a set of digital flashcards with you at all times (or as long as you've got your smartphone around.) Four areas concentrate on Note Names, Key Signatures, Intervals and Chords, allowing you to set certain parameters to customize your learning experience (include just triads or other chords as well?)

The fifth area focuses on ear training in the areas of Tempos, Intervals, Scales and Chords. Right answers are greeted with approval ("Great Work!" "Keep Going!" flash at you like electronic cheerleaders) while incorrect answers are gently corrected ("You guessed Bb I'm sorry the correct answer is E" Polite, even.)

While you wander through the various pop quizzes, seconds whiz by at the top right hand corner. A gauge in the top left corner keeps track of how you do. Accuracy and speed pay off in high scores that can then be posted on a global ranking viewable through the app and on the website. Cool. Whoever added the competitive angle was a genius. Nothing like seeing someone else's score and thinking "I know C# in bass clef better than them!"

The customization aspect is also great. Play speed rounds of ten questions or marathons of five hundred. Drill on major and minor keys or add sevenths, diminished and augmented. You'll find yourself running through the quizzes whenever you've got a spare moment. The repetition is fantastic for putting into practice what you've just learned - so much so that you can jump in without knowing your way around and then begin to figure the rhyme and reason as you continue to play. Great all-around music theory app - I use this even more than Karajan now, though that app is far superior in terms of keeping data on your strong and weak points (!)

Even though you may not know what you're doing with it right away - ear training is an invaluable tool for playing and understanding music more fully.

Next: Let Me In The Sound

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mucking about in the key of C: More diatonic study

If you're familiar with the concept of music therapy, then you're probably aware of the connection between the various keys and their respective characteristics. Out of all the colors of the rainbow, it is the total absence of color, white, that is most often associated with the key of C. From this page comes the quote "Pure, certain, decisive; expressive of innocence, powerful resolve, manly earnestness and deep religious feeling." No flats. No sharps. Not complicated. It's a basic "home key."

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Seven notes. In a scale, we typically play a total of eight notes. The seven notes of the scale beginning with the root or tonic note (in this case, C) and ending with the same note an octave higher (from the Latin octavus - meaning "eight".)

You can build chords from each note by skipping every other letter. Remember that 1, 4 and 5 are Major chords, 2,3 and 6 are minor chords and the seventh is a diminished chord.

C E G = C Major
D F A = D minor
E G B = E minor
F A C = F Major
G B D = G Major
A C E = A minor
B D F = B diminished

Major = root, Major third, perfect fifth
minor = root, minor third, perfect fifth
diminished = root, minor third, diminished fifth (or "flat fifth" or b5 or 5b)

and while we're at it

augmented = root, Major third, raised or "augmented" fifth

All of these chords are possible on a standard mountain dulcimer. So far, we're sticking with triads; these chords with three notes. Later, we'll get more into so-called "chroma" or extended chords like 6ths, 7ths and suspended chords.

Working out of the possible chord progressions for basic fundamental key of C, I came up with this piece called "C Musing Myself." No strum instructions have been included, so you'll need to fill out and propel this piece once you've mastered playing it through as written.

Now, one thing about playing in CGC tuning is that it requires a light touch if you're using moderately light gauge strings such as .011 - .014 on your melody and middle string. Heavier strings (I sometimes use .016 - .017) will hold up better on most instruments that can tolerate being tuned down a whole step from what they're used to. After talking with several builders, it can be said that some dulcimers are built to sound best when tuned to variables of D (DAA, DAD, DGD, etc.) so you may need to play around with the tuning a bit.

For each movement to a different chord, the bits of melody are taken from that chord and its corresponding scale. Using chords and notes that are not in the scale is standard practice - I just kept it simple for this first composition. It's a tremendously fun exercise. Just choose your key (know the territory), lay out your chord progressions, build a melody and explore the many different personalities of the various keys.

At least a couple of music theory websites made note (pun intended) of a dual-personality for the key of C, which also swung towards the "war like" side. Perhaps that's best reflected in the relative minor key of C which can be found by going to the sixth note of the Major scale, whatever it might be. In this case, the note is A - so the key is A minor. Same notes as the C scale - just started in a different spot:



(a good mental mind-map = six up or two back from the root is the relative minor. C minus two = A)

A look at the minor side of the C coming up next!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Studies in C for Diatonic and Chromatic Mountain Dulcimer

• Download the .pdf for C Diatonic Scales

• Download the .pdf for C Chromatic Scales

• Download the .pdf for C Scale Harmonizing

I've decided to take a walkabout with the music and I'm inviting you to come along for a journey into the not-so-scary world of music theory. Some of this will skew easier to chromatic mountain dulcimer, but there's absolutely no harm in learning the bigger picture. You just never know when the urge to purchase that first chromatic instrument may come, so be prepared.

Creating music really is all about knowing how to say what you want to say when you want to say it. That's it. If you can hear it in your head and your heart, you can bring it to life. It requires active, constant engagement on your part, because the music is all there. Most importantly, knowing what your instrument is capable of will give you the opportunity to make full use of its versatility when you're ready to explore.

Get In Training

Like going to the gym, there are lots of exercises that you can do to help fine-tune your sense of music. Beating out rhythms on coffee tables, with and without a metronome to sync up the beat, is a great groove developing tool. Ear-training is something I've mentioned here before and I cannot stress the importance of dialing in the various pitches and how they relate to each other as intervals, chords and melodies. Seeing them written on paper is an important part of the equation, but it's the hearing of these things that will solidify them as part of your developing vocabulary. There are a number of ear-training sites on the web as well as apps for iPhone and Android ( Ricci Adams' newly-refurbished theory site is my favorite spot online while Karajan keeps me studying when I'm mobile. )

Every day, like you're training for the big event, do it just for a little while as part of your rehearsals or even separately. You can quickly run through ten sets of intervals with your smart phone during the day at work at some point. How will this help you? As you continue to work with scales, those combinations of notes that inform so much of what we play in western music, you'll have a better sense of "place" within musical phrases by training your ear to hear the distance between notes. Not only between two notes, but between three, four and beyond even five notes in beautiful extended chords. The more you train, the more you'll be able to incorporate those colors into your playing.

Scales & Chords: Building Blocks

The musical 'alphabet' is a twelve-note scale called chromatic. Out of those twelve notes, a smaller series of seven notes serves as the basis for most Western music. This scale is called diatonic. The traditional mountain dulcimer is diatonic in nature, it's built around the seven steps of a seven-note scale. Each note of the scale has its own personality through chords and other scales that it can influence.

Some notes on the above tablature. I'm experimenting with a different way of formatting for chromatic dulcimer. You'll see a fourth line at the bottom; just ignore it. Think of it as a place to rest your pick. There are only three lines/strings of tablature data - also, for chromatic dulcimer, I'm using the straight numbering system - which is 1 through 12 for the frets. Most of you went with positioning dots at the 3, 5, 7, 9, and double at the 12 as is standard for guitars. Though the tuning is different, by approaching chromatic dulcimer this way will open up a world of discovery for you on other instruments as well. Forget about the + symbol for the time being - it's hard work on the eyes.

Learn your scales, know where every instance of the note lives on the fretboard. Start with the first octave (7th fret for diatonic, 12th for chromatic.) Make sure you're tuned CGC for diatonic and DAD for chromatic. We're gonna hang out in the key of C for a while and see what we can come up with. For now, let's consider this. We're building chords in triads. Each note of the scale has a number. We're in the key of C.

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

I - ii - iii - IV -V - vi - vii°

If you build a chord out of every other note in the C scale, you get either major or minor chords depending on the various relationships.

C -> E -> G = C Major

D -> F -> A = D minor

E -> G -> B = E minor - etc.

This is just how the math works out. I, IV, V will be major scales/chords and lowercase ii, iii, vi will be minor scales/chords with vii° representing something called a diminished which is either a minor chord with a flattened fifth note or a scale based off of the Locrian mode. Playing through the tablature will show you what each of the possible chords sound like for not only the key of C but for C minor as well. What I'm doing is setting up some muscle-memory exercises for working the scales into patterns. So instead of going to the relative minor scale of C (which would be A minor), we're going to make changes to the major scale in order to play three different types of minor scales; natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor.

Beyond Three Notes

This is where the ear-training will really pay off. By the time you began playing in C minor (if you have a 1+ fret on diatonic) you have crossed the threshold between diatonic and chromatic. Once over, it's a world full of rich, complex chords that are possible on both diatonic and chromatic. The key here is: learning the scales first, knowing where the notes are located across two octaves of fretboard, then beginning to build chords using those memorized notes. Exploring the number of ways that a chord can be not only shifted and molded within itself, but also how certain movements of chords work more favorably than others.

To review, based on a seven-note scale, a chord is made up of at least three notes - a root, a third and a fifth. Some of those notes can go up or down a half step (sharp or flat #/b ) and create other kinds of chords. Finally, you can add other notes for color.

Major chord - R (root) + 3rd + 5th

Minor chord - R + minor 3rd (down a half step) + 5th

Seventh chord - R + 3rd - 5th + minor 7th

Major Seventh chord - R + 3rd + 5th + Major 7th

Minor Seventh chord - R + minor 3rd + 5th + minor 7th

You can use rootless voicings if working in three string mode - dropping the root is often enough.


L-Shaped chords have the root of the chord on the bass string (1st position - non inverted)

Slant-Shaped chords have the root on the middle string (1st position - non inverted)

Extended-Slant-Shaped chords have the root on the melody string (1st position - non inverted)

During your own chordal explorations, try moving the root, the 3 and the 5 around. Half-steps on the dulcimer are the narrow spaces on the fretboard. Two of those spaces fit within one of the wide spaces on diatonic fretboards. Where ever there is a wide space, there is a fret missing (though some people have put some back in, like the 6+ the 1+, etc.)

The final exercise, scale harmonies - is a great exercise for exploring the variety of color chords available to you on chromatic dulcimer.

Diatonic dulcimers - experiment with second inversion chord shapes to see how that changes the texture and feeling of your chords. Inversions in DAD tuning are easy since it's a symmetrical tuning (234 D-chord becomes 432 D-chord with lower bass tone)

Next up we'll look at chord movement and melody!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Night

Every New Year's Eve, it's just about the same thing. I have to work on something and not just be content to sit back and let the year roll in. Why? Might be lots of reasons.

Still, keeping with a basic spirit of "sharing is caring", I posted a new track tonight called "New Year's Night" which probably won't stay as it is, but has risen out of two days that required me to embrace the new recording set-up.

The track isn't done, by any means - just my first emotional rendering for the new year. Equal parts texture and tension, it speaks of the ease of rolling in loosely-defined meadows before buckling down and allowing the inner monologue to kick in. What do you think?