The FIRST JAM series of Mel Bay books was created to give beginners of all ages a book of simple, common tunes to learn. Many are standard “Jam” tunes in the Bluegrass/Old Time music styles. All the books in this series are written in the same keys; they can all be played together without any problems. So get your friends or family who play guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukelele, mountain dulcimer or Dobro together, grab these books and start jamming!
Improvisation – Another idea behind writing the FIRST JAM series was to provide a number of tunes that were easy to learn, but that are also great to begin working on improvising. Each book offers the melody for that particular instrument as well as back-up chords for another instrument to accompanying you. Have fun!
This popular Bluegrass classic is set in the key of A Major. An easy way to play that is to tune to DAD tuning and put a capo at the mountain dulcimer’s 4th fret. If you do not have a mountain dulcimer capo you can fashion a temporary one by using a flat-sided chopstick or other piece of wood and fastening a strong rubber band to it, as shown in this photo:
Remember, for this piece you fasten the “capo” at the 4th fret.
Information on streamlined, manufactured capos is in the June 2005 issue. Listen to this single-string melody of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”:
Listen to the back-up chords to “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”:
FIRST JAMS for Mountain Dulcimer and the rest of the FIRST JAMS series for guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukelele, mountain dulcimer and Dobro can be ordered from MelbayXpress.
This is a tune that I wrote with a mystical, dreamy and arrhythmic feeling in mind. The solo recording was made with my dulcimer in a C-G-C, Mixolydian tuning. The tab is written in the standard DAD tuning and is indicated to be played with a flat-pick. It is important to hold the chord shape as long as possible in order to keep the music smooth and flowing. On the recording, I actually fingerpicked this piece with a series of harp-like strums from the bass string to the melody strings along with various, fingerpicking roll patterns. I encourage you to first listen to the sound file to get to know the piece, then take your time trying the tablature arrangement on your dulcimer. Once you know it, experiment and be creative with this tune, as it is one that I seldom play the same way twice.
The bagpipe tune, “Scotland the Brave,” probably became known around the turn of the 20th Century. It is considered the unofficial national anthem of Scotland. Many people in the U.S. first heard this traditional melody in the 1950s, when the Ames Brothers recorded contemporary lyrics to it bearing the name “My Bonnie Lassie.” In the following arrangement, there is a nice change of drone harmonies from playing the A part melody on the middle string, and then playing the B part melody on the two outside strings.
“Silent Night” was sung first as “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” in Oberndorf, Austria in 1817. Written a year earlier as a Poem by Fr. Joseph Mohr, he took it to Franz Gruber on December 24, 1818 to inquire about a melody being put to it for the Christmas Eve service. So “Silent Night” was sung first by Mohr and Gruber, backed by the church choir and accompanied by only a guitar, at midnight mass in St. Nicholas Church December 25, 1818. There were six original verses to the song. They sang the verses in unison and then repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony.
Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman working on the church organ, took a copy of “Silent Night” to his village in the Ziller Valley, and thus this carol began its trip around the world. It was performed for kings and royalty around the world and for the first time in New York City in 1839 by the Rainer Family at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church.
Many stories have been passed around about the origin of this hymn and also about the real composer, but original manuscripts were found in recent years that had, in Mohr’s handwriting in the upper right corner, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber”. Fr. Joseph Mohr was born in 1792 and died penniless in 1848, having given all his money to the poor and helpless.
Listen to Linda Brockinton play this arrangement of “Silent Night.”
Linda’s notes on playing “Silent Night”:
My tablature arrangement below looks a little intimidating if you are not used to playing chord-melody style on your mountain dulcimer. Actually it is much simpler than it looks if you just focus on the first three numbers in each measure. These numbers make a chord, and if you put your fingertips down on the chord at the beginning of each measure and then pick the proper string, all the notes you need are there without moving until the next measure, unless of course the melody moves on the melody string.
If you look at the first measure you see that the chord is 4-3-2 or a reverse slant chord. To make this chord I use my thumb on the melody string, middle finger on the middle string, and ring finger on the bass string. Fingerings vary from player to player, so whatever you choose is fine.
Then we switch to a 2-3-4 slant chord. With my fingerings you simply drop the pinky at fret 2 on the melody string and index finger at fret 4 on the bass string, lifting the ring and thumb. By using the middle finger at fret 3, you can switch chords without lifting, and this is what allows your playing to be smooth.
Whatever fingers you use, hold all chords down until you are physically forced to move for a melody note or until it’s time to change to another chord. By doing so you will have a smooth, sustained playing style similar to the piano with the pedal down.
Slower practice is also recommended, as it is all about muscle memory. So go over each measure until it sounds like “Silent Night” and there is no hesitation. Adding one measure at a time helps you to learn the finger movements and helps you to memorize. You can also focus on looking at your hand and what you are doing instead of just concentrating on the numbers on the page.
This book and companion CD offer a very simple and reliable introduction for new mountain dulcimer players. The following sample from the book is a simple one-string arrangement, along with a recording. Author Madeline MacNeil is using the DAA (‘Ionian’) tuning, which places the tune comfortably on the fretboard; however, if you like to play in DAD tuning, just play the melody on the middle string. It will still play the same melody notes as the recording included below.
If you wanted to play it along with Jeanne Page’s hammered dulcimer arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” in this issue of DulcimerSessions, you can re-tune your DAD dulcimer DGD (loosen middle string one whole step), and play the melody on the first (treble) string just as the music shows you.
Ed note: Bill Taylor built the dulcimer on the right on the cover for me and it’s for sale!
This energetic jig is often played in music sessions and dances in Irish, English and Scottish traditions. It is a popular tune for New England contradances as well. Here are some words that go with the A part:
Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair
She has time and money to spare
Looks like rain but she does not care
Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair
Mark Nelson suggests flatpicking or fingerpicking his arrangement, or adding notes from the chords above the music and strumming it in chord/melody style.
This traditional Irish song captured my attention on folk radio. What struck me was the beautiful melody and rhythm in conjunction with the quirky counting chorus, and the story: a young man is smitten by a woman of questionable reputation washing her feet by candlelight on a late-night street in Dublin. I’ve heard different theories about the counting chorus: that it is “mouth music” or score-keeping for a game, but mostly that she is counting money. As always with the old songs, there are many variants of “Spanish Lady,” as well as other traditional songs with the counting chorus and the floating verse of “Round and round goes the wheel of fortune.”
The version I fell in love with is from Maighread Ní Dohmnaill, Tríona Ní Dohmnaill & Dónal Lunny. You can hear it here:
They, in turn, got it from Irish source singer Frank Harte (1933-2005):
I am now a link in this chain and you can hear and see me sing and play “Spanish Lady” here:
I have tabbed this out in D-A-D mountain dulcimer tuning, but I actually play this in C-G-C-C (bass to first string) with four equally-distant strings, one of my favorite ways to play. If you have not experimented with four equally-distant strings, this is a good opportunity to get your feet wet. I play this way a lot, letting the second string drone, forming the chord shapes like I would with three strings, but skipping over what is now the second string. There is something so haunting and lovely about that dronal effect and the rich addition of that extra string—you’ll be hooked!
The quirky rhythm escaped me until I started to tab the song for a student, realizing it is a mixture of 6/4 and 4/4. These are the kinds of fascinating nuances that make songs unique and emotionally compelling. I want to thank bandmates Heidi Cerrigione and Kevin Doyle for helping me understand this rhythm.
My strumming is percussive and strong, and the beginning instrumental part has an intentionally different chord order in one section—a way to mix things up a bit but not necessarily on a conscious level for listeners.
My vocal style, as for any singer, is an expression of my generation, heritage, and creative influences: traditional Appalachian and Celtic styles blended with influences such as Joni Mitchell, Mary Black, and of course, Jean Ritchie. Enjoy! Feel free to write to me at www.atwater-donnelly.com
Lyrics to “Spanish Lady”:
As I was walking through Dublin City, about the hour of twelve at night
It was there I spied a fair pretty maiden washing her feet by candlelight
First she washed them, then she dried them, over a fire of amber coals
And in all my life I never did meet a maid so neat about the soles…
She had twenty eighteen sixteen fourteen, twelve ten eight six four two none
She had nineteen seventeen fifteen thirteen, eleven nine seven five three and one
I stopped to look but the watchman passed, said he, “Young fellow, now the light is late
And away with you home or I will wrestle you, straight away to the Bridewell gate.”
I got a look from the Spanish lady, hot as a fire of amber coals
And in all my life I never did meet a maid so neat around the soles…
As I walked back through Dublin City, as the dawn of day was o’er
Who should I spy but the Spanish lady, when I was weary and footsore
She had a heart so filled with loving, and her love she longed to share
And in all my life I never did meet a maid who had so much to spare…
I’ve wandered north and I’ve wandered south, to Stoneybatter and Patrick’s Close
Up and around by the Gloucester Diamond, back by Napper Tandy’s house
Old age has laid its hand upon me, cold as a fire of ashy coals
And gone is the lovely Spanish lady, neat and sweet about the soles
‘Round and around goes the wheel of fortune, where it rests now wearies me
Oh fair young maids are so deceiving, sad experience teaches me…
Several years back I went into a flea market and found a dulcimer abandoned on the floor. How sad it was to see this instrument that once held so much music just tossed away after someone died. It always makes me sad to see music and instruments discarded, knowing that someone
who loved music used to play them. To me it’s like seeing little orphan children abandoned. I was wondering, “If it could talk what would that instrument say?” So I made of list of questions that the dulcimer might ask if it could talk, and after making the list I sat down and wrote “Grandma’s Dulcimer.” A year or so later I wrote the music.
I quietly hang upon the wall, recalling days of old.
Your Grandma, she was meek and mild, your Grandpa big and bold.
Many a night when they were young she’d play a little song
On her calico lap she held me tight while he laughed and played along.
But you pass me by day by day, I call but you don’t hear.
So unlike your Grandma; she always held me near.
I feel her fingers trip my strings, and not just notes, you see.
All of her songs came from her heart, thru her fingers right into me.
I fear the songs inside of me may never again be found.
I worry every day that I’ll not make another sound.
I see the way you look at me, with longing in your eyes.
Please take me down and play me. It’s easy; don’t be shy.
Yes, take me down and play me; play what’s in your heart.
You’ll never know what real joy is if you never start.
Hold me tight and strum me; I’ll give you gifts untold.
Gifts straight from your Grandma’s heart, and from deep within her soul.
Play me when you are full of joy, and play me when you’re blue,
And all the comfort I have to give I will give to you.
Yes, play me sweetly, play me loud, or play me with a drone,
And all the love you leave with me I’ll someday pass it on.
The playing of this tune is simple. The verses alternate playing the A part of the music for the
first verse and the B part for the second. This continues until you get to the last verse and there
Music is a language much like English, German, French or Kacipo-Balesi. If you think of 12 chromatic notes like our 26 letters of the alphabet in the western English language – those same 26 letters (sometimes with diacritical markings) can order coffee in Spanish, beer in German and pastry in French! The song form known as blues is based in and around certain musical notes, chord progressions and phrasing, combined with a structure that reflects its African origins. The only true way to emulate the blues is to hear it, feel it and let it flow. Many bluesmen never learned to read music; they simply copied what they heard elder musicians playing and singing. The blues is like a patois, slang or dialect. The key to performing different musical styles lies within being able to “speak the language like a local” and so it is with blues music.
The blues form emerged out of African spirituals, ceremonial songs, work chants, ring shouts and field hollers, first appearing during the turn of the 18th century. The blues, or “blue devils”, refers to sadness or depression but is often used to convey great happiness or spiritual awakening. Over the years it has sprouted, grown and spun off in countless directions, resulting in sub-genres like Piedmont, Delta, swamp, west coast, Chicago, Texas, country and jazz. Without blues, there’d be no “rhythm & blues” or “rock & roll”! Truly music of the people, the blues came out of the cotton fields of the post-war South and was made popular by an ever-growing list of performers including Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Wells, Pinetop Perkins, Little Milton, R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and more. Listen to music by these artists and you’ll get a grand picture of blues history.
The Blues Form
In a nutshell, the blues form is 12 measures in 4/4 time using three chords and a melody based on elements of the pentatonic minor blues scale. Using Roman numerals, each note of the scale gets a number – I through VII (scale degree). All you need is the key to get started. A 12-bar blues in E, for example, is a I – IV – V chord progression. The root note, first note of the E Major scale, is “E (I).” The fourth note of the scale is “A (IV)”. The fifth note of the scale is “B (V)”. Some or all of the chords may be sevenths (E7, A7, etc.)Four measures of the “I” chord, switch to the “IV” chord for two measures, then back to the “I” for two more measures and wrapping up with one measure of the “V”, one measure of the “IV” and two final measures of “I”. Lyrics typically follow an AAB form with a line sung over the first four measures, repeated over the second four measures and a concluding line over the final four measures. 16-bar blues, lyrical couplets and different time signatures are all variations on this form.
Any performer who knows the blues form could jam with a blues guitarist from out of town with only “it’s a 12-bar blues in the key of Ab, downbeat on the V” to get them started.
The Blues Scale
To speak like a local, you need to be aware not only of what alphabet you’re using, but how to spell words and then use them in a sentence so that you don’t sound like you’re reading out of a tourist phrase book. Our core “alphabets” will be the pentatonic minor scale and the pentatonic minor blues scale.
Notice below the shape of the “box” that this note pattern forms on the mountain dulcimer fretboard. You can use the “box” to play these same two scales also in the keys of E and A. Blues solos or “leads” come out of these two scales and, sometimes even notes from the major scale. There are other instances of these two scales on the mountain dulcimer, they just take different box shapes. As long as you can figure out the root of the scale (first note) and then follow through with the flat third, fourth, flat fifth, fifth and flat seventh by fretting or bending the string, you can also play the scales in C#, D, and F# quite easily. (Remember that flats take a note down a half-step or semitone while sharps raise a note up a half-step. The wide spaces between frets on your dulcimer are whole steps while the narrow spaces are half-steps. If you’re looking for a half-step and your next step up is a wide space, you’ll need to bend the string to get that half-step.)
The basic blues rhythm is a shuffling dotted eighth/sixteenth combo that is slightly swung like a heartbeat, although there are many variations on this form as well. Below is tablature for a basic blues in the key of E. It features barre chords that introduce two notes, one each from the E pentatonic minor scale (b7) and the E Major scale (6).
Say It Like You Mean It
Blues music is raw emotion, deeply quiet or highly wailing – expression drips out of each note. The key is not speed, but expressiveness. No amount of couching in Western musical language will ever beat simply hearing the blues, learning the blues and then interpreting and playing the blues. It’s like learning to talk – we emulate those around us – parents, family, friends, teachers – we absorb accents, phrases, pronunciations and vocabulary. In music, we’d call those things accents, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, tremolos and turn arounds. Sing through your fingers, make your dulcimer talk, say it like you mean it.
Putting It All Together
“Bing’s Blues” is a Delta-style piece. Many blues players would fingerpick the tunes, getting a rolling, percussive sound out of their instruments. Much of that rolling came from a 12/8 time signature – four groups of three eighth notes – so you can count it in four, but it has the very round-sounding triplet rhythm that sounds loose played straight or with a shuffle or swing. Notice the easy ways to get a seventh out of a barre chord (drop down one fret on the melody while in barre position – works at the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6 1/2 and 7th frets.) On the recording, I’ll play “Bing’s Blues” – once with a pick and once fingerpicking.
Listen to Bing play “Bing’s Blues.”
In 12/8 time, there are twelve beats per measure and the eighth note gets the beat.
Measure 4 features a bend-and-release starting at the seventh beat – bend up a half-step to “F” and then back down to “E” before the pull-off.
Measure 6 features a wavy line that indicates vibrato. Wiggle your finger while pressing down the bass string at the fifth fret “B.”
The bend in measure 13 is a little different than the one in measure 4. Bend up and back before fretting the D on the way down the fretboard.
Take your time getting used to the fingerings and forms – have fun!