“Off to California” An Irish Hornpipe

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. It was the inspiration for many Irishmen to immigrate to seek a fortune. This tune is from that era.

“Off to California” is arranged here in mountain dulcimer tablature from Lois Hornbostel’s Mel Bay book Dulcimer Fiddle Tunes. A recording of the arrangement follows. Learning the melody first by listening can help you play the tablature. This is a play-along recording. After practicing the tablature to build speed (metronome recommended for smooth results), you can play along with the recording. The second time through the tune you’ll hear a chord back-up.

Listen to Lois Hornbostel play “Off to California.”

This piece is played by most musicians in the Key of G Major. The DGd “reverse Ionian” tuning puts you in that key and the tune “situates” well on the dulcimer’s fretboard with it. To tune to DGd, tune your dulcimer’s bass string to D below middle C. Then tune your middle string to G a fourth above that D, and your first (treble) string to d an octave above that D on the bass string.

Suggested back-up chords are listed below. They are “reversible” in DGd tuning; i.e., the same notes (fret numbers) can be played on either “outside” string (bass or first string).

Chord Name A Few Suggested Back-up Chords in DGd Tuning
G 3 5 (bass string)
2 4 (middle string)
0 3 (first string)
C 3 3 (bass string)
3 3 (middle string)
1 3 (first string)
Em 1 5 (bass string)
2 5 (middle string)
1 5 (first string)
Am 4 (bass string)
4 (middle string)
4 (first string)
D 2 4 (bass string)
1 4 (middle string)
0 2 (first string)

“Flop Eared Mule”

“Flop Eared Mule” is a popular old-time and bluegrass acoustic jam session tune. Some fiddlers call it the “Blue Bell Polka.” The form of this tune is called a “cotillion,” which means you always end the tune with the “A” part. There is an interesting key change in this tune, from the key of D Major to the Key of A Major in the “B” part.


Jeanne Page offers below two arrangements of “Flop Eared Mule” from her Mel Bay book Bluegrass on Hammered Dulcimer. The first is basic version, and the second is more like a fiddle would play.

“Joy to the World”

The composer of “Joy to the World” was Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He was one of the great hymn writers, and the first to produce a modern-style hymnbook. A prolific and popular hymn writer, he was recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody,” credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into many languages. Not only did he write hymns, he wrote many books in the science and theology field. He spoke five languages fluently, and was a bit of a nonconformist against the Church of England.


Watts’ Psalms of David (1719) was first printed in America in 1729 by Ben Franklin. In Isaac’s opinion church music was boring, dreary and basically brought down the joy of the whole service. When he complained to his father, he challenged his son to write something better. The result was a revolution in church music. Isaac subsequently wrote a new song every week for 222 weeks. In 1719 Isaac published Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. “Joy to the World” is Watts’ paraphrasing of the second half of Psalm 98. This was not popular at the time, as hymns were not used in the church; rather the Psalms were sung from the bible. The new hymn style introduced by Watts caused a very big controversy that day, and it even split some churches.

“Joy To The World” is still cherished today, almost three centuries later. Set to a score adapted from George Frederick Handel’s “The Messiah,” “Joy to the World” has taken its place permanently in the hearts of both Christian and secular society. While many of Watts’ compositions have been forgotten, this Christmas hymn remains a favorite.

 Listen to Linda Brockinton play “Joy to the World.”


Playing Tips from Linda Brockinton:

This is a good tune for flatpickers and fingerpickers. The flows along the melody string. There will be picks on single strings any time the tune has a pause. This differs from strumming only in the way we fill up the spaces where the melody is not moving. A strummer just strums 3 beats on a dotted half note, while if you are picking you just pick 3 individual strings. We are then hearing the same chord but one note at a time. So basically your left hand does the same thing for either strumming or picking while the right had fills in the pauses in the tune by strumming or by picking individual strings. Either method (fingerpicking or flatpicking) you choose, just remember to always hold your chords down as long as you can. When you release them you loose your sound and that makes for choppy playing. So if you have a chord at the first of the measure try to figure out how to play the other notes following without lifting until you are given another chord to go to. This does two things. It makes for smoother playing and it helps you to keep your place on the dulcimer and you don’t have to reposition.

Scottish Christmas Tunes for Hammered Dulcimer

This tune book/CD combination published by Mel Bay has many lovely tunes. The CD presents the hammered dulcimer in an ensemble setting with fiddle, pipes and guitar. Mel Bay author Maggie Sansone plays hammered dulcimer the “A Scottish Christmas” recording. The CBS “Sunday Morning” show said of the CD, “One of the best selling CDs of the season, the music is ancient and infectious.”

Listen to Maggie Sansone play from the CD “Yoeman’s Carol” and “Sound of the Sleat.”

Here are the written arrangements to these two pieces from the Mel Bay book/CD, arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played by Maggie Sansone:

Yeoman’s Carol

Arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played on hammered dulcimer

by Maggie Sansone

From A Scottish Christmas for Fiddle, MB 96784BCD

A popular carol around the world. A yeoman was a person who owned and worked his own small parcel of land and was considered in a social class below the gentry. The word carol originally meant a circling dance, perhaps to symbolize the circular movements around the nativity crib that this dance emulated.

Sound of the Sleat

Arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played on hammered dulcimer

by Maggie Sansone

From A Scottish Christmas for Fiddle, MB 96784BCD


A popular pipe tune usually played as a quick march and often played as a reel by fiddlers. Bonnie prefers a slower “swingy” tempo that Maggie plays on her small pipes. (Maggie also plays it on hammered dulcimer in the cut.) Maggie picked it up from Christopher Layer during a week stint at Hamish Moore’s School for Cauld Wind Pipes. It was Maggie’s favorite tune at the time of the Christmas recording, so it was decided to medley it with the “Yeoman’s Carol” (above) because of the march-like feel they had together. The “Sound of the Sleat” (pronounced ‘Slate’) is a body of water off the Southern tip of the Isle of Skye. Near to where Bonnie lived during her residency at Armadale Castle, the Sound of the Sleat is one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland. Bonnie used to go down to the water’s edge at sunset and observe seals, otters, eagles, and all sorts of curious sea birds.

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen Arranged for Mountain Dulcimer

The lyrics of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” author unknown, are reputed to date back to the 15thCentury, making it one of the oldest carols. It was first published in 1833, when it appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. It is believed that this carol was sung to the gentry by town watchmen, who earned additional money this way during the Christmas season.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which his mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed angel came;
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
“Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind:
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

And when they came to Bethlehem
Where our dear Saviour lay,
They found him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary kneeling down,
Unto the Lord did pray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy


Listen to Ehukai Teves play “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”


Playing Tips from Ehukai Teves:

One of the things I like about “God Rest Ye” is that it allowed me to arrange it with economy of motion for your left hand.

It is in the key of Bm, the relative minor to key of D, and easily played in DAd dulcimer tuning. No capo needed.

1. Using middle and ring fingers for the first 1 chord in measure one will give you economical finger movement in the music to follow.


2. This tune may be “fleshed out” with trills, chord substitutions or arpeggios during the held notes.


3. First ending leaves time for singers to breathe.

“Pipe on the Hob” an Irish Jig in A minor for Mountain Dulcimer

I “cut my dulcimer-playing teeth” playing in traditional Irish music sessiúns in New York City. The jigs were some of my favorite tunes, and the sound of the strummed mountain dulcimer reminded me of the ever-more-popular bouzoukis being played in well-known traditional Irish bands. There are a couple of other Irish tunes with this name, but this is the one I heard most. A “hob” is sometimes short for hobgoblin, but a “hob” is also a shelf at the back of a fireplace.


It’s in A Dorian and the way I approach it on our diatonic fretboard is to tune to DGd tuning and put a capo at the 1st fret. All of the frets are the same numbers as you would play them “open,” but “0” is now the capo’d fret. In this arrangement, “do” of the scale is the A at the 4th fret on the dulcimer’s bass string.


The recording of this arrangement is from my 1984 Kicking Mule label recording, “Vive le Dulcimer.” Seth Austen plays guitar and Jesse Winch plays bodhrán. This arrangement is from my 1981 Mel Bay book Anthology for the Fretted Dulcimer, possibly available from MelBay.com for download.


Have fun playing it. I do!

Composing on the Hammered Dulcimer

So, you have been playing your instrument for a while now and you feel the urge to compose something original. But where do you start, and how do you finish? Truthfully, all you really need is your instrument and the desire to make music. But here is a list of hints to get started for the first time:

1) Choose a general starting place – 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, fast, slow, major, minor – in any combination. It could, and probably will, turn into something else once you get started; this is just a place to begin.

2) Noodle with a few notes until you find a short pattern or idea that interests you. It could be a series of notes, a chord or chord pattern. Can’t come up with anything? Try playing the notes that correspond to a phone number, a birth date, address or zip code! This pattern of notes should be short – one to four measures. Play it backwards, forwards, move it around the instrument and see how the sound changes. This could take some time, so relax and have fun with it.

3) Now that you have the first phrase of the tune, you need another phrase, same length (typically four measures, but it can vary), to “answer” the first. “Question and Answer” phrasing, and is a very common musical structure used in many styles of music.

4) After the first “question and answer”, play your opening “question” phrase again. Now you are looking for a second “answer” that makes you feel that the conversation is finished. The easiest way to do this is to end on the note (and chord) that names the key. If you are playing in D, then end on a D. It’s called “resolve” because, well, it settles the “discussion”!

5) Repeat this process to form a B part for your tune. Try playing the A part phrases in reverse, higher, lower, faster, and slower.

6) There is no one “right” format for your music. However, tunes are commonly divided up as 8 measures in the A part, repeated, and 8 measures in the B part, repeated. You can also have each section be 16 measures with no repeats. But this is not mandatory! You can have any number of measures that sound right to you – hey, you can even have different time signatures, key signatures in the same tune. Experiment!

So, now you have the necessary pieces, they sound okay, but something is still missing. You need more… flavor. This is where it gets interesting – and fun!

7) Don’t be afraid to explore your instrument. Try different chord substitutions, harmonies – and dissonances. Try those strings you have rarely, if ever, used – you know the ones I mean! Give yourself permission to make wonderful and hideous sounds. Use bare wood hammers, leather or felt covered hammers. Does your instrument have dampers? If not, try placing painters’ tape down the bridge to create a harp like sound.

Try playing a different instrument – maybe a recorder, pennywhistle, harmonica, guitar, piano, or just sing – and listen to (or record) the various sounds. How might they fit into your new tune?

9) Still stuck? Put your instrument down and do something completely different for a while — The Monty Python solution: “And now, for something completely different!”

  • Go for a walk or do jumping jacks! Physical activity seems to stimulate the creative centers in the brain.
  • Listen to new kinds of music.
  • Open the window. Listen to the birds, the traffic, and the wind.
  • Eating or fasting: tastes, textures, stomach rumblings!
  • Go to a museum, the beach, go dancing!
  • Take a hot bath or have a cup of tea. Do whatever helps you feel centered and able to listen to yourself again.

10) Now that you have something you can work with, tweak the results, keeping the following in mind:

  • Length vs. Material: Is the length appropriate for the material?
  • Satisfaction: Is the musical material you are presenting developed at some point? Or is it introduced only to be dropped – a practice that is very unsatisfying to the listener!
  • Save it: If you withhold an element (it could be a pitch, rhythm, that great chord substitution, etc.), it will sound fresh when presented.
  • Contrasts: Think pitch, volume, texture, complexity and the variety of each.
  • Unity vs. Variety: Is there too much repetition causing predictability? Or is there too much variety, also causing it to be confusing? The trick is to write something that sounds inevitable but not predictable.
  • Simplicity: Direct, simple ideas often communicate better than complex structures.


Last but not least, how to find a title for your piece?

Normally, your title should reflect the basic idea of the composition. But it doesn’t have to! In some ways, a title serves as a kind of packaging. It should be interesting enough that listeners will want to find out what is “inside.”

  • Consult a thesaurus or dictionary (Just open it anywhere and start looking).
  • Look through literature or poetry.
  • Try a word association game.
  • Ask someone else. (Ask your mom!)

But, what about copyright?

Unless you’re a big name rock star, there isn’t much reason to apply to the Library of Congress for copyright. The small circle-c (©), date and your name on the first page are sufficient.

“After the Rain”

composed by Susan Vinson Sherlock

Listen to Susan Vinson Sherlock play her beautiful ¾ air, “After the Rain.”

“HOME-MIDDLE-OUTSIDE”: How to Accompany Music in Many Keys with the Mountain Dulcimer

Editor’s note:  At the 2011 Fiddlers Grove fiddle convention I attended a jam in their “jamming barn.” It’s known for the expert senior players who jam swing, country and other vocally-driven music. This is the territory in which a musician who joins the jam needs to be able to play in many keys. As a veteran dulcimer player I’m used to playing in different fiddle keys, but in this jam I found myself trying to play songs in the Keys of C, E and B minor that often even changed keys within one song. We’ve been playing chords on the mountain dulcimer for decades, but it was difficult for me to make all these key changes even knowing all our regular chord forms in DAD. I noticed that Hawaiian dulcimer player Ehukai Teves was having no trouble. He didn’t use a capo and he didn’t re-tune. I asked him how he did it and he explained a whole new set of chord forms in DAD tuning that enabled him to play in many more keys and survive a jam like that. Showing how to play the familiar “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” he has been kind enough to share it with you in an article for DulcimerSessions.com!


Here goes…


Universally tunes in any major key include the I, the IV and the V chord. So having these chords “in hand” on the mountain dulcimer makes it easy to follow and accompany millions of melodies.


This I-IV-V chord progression is the main harmony skeleton of most songs. The Roman numerals refer to the chords built on the first, fourth and fifth notes of a Major scale. For example, in the Key of D Major The D chord would be the I chord, the G chord would be the IV chord and the A chord would be the V chord.


With the common 3-string set-ups of most diatonic mountain dulcimers, some of the “chords” we play are complete triads (the 3 notes that make up chords), but many of our chords just contain one or more of the notes in the triad. For example:


A full-triad chord in DAD on the dulcimer’s diatonic fretboard would be:

2 F# 0 D
0 A OR 0 A
0 D 2 F#

Sometimes we choose to play a different inversion or an “abbreviated” chord that uses one or two of the three triad notes. For example, instead of a complete D triad we might play:

0 D 0 D
0 A OR 3 D
0 D 0 D

These abbreviated inversions of D chords harmonize just fine when a D chord is needed and sometimes offer a variety of moods as well.


Most dulcimer players learn in the key of D their first chords: the I chord (D), the IV chord (G) and the V chord (A). A familiar song using them is “Boil them Cabbage Down.” So in DAD tuning, the first-position chords to that song might look like this in standard dulcimer chord shapes: the Key of D I chord (D), IV chord (G) and (A) chord, known affectionately to guitarists as “the three-chord trick”!  A familiar tune those first dulcimer chording lessons use is “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” So in DAD tuning, the first-position chords to that tune might look like this in standard chord shapes:


D(I chord) G(IV chord) D(I chord) A(V chord)
2 3 2 1
0 1 0 0
0 0 0 1
Boil them cabbage down, boys. Make those hoecakes round.


D(I) G(IV) D(I) A(V) D(I)
2 3 2 1 0
0 1 0 0 0
0 0 0 1 0
Craziest song I ever did sing was “Boil Them Cabbage Down.”




I am a singer as much as a mountain dulcimer player. When my voice is singing the melody notes I like to play harmonizing notes. Doing this I discovered the following accompaniment chord system in DAD tuning. I realized it also enabled me to play with ease (and without having to look at my hands) the I, IV and V chords in six different keys in DAD tuning (D, E, G, A, B and C). This has been very beneficial in playing along with chromatic instruments that switch keys from tune to tune or modulate to different keys within a piece. Having all these keys in my playing tools also makes it possible to adjust to different keys to suit anybody’s singing range!


Listen to Ehukai Teves sing and play chords to “Boil Them Cabbage Down” in the keys of D, G, E, C, B, F# and C#!


“Home-Middle-Outside” is what I call this chording system, and the words describe the chord shapes you make with your fingers. If you were to play these chords in the Key of D for “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” the chord shapes I would use are:


D (I) G (IV) A (V)
(Home) (Middle) (Outside)
0 0 1 I
0 1 R 0
0 0 1 T

R means use your ring finger on the middle string. M means put your middle finger on the bass string, and Tmeans put your thumb on the first string on the Outside position. These fingerings may be new to you for these notes, but hang in there and you’ll see why I’ve used them.


Home is made up of 3 notes at the same fret across the fretboard and represents the I chord.

For Middle you keep playing Home but put your Ring finger on the middle string.

For Outside you keep playing Home but put your Index finger on the bass string and your thumb on the first string.


Most other instruments play “Boil Them Cabbage Down” in the Key of G, so, here’s how you would use “Home-Inside-Outside” to play it in G:


G (I) C (IV) D (V)
(Home) (Middle) (Outside)
3 M 3 M 4 I
3 R 4 I 3 R
3 P 3 P 4 T


Looking at the shapes of these three chords, Home forms a barre, Middle forms a triangle heading to the right, and Outside forms a triangle heading to the left. Practice them and use them now to play “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” There are no big fingering changes from one chord to another, and pretty soon you’ll be able to play without looking at your fingers!


Now, suppose you were accompanying a singer, and she said she had to sing “Boil Them Cabbage Down” in the Key of E? You could accommodate her by playing the I, IV and V chords in the Key of E like this:


E (I) A (IV) B (V)
(Home) (Middle) (Outside)
1 M 1 M 2 I
1 R 2 I 1 R
1 P 1 P 2 T


But then your singer changed her mind and said, “No, I should really sing it in the Key of C.” Starting with the “Home” position below, fill in the blanks of the “Home-Middle-Outside” chord shapes so you can accompany her in C!

C (I) F (IV) G (V)
(Home) (Middle) (Outside)
6 M _ M _ I
6 R _ I _ R
6 P _ P _ T


Hint: Note that the shapes will still be the same in this new key! After a while you won’t have to look at your fingers to change chords.


Suppose you found yourself in a country swing jam in which the fiddle and guitar player played a tune in the Key of B. Here’s how you could play the I, IV and V chords in B:

B (I) E (IV) F# (V)
(Home) (Middle) (Outside)
5 M 5 M 6+ I
5 R 6+ I 5 R
5 P 5 P 6+ T


Now, using the following “Home” chords, practice playing the “Middle” and “Outside” chords that go with them:

D    E    G    A    B    C    D   
0 1 3 4 5 6 7
0 1 3 4 5 6 7
0 1 3 4 5 6 7

You’ll note that you can also play “Home-Middle-Outside” in the Key of A starting at fret 4.


Due to the dulcimer’s diatonic frets, there are a couple exceptions to “Home-Middle-Outside”:


Key of F#. Play:

F# (I) B (IV) C# (V)
2 M 5 M 6+ M
2 R 5 R 6+ R
2 P 5 P 6+ P

Key of C#. Play:

C# (I) F# (IV) G# (V)
6+ M 2 M 6 M
6+ R 2 R 6+ I
6+ P 2 P 6 R

There are more chords that can be added in each key with “Home-Middle-Outside,” but these will get you started.


I hope this “Home-Middle-Outside” chord method will help you play in more keys playing various musical styles in jams. Don’t be afraid to ask other jammers what key the piece is in, then apply what I’ve shown you.