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!
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:
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:
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)|
|Boil them cabbage||down, boys.||Make those hoecakes||round.|
|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)|
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)|
|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)|
|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)|
|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)|
|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:
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.