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.
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!
This ballad has origins in the British Isles. The version here was collected by Cecil Sharp and published in his 19312 book, English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians. The arrangement here is from the singing of Loraine Wyman. The music of Lorraine, and Josephine McGill, is presented in Mel Bay Publications’ MB98423, Folk Songs of Old Kentucky – Two Song Catchers in the Kentucky Mountains 1914 and 1916, selected and arranged by Ralph Lee Smith with Madeline MacNeil.
Loraine Wyman as pictured in May 1917 issue of Vogue magazine.
He sent his servant to the town To the place where she was dwelling Saying, “Love, there is a call for you If your name is Barbara Allen.”She was very slowly getting up And very slowly going, The only words she said to him “Young man, I think you’re dying.”“Don’t you remember the other day When you were in town a-drinking, You drank a health to the ladies ’round And slighted Barbara Allen?”
“O yes, I remember the other day When I was in town a-drinking, I drank a health to the ladies ’round, But my love to Barbara Allen.”
He turned his pale face to the wall And death was in him dwelling; . ‘Adieu, adieu, to my friends all, Be kind to Barbara Allen.”
When she got in two miles of town, She heard the death bells ringing; They rang so clear, as if to say “Hard-hearted Barbara Allen!”“O Mother, Mother, make my bed O make it soft and narrow. Sweet William died for me today And I will die tomorrow.“O Father, Father, dig my grave O dig it deep and narrow, Sweet William died for love of me And I will die in sorrow.”
Sweet William lies in the old church yard, Barbara Allen lies in the choir: Out of his heart grew a red, red rose, And out of hers a brier.
They grew and grew to the old church tower ‘Til they could grow no higher; They grew and they tied in a true love’s knot The rose wrapped ’round the brier.
The following arrangement is from MB96543BCD, Stephen Foster for Mountain Dulcimer, by Shelley Stevens. Often sung in the Key of F, Shelley has arranged it to the key of D and the familiar DAD mountain dulcimer tuning.
Listen to Shelley Stevens play “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.”
We all may have occasions where we want to put some “dazzle” into our playing. Harmonics can add sparkle to an arrangement and also can sometimes provide a handy way to negotiate a tricky passage.
What’s a harmonic?
The easy definition is: a “clear bell-like sound” produced by lightly stopping a string at ½ (or 1/3 or ¼) of its full length along the fretboard. Explaining how this happens requires some physics. Briefly, when you press a string lightly at certain frets, you effectively divide the string into some fraction of its normal length. When the string is “shortened” in this way, it can no longer vibrate over its entire length, but can only vibrate along the length of string between your finger and the bridge. The “shortened” string can no longer sound its usual pitch (the “fundamental” tone), but instead produces a higher pitched tone (actually, this higher tone is always present when the open string is played, but is usually overshadowed by the louder “fundamental” tone).
Playing a harmonic at the 7th fret divides the string in half and produces a tone that is one octave higher than the open string. A harmonic at fret 4 or fret 11 divides the string into thirds and produces a tone that is 1 octave plus a fifth higher than the open string. A harmonic at fret 3 or fret 14 divides the string into fourths and produces a tone that is 2 octaves higher. These tones are called “natural” harmonics. As a specific example, an open D string has the following natural harmonics:
harmonic at fret 7 is D (one octave higher than open string D)
harmonic at fret 4 or 11 is A (1 octave plus a fifth above open string D)
harmonic at fret 3 or 14 is D (two octaves higher than open string D)
Additional natural harmonics exist, but these three (at the octave, 1/3, and ¼ string lengths) are the ones that can be played most easily and are most often used.
How do I play a “natural” harmonic?
Use a finger of your left hand to very lightly touch a string at the 7th (or 3rd, 4th, 11th, or 14th) fret. Note that this left hand finger must touch the string directly on top of the fret, not slightly to the left of the fret, as in normal fretting. With your right hand, pluck the string. You may pluck either with a pick or with a finger (or thumb). For a clear sound, experiment with lifting your left hand finger after you pluck the string. You may also want to experiment with the position of your right hand along the fretboard; whether you pluck over the strum hollow, near the bridge, or further up the fretboard may affect the volume and clarity of the tone. I would recommend that you take a little time and practice just playing natural harmonics before you attempt them within the context of a musical piece.
What’s an “artificial” harmonic?
Because natural harmonics occur only at certain places (nodes) on a string, they are limited to the pitches that occur at those nodes. But, suppose we want the bell-like sound of a harmonic at a pitch that does not occur at one of these natural nodes? That’s where artificial harmonics come in: if we “artificially” shorten the string length by fretting (fully depressing the string in the same way that we fret to play a pitch), then we can find harmonics of that shortened string length. For example, in DAD tuning:
If we fret (fully depress) the treble string at fret 1 (E), an octave harmonic will exist at ½ of that altered string length: the harmonic will occur at fret 8 and will have the pitch of E, one octave higher than the E at fret 1.
If we fret the treble string at fret 1 (E), other harmonics occur at fret 5 and fret 12; these harmonics have the pitch of B, one octave plus a fifth higher than E at fret 1.
If we fret the treble string at fret 1 (E), additional harmonics occur at fret 4 and fret 15; these harmonics have the pitch of E, two octaves higher than E at fret 1.
If we fret the treble string at fret 2 (F#), an octave harmonic will exist at ½ of that altered string length: the harmonic will occur at fret 9 and will have the pitch of F#, one octave higher than the F# at fret 1.
How do I play an artificial (fretted) harmonic?
Three things must happen at once: (1) use a finger of your left hand to firmly depress a string at the fret indicated in the tab; (2) use the index finger of your RIGHT hand to lightly touch the same string at the fret that is exactly one octave higher than the note that your left hand is fretting; (3) use the thumb of your right hand to pluck the string. For example: if your left hand depresses the treble string at fret 1, you can play an artificial harmonic that sounds one octave higher by using your right index finger to lightly touch the treble string fret 8, and simultaneously using your right thumb to pluck the string. To pluck the string, your thumb must swing under your right hand and pluck to the right (bridge side) of where your right index finger touches the string. Plucking artificial harmonics is easiest if you are fingerpicking; but, if you are using a pick, just hold the pick with the middle finger and thumb while you are playing the harmonic.
How are harmonics indicated in tablature?
Natural harmonics are indicated by “N.H.” or by an open diamond shape above or next to the note. Artificial harmonics are indicated by “A.H.” or by a filled-in diamond.
Where can I use harmonics in an arrangement?
Harmonics can be used as a beginning, as an ending, or in the middle of the piece. Many players will endan arrangement with a harmonic, usually a harmonic “sol” or perhaps a harmonic “sol-do” (octave “A” followed by octave “D”, if piece is in D major). While this ending does sparkle, I’d recommend using it sparingly, as it can become trite if used too often. Also, until a player has lots of practice, ending a piece with a harmonic can be risky: while a well-executed harmonic is one of the loveliest sounds on a dulcimer, a poorly executed one will end your piece with a noisy thud!
Harmonics can be used at the beginning of a piece in at least two different ways. As an introduction to a mournful tune, playing a few slow harmonics of the “home key” note can evoke the sound of a bell tolling. For example, if a tune is in b minor, the piece could open with several harmonic B’s (played as an artificial harmonic at fret 8 of middle string, in DAD tuning). I use this approach in “Mary’s Dream”: Mary’s Dream.mp3
You will see this below in the tablature version of “Mary’s Dream.”
“Mary’s Dream” is a haunting song about a young woman who learns, in a dream, that her sweetheart has been killed at sea.
Another way to use harmonics at the beginning of a piece is to open with a line or two of the tune played in fretted harmonics. For an example:
If you’re practiced enough at fretted harmonics, you might even consider starting an arrangement by playing through the entire tune once in harmonics.
Finally, harmonics can be used very effectively in the middle of a piece, not only to add sparkle, but also to facilitate smooth playing of the melody line. Here’s an example from “Annie Laurie”:
Note that where the melody line for “I’ll lay me doon and dee” goes up to the high D, a harmonic is indicated instead of a fretted note. The advantage to using the harmonic here is that its bell-like tone continues to ring while the left hand negotiates the subsequent chords, and therefore the melody notes sound connected. In contrast, if we were to play the high D in the usual way, we’d have to quickly release the string at fret 7 to reach the next chord (2-3-5), leaving a noticeable gap in the melody line. Sometimes, in a tricky passage, harmonics can be useful in one more way: if there is a single high note in a melody line, try playing it as a right hand harmonic, so that the left hand does not have to jump up the fretboard but can remain free to negotiate the other (lower range) notes in the passage.
These are just a few examples of how harmonics can add sparkle to our playing. Have fun exploring ways to use them in your own arrangements.
“Haste to the Wedding” is a favorite traditional Irish dance and jamming tune. Here is Mark Nelson’s mountain dulcimer arrangement of it from the above-referenced book. You can purchase the book and its accompanying CD, or “e” version at MelBay.com
Listen to Mark Nelson play “Haste to the Wedding.” | Printable Version