Which Dulcimer Tuning to Use?
The tuning you use with your dulcimer can change a lot about how you play it and what you can play on it. The tonality changes and the feel is different, different songs suggest themselves, and you have to learn a whole new set of scales and chords!
For this article, we are not going to talk about hammered dulcimers. They are huge and complicated, and probably not what you are looking for. Here, you’ll find out about some of the most popular dulcimer tunings for 3, 4, and 5 string dulcimers.
Common Dulcimer Tunings
Most people use DAA, DAD, or DGD tunings on their dulcimers. These tunings work for 3, 4, and 5 string instruments. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it will soon become clear.
Different Types of Common Dulcimer
A 3 string dulcimer has a bass string, a middle string, and a melody string.
A 4 string dulcimer has a bass string, a middle string, and 2 melody strings.
A 5 string dulcimer has 2 bass strings, a middle string, and 2 melody strings.
Any group of two strings is tuned to the same note. For example, on a 5 string dulcimer, the 2 bass strings are tuned to one note, the middle string a different note, and the 2 melody strings are tuned to another note.
The bass string is the thickest string on your dulcimer.
Major Dulcimer Tunings
DAA (D Ionian): One of the most commonly used tunings, DAA has the bass string(s) tuned to D, the middle string tuned to A, and the melody string(s) tuned to A as well.
DAD (D Mixolydian): DAD has the bass string(s) tuned to D, the middle string tuned to A, and the melody string(s) tuned to D.
DGD (Reverse D Ionian): DGD has the bass string(s) tuned to D, the middle string tuned to G, and the melody string(s) tuned to D. It allows the user to play easily in the key of G and is a variation of DAA tuning.
Minor Dulcimer Tunings
DAC (Aeolian): DAC has the bass string(s) tuned to D, the middle string tuned to A, and the melody string(s) tuned to C. It allows the player to use the minor scale starting on the first fret.
DAG (Dorian): DAG has the bass string(s) tuned to D, the middle string tuned to A, and the melody string(s) tuned to G. The minor scale begins on the 4th fret.
Pluck a string and turn one of the tuning pegs to see if it is the one that you want to tune.
If you are tuning from a piano, the note you should use for the bass string (D) is the D below middle C. From a guitar, the bass string should sound like the 4th string of a guitar in standard tuning. A pitch pipe will give you the right tone but not which D to choose; be careful not to over-tension the string, they can snap. Electronic tuners are cheap and easily available.
When you are tuning your dulcimer to itself (without an outside reference tone), you can find the right note for the next string down by counting along the frets. Unlike a guitar, dulcimers are diatonic, so it is like counting along the white notes of a keyboard.
For DAA, the third fret of the bass string will give you A. Then tune the melody string to that same note.
DAD is similar: find the A on the bass string, tune the middle string to that, then tune the melody string to the bass string.
DAC follows the same pattern until you get to the melody string, when you count three along the middle string (A -> B -> C) and tune from there.
Always tune up to a note, it helps you keep in tune for longer.