Finger patterns for playing chords - beginner question

Brian G.
@brian-g
2 weeks ago
95 posts

Mike Volker:

long winded but I have found the best fingering for barre it to use the little finger. This leaves the thumb and index finger to move to different frets. Inversions are simplified using the thumb for instance to go to the melody string to the bass string with ease. Using the ring middle and index to barre leaves only the thumb to rove and the pinky is in never never land with nowhere to fret in most cases. This is taught by Joe Collins and Jeff Furman along with many other teachers.

The issue of how best to barre chords on a dulcimer comes up often, and in the end, I think either of the two methods you mention work equally well. My over-riding concern is what comes next and what's the easiest way to get there.I recently had (separate) conversations about this topic with two of my favorite dulcimer players (Linda Brockinton and Nina Zanetti). Nina tends to use her pinky, Linda tends not to. Both play wonderfully and each will admit that there isn't only one tool for job and that there are limitations and strengths with each method

I tend to barre with my index, middle and ring finger and can't recall an instance where this fingering was an issue.  While it may seem intuitively obvious that barring with the middle, ring and little finger is "better" because you've got two more fingers to fret with if needed (thumb and pinky), I have found that it doesn't really matter.  This is because you *still* have enough options with index-middle-ring (you are not left with only the thumb to rove):  you can still use your thumb to fret on any string, yes, but you can also still use your index finger to fret along the bass string (which many people seem to forget). As for the ring finger, in a situation where your index finger and thumb weren't enough and you need to fret somewhere else on the melody string *while also fretting somewhere else on the bass and middle strings using your index and middle fingers*, then I've found the best move in that case it to play out of a new chord position (ie, no longer keep that barre).

Regarding chord inversions, I think they are also very easy to play out of the index-middle-ring barre, either by 1) rotating around the middle finger on the middle string (so for example, out of a barred 3rd fret, play a 4-3-2 chord index-middle-ring, and then play the 2-3-4 chord ring-middle-index) or by using the ring and thumb (Linda Brockinton's method, which can be more comfortable and may better set up for what's coming next in the tune - here you would take that 4-3-2 chord index-middle-ring) and play the 2-3-4 ring-middle-thumb).

So...long winded way of stating that either of those methods work, and work well.  In fact, many players sometimes switch between them. 

Mike Volker
@mike-volker
2 weeks ago
4 posts

Great discussion! True, I peek at the fretboard when there is a long reach. I don't dwell on it. When I get up to the 7, 8, 9, 10 frets I peek because I am not normally up there. Dusty is absolutely right. Rules can be broken if you know the rules. Sometimes you must barre with another formation but for the most part I stay with pinky ring and middle. there is the same confrontation  with the 1 0 1. Most of the time I am ring index but occasionally I must use pinky middle. This happens when I need the index and thumb for fretting ahead. The tune dictates the fingers used so you must study the tune for a bit and decide the best fingering to use. The joy of that is to be able to play the tune smoothly so some memorization is required. Holding down a string (s) until no longer needed gives us ringing since if you lift up a finger the string no longer rings (vibrates). This becomes choppy.

Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
2 weeks ago
859 posts

One problem with the dulcimer is that we have to play up and down the fretboard a lot more than guitarists do.  A guitarist has two full octaves between E strings and can often stay in one fretting position for long stretches, obviating the need to stare at the fretboard.  But on the dulcimer we have to slide up and down the fretboard a lot more, something that requires looking at your hand.  I can move from 0-0-2 to 1-0-1 to 0-1-3 without looking, but if we're on A G chord and the melody notes moves from G to B to D, just a basic arpeggio, I am going to move from 0-1-3 to 3-3-5 to 5-6-7, and even though two of my fingers are staying on the same strings, I am going to have to look at the fretboard while I do this.  

I don't see what's wrong with watching what you're doing anyway. I'm sure Yo-Yo Ma watches his hands on the fretboard, too.

I was also taught to use middle, ring, and pinky fingers to fret that barre chord and find it very useful for the reasons Mike states.  However, it doesn't necessarily work for every arrangement, so if you haven't developed ingrained habits yet, I urge everyone to learn to play every chord using multiple fingerings.  Be as flexible as possible.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
Noah Aikens
@noah-aikens
2 weeks ago
37 posts

Interesting post mike

I agree with most of that. 

If the player is only  playing backup (aka no melody at all) then using muscle memory is fine, just as a guitarist uses muscle memory to remember how to switch from G to C to D. But a guitarist also knows that a G, Cadd9 (a common substitute for C), and D, all share a common note on the same string- D on the second string on the third fret. They will use this note to their advantage, by playing it in a picking pattern, their solos, and just about everything else.  There are (not just the same note in a chord, but the same note on two different strings) "way points"  on the guitars fretboard. 

A piano is different because there are no points on it where you can play a d in the same octave as somewhere else on the keyboard. But, there are different chord shapes that share the same note just as on the guitar. We call these voicing because I can play one chord here but a the same chord in a different shape (so I can play a c chord with a g in the bottom instead of the root, C).

That being said, a typical dulcimer player only has access to 3 active strings! So these "way points" should be used probably as often as possible (unless looking for a certain sound that the player can't get by using them).  The player shouldn't worry about forgetting where these points are, because after enough practicing, they will be converted to muscle memory (I can speak to this in all of the instruments I play, guitar, dulcimer, piano, etc.)

Mike Volker
@mike-volker
2 weeks ago
4 posts

I have only been playing the dulcimer since Dec 2011. I have studied,and tries to learn the best way to proceed on various fingerlings. I just finished a week long workshop with instructors from two different approaches. The best way to solve this dilemma is to do what the instructor teaches in class and then decide the best way when you get home. Both instructors taught to look at the Notes ahead of where you are and finger the chord with anticipation of the coming chord holding when possible a common finger. When I played guitar or organ, I did not look at my fingers. The same should hold true with the dulcimer. Use muscle memory to find the frets and chord positions without looking at the fretboard. Put you finger on the melody second fret, lift it off and put it back on. Do this several times. Then do it without looking. Look straight ahead and find that fret. It will come easily after a while. Do the same with other frets. Have you ever seen a guitar player constantly look at his fretboard for fingering? No it would be too cumbersome. Same for piano and organ players. They are too busy looking at the music, with only an occasional glance at their fingers.

long winded but I have found the best fingering for barre it to use the little finger. This leaves the thumb and index finger to move to different frets. Inversions are simplified using the thumb for instance to go to the melody string to the bass string with ease. Using the ring middle and index to barre leaves only the thumb to rove and the pinky is in never never land with nowhere to fret in most cases. This is taught by Joe Collins and Jeff Furman along with many other teachers.

Kusani
@kusani
3 weeks ago
148 posts

Lwlittle, responding as a 'true beginner' here, with very little musical ability, I don't have the the 'ear' for music that some do.  I wish I did. I am a 'tab' player until I get the song memorized.  By memorized, yes, I mean primarily by remembering the finger positions, or tabs, for each note. I am not at the point I read music notes, A, B, C, etc. therefore I am dependent upon tabbing and that doesn't lessen the pleasure I get from playing. 

Like many, I started out, a year ago, with a simple noter on the melody strings and have now stopped using the noter and am cording much of my music. I am basically a 'thumb strummer' but do use a pick on some songs.  Admittedly I have to spend many more hours with the pick before I will develop some proficiency. I tell people I am more of a 'builder' than 'player'.  

I don't know your past musical experience but mine was only playing trombone in high school, and not really good at that. And, now almost 60 years later I have taken up learning a new hobby; building and playing the dulcimer and Tennessee Music Box. I am not sure I would have made the headway I have without the assistance and encouragement of the members in this forum. Within the past year and two months I have built 4 dulcimers, a TMB reproduction, and two canjos.  In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was asked if I would sell the first dulcimer I built.  I did, but am not really building to sell, just building for the fun of it.

With the questions you are asking I feel you are off to a good start.  Keep it up, members here will help as much as we can.

 dulcimer

Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
3 weeks ago
859 posts

Nice post, Jan.  I was struggling with how to respond to the "memorization" question.  I personally have trouble with tab for the very reason lwlittle mentions: how do you look at the fretboard and the tab simultaneously? I sometimes use tab to learn tunes, but that learning process does not involve memorization per se.  Rather, as Jan explains, I get the tune in my head and then play it on the fretboard.  The more you watch the fretboard while you play, the easier that gets.

If you can sing a song well enough to hit more or less the right note for more or less the right duration, then you can learn to play without tab.  After all, when you sing "Happy Birthday" or "I've Been Working on the Railroad" or "Jingle Bells," your brain is making a connection between the distance between notes and how wide your larynx opens.  And you can't even see or feel your larynx!  Learning to connect the distance between notes and the distance on a fretboard is much easier than learning to sing since you can hear, see, and feel that distance on the fretboard and the position of your fingers.

Rather than starting with tab and trying to memorize it, I would start with songs you already know, as Jan did with Lock Lomond.  With a song in your head, try to find the melody on the dulcimer. If you've never tried this before, start with Mary Had a Little Lamb or Hot Cross Buns. If you feel silly with those songs, play Da Doo Ron Ron (which has the same three notes as the others and no more!)  If you hit a note that's flat. move higher up the fretboard. If you hit a note that's too high, move lower on the fretboard.  Watch the fretboard while you play. Eventually you can move to more complicated tunes.  

Once you get pretty good at that with really easy songs you've known all your life, you can start doing it with more interesting songs. But it all starts with getting the music in your head so you "know" it and don't have to "memorize" anything. Each song you figure out makes the next one easier.  You can still refer to tab as a quick reminder, but you should be able to just play.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
Jan Potts
@jan-potts
3 weeks ago
406 posts

lwlittle, I just posted a demo video (used to explain how to post a video) and had the camera focus right on my fretting fingers, so if you watch the 1 min. Loch Lomond on here, I think you'll see some of what's discussed here.  Like Dusty, "all my fingers are invited to the party" and when I play a barre chord, you'll see three fingers  crowding in to cover all 3 strings on one fairly narrow fret--this is a very small soprano dulcimer with a VSL of just 18 inches (vibrating string length...from nut to bridge).

I have the tune of Loch Lomond in my head, learned as a child about 6 decades ago, so I move my fingers to produce the tune...it just sort of flows from brain to fretboard.  So, no, I don't memorize, but I practice all the time so my fingers know where to go to produce the music I hear in my mind.  I like the analogy of learning to drive--so much to look at and think about until it becomes more second nature.  What I struggle with is reading and playing from tab--I have some sort of dyslexia with it that I don't encounter anywhere else.  But this is something that I work on so that I can play ensemble music and more quickly pick up a tune that's new to me.

 




--
Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
Site Moderator

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
Lisa Golladay
@lisa-golladay
3 weeks ago
68 posts

Some players memorize, some don't.  Many get familiar enough with the tune that they only need to glance at the tab occasionally.  By the same token, practice will get you to the point where you only sometimes need to look at the fretboard. 

Remember Driver's Ed?  Glance at the road, the rear-view mirror, the road, the side mirror, the road, the speedometer...

With practice you'll be able to glance at tab, the fretboard, your jam partners, your audience (if any) and yell at the cat when he jumps on the kitchen table!

When I started playing, it was so tempting to keep trying new songs and never get good at any of them.  I think it's better to pick one or two songs and practice them until you can play them well.  Study them, try different fingerings, play them s-l-o-w-l-y and really get to know them.  Learn one measure at a time.  Play it with your eyes closed.  Learning the first song is hard.  (Hint: pick an easy song to start!)  The next song will be easier :-)  The same chords and fingerings keep turning up again and again.  Once you're comfortable with, say, a 3-3-5 chord, it won't give you much trouble again.

Full disclosure: I am terrible at playing from tab.  I memorize everything.  That doesn't mean you have to.

Skip
@skip
3 weeks ago
198 posts

I don't think it's memorizing tab [numbers], more like muscle memory associating how to reproduce the sound with the sound. That looking back and forth will change over time [practice].

lwlittle
@lwlittle
3 weeks ago
4 posts

very helpful -thanks. I was finding some patterns very challenging without using my thumb so I have been switching back and forth. Now if I can just overcome the need to look at both the frets and the tabs for the music. DO most good players memorize the tabs for a song?

Skip
@skip
3 weeks ago
198 posts

I've also found that a fingering that works with one tune doesn't work well with another. This may be caused by chord order, rapid chord change, comfort, tune tempo/beat  or combinations of these [or additional reasons].

Noah Aikens
@noah-aikens
3 weeks ago
37 posts

Unlike the guitar and more popular instruments. There is no set school of thought for teaching dulcimer.

The best way to figure it out is just to try several things and see what works best for you.

Dusty Turtle
@dusty-turtle
3 weeks ago
859 posts

These are not actually beginner questions and they kind of open up that proverbial bag or worms.

 

The way I look at it is that I need all the help I can get.  Both my pinky and thumb are invited to the party. You are right that some dulcimer players (such as Stephen Seifert) never use their thumb.  Others (such as Guy Babusek) use their thumbs a lot and never use their pinky. As I said, I use both, and I let the context determine my choice.  

My golden rule is to minimize movement.  So as I move from one chord to the next, I try to have at least one finger that stays on the same string, so that you slide into a chord rather than having to lift up your whole hand and reposition it.  Sometimes that alone will dictate what fingers you use.

As for the barre chord, most people use three fingers, either their middle, ring, and pinky or their index, middle, and ring.  The only person I know of who only uses his pinky is Aaron O'Rourke.  He barres with his pinky and then has three fingers for fretting strings. However, his dulcimer has a radiused fretboard made exactly to fit the curve of his finger.  If you were to try to play like that I think it would hurt.  Stephen Seifter barres with hisring finger backed up by his pinky.  But as I said, almost everyone else plays the barre chord with three different fingers.

One thing to consider both regarding whether to use your thumb and regarding which three fingers to use for the barre, is how the dulcimer is positioned on your lap.  If you play with your thumb and you play the barre chord with your index, middle, and ring fingers, you are going to want to angle the head of the dulcimer far out over your knee.  If you don't use your thumb and you play the barre with your middle, ring, and pinky finger, your dulcimer may still angle out a bit, but the head will be closer to your body and the dulcimer will be closer to perpendicular to your legs.  This is simply an issue creating a comfortable angle for your left hand to attack the fretboard.

Having said all this, Ken's points below are basically right.  You need to find a way to fret the strings so that it's comfortable to you.  If you find yourself contorting into all sorts of weird and uncomfortable positions, stop what you're doing and find a way to fret those strings in a more comfortable manner.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

"A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think."
-- Pete Seeger
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 weeks ago
1,397 posts

We hold this truth to be self evident: there is no right way or wrong way to play the dulcimer -- just the way that works for you.

Don't get hung up on one "school" or another; there are no Style Police here when it comes to how/where to place your fingers if you are playing Chord Melody style.  Use what works most conveniently for you -- in some positions a thumb may be most handy, in others finger tips.  Barre with whatever is handiest when you need to barre.  The dulcimer is a very personal instrument, much more so than guitar, mandolin, banjo, etc.  do what works for you.

lwlittle
@lwlittle
3 weeks ago
4 posts

I am just learning the mountain dulcimer but there seem sot be two schools of thought / instruction when it comes to fingering frets for chords. One book I have uses the thumb and fingers but I have seen other instruction that only uses the index thru the little finger. So is one better than the other in terms of what to focus on ? Does it depend how you gold your dulcimer. 

My other question is what is the best way to barre frets - i Have one book that suggest using the pinkie finger.