Reasons NOT To Get a Chromatic

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
2,126 posts

@ocean-daughter.  If you tune a Bagpipe tuning:  Ddd or Ccc for example, you can play both Ionian/Mixolydian and Aeolian/Dorian modal scales *without* having to have a 6+ fret!    

ocean-daughter
@ocean-daughter
3 months ago
45 posts

Well, I expect this question has been settled in the mind of the OP, at least with regard to the purchase that was being contemplated.  But it's still an intriguing question to consider. 

For me, the answer would be--I don't wanna.  At least, not at this time.  I mostly play melody-drone fingerdance (with a few sort of chords occasionally), and I don't feel a need to get a chromatic.  I do retune to get different modes (and I keep my various dulcimers in one of a couple of different tunings most of the time).  One reason I appreciate having a 6 1/2 fret is that it gives me two modes in each tuning--for instance, in DAC Aeolian I can also play in Dorian...

I've been wanting to add a 1 1/2 fret (along with an 8 1/2) to one of mine, to explore what it gives me.  I already know I'd appreciate that subtonic note on the middle string.  (I can play it on the 6th fret of the bass string when tuned DAD, but that doesn't really satisfy me.)  I guess for me it's discovering and deciding what music I want to play and how I want to play it, and how I get my instrument(s) to contribute to that. 

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@nate
3 months ago
247 posts

#1 Reason NOT To Get a Chromatic Dulcimer:
You don't have to defend or rationalize it's place as a dulcimer. 
giggle2

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty
3 months ago
1,729 posts

It's too bad that this conversation, which started with such a reasonable question (even if it demands a parallel conversation on reasons to get a chromatic) has descended into a series of diatribes in which people offer differing definitions of an instrument that has been innovative and evolving for its entire history.  None of this has anything to do with the original question.

Yes, as Nate says, "qualifiers."  

There are guitars, 12-string guitars, solid-body electric guitars, tenor guitars, baritone guitars, etc.

There are dulcimers, baritone dulcimers, octave dulcimers, chromatic dulcimers, electric dulcimers, etc.

No controversy needed.

The dulcimer is a young instrument. For its entire history, it has been evolving.  Those first dulcimers had frets only under the melody string.  Does that mean that dulcimers with strings across the fretboard are not dulcimers?  Those first dulcimers also used friction tuners.  Does that mean dulcimers with mechanical tuners are not dulcimers?  Those first dulcimers were likely made solely of local hardwoods.  Does that mean a dulcimer with a redwood top is not a real dulcimer? Any effort to define a dulcimer by a limited number of construction characteristics is random and denies the long history of creative innovation among dulcimer builders and players.

The Jean Ritchie model dulcimer (made in that great Appalachian state of California!) has a Honduras mahogany fingerboard, rosewood overlay, ebony nut and saddle, mechanical tuners, and a 6-1/2 fret.  Those first dulcimers on which Jean learned had none of those elements, yet she recognized that they improved the instrument and supported them.  The rest of us might do the same.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@nate
3 months ago
247 posts

Ken Hulme:

If it has more than diatonic frets, or more than 3 courses of strings, technically an instrument is no longer a dulcimer, it is a Fretted Zither.  "Tomay-to tomaatoe", but diatonic fret spacing is part of what defines a dulcimer.

 
I'd love to find the first man to call an Appalachian zither a 'dulcimer' and ask him his definition. I wonder if it would be so general that most modern instruments fit in, or so strict that none of us meet the cut.
I think the standards you apply to dulcimer are not be applied to other instruments. A seven string guitar is a guitar, and a micro tonal guitar is a guitar.
In my view, a dulcimer that is different is just a dulcimer with qualifiers. Whether a chromatic dulcimer, a 1, 2, 4 or 5 string equidistant dulcimer, a resonator dulcimer, a lego dulcimer, they all count as dulcimers, but are not simply a dulcimer.
Might not be 'just a dulcimer' but it's 'more a dulcimer than it is something else.'

John Petry
John Petry
@john-petry
3 months ago
11 posts

Sitting here looking at a dozen or so instruments...staples, frets, wound wire, straight wire, oak, maple, rosewood. No two are alike, yet I would call them ALL dulcimers. If I spoke in elizabethan english I may say "dulcimore", and if I was a kid in the mountains I might say "that stringy thang"... And guitars with hollow bodies, solid, whammy bars etc are ALL guitars...But as for men with only a mustache and no beard.....well...."technically".....

John C. Knopf
John C. Knopf
@john-c-knopf
3 months ago
389 posts

Let me help you with that, Ma'am!  The misty dulcimore past is calling out to you...

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
3 months ago
2,255 posts

I guess I don't have any mountain dulcimers.  waaaaaahhh!   😭




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
3 months ago
1,429 posts

@nate Your perspective was one I hadn't considered-- I'm glad you wrote of it!  

Colloquially, although my newer Jean Ritchie model Blue Lion has "extra" frets, I'll still call it a mountain dulcimer.  dulcimer  

Happy strumming, y'all!   

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 months ago
2,126 posts

If it has more than diatonic frets, or more than 3 courses of strings, technically an instrument is no longer a dulcimer, it is a Fretted Zither.  "Tomay-to tomaatoe", but diatonic fret spacing is part of what defines a dulcimer.

Marko
Marko
@marko
3 months ago
1 posts

A guitar player friend once said about my dulcimer: Too bad some of the frets are missing. But then, too, are some of the strings, compared to a guitar. I wanted more strings, but instead of getting a guitar, I built a dulcimer with five separate strings. Is it a dulcimer? I would say it is 'quite' a dulcimer.

Just for fun, I added frets to a 4-string dulcimer to make it chromatic, and I can now play tunes that would otherwise be impossible. For strictly diatonic tunes, I use one of my diatonic dulcimers (well, they all have both the 6 and the 6+ fret, but I still consider them diatonic--that has become the tradition). 

Those of us who have been playing for a while probably have more than one instrument. Meanwhile, I play five dulcimers with different string/fret configurations: 3 strings, 4 strings with the double melody course, 4 separate strings, 5 separate strings, some with the 1+ fret, one chromatic. Each of those instruments has its own allure, its own possibilities and restrictions. I see no reason not to get a chromatic, and no reason not to call it a dulcimer.

Cottage Timbre
Cottage Timbre
@cottage-timbre
3 months ago
2 posts

I agree with Dusty. I too started out playing a guitar for nearly 30 years before picking up a dulcimer. Three strings and a diatonic fret board, should be a cinch, right? I'm still working at it. As Dusty mentions, the chord shapes that one may be accustomed to laying anywhere on the finger board for what ever chord needed doesn't work. But for all that, if I wanted to play the guitar, that is what I would grab instead. The fact that it is not the same as a guitar is part of the appeal for me.

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@nate
3 months ago
247 posts

"It may be true that there are no wrong notes on the dulcimer, but that doesn't mean that all the right ones are there" 

Dusty, that deserves a place in the fun sayings about dulcimer chat. 

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty
3 months ago
1,729 posts

I think of diatonic and chromatic dulcimers as two roads that lead to different kinds of attractions along the way. One will mainly take you to traditional music, both modal and pentatonic, and the other leads you to pop, blues, and jazz.  Both can cross over a little bit, but they have different emphases.

Of course, I mainly play a dulcimer with 6+ and 1+ frets, so I've chosen a kind of middle path.  I play mostly diatonic music but can occasionally add blue notes or switch keys in ways that would be much more difficult on a truly diatonic instrument.

I would like to caution us all not to assume generalizations hold for everyone.  I played the guitar, mandolin, and ukulele before discovering the dulcimer, and the diatonic fretboard did not make the instrument easier to learn.  On the contrary, the fact that I could not play so many of the songs in my head was very frustrating. It took about 2 years of playing everyday for me to get a sense of what melodies could be found on the diatonic fretboard and what couldn't.  (It may be true that there are no wrong notes on the dulcimer, but that doesn't mean that all the right ones are there!) 

And chording on the diatonic fretboard is more complex.  On a chromatic fretboard, a chord shape will be the same type of chord as you move up and down the fretboard, but on a diatonic dulcimer, that chord shape changes between major and minor.  That fact significantly slows down the development of dulcimer players who wish to play chords.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
Randy Adams
Randy Adams
@randy-adams
3 months ago
115 posts

Never heard it put that way or thought about it that way Nate you're right on the money.

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@nate
3 months ago
247 posts

OverDrive:

Whenever I take up a new instrument, it gives me a fresh perspective on the other instruments I play. 

 

It's funny that you mention this. My experience with chromatic dulcimer is that it enhances my perspective of diatonic dulcimer. The cultural place of chromatic and diatonic dulcimers might be different, but to me, as a self taught dulcimer player, chromatic dulcimer provides me with useful contextual information that I can apply to diatonic.Specifically, hearing the ways that the same chords that I play in diatonic can fit into other keys helps me to think of them with a more open mind. 
Nate

OverDrive
OverDrive
@overdrive
3 months ago
2 posts

Whenever I take up a new instrument, it gives me a fresh perspective on the other instruments I play. Somehow, it took me a lifetime to realize that the A minor scale is the same as the C major scale, just starting in a different spot. And it's called "Aeolian Mode". Suddenly I'm a music theory genius!  (Many thanks to Strumelia!) The diatonic dulcimer locks in the pattern that opens up all the modes for you. I feel like the chromatic dulcimer promises more but delivers less as a creative tool.

DavisJames
DavisJames
@davisjames
4 months ago
15 posts

I have a nice chromatic but I seldom play it.It's too easy to make mistakes,laugh.

Susie
Susie
@susie
5 months ago
500 posts

Nightingale:

So, in my mind, let a guitar be a guitar, let a banjo be a banjo and let a dulcimer be a dulcimer.

 

This is my feeling as well. I play (or played) several fretted chromatic instruments. The dulcimer is unique in its diatonic tradition. I find it simple, yet challenging; which in turn provides a refreshing approach to my music. 

That said, I respect others who have personal and valid reasons for choosing to play a chromatic dulcimer.


updated by @susie: 11/25/23 07:50:34AM
Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
5 months ago
2,255 posts

@Lisa-Golladay 's post covered the practical pros & cons quite well.




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990

updated by @strumelia: 11/24/23 08:03:37AM
Lenard
Lenard
@lenard
5 months ago
9 posts

Ken Hulme:


TRADITION! 


When asked about dulcimer with “extra" frets, Jean Ritchie replied “In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it’s not quite a dulcimer anymore.”    


You can find all the notes in the dulcimer's range, but you have to be willing to re-tune at least one string to do so (takes less than 30 seconds, with practice).

If you want a chromatic instrument lay a guitar on your lap and play that.  Or I can build you an  "acoustic lap guitar". Just don't call it a dulcimer.   Part of the essential definition of Dulcimer, to many of us, is the diatonic fretboard.

If you are playing mostly "classic dulcimer songs" especially from tabulature rather than SMN, it will be 'more difficult' because the fret numbering convention is different, and you'll have to find the fewer diatonic frets among the plethora of chromatic frets.  You won't be able to simply count 1,2,3,4... to find a tab numbered fret.  With a chromatic instrument that becomes
1/2,1,1-1/2, 2, 3, 3-1/2, 4, 4-1/2, 5, 6, 6-1/2,7......

Dia-chromatic fretboard.jpg

Also, IMHO the 'sound' of a chromatic "dulcimer" is different when you slide from note to note -- because of all the intervening chromatic notes between diatonic notes -- I hear those slides as 'muddier'...


 


Yes, I agree with Jean Ritchie.  For me, the dulcimer is diatonic in nature, anything else is not quite a dulcimer.

Nightingale
Nightingale
@nightingale
8 months ago
6 posts

I know I'm bringing up an old thread, but - oh well.  I play guitar, clawhammer banjo and am now learning dulcimer.  When I learn a mountain instrument, such as clawhammer banjo or dulcimer, I want to learn and play it the way the the original players played it.  I guess I want to learn the tradition, keep it, and maybe add a personal touch here and there.  But "old school" tradition is very important to me.  So, if I want chromatic, guitar or banjo is the way to go for me. With clawhammer banjo, I thought of transferring it to guitar - but why?  It was made for banjo. With a dulcimer I want that lovely sweet sound of the mountains and to keep the tradition alive as best I can.  I don't want to make them into something modern and into something they are not.  There are plenty of hybrids instruments - banjo dulcimers, guitar banjos, etc. out there if you want to come into the up to date modern world.

So, in my mind, let a guitar be a guitar, let a banjo be a banjo and let a dulcime be a dulcimer.

Lisa Golladay
Lisa Golladay
@lisa-golladay
2 years ago
108 posts

Every chromatic dulcimer comes with a free diatonic hidden in plain sight. Ignore the extra frets until you need them. For some people this is no problem at all. For others it's confusing and it sounds wrong and they just don't like it. Either opinion is perfectly valid. It's your dulcimer.

I play chromatic. I play diatonic. I play half-breeds with 1.5 and 6.5 frets. Since you asked why NOT buy chromatic, here's what I got:

Chromatic is harder to play. It has wrong notes. This is not insurmountable. Think about the guitar players you know; are they all rocket scientists? If they can manage a chromatic fretboard, so can you. However, if you hate to practice scales you will probably be happier with a diatonic.

Noter speed bumps. Do you play with a noter? Can't stand the idea of your dulcimer sounding like a slide guitar? This is a dealbreaker for some. And some could not care less. Know thyself.

Lack of instructional materials. This is a big one. There are a few books and videos for learning chromatic dulcimer, but not nearly as many resources as diatonic. When an absolute beginner asks me about dulcimers, I usually steer them toward diatonic.

Modal scales get difficult. Dorian is my favorite mode for improvising, and it's so easy on a diatonic! Dial in the right tuning and off you go. Whereas learning all the scales on chromatic is a major learning curve.

Other dulcimer players fly into a panic. Seriously. A friend gets a dulcimer and wants to play together. Bring out a chromatic and they'll yelp in terror. It doesn't look the same. It's too complicated! I have to keep a diatonic around or I won't have any dulcimer friends.

It's not traditional. This matters to many people. And sometimes (living history events? tapping into your personal memories of dulcimers past?) it may matter to you. If the sound you fell in love with is the sound of a traditional silvery noter/drone modal dulcimer, a chromatic is unnecessary and will make it harder to replicate that old-time sound.

That said, if you already have a diatonic dulcimer and you're considering chromatic, and if you have the time and inclination to learn something new, then my advice is go for it.

Skip
Skip
@skip
2 years ago
359 posts

A couple of other points I forgot, a chromatic will probably be a bit more expensive to buy and much harder to sell.

Don Grundy
Don Grundy
@don-grundy
2 years ago
188 posts

Both Ken and Robin are correct.

Your instrument is personal.

As Jerry Rockwell says: It’s a possibility box.

Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
2 years ago
1,429 posts

Look at lots of video clips of folks playing a variety of music on a variety of different fretted dulcimer configurations and, perhaps, that will give you an idea of what approach you'd like to take to making music.  First and foremost, lean into what music is in your heart to make and get the tool (instrument) with which to do it best.  It's a process and it can be lots of fun to explore.  

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
2 years ago
2,126 posts

TRADITION! 

When asked about dulcimer with “extra" frets, Jean Ritchie replied “In a strict sense it has a different finger board, it’s not quite a dulcimer anymore.”    

You can find all the notes in the dulcimer's range, but you have to be willing to re-tune at least one string to do so (takes less than 30 seconds, with practice).

If you want a chromatic instrument lay a guitar on your lap and play that.  Or I can build you an  "acoustic lap guitar". Just don't call it a dulcimer.   Part of the essential definition of Dulcimer, to many of us, is the diatonic fretboard.

If you are playing mostly "classic dulcimer songs" especially from tabulature rather than SMN, it will be 'more difficult' because the fret numbering convention is different, and you'll have to find the fewer diatonic frets among the plethora of chromatic frets.  You won't be able to simply count 1,2,3,4... to find a tab numbered fret.  With a chromatic instrument that becomes
1/2,1,1-1/2, 2, 3, 3-1/2, 4, 4-1/2, 5, 6, 6-1/2,7......

Dia-chromatic fretboard.jpg

Also, IMHO the 'sound' of a chromatic "dulcimer" is different when you slide from note to note -- because of all the intervening chromatic notes between diatonic notes -- I hear those slides as 'muddier'...


updated by @ken-hulme: 05/12/22 08:58:32AM
Don Grundy
Don Grundy
@don-grundy
2 years ago
188 posts

Shhhh!  I have traditionally fretted dulcimers, some with 1.5 6.5 and some that are chromatic. And two with nylon strings.

My favorite dulcimer is the one in my lap.

Skip
Skip
@skip
2 years ago
359 posts

I think many of the reasons will be be focus on tradition and your music interests which will include style of play [N/D or chording] and need for the extra frets.

It will boil down to what you want plus a bit of DAD [dulcimer acquisition disease]. comfort

I am NOT a traditionalist but I find I play mostly traditional [diatonic] music most of the time when I play with others even though my main MDs are chromatic. I use the chromatic side mostly when playing by myself.

I forgot to add, there are 'chromatic tunings' such as DAA#d, but they are 4 equi-distant strings. These are done on the standard diatonic MD.


updated by @skip: 05/11/22 06:10:08PM
Dulcimaniac
Dulcimaniac
@dulcimaniac
2 years ago
1 posts

I am looking to purchase a new dulcimer and am considering getting a chromatic.  It seems the benefits of being able to play any note within the dulcimer's range is a big plus, but I am looking for reasons why I would not want to get a chromatic.  Can anyone provide some insight here?

For instance, does having a chromatic make it more difficult to play classic dulcimer songs, is it generally more confusing, etc...?

Convince me why getting a chromatic is not the way to go, and why a diatonic is better.

Thanks!


updated by @dulcimaniac: 06/15/22 04:44:25PM