How to Improve the Sound or your Drones
Sometimes playing noter drone can sound a little 'clunky' or 'off'' – and the most likely cause is that you don't have your drones working at their best. So here are four tips for improving the sound of your drones and making your playing sweeter and smoother:
Pay detailed attention to your tuning.
This is the most crucial factor in getting your drones sounding sweet. Unfortunately, on most dulcimers you cannot strictly follow your electronic tuner for tuning your open strings to DAA tuning and expect everything to sound good. There are some complex reasons for this but, basically, the notes shown on your tuner and the position of your frets are set at an average frequency so the sound of any note will fit roughly any chord played on your dulcimer in any key. For noter drone playing we don't need or want these average note position, we want perfect note positions that will give us perfect blends between the melody note we are playing and the drones behind that note. We can't do anything about the position of our frets (unless we have a dulcimer built in a more natural temperament) but we can adjust the tuning of the strings to get the best compromise we can.
So I suggest your tune like this: Find your bass string D note using your electronic tuner. Then find your melody string A note using your electronic tuner. Now fret the melody string at the 3rd fret with your noter to sound a high d note (an octave above your bass string). You may well find that this higher d note is a little sharp compared to the sound of the bass string D note. Adjust the tuning of your melody string so that the bass string D and the melody string d are a perfect octave apart. Take your time to do this and play around with the melody string tuning by raising and lowering it until the D and d notes blend perfectly. You'll soon get the hang of hearing when the blend of the two notes is perfect because the sound smooths out to the point where it sounds like just one string is playing when both are plucked.
Once you have the bass string and melody string set nicely then tune up your middle string to A using your electronic tuner. Then play the middle string and bass string together (not playing the open melody string). That bass D string and middle A string should also seamlessly blend; and in this case the blend will not be too far away from the readings of D and A on your tuner, in fact they may sound spot on.
When you strum across the open strings now you may well find that the two A strings, the melody string and the middle string, are just a little different; with the melody string being a touch flatter than the middle string. However, with your noter at the 3rd fret the strum across the 3 strings, now playing DAd should sound perfect.
I can't emphasise enough how important it is to take time with your tuning to get the most perfect blend you can between the starting note of your scale and your drones. In DAA this means a perfect blend between your bass D string, middle A string and the high d note played with your noter at the 3rd fret. However, this tuning system will also improve the sound of your other modes – just always blend by ear the noter fretted first note of your scale with your drones.
Position your drone strings closer together.
On many dulcimers the bridges and nuts are cut to allow you to have the instrument set-up for 4 sting equidistant as well as the more standard Bass, Middle and twin melody strings (incidently I play mostly with one melody string only). So you can move your middle string closer to your bass string quite easily. This will mean that the drones are struck more easily as a pair and so you are less likely to just sound the middle 5th drone while playing. Both drones have notes in the scale that they harmonise with more naturally than others, so if your drone strike gives a perfect blend of both drones the melody notes will harmonize more fluidly as there will be more points in the sound where the overtones will match.
Choose drone pitches that will best match your tune.
Play around with your drone pitches to get the right feel for the tune you are playing. You don't have to rigidly stick to the root on the bass and 5th on the middle drone. Sometimes for bright tunes I may use one string for the melody and run 3 drones, with the the emphasis on the root note. For example I may tune DAd A. That high d in the drones gives me a very bright major backing. Or I may tune to unison, or other option such as low drone tunings.
Select string gauges that will help blend your drones behind the melody.
Most dulcimer string sets are made for DAd and so they will have quite a heavy bass string and a heavier middle string compared to the melody string(s). However, as noter drone players we really want heavier melody strings and lighter drone strings so that the drones will not overpower the melody but provide a delicate harmony behind our tunes. So have a think about your string gauges. Remember, because we don't fret the drones we can go for lighter drone strings and slacker drone tunings than a DAd chord melody player could use.
Your drones are a very important part of noter drone playing – so treat them well and they will work with rather than against the melody notes you play.