Strummed Flatpicking for Mountain Dulcimer

by Larry Conger

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Listen to this article's music: The Ash Grove

The traditional method of playing mountain dulcimer involves noting the melody on the string or strings closest to the player while allowing the middle and bass strings to drone the same tones throughout the song. This droning style was most likely intended to imitate the Scottish bagpipe and is the perfect choice for performing many Appalachian, Irish, Celtic and old time tunes. As the mountain dulcimer evolved throughout the years, many players began to incorporate various techniques and skills that were borrowed from players of other stringed instruments, many of which made for a more contemporary sound. One of these techniques we will refer to as strummed flatpicking.

I want to begin by defining the term flatpicking. Flatpicking is the technique of playing the mountain dulcimer (or other stringed instrument) with a flat pick as opposed to the use of fingers or finger picks. The term was created by guitarists to distinguish this technique from fingerstyle players, those who use finger picks or thumb picks. The term strummed flatpicking as it relates to the mountain dulcimer, refers to a combination of the traditional strumming style and single flatpicked notes. The result is a cleaner and more contemporary sound.

When to Strum - When to Flatpick
Basically, the strum should occur at the beginning of each measure and/or whenever the chord changes. By strumming occasionally, you are preserving the traditional sound of the dulcimer. The remaining notes should be picked individually which should make for a crisper, more melody driven arrangement. The following musical example will give you a general idea of how this technique is applied to a familiar song. Here I have chosen a line from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in D-A-dd tuning to demonstrate the most basic strummed flatpicking technique. The stacked chord at the beginning of each measure of the tablature below should be strummed, while the remaining single notes are flatpicked. Read the tablature exactly as written, strumming only when indicated. While playing the example, think strum, pick, pick, pick, strum, pick, pick, pick, etc.

In or out?
Should your strum go in or out? This is a matter of personal preference for most players. Some are more comfortable strumming out away from the body while others prefer strumming in. I might suggest that, with this particular technique, you try strumming in toward your body and thereafter alternating the direction of the individually picked notes. This will conserve motion in an effort that many refer to as "economy of movement." Strumming in toward the body places your pick on the proper side of the fretboard to execute the next flatpicked note on the melody string. Try applying this idea to the example above. Your motion should now be in, out, in, out, etc.

How to comfortably combine the two techniques
When combining strumming and flatpicking techniques, it is best to secure the strumming hand by resting it on the instrument using one of two methods. First, you can use your little finger as an anchor by grasping the side of the fretboard on the bass string side and holding it there while you strum and pick (shown in photo on the left). This controls the amount of movement in the strumming hand and limits the distance the "pendulum" can swing while strumming. Again, economy of movement is very important. The other option would be to purchase a wrist rest that slips over the top of the fretboard and provides the palm of your hand with a "bridge" on which to rest. This device will need to be fitted to the exact width of your fretboard, so contact the person who built your dulcimer for more information. Again, this limits motion in the strumming hand and improves your accuracy when picking the individual strings. The wrist rest can be seen in the photo on the right just behind the little finger.

using the little finger to anchor the hand

using a wrist rest to anchor the hand

Melody on all three strings
One of the advantages of using the strummed flatpicking technique is that it allows you to more effectively use the middle and bass strings to help with the melody notes. By not strumming constantly, you are able to more clearly hear melody notes being played on these other strings. This is sometimes done as a matter of necessity by "borrowing" melody notes from the middle and bass strings that are not available on the melody string. It can also be done for the sake of convenience by providing more speed on those faster tunes as you pick across the fretboard instead of moving up and down the melody string exclusively to create the melody. The following excerpt from "The Red Haired Boy" in D-A-dd tuning is a good example of how strummed flatpicking can incorporate all three strings to create a melody. Remember to alternate your flatpicked notes to generate more speed.

Position of hand, wrist and forearm
I've found that the position of the forearm goes a long way toward improving your strummed flatpicking technique. By keeping your forearm somewhat parallel with the fretboard, your wrist remains in a more natural, comfortable position and in turn squares up your pick to strike the strings more accurately. Try angling the dulcimer's peghead away from your body in an attempt to make the fretboard and forearm parallel. Also, keep your wrist and hand close to the strings to avoid any unnecessary movement, keeping in mind my previous comments regarding the anchoring of your hand, direction of your strum etc.

Maximum sustain with help from the fretting hand
Hold the chords!
Sustain can be a challenge on the mountain dulcimer, given the fact that we have fewer strings than most stringed instruments. Therefore, it is important that you hold down the fretted chords after they are strummed. In the example of "Simple Gifts" shown below, you will see a two finger chord to be strummed in both the third and fourth measures. The fretted 1 on the bass string should be held down with the middle finger of the fretting hand throughout both the third and forth measures while the fretted 1 on the melody string(s) is held down with the ring finger and is picked up only once to play the open string on the last beat of the third measure. The remaining single melody notes can easily be played with the thumb while holding the other strings down. By holding down these strings, you greatly improve your sustain and consequently make your performance sound much smoother.

Now, let's apply the techniques we've discussed to the song below. Be sure to remember the following:

1. Limit the movement of your strumming hand by anchoring or using a wrist rest.
2. Alternate the direction of each picked note.
3. Strum only when indicated. Some strums are partial strums, involving only the middle and bass strings.
4. Hold down each fretted chord for maximum sustain.
5. Notice that the melody is shared among all strings.
6. Pay special attention to the position of your instrument, forearm, wrist and hand.
7. Work slowly, one phrase at a time.
8. Strive for consistency of fingering.

Listen to this article's music: The Ash Grove

Larry Conger is a builder, player and teacher of the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. He makes his home in Paris, Tennessee, where he operates a private music studio teaching piano and guitar as well as dulcimer. Larry is active as a participating artist for the Tennessee Arts Commission Arts In Education program and the Kentucky Arts Council Teacher Incentive Program, presenting dulcimer programs in the public schools.

Since winning the 1998 National Mountain Dulcimer Championship in Winfield, Kansas, Larry has become a popular instructor/performer at various dulcimer festivals around the country. He has seven self-published dulcimer books and several recordings to his credit, including contributions to three Japanese compilation CDs, released to widespread acclaim in Japan, "Great Players of the Mountain Dulcimer" from Michael Shull Music and "Masters of the Mountain Dulcimer II" from Susan Trump Music.

Larry can be reached at:
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