Chromatic Mountain Dulcimer

by Randy Adams

Left, chromatically-fretted mountain dulcimer.
Right, diatonically-fretted dulcimer (with a couple of extra frets).

Hello. I am Randy Adams, an amateur musician from Lincoln, Nebraska. I have played old-time music since the early 1970s and discovered the mountain dulcimer in 1992 when my daughter brought home a cardboard dulcimer from music class in school. She thought I might be interested and she was right!

I was familiar with DAD tuning from playing the clawhammer banjo (aDADE) and soon became a serious dulcimer player in that tuning, totally in love with the unique sounds and capabilities of the instrument. I discovered I also wanted to play songs in keys other than D in "open" DAD tuning, with notes unavailable or uncomfortable with the diatonically-fretted scale. (A diatonic dulcimer has just the "white keys" of a piano - a chromatic dulcimer has all the sharps and flats, like a guitar.)

In 1994 Dale London, a local luthier, made a chromatic scaled dulcimer for me. I tuned this dulcimer DGBD and began playing fiddle tunes in the keys of G and A. (capo @ second fret) Variants of this tuning are DGCD (modal) and DGBflatD (minor). This set-up opened up may possibilities for me and I would like to share some of them with you, if you please?

I use a flatpick to play. Here are a couple of examples to "break the ice" with your chromatic mountain dulcimer. Remember these are chromatic fret numbers so the old diatonic fret numbers are changed!

Another way to get the same notes. I use this approach whenever possible as it allows a smoother flow of notes, the greatest speed, flexiblity and economy of motion. I use a "wrist rest" to anchor my picking hand.

"Red Haired Boy," a common and popular fiddle tune, is a good one to start with on the chromatic dulcimer.

Listen to Randy Adams play "Red Haired Boy."

"Red Haired Boy"

h = hammer-on
p = pull-off
s = slide

Ed. note: The time signature is 4/4 and there are 8 eighth notes per measure. The x's indicate you should let the note before them sustain for a quarter note. The A part and the B part are played twice, and the A part has a 1st and a 2nd ending.

"A" part

"B" part

If you have a chromatic dulcimer get it down and try it. It's fun! If you don't have one, but have several dulcimers, (and what self respecting dulcimerist doesn't?) think about adding a few frets to one of them.

As with the diatonically fretted dulcimer the possibilities are unlimited! I would like to hear from you. My e-mail address is and you can also find me hanging out at

Randy Adams

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