in praise of DAA – the forgotten tuning ?
I was first introduced to the Appalachian dulcimer (as we called it then) back in the early 70’s and, at that time, DAA would have been the main tuning used for major scale songs and tunes. For me, living in England, London’s Roger Nicholson was a major influence when I started out and Roger used DAA as his major scale tuning.
Today, as the reader will know, DAD is by far the most dominant tuning for the modern mountain dulcimer and DAA is now perhaps seen as a dated and/or beginner’s tuning. This film however, made in 2021, of Roger’s pastoral piece Spring Season may challenge that perception.
In this article I’d like to demonstrate that DAA is not only alive and well but can be used to play meaningful, and perhaps even moving, dulcimer music.
what is DAA ?
Tuning to DAA (D=bass, A=middle & A=1st/chanter) supports the major scale, which is sometimes referred to as the Ionian mode. I prefer to call the tuning Ionian as I’m not always in the key of D, but often in the key of E (EBB) and occasionally in the key of C (CGG). Some players call DAA 1-5-5, which is perhaps a more meaningful name, as it explains the relationship between the pitches of the strings.
For the purposes of this article however, I will use DAA, as it seems to be the mostly commonly used term.
no need for ½ frets
Almost all modern mountain dulcimers have additional frets to the diatonic/dichromatic fretting pattern of the original Appalachian dulcimer. These are referred to as ½ frets and, in DAD, the 6.5 fret is essential if you want to play major scale melodies. DAD, without the 6.5 fret, will give the Mixolydian scale.
DAA however doesn’t need any ½ frets to play major scale music. For me, and how I play the dulcimer, ½ frets are a huge disadvantage and it’s desirable, nay crucial, for my dulcimers not to have them. This link takes you to another blog post, which explains my approach to the dulcimer in more detail and why ½ frets are a disadvantage to me and to DAA generally.
melody & drone style
One of the simplest but most pleasing ways of playing the dulcimer is that of melody-and-drone style. The Melody is played on the 1st/chanter string and the other two strings are plucked or strummed as drones. Melody and Drone style works well in DAA, as this simple example shows.
Accompanying songs in DAA can be done using the melody-and-drone style, or chords can be strummed or picked/arpeggiated to create a harmonic accompaniment to the song. DAA not only supports major and minor chords but also 7th chords, suspended 4th chords and many others too. This link takes you to a blog post with charts of a few popular DAA chord shapes. Notice that each chord has several inversions, which can be used to add variety to the song and also give a sense of the melody in the accompaniment, as well as supporting the voice/pitch of the singer.
These chords are sometimes called triad chords, as most dulcimers have effectively only three strings. Despite this limitation, very effective accompaniments to songs can be played in DAA using triad chords. This example of one of my favourite songs, Let It Be Me uses inversions of triad chords arpeggiated to accompany the vocal parts of the song.
What I call airs style of playing in DAA is a half-way-house between melody-and-drone and chord style playing. The melody is played on the 1st/chanter string, then a harmony note is played one of the other strings, leaving the remaining string as a drone. Sometimes the bass is the drone and sometimes the middle string is the drone. When the bass has the harmony note and the middle string is droned, I call these ‘open chords’ as they have a very open feel about them. To my ears, airs style is one of the prettiest ways of playing music on the dulcimer.
In this example of Silent Night, the first verse is played melody-and-drone style, the second verse is played airs style with harmonies on the bass string and the middle string droning. The third verse is also played airs style but this time with harmonies on the middle string and the bass droning. Lastly, the final verse is played melody-and-drone style again but with variety of expression.
Sometimes I will arrange a song with chord style accompaniment to the vocals and then use melody-and-drone style as introduction and/or interlude and/or ending. More often though, I will use airs style for the non-singing parts to make an arrangement to accompany a song. In this example of The South Wind, the tune is played airs style at the beginning and end to add variety to the chordal accompaniments to the vocals in the middle three verses.
With a mixture of styles, using inversions of chords to add a sense of the melody and fingerpicking to add rhythm, one can make very comprehensive arrangements to songs in DAA. Furthermore, the mixture of styles and when they are played can be different for each song, further adding interest and variety to a set or recording.
You may have noticed that when I play airs style with the harmony on the middle string, the harmony note is often two notes/frets below the melody note/fret. This interval of a third is very pretty. If the two frets are three semitones apart, it’s a major third and if the two frets are four semitones apart, the interval is a minor third. Playing a scale on the 1st/chanter string with thirds on the middle string will result in a pretty and alternating pattern of major and minor third harmonies.
In this performance of my popular piece The Spider’s Dance, in places you will notice cascading scales of major and minor thirds played on 1st/melody and middle strings. Although the piece is fast, it is played airs style throughout.
access to other tunings / modes
During concerts, from being in EBB tuning (DAA in key of E), I can easily get to the Dorian tuning/mode by simply dropping the chanter string by one tone to give EBA. This can be done quickly and offers the opportunity of showcasing one of the great virtues of the dulcimer: the atmosphere created by playing modal music with the correct drones, which can’t (to my knowledge) be done in DAD.
Likewise, I can easily get from EBB to Bagpipe tuning by dropping the bass string to create BBB. Bagpipe delivers a rich tone and opens up the option of Mixolydian melodies as well as major scale tunes. With just one dulcimer and only two quick string re-tunings, I can present three different tunings and three different modes, adding huge variety of mood and atmosphere to a set.
In this extract from my 2018 concert in Nashville, I’ve already just retuned from EBB to EBA to play a medieval-sounding song in the Dorian mode called Columbine.
While I sometimes use other tunings for major-scale pieces, DAA (or Ionian, as I prefer to call it) has been my go-to tuning for the major scale on the mountain dulcimer for over 50 years now, it still is today and it will be for the foreseeable future.
In case you still think that DAA is a thing of the past, this new composition Tumbling Skies recorded in 2021, with varied and fast picking has become one of my favourite pieces and is played in Ionian in the key of C (CGG).
I hope you found this article interesting and helpful. If you do want to give DAA a try, you might find this link to string options to be helpful. And here is some free TAB too, much of which is in DAA.
‘whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect’ Mark Twain