How I Play the Dulcimer - by Andy Robinson - Part 1
   noter-style playing

One of the things that first attracted me to the dulcimer in the late sixties was noter-style playing.  At that time, George Harrison of the Beatles was opening up the pop music world to the delicate drones and exotic textures of the Indian sitar.  I was, and still am, a Beatles fan, so when a friend introduced me to the mountain dulcimer, I fell in love with it.  It wasn’t a sitar, but it was close enough for me!  I was a drummer, with no prior experience with melodic instruments, and the simplicity of making up a melody on a couple of closely spaced strings and having “instant” musical accompaniment in the form of a droning partial chord appealed to me.  Once I had my own dulcimer, I bought the only book I could find on the instrument, a book by Jean Ritchie, and set about trying all the different tunings she wrote about.  And I started writing my own tunes.

If I remember correctly, Jean Ritchie didn’t even mention chord playing in her book.  The book was all about playing with a noter or a finger on the melody string(s) and letting the middle and drone string hum along.  I was taken with the sound produced by the noter - the ability to slide and trill from note to note made my fledgling melodies much more expressive-sounding than if I had played them without such embellishments.


   my first noter

My first noter was a small wooden dowel, the kind that comes with many dulcimers.  I wasn’t comfortable with it, because of the way it “rolled” on the strings.  In search of the perfect noter, I began trying everything else I could get my hands on – tongue depressors, chunks of bamboo, wooden clothespins, metal rods – you name it.  I finally settled on the perfect solution, one that I use to this day: a popsicle stick.  No particular flavor of popsicle works best – it’s a matter of personal taste (heh, heh). 

Demonstration of how I use my popsicle stick noterSeriously, the broad side of a popsicle stick is a nice, flat surface that you can press into a fingerboard, just to the left of whatever fret you’re noting, for a clean, sustaining tone. The best sound is achieved with any noter when you place it just to the left of a fret, and hold both melody strings down evenly.

Popsicle sticks do wear out - they'll eventually get string grooves in them, and stop sliding so smoothly.  Turn 'em around and use the other side.  Or treat yourself to another popsicle.  Or, if popsicles aren't on your diet, most craft stores do sell packets of what they call "craft sticks".  Those are pretty much the same thing.

   try this

Use a noter and play a note on the melody strings in the middle of the space between two frets.  Now, play the same note, to the far left of the space between the frets, almost to the fret on the left.  Hear a difference?  I’d imagine that the second time around you got a "messier" sound, maybe with a little buzz in there.  Use your noter in the  middle of the space between frets, or closer to the fret on the right hand side, for the cleanest sound.

I’ve seen a lot of noter players hold the noter down with their index finger, which is a natural thing to do – playing that way is kind of like pointing with your finger at the note you want to play.  However, when I do that, I have trouble playing some notes up high on the fretboard.  If my fingers curl beneath the noter, it seems I'm holding the "non-business" end of the noter up above the level of the fret board, angling down towards the strings a bit. 
Having my noter angled down onto the melody strings means I'm less likely to have good, solid contact with them, and one of them might be unintentionally muffled or muted.  If I play up high on the fretboard, I'll start hitting my notes at an angle, because of the way my arm is crossing in front of my body.  Also (and this is probably the most important point for my style of playing), if I'm holding my noter "overhand" and I want to play some chords in between my noter licks, it's much more complicated to "palm" the noter, and get it out of the way of my chording fingers.  (More on this in Part 2.)

It should be duly "noted" (ha!) that the overhand, finger-pointing method works for many people.  Bottom line: you'll have to experiment and see what method works best for you.


   here's what I do

I rest the backs of my left fingers on the dulcimer soundboard, keeping my hand relaxed.  With my fingers pointing towards the high end of the fretboard, I lay my trusty popsicle stick noter across them, perpendicular to the fretboard, with the tip protruding over the melody strings, and I use my thumb to press the tip down on the strings (see illustration above).  When I move up and down the fretboard to play a noter line, I’m sliding the backs of my fingers along the top of the dulcimer, so my hand is supported.  It’s a comfortable hand position for me; it gives me leverage on the strings, which allows me to make all my notes, from the top to the bottom of the fretboard, sing out the way I want them to.



(Next time: Part 2 – Enhancing your music with a noter, and "palming" the noter)

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