Dulcimer Playing With Extra Frets

Adding extra frets to the traditional diatonic dulcimer fret pattern is nothing new.  Most common are the 6 1/2 fret and the corresponding 13 1/2 fret an octave higher. These two frets are so common that one could say they have become standard issue on most dulcimers. These two frets are standard on the dulcimers I make unless someone requests otherwise.

I believe that it was Howie Mitchell who first added the 6 1/2 fret while teaching himself to play the dulcimer. Thanks to this innovation one can get a C sharp  on the top and bottom string when tuned D-A-D.  This also allows playing  a G sharp on the middle string.

More recently many players are using a 1 1/2  (one and one-half) fret. In D-A-D a 1 1/2 fret will provide  F natural on the top and bottom strings and  C natural on the middle string.

Many years ago, before I used a 1 1/2 fret or even a 6 1/2 fret I added what I call a 1/2 fret to some of my dulcimers.  I call this fret a 1/2 fret because it is placed between the nut and the first fret.

In D-A-D this adds both D Sharp and A Sharp to the fingerboard.

I found it very easy to adjust to having the 1/2 fret on the fingerboard because it was below all the other frets.

The combination of the 1/2 fret and 1 1/2 fret adds a lot of musical possibility to the lower position on the dulcimer fingerboard.


Here is the standard D Major Scale played in D-A-D:

D scale played on a dulcimer

With the addition of the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets a chromatic scale can be played:

chromatic scale played on a dulcimer

By using the 1 1/2 fret it is easy to play a G Major scale or a D Mixolydian mode in the lower positions while tuned D-A-D:

G Major scale played on a dulcimer in D-A-D

And here are a few chordal possibilities:

a few chords played on the dulcimer

In the first measure are two inversions of a B Major chord. The second measure shows two inversions of a G minor chord and the third measure shows two inversions of a C Major chord.

These are just some of the possibilities. I often play B flat, E flat and other chords while tuned D-A-D using the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets.

I offer the 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets and any other additional frets as options on my dulcimers.

10 thoughts on “Dulcimer Playing With Extra Frets

  1. Hello, just discovered your blog when I went searching for info on the 6 1/2 fret. I’m a low level player, but I have been messing with it for a few years and have a couple of good instruments, a John Stockard with the 1 1/2 and 6 1/2 and a Blue Lion with the 6 1/2. A couple of days ago I picked up an old dulcimer that was in bad shape, cleaned it up and restsrung it. It is obviously a home built, but a decent job with nice tone. I was amazed at how nicely and easily it played and how readily I seemed to find tunes on it. I was feeling my way through Soldier’s Joy and having fun and decided to switch and see what it sounded like on my regular (Blue Lion) instrument for comparison and things went wacko on me. Took me a minute, but I suddenly realized the fretting was different… the Lion has a 6 1/2 and the new one didn’t! I’ve never had or seen a dulcimer before that didn’t and find it rather fun. I got to wondering when the 6 1/2 began appearing. There is no date or signature in this one and I’m curious if the lack of the 6 1/2 might give an idea of when it might have been built.

    Dick

    • Hi Dick,

      No idea when your dulcimer was made. There are still some made without the 6 1/2 fret though not many. When I started playing in the 1970’s they were still offered as an option. My first recollection of hearing about it was in Howie Mitchell’s “How To make And Play The Dulcimer” book. I myself didn’t start using a 6 1/2 fret till the 1980’s.

      All the best,

      Doug

  2. My wife had the 1/2 fret added to her fretboard, as per your suggestion.
    Her instrument already had the 1 1/2, 6 1/2 and the 13 1/2 frets when she got it. But since we play together (I play guitar) we thought the addition of the 1/2 fret would expand the spectrum of cords available to her and would minimize the necessity of so many re-tunings. Which it has, however, we are now wondering about a source book or chart for chording on a chromatic dulcimer. Do you have suggestions? Thanks much for you helpful and educational website.

    Sincerely, Joel

  3. Hi Laura,
    One option is to have another standard dulcimer tuned differently.
    I do make chromatic dulcimers and if you are interested please inquire.

    All the best,

    Doug

  4. I have a Warren May dulcimer that I absolutely love, but I am limited when I play it at church. Other musicians very much like to sing/play music in the keys they are written. I’m preparing now for two solos in DAD, but would like to join in on the Christmas hymns that are in F. I can’t figure out how to make that work w/ out retuning.

    Where can I get a chromatic dulcimer as a back-up?

  5. Hi Russell,

    A lot of people are playing chromatic dulcimers these days for the reasons you mention. I personally have not missed most of the chromatic options though I like having a few extra frets. I’ll have to play one for a while and decided if I can’t live without all the additional notes! being able to make what you want is one of the advantages of being a luthier!

  6. I make chromatic dulcimers, it gives the instrument more versitility with having the sharps and flats , tradition is fine for those who want that but i think the evolution to chromatic is a plus there is so much more to be gained from it.

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