Cross Key Scales

The past 10 years or so I have been arranging and playing a lot of tunes in keys other than the open tuning my dulcimer is in. With the addition of the 1.5 fret on a standard dulcimer, and a cross string flatpicking style, there are a wealth of scales, both major and minor, and thus a wealth of songs that can be played cross key without retuning, and without a capo. Even without a 1.5 fret, you can play in some cross keys. I’ve included a resource Tab here that I hope you find informative. It is in both TablEdit and PDF formats. 

The Tab is written assuming dAD tuning. If the key included more than one note in the scale that is missing on the dulcimer, then I did not include it as a practical key. With just one note missing, very often you can skip, fake, bend, or otherwise adapt it. But when two notes in a 7 note scale is missing it is generally not practical. I discovered that the most likely notes that you can NOT have in a scale and often be able to still play the song is the 6th or 7th note of a scale. More often than not it is not in the melody anyway, or is just a passing note that can be changed to work. So, I have also limited the listed scales to those that the dulcimer is missing only the 6th or 7h note of the scale. Other notes of the scale are more likely to be a melody note you can’t do without. I have also included a run of pentatonic scales in various keys. In the folk genre, many melodies and improvisations are built around the pentatonic scale and I thought this might also be useful. I have developed a workshop in cross key playing that I will be teaching at festivals, with tunes that use these scales. Several songs on my Tab Page also serve as examples. 

A little direction….if you don’t have a 1.5, or you are attempting to play a song in a scale that has a note missing on the dulcimer, you can try a number of things to make it work. Take a tune that has a 3+ fret in the melody line….and you don’t have one. You still may be able to play the song by replacing that note with something else. First place to start is play the “non-plus” fret on either side of it….IE, the 3 or the 4. True, in some songs the 3+ might be a highly necessary note to the melody of the song, and this won’t work. But, you would be surprised how often it does not detract from the integrity of the melody to replace it with a note you do have. For example, a run that reads 0 1 3 3+ 4 might sound just fine as 0 1 3 3 4 or 0 1 3 4 4. You can also try a harmony note of the 3+. I’m not adept enough to talk about harmony theory…but you can noodle at notes a step or two above or below the 3+ and see what that does to the melody at tempo. Many times the harmony note works and still maintains melodic integrity of the song as a whole. It’s just one note…and it harmonizes. Next, try skipping the 3+ all together. And example is that the 3+ is an 8th note that follows a 3. Instead try holding the 3 for a 1/4 note duration and skip the 3+. Many times the 3+ gets “insinuated” by it’s absence. You can also bend up from the 3 to get the 3+, but this is a highly developed skill to get accurately and to tempo. Why so many options ? Well, because in any given song, one will work better than the other. Again….sometimes it won’t work at all and you can’t play that song, but it’s less often than you would think. My arrangement of "Red Haired Boy" on my Tab page, I did exactly that, replaced a bass string 3+ in an A scale with a 3...sounds fine. Feel free to write if I can help as you study this. You can find the Tab for this exercise on my Tab page entitled Cross Key Scales .