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vern's verbal vibe


Thoughts from Toronto singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vern Nicholson. I pontificate mostly on music (of course), with a smattering of sports, language and other fun miscellany.

Yes, Sir, Let's Admire That One 

If you follow baseball in Canada at all, you know who I'm talking about. The title alone gives it away. That's how deeply and ubiquitously the voice of Jerry Howarth permeated baseball culture in this country. With last week's retirement announcement, the baseball world has lost one of its golden voices.

Stephen Brunt's warm, insightful tribute, which I urge you to read, says it best: "What will summer sound like now?" For legions of Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, myself included, Jerry was the Voice of Summer for 36 years, especially after assuming the Jays' lead announcer role when his long-time partner Tom Cheek died in 2005.

Baseball and radio are made for each other, and as a primarily auditory person, I'm wired to lap it up. The best broadcasters keep the listener informed,  entertained and when necessary, amused. Beyond that, the cream of the crop—and Jerry is certainly one—are gifted storytellers, taking on the persona of a wise, kindly uncle who slips in a life lesson or two amidst the grand slams, gold gloves and chin music. Sometimes I think the reason I've spent so many summers with Jerry, all 162 games' worth, is more about palling around with the uncle I never had than the race for the pennant.

As we sit on the cusp of spring training and a new season of Blue Jays baseball, we don't yet know who will take the reins as lead radio voice. But we do know who we'll miss. To the man who opened every broadcast with a warm "Hello, friends," I say farewell, friend, God bless, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.

On a related note, Leo Cahill, legendary '60s and '70s coach of the Toronto Argonauts, passed away earlier this week. Flamboyant, outspoken and quick-witted, Leo was a larger-than-life personality on Argonaut teams that had more than their share of outrageous characters. I can't recall any coach or GM, save perhaps the Leafs' Harold Ballard, who so thoroughly dominated the local sports scene. Cahill's brilliance as a coach was often overlooked, and as a recruiter he had no peers. Among his many accomplishments, Leo lured Joe Theismann away from the Miami Dolphins to lead the 1971 Argonauts to the Grey Cup, a game which left quite an impression on a certain 10-year-old.

Cahill never won a Grey Cup, but as a CBC colour commentator he got to call the second half of the Argos' 1983 victory, the one that broke Toronto's 31-year championship drought. And it's somehow fitting that the Boatmen won the last Grey Cup game played during his lifetime, last November's 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders, the very team that beat Leo's squad in '71. Ironically, the heavily favoured Stampeders blew the 2017 game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the 1971 Argos.

Goodbye, Leo, God bless, and thank you. We won't see your like again anytime soon, and whenever I don my Mike Eben jersey—which arrived in the mail the day you died—I'll remember you, double blue forever.

Words and Music Are Everywhere 

Now that the CD is out, I've returned to one of the things I love best: songwriting. And I'm here to tell you that songs can come from some pretty odd places.

In November I took a train trip to Cornwall, and between Via's attendants handing out Remembrance Day poppies, the music I was listening to on the way (Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967), a piano sitting in a downtown square with jammed keys and a bit of research on the Lost Villages, I came up with a tune called "Lost Villages Wail." (It's not really about the Lost Villages—they provided me with good metaphorical meat, though.)

I generally write chords first, then melody, then words. If nothing comes spontaneously I go back to my "bits," those fragments I've recorded that on their own are little more than promising parts lasting no more than 10 seconds. If I'm lucky, I can string two or three together in the same song, but more often than not I create the music from scratch around one strong bit. And again, if I'm lucky, sometimes I get a melody so evocative that the words practically write themselves. That's what happened with December's new song, "The Lord's Glue."

This month's new song, "Let Love Strum You," springs from a truly bizarre source: a lumber outlet jingle I heard on a baseball broadcast. I pilfered the chords and melody verbatim, made it my chorus, and wrote the rest of the music around it. For the lyrics, I drew inspiration from this poem by John O'Donohue that I saw in a church bulletin. Nothing was used verbatim; I simply borrowed a few of his words, then filled in the rest. In fact, the tone of my lyrics differs considerably from that of the poem.

Words and music—they really are everywhere if you look. And all this is coming reasonably soon, I hope, on my next album, Days of Secret Seeing.

The Westbury Wolves Official Playbook 

After the frenzy of the CD release, I've been spending my much-needed downtime watching classic Grey Cup games from the '60s and '70s on YouTube. The '60s games were educational because I'd never seen them, but the early '70s are where the memories really start to kick in. The first CFL game I ever watched (on TV) was the 1971 Grey Cup. We had a new colour TV and rotary antenna, and Dad patiently explained the rules to my brother and me as we watched our hometown heroes, the Toronto Argonauts, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a heartbreaking 14-11 loss to Calgary.

Fast forward through a lost 1972 season to November 11, 1973 and the Eastern Semi-Final at CNE Stadium. This was my first live game, again with Dad and my brother. Toronto, having finished in second place with a 7-5-2 record, hosted the Montreal Alouettes. We sat in the Grandstand, Section P, I believe, about 20 rows up. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the score 10-7 Montreal, the Argos have the ball on the Alouette 24. QB Joe Theismann, in what would be his final game in the CFL, drops back to pass. He finds rookie tight end Peter Muller open at the goal line—for the game-winning touchdown—and Muller drops the ball. The Boatmen tie the game on a field goal, but Montreal rolls over them in overtime, eventually winning 32-10. (Saving grace? The Als would lose the following week to the eventual '73 Grey Cup champion Ottawa Rough Riders.)

Around this time the neighbourhood kids and I started playing touch football, on the street, with modified CFL rules. For one, your average city street lacks goalposts, so we used the hydro wires attached to the telephone poles in lieu. (They were way up there and we were all lousy kickers, so I doubt many field goals were made.) Said telephone poles, about 30 yards apart maybe, also demarcated the goal lines, so our "field" was a tad shorter than the CFL's 110. A regulation CFL field is 65 yards wide; our street, including the sidewalks, might have been 10. If I recall correctly, the sidewalks were in bounds. Mrs. Shaw's lawn was definitely not, as she took great screeching pains to point out whenever the ball landed on it. (Hey, cool it, Mrs. S. At least we never broke your window.) I couldn't throw or kick, but had good hands and was a reliable tight end. Why, in my 12-year-old mind, I could've shown Peter Muller a thing or two.

All our offensive plays were pass plays. Running wasn't allowed, mainly because it would've been pointless in such a confined space. We mostly played against each other but on rare occasions, we'd challenge the kids who lived east of Bicknell Avenue. For these games we had to call ourselves something, hence the Westbury Wolves. And despite the sheer brilliance and cunning of our playbook (see below), as I recall we got our butts kicked whenever we ventured outside the neighbourhood for a not-so-friendly match.

So gather round, kids, and listen carefully, for Grandpa here is about to reveal the best-kept secret in the history of touch football—the Westbury Wolves Official Playbook. If you or your kids play touch football, give these a try. One or two of them might even work once in a blue moon. And if you've never heard of the CFL greats who are their namesakes, do look them up.

And speaking of namesakes: Hedge, Ec, Birdeen, Kojak, Cyc, Stick, Fuzz, the One-armed Bandit, The Ed, Dan & Don, this playbook is dedicated to you. (Yes, one of these is me. No, I'm not telling you which one.)

  • Mike Eben: Run forward seven yards, then back two or three.
  • Zenon Andrusyshyn: Line up wide left or right. Run forward seven yards, then cut outside.
  • Peter Dalla Riva: Run a curl pattern in the shape of a question mark, starting from the bottom.
  • Johnny Rodgers: Run forward three yards, stop, jump, then streak downfield.
  • Tom Campana: Run forward five yards, cut in sharply for two yards, then cut back out (like a T-shape).
  • George McGowan: Similar to the Dalla Riva, but instead of closing the question mark by curling in, run straight across the field.
  • Rhome Nixon: Run forward two yards. Accept the short pass from the QB, lateral back to him, then streak downfield.
  • Tom Forzani: Line up wide left or wide right. Run a 45-degree slant about five or six yards.

Fast forward, oh, 44 years, and the Argos are back on the CNE grounds, their new home a stone's throw from long-since-demolished CNE Stadium. What's more, the Double Blue are your 2017 Grey Cup champions, victors over Calgary, who themselves snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a series of improbable blunders. I've rekindled my passion for football and splurged for a season ticket in the cheap seats. See you next June, Section 220! And, um, Coach Trestman? Feel free to borrow from the best.

We Have Liftoff 

With much merriment, Linden Tree near the Water was officially launched last Saturday night. Some 30 songs and many servings of cheese and crackers later, I'm still recovering. 😅

I'd like to thank Trinity-St. Paul's Centre and their helpful, courteous staff; the Metro at Bloor & Robert for the fine food and drink; my helpers for the evening, N.C. and C.W., without whom I couldn't have possibly pulled this off; and especially, all those who were able to make it out. It was a pleasure to play for such a friendly crowd, and as a result, my usual performance jitters were absent.

Missed out? No, you didn't. Not really, because the whole show was recorded and we even managed to shoot some video. It'll take a few weeks to sort through it all and work my post-production magic, but look for highlights on my music page as soon as I can get them up there.

In the meantime, you can purchase the album in my online store. Also available there: a 7" single featuring "That '70s Lifetime" and "Lady Air." Thanks for your support!

Pulling It All Together 

It's less than a month to release day! And about that ...

Linden Tree near the Water CD Release
Saturday, November 4, 7:00 p.m.
Chapel, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre
427 Bloor St. W., Toronto, ON
Free Admission & Snacks—All Ages Welcome

I'll be playing a ton of music for you on guitar, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica. If you can make it out, it'd be a pleasure to meet you.

Now to the topic at hand: releasing an independent CD is a huge undertaking and finally, the legwork I've done over the last year is paying off. Yes, it's been a full year since I started researching blogs, magazines, podcasts and college radio stations that might be receptive to my music. The submission process is, to put it charitably, a one-size-fits-none affair. Some want physical CDs; some want downloads or streams; some insist that you submit through their online interface. A few come at you with such exacting, convoluted demands that it makes you wonder if they want to hear your music at all (answer: probably not).

Tip #1: Address Your Packages in Advance

This means well before you have anything to put in them. I blew out a long weekend in August doing just that, but because I did so I picked up my CDs Thursday and completed my mailout Monday, 165 discs in all. I'd have endured at least a week-long delay had I not addressed the envelopes beforehand.

Tip #2: Make Your Music Downloadable and Streamable

Industry people will go ballistic if you e-mail your songs as attachments. More to the point, they won't listen to them. Instead, use Dropbox (it's free) for all your downloadable assets (bios, one-sheets, music, artwork, photos) and SoundCloud (also free) to stream your album. Make it easy and painless for interested parties to hear and download your music.

Tip #3: Send Your Music to the Right Stations

Fair enough, but how do you decide which college stations are "right"? I used a few criteria:

  • Does the station play my genre of music? Take a deep dive into their program schedules. Yes, this will take bloody forever—that's why you do it a year in advance. For me, keywords in show descriptions were acoustic, singer-songwriter, folk—and on the fringes, Americana/roots and power pop. But don't stop there. Read the blurb carefully and ask yourself: is my material really a fit? In my case, some folk shows feature exclusively Celtic, traditional or old-time hillbilly music. Pass. And Americana/roots may mean one thing to me, but if (as was often the case) in the DJ's mind it meant country, rockabilly or bluegrass, I passed.

  • Lean toward the home team. Of course, the stellar quality of your music ought to trump everything, but I suspect that for unknown indie artists, your best chance of getting airplay is via the "I'm local" angle. I'm lucky. I live in a major city with tons of college towns within a 100-kilometre radius. I made sure every last one of them got a CD, even the tiny, low-profile ones. I also live in Canada, where stations must play a percentage of Canadian content, usually 35%. Your home country should obviously be perched atop your target list, but this is especially true if your country has something similar to our CanCon mandate. (Special note for Canadians: make sure your MAPL logo is filled out correctly and placed on your back cover and the disc itself.)

  • Has the station made any "best-of" lists? These higher-profile, well-run stations, if they're a good fit for your music, ought to be on your priority list. I can't emphasize the "good fit" aspect enough. If a top-ranked station plays mostly urban/hip-hop/EDM or punk/metal/noise, no matter how great they are or how vast their audience, why would you send them your folk CD? As for which lists to draw on, the Princeton Review is a good source and is current. I also scoured the Pigeons and Planes Top 25, even though it's a bit out of date. There are others as well. I've yet to see a list that includes non-US stations.

  • What's the station's reach? Ideally, you want to target stations with reasonably strong signals in major markets. As a longtime radio geek, I was all over this one. Radio Locator features coverage maps, frequency info and more; it's also a good resource if you can't find the station's mailing address any other way. You can make 20 inquiries a day, I think, for free. After that, you either splurge for a paid subscription or wait till tomorrow. (Guess which is my preferred method?) Finding US stations is easy; the search engine is more cumbersome when it comes to Canadian radio.

Now in a way, the title of my post is misleading. What I've outlined here is but a small slice of all I'm having to coordinate in order to put my CD out. I'm a tad obsessive, I know, but the fact is I have 10 to-do lists going. Hey, it was either that or have one list with 437 items on it.

As always, comments or feedback welcome, and I wish you all the best in your quest to get your music heard.

Sign in Stranger 

Was shocked and shaken this morning to hear of the passing of Walter Becker, bassist/guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan. Apparently he'd been ill for some time with an unspecified ailment. I didn't know that either, but that's not surprising; the man was an artist, not a celebrity.

If you came of age during the '70s, the Dan were the soundtrack to your wayward youth, literate misanthropes in soft-rock clothes whose obscurantist musings somehow crept into the Top 40. When some hipster tells me '70s music was dreck until The Ramones, Sex Pistols et. al. righted the ship, I point them toward Steely Dan. In the words of songstress Rickie Lee Jones, they're "the beginning of college rock."

As a kid, I bought the singles: "Do It Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." These slivers of wax sounded like nothing I'd ever heard, and listening to them now, they still do. Becker and collaborator Donald Fagen were originals. Jazz-rock was in vogue then, yet Steely Dan steered well clear of the pack, whether on the rock (Chicago, BS&T) or jazz side (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report). I can tell you what they weren't, but I'd need a musicology degree to tell you what they were. As I understand it their influences are mostly jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, with dashes of R&B—yet without exception, their oeuvre consists of pop songs, albeit with a jazzy sophistication underpinning those great hooks.

I've long envied their songwriting, but their style is hard to emulate without serious chops and a knowledge of jazz harmony, both of which I lack. Why, for a few seconds today I entertained the thought of working up a Steely Dan song in tribute to Becker and quietly nixed the idea. In the past I've tried three or four of their "easier" numbers (the ones with fewer tricky jazz modulations), and they simply don't come off with one guy and an acoustic guitar, at least not this guy. The Steely Dan influence has, however, shown up once in my music—fittingly in an obscure way that only a pedant would appreciate. "After You," one of the songs on my forthcoming album, features a pedal steel part in the bridge—actually a sample that I plied, twisted and manipulated in a week-long bout of studio obsessiveness that would make Walter Becker proud—that I think gets the official Steely Dan Award for Best Use of Pedal Steel in a Non-Country Song. (Check out Jeff Baxter's gorgeous steel work on Can't Buy a Thrill or Countdown to Ecstasy, their first two albums, to hear what I mean.)

In any case, you will be missed, Mr. B. May the afterlife treat you well. Won't you sign in, stranger?

Video Production on the Cheap 

I'll admit it: I'm an audio guy. Not a huge fan of watching videos or making them. But for a working musician in the digital age, having some sort of presence on YouTube is essential. And at last, I've found a relatively painless way to make videos that look decent—and more importantly to me, sound great—on a shoestring.

As it says on the Hamburger Helper package, you will need/il vous faudra:

  • Webcam that's better than the one that comes with your laptop
  • Microphone, same; ideally one that records in stereo
  • Reading lamp
  • Basic video editing program (I use Windows Movie Maker)
  • Basic audio editing program (I use Audacity)
  • CD player separate from your laptop
  • As plain and uncluttered a background as you can manage
  • Plenty of patience

I found this article quite helpful in terms of basic tips and cheap workarounds. I'd recently bought a Zoom H1, which solved the mic issue, and following the article's advice purchased a Logitech C270 webcam for $30. Now, the Zoom will work as a USB mic attached to your computer, and its quality was markedly superior to the webcam's built-in mic. But I wanted the best audio possible for my videos, and this entailed recording high-quality audio separately and overlaying it later. Without going into arduous detail, here's an overview of the process:

  • Record your audio, upload it to your laptop and burn it onto a CD (I used the Zoom H1 for one song and previously created studio recordings for the others). Tip: add a good, long count-in (at least four bars) before your song starts. This gives you enough time to press "record" on your webcam and "play" on the CD player, get yourself situated and come in when the music starts.
  • Turn on your reading lamp and position it behind and a little to the side of your webcam.
  • Point the lamp toward where you'll be positioned in the video. Check for odd-looking shadows and readjust accordingly.
  • Position your webcam such that both you and your instrument are visible and as close as possible to the centre of the shot. If you're like me and not visually inclined, this may take some time.
  • Double-check that your background is neutral and uncluttered. If possible, move extraneous junk out of the way before shooting.
  • With the CD playing (on a separate player; your laptop will be otherwise occupied) record your video, remembering to disable your laptop's built-in mic and/or the webcam's built-in mic. Your webcam software will likely give you "do you really want to do that" warnings; ignore or override them. Yes, you really want to do that.
  • Import your video into Movie Maker. Import your prerecorded audio using the "add music" function.
  • Trim the video start and end so what you're left with is just your performance, give or take a second or two on either end.
  • Sync the music to the video. This is easier said than done. For some reason—your mileage may vary—I find that when I import my audio and video into Movie Maker and line them up, the sync drifts. This is where Audacity comes in (see next bullet point).
  • Audacity's "change tempo" effect will alter the speed of your audio but not its pitch. After much experimentation, I've found that changing the song's tempo +0.2% ensures good sync with no drift.
  • Once the audio and video are in sync, use some of Movie Maker's built-in features to create a more polished, professional look. I chose to add a title card and credits with basic transitions to and from.
  • In Movie Maker, you have to save your video twice: once as a video and once as a Movie Maker project (in case you want to do further editing, and trust me, you will). So: Save Movie, Save Project. If you'll be posting to YouTube, click "YouTube" under "recommended settings."

Lip-syncing tip: for me it's easier to actually sing and play instead of pretending to sing and play, but either approach will work because no audio is being recorded. Choose what suits you best. And what does all this end up looking and sounding like? Well, in my instance, you can enjoy the results on my YouTube channel.

I hope this helps you shoot your own videos should you feel the inclination, and as always, comments are welcome.

Nearer the Water 

Mark your calendars, folks: Linden Tree near the Water is scheduled for release on November 4, 2017. Details on the CD release show coming soon. I'll be playing a ton of music that night—the album, some great new songs and a choice selection of my favourite covers—on guitar, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica.

With the help of artist and photographer friends who wish to remain anonymous and the fine folks at Indie Pool and Bandzoogle, I've been immersed in designing the CD package and ancillary stuff (website, one-sheet and so on). Releasing an independent CD, even on a small scale, is hard work. But it's been fun, too, as I find myself having to stretch in unexpected ways. Why, this week I even did a sketch in Microsoft Paint in an effort to point my designer in the right direction. "Kindergarten Klimt," I've called my naive style, and believe me, I hope to retire after just the one drawing. (Artist and designer were hired for a reason!)

This week's breakthrough: I've found my font, the typeface I'll be using on the CD and promotional materials. Not giving too much away other than to say it's been used in a music-related context before (many years ago) and you'll love it when you see it. I sure did.

A little teaser for you: yes, there will be a single and yes, it'll be released on 7" vinyl, just like we did in the good old days. The songs are "That '70s Lifetime" b/w "Lady Air." For now it'll be a (very) limited run—short-run vinyl being quite expensive—also released on November 4. To whet your appetite, here's my video for "Lady Air." Featuring captions because, well, that's my day job and whenever I encounter a video, I can't help but caption it.

Real Chords #4: Queen, "'39" 

This latest instalment in my Real Chords series is, well, a doozy. Welcome to master class, kids. The good news? This song, Brian May's self-described attempt at "sci-fi skiffle" from Queen's 1975 A Night at the Opera, isn't that hard to play once you get the hang of it. It is, however, one of the toughest to pick up by ear—which, happily, I've done for you. As you'll soon see, certain sections feature bizarre chord sequences that make no intuitive sense. But for all that, there's only one truly oddball chord in the whole song.

Perhaps due to the degree of difficulty, the online chord charts are generally good, though I didn't find any that were 100% accurate. For once, it doesn't much matter if you capo it or not; no matter what you do you'll run into a ton of weird chords. To play it in the same key as the original, use Capo 1. Fascinating fact: the song's Wikipedia entry claims that George Michael used to play this as a busker in the London Underground. If true, props to someone I'd previously dismissed as a lightweight. It's not an easy song to put across as a solo performer.

A few notes on the chords below: the aforementioned outlier, Adim7, is fingered x01212 low to high. Csus2 is x3x033. Now, this is a matter of taste, but in my music I use the Csus2 in place of a standard open C about 80% of the time. It just sounds better to me. If you listen to the song as you learn, you'll also note that some of these chords really fly by, particularly in the second half of the bridge, pre-chorus and chorus. Expect to stumble over those bits at first.

Here, then, are the real chords to Queen's "'39," written by Brian May:

Capo 1

  • Intro 1 (spaghetti western bit): C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
  • Intro 2 (folky bit): G D Em C G D C G G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G
  • Verse: D Em C G D Em Em7 Csus2 Dsus D G
  • Pre-Chorus: D Adim7 Em Am G D C Em C D C G D (that last G is so quick, but necessary to set up the D)
  • Chorus: G Csus2 G D G B7 Em D C G/B Am G D G
  • Bridge: Eb Cm7 A C F#m C Am E Bb Eb Bb C F G
  • End: G B7 Em D C G/B Am Em D (G ... implied, not played)
  • Outro: G D Em Csus2 Csus2 D Dsus G

Navigating the Dulcimer 

A few years ago, having finally figured out what was making that gorgeous drone on some of my favourite recordings, I bought a dulcimer. Now, technically the instrument I own is called an Appalachian dulcimer. Despite the name, I was quite surprised to discover that the instrument's origins lie in the United States, though its antecedents can be traced back to Europe. Moreover, there's a vast tradition of American dulcimer music with which I'm entirely unfamiliar. Why? One, I'm not big on old-timey country and bluegrass, and two, the favourite recordings mentioned earlier all emanate from the UK. So, dear Americans, forgive me for believing the dulcimer was a British instrument used to play British folk music—and for continuing to write and perform broadly within that tradition. (And if you think that's blasphemy, I present one of your own: synth-pop dulcimer diva Cyndi Lauper. Who knew?)

The dulcimer is one of the easiest stringed instruments to play; it's also one of the hardest to find, unless you live in rural Appalachia. I live in a big city with big-city music stores that sell banjos, mandolins and ukuleles galore. But only one had a dulcimer, a Romanian knock-off that a bit of research told me was best avoided. I soon realized that to get what I really wanted (a pickup, 6 1/2 and 13 1/2 frets, and a well-made instrument), a field trip either to Tennessee or a local builder was in order. Fortunately, Hugh Hunter of Midnight Special Instruments was a two-hour bus ride away in the town of Rockwood, and I was all set. (I think he's since moved, and I'm not sure where. Still in Southern Ontario, I believe.)

Here are a few basics to start. Unlike most stringed instruments, the dulcimer is played in your lap. Also unusual: the lowest string is farthest from you. Strings are typically strummed or plucked with a pick, though some players are finger-pickers. In its standard construction—as many variants exist as folks who want customized instruments—the dulcimer has four strings: a bass string, middle string and two melody strings. There are many possible tunings, some of which are listed here. I use DAdd, low to high, primarily because as far as I can tell it's the tuning used in those haunting British folk songs that got me hooked in the first place.

The two melody strings are tuned in unison and are so close together you can't fret them separately anyway, unless you're the Django Reinhardt of the dulcimer. As a result, you need a considerable wingspan in terms of finger movement, because 95% of your melody is being played on that one pair of strings. Fortunately, my stubby bass-player fingers and their extended reach have helped in that regard. (Which is nice for a change; they're a liability on the mandolin and sometimes the guitar, too.)

The dulcimer's frets are arranged such that they create a diatonic scale. This means two things. First, it's nearly impossible to play a wrong note. You'll pretty much get a pleasing tone no matter where you put your fingers. Second, certain notes in the chromatic scale are simply unavailable. I'll use an example to illustrate:

  • First four frets on the D string of a guitar: D#, E, F, F#
  • First four frets on the D string of a dulcimer: E, F#, G, A

So, if you want to play (let's say) an F on a dulcimer, you need to re-tune. Simple as that. Using a capo won't give you more or different notes, but it does make things quite interesting in other ways. When I bought my dulcimer Hugh had no capos in stock, so I ordered one from a guy in Ohio named Ron Ewing.


As you can see, these handsome devices would never be mistaken for guitar capos. A dulcimer neck is far thicker than that of a guitar, so a guitar capo wouldn't fit at all.

Once you capo a dulcimer, all bets are off. Because the instrument is diatonic, putting a capo on it changes not only the key but the scale itself. When I first started out, I couldn't figure out how those UK folk-rockers were getting brooding minor keys out of their dulcimers, as mine seemed resolutely stuck in D major. Well, slap a capo on the first fret and presto: you're now in E minor or E-aeolian. If the song you're playing is in C minor (like "Witchwood" below), just keep your capo on and tune down two whole steps. As you might guess, capoing further up the fretboard produces new scales (and modes) every time. I haven't yet figured out what they are, but thankfully Steven K. Smith has.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point you in the direction of those haunting British folk songs, so here goes. Some feature electric dulcimer, which only adds to the fun:

And for your listening pleasure, here's the first song I wrote on dulcimer, "This Magnificent Dare." The dulcimer is double-tracked and tuned down two whole steps to Bb.

Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
All pages and contents © 2017-2018 Vern Nicholson.