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The baritone Mountain Dulcimer is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, these days nearly every dulcimer builder or "dulcimer factory" offers a version of the baritone. With the large variety of sizes, shapes and opinions on what makes the best dulcimer it is inevitable that much confusion has resulted regarding this popular folk instrument.
Since the term baritone is normally associated with the human voice, let’s use that analogy to describe and better understand the baritone dulcimer. The term baritone is historically used to describe the normal pitch of the human male voice, while tenor and bass are used to describe the extreme upper and lower ranges. It is interesting to think that a traditional mountain dulcimer is often portrayed as having a feminine voice – so you might think of the baritone dulcimer as being the male voice of this venerable line of instruments.
In its simplest form, a baritone dulcimer is just a dulcimer that is tuned down to AEA. But to give full voice and resonance to the lower frequencies produced by the AEA tuning, most baritone dulcimers are also made with larger, deeper bodies. Also, in order to tune down to AEA, the baritone dulcimer needs larger gauge strings. So a working definition of a baritone dulcimer might be “A baritone dulcimer is an Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer with a larger body and heavier gauge strings that is typically tuned to AEA.” I use the word typically because there is no reason that you can not tune the dulcimer to AEE, GDG or other lower tunings and still call it a baritone. The main point is that a baritone dulcimer is tuned lower than a “normal” dulcimer.
A baritone dulcimer tuned to AEA is played in exactly the same way as a dulcimer tuned to DAD. The only difference is that if the song was in the key of “D” on the dulcimer in standard tuning it will be in the key of “A” on the baritone dulcimer. However, the fingering and chord patterns remain the same. A baritone tuned AEE would be played exactly the same as one tuned DAA – but again the baritone would be in the key of “A”. The same logic holds true if tuned GDG or other tunings. There is also no reason you cannot play alongside dulcimers tuned to D or any other tuning. But you have to be aware that when they play a D chord on their dulcimer you would have to play a chord shape normally associated with the chord G on a standard dulcimer. The reason for this goes further into music theory than this brief expose' is intended - but in a nutshell, when they play in D you would use the chord shapes that you normally use for G on a standard dulcimer. But, you would also be playing in D.
While the baritone dulcimer is played pretty much like a standard dulcimer it is physically more challenging. The typical standard dulcimer uses string gauges 12, 12, 14, 24W and baritones use strings in the range of 14, 14, 24W and 32W. So if you think of the way the dulcimer strings get heavier as the tone gets lower and imagine adding an extra string lower than the bass - you basically have a baritone. So for this reason, I normally don't suggest a beginner with no experience playing a stringed instrument starts with a baritone. While for some it won't make a difference, others may find the heavier strings too big an obstacle and give up too soon. Tthe differnce in ease of playing is not equal to going from a standard guitar to a bass guitar, but it is similar.
The other consideration is if you intend to play with other folks you will need to understand keys, chords and how to transpose them. This is not difficult and could quickly be learned with a little reading on the Internet. Begin with looking up "Circle of Fifths" and "Chord Theory." Also, begin to think of chord shapes (meaning the pattern your fingers make to form a certain chord) as shapes and not that chord. Most beginning guitar players soon learn that if you make the shape of an E chord at the first fret it is an E, but if you move it up to the 5th fret the same shape is an A chord. The same concept holds true with the dulcimer.
The short answer is variety and sound. Even those of us who love the sound of a traditional dulcimer can get a little bored at times with the dulcimer’s limitations. The baritone dulcimer opens up a whole new world of tonal possibilities and ideas. When combining the larger body, heavier stings and lower tuning – the sound is much larger. If the sound of the traditional dulcimer were described as a fair maiden dancing in a sunny field on a dewy morning, the baritone dulcimer would be described as a rusty freight train barreling down the tracks – with Casey Jones at the controls. It can be loud and intimidating and will certainly be heard above the crowd. But at the same time it can also be low and soothing – a perfect contrast to the higher pitched traditional dulcimer. So if you’re running out of ideas or inspiration in your dulcimer playing or feel that you are at a dead end and stuck playing the same old songs over and over, you may want to consider adding a baritone dulcimer to your collection. It could open up a whole new world of tonal possibilities.
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