Instrumental Demonstrations: Sounds and Rhythms

dulcimer , hands, hammer

Associated Videos
All videos reproduced in a smaller format in the "Instrumental Demonstrations" Playlist of my You Tube Channel

dulcimer demo video link "Rhythm Styles for Ballads"

dulcimer demo video linkJam session: "Syncopated Rhythms"

dulcimer demo video link"Blues Rhythms"spacerdulcimer demo video link"Folk and Rock Rhythms"

dulcimer demo video link"A Gypsy Tune"spacerdulcimer demo video linkReggae Jam

dulcimer demo video link"Darksound"spacerdulcimer demo video link"Sailor's Daughter" and "So Fine"

dulcimer demo video link"Beautiful To Me", 4-6-10spacerdulcimer demo video link"Beautiful To Me", 4-8-10

dulcimer demo video link"Playing Through White Felt"spacerdulcimer demo video linkBlack Felt: "Beautiful To Me"

dulcimer demo video linkBlack Felt: Em-D Jamspacerdulcimer demo video link"Full Metal Dulcimer"

I got a comment on my you tube channel asking to hear better demonstrations of what the dulcimer sounds like, though that is mostly what I removed to make the shorter version of the "introducing the electric hammered dulcimer" promo video. So I made some serious extra efforts. Several times, after a regular full day, after dinner, I started again and tuned the dulcimer, set up the studio, and videoed sessions just demonstrating the sound of the dulcimer. I ended up with this series of instrumental and rhythm demonstration videos.

It was difficult. I was tired, recording from midnight till 4 am. In fact the first session, I was wondering why I seemed to be playing so slowly, then realise I am just exhausted and barely awake. The result was only two usable clips. One I kept simply because I had included an air-mike in that session, which added some acoustic sound to the mix, the slap of the hammers and clash of strings that doesn't come through the wound pick-ups. I waited a few days and slept late before the next session, and then have a better one, even though you can hear the sound of the rain dripping on the windowsills in the background. Though I am up till 4 am again, this time I am more ready. I do two more sessions. The I mix it all down into the new series of fourteen instrumental and rhythm electric hammered dulcimer demonstrations.

I put together this series for several reasons. People have asked to hear what the dulcimer sounds like, by itself, without the voices and other instruments of a typical mix. That was reason enough to put this together. Though I am a singer, not an instrumentalist, so I don't really have ready instrumentals to play, but I could do something to just demonstrate some of the possibilities and potentials in the instrument. So these aren't performances, but demonstrations. Another had another reason to produce the rhytm demonstrations. One of my main intentions in "doing more with the music" is to pass on what I have done to and with the instrument to other artists, leave a record of what I have figured out that others can use. I've done two things in these demonstrations. I have tried to give an idea of the sonic palette the dulcimer represents, the potentials there to be used. Like any musician, or any artist, I will only use that part of the potential in an instrument that fits what I am doing, the music I create, not all there is. As a percussion instrument, the sound of the dulcimer, its potential, is not just the sound one string makes, but the rolls of he hammers and the wall of sound it can build, the fabric it weaves. It is also what I have personally done and want to leave of a record of, a style of rhythm dulcimer playing that I apply to all types and genres of music, just like rhythm guitar. I may never get much recognition or be heard by many people, but these videos provide a standing record someone might find, be inspired by, and learn from, somewhere, someday.

There are three general sets of videos.

In one set, the rhythm demos, each video contains a series of clips, long enough to provide a clear example of how I play, but just an example, and each example might show a dozen sounds and riffs the dulcimer is capable of. I had to separate what I do into understandable chunks, so each video is defined a general style of rhythm or music. One way to describe the same distinction if I was playing rhythm guitar, the ballads I would play finger-style, maybe some slow chords, while folk-rock I'm strumming the guitar, usually with a lot of drive. "Full Metal Dulcimer" uses heavy effects, and either slow bell-tones or a wall of sound. It is actually amazing how much it sounds like thrashing power chord guitars sometimes. While the Blues demo shows various rhythm styles for the blues, the syncopated rhythms demo shows a lot of different genres of music, but they all use syncopation, from a samba to Reggae, Mo-Town to Blues and folk ballads. These videos are for a wider if simpler overview of a lot of examples.

The other set is closer to performances, each video a single composition, though they still lack the vocals or other instruments. They are usually one song or chord progression, which shows some detail of the variations I use in my style within a song, even as I repeat the phrases. One shows the actual rhythm I am playing behind a couple songs, "Sailor's Daughter" and "So Fine", that you can watch videos of live performances of. In "A Gypsy Tune" and "She'll Always Be Beautiful To Me", I am close to performing, attempting to jam instrumental versions of pieces I usually sing with, make instrumental pieces out of them.

hands and hammers

The third set acoustic "special effect" I use, playing through a sheet of felt laid over the dulcimer to damp the natural sustain and resonance and change the tone, like dampers on a piano. In the first one I'm using a piece a white felt, clearly visible. I am not playing anything specific, but just introducing the sound. I use it again in the full metal dulcimer, to show the combination of acoustic damping and electronic effects. Then I have two showing the full effect, using a heavier black felt, which also adds a visual effect, as the dulcimer virtually disappears, especially in video, leaving just my hands and hammers playing in and on the darkness. I do two very different styles, first another rendition of "She'll Always Be Beautiful to Me" so there's the ballad style and a direct comparison. The second example is a driving em-D jam. I can play through many materials, and each creates a different sound effect. In the final video, "Full Metal Dulcimer", I show a series of examples using electronic effects. Effects are cummulative, and I show both sides by using both bell-tones, a standard single tone progression rhythm, and then the sound of a driving rhythm with many beats and notes cascading through the effects box. Sometimes it sounds like a thrashing guitar or two, other times it is, well, the sound of the electric hammered dulcimer. There are a huge array of electronic effects and combinations of those, and they can be used subtly as well as overwhelmingly. The purpose of both the felt-acoustic and electronic effects videos is just showing the ice-berg tip of the use of effects on the natural sound of the dulcimer.

Though it is difficult to hear the real sound since there is nothing, percussion, instrument, or voice to hold down the back beat, or carry the melody, help what I am doing on the dulcimer come together as a song. When I first started, I found that without something in my head to play to, the dulcimer sounded way too random. So I played to the music in my head, and well, you'll have to supply your own. But the purpose here is to isolate the sound of dulcimer itself, a demonstration, not a performance. And also, it is a demonstration of rhythm styles, not the dulcimer playing a solo instrumental performance composition. And finally, this series is hardly complete. There are other styles and genres I didn't cover, though I may get to them yet, fast bluegrass and other 2/4 times. There's a style I derived from oriental styles, using 5th harmonies and bending notes. I didn't use any examples of using harmonics. There are so many more rhythms. I could even play a couple traditional hammer dulcimer standards, though I barely remember them and only use them to demonstrate traditional styles before moving on, yet they might help people compare the sound of the electric hammered dulcimer to a standard one.

Spring Flowers

And what is “natural sound” when it is still a matter of how you record it as well. In this series I included three renditions of "She'll Always Be Beautiful To Me" because this is about comparing sounds, not songs. It also shows some of the variation I use even in playing the same song. As for specific variations, in the first session, 4-6-10, I plugged the large diaphram vocal mic into the camera along with the normal mic, so you get some of the acoustic sound. This is very obvious in the white felt demonstration recorded in that session, where you hear the thump of the hammers hitting the felt clearly. I could also do a series simply comparing the sound of the dulcimer played in acoustic mode, first using a natural resonator like a table top, then the arched back I made for it once (though seldom used, a table being easier and with a much greater surface area, better), then using a instrument mike and an amp, then a large diaphragm mike, and finally the pick-ups. Since while I built the dulcimer as an electric solid-body,the most surprising thing was its excellent sound as an acoustic instrument.

I'd also like to add that I did these in a rush, three sessions, forcing myself on late at night, working till 4 am after a day doing other things. This is not often the best idea, not for performance grade material. I am also trying to be slow and deliberate, trying to make each note stand out clearly and distinctly for the clear demonstration, when in a performance the music should flow, and the result is often an unatural stiffness, small hesitations. I was also, or became, dead tired, and physically stiff. I remember one session wondering why I seemed to be playing so slow, couldn't get the bounce into it, then realizing it was 4 am and I was dead on my feet. I actually did our sessions, not three, but I was so tired I turned off the wrong microphone switch and the next morning found I had a session with no sound. Too bad, because it was a good session. Initially, I just made it up as I went, but then the playing seemed unsure, unconfident and a bit weak. So I began using a song in my head, or a definite progression, so I wasn't continually wondering what to do. I can improvise easily, but I need some stucture to follow, at least a key, a chord progression, a melody to follow. This produced much better results.

So this series is in no way a complete demonstration of what the electric hammered dulcimer is capable of, or even what I am capable of doing with it. Even this short and very incomplete demonstration adds up to a lot of minutes, as video time is measured. Every relatively short minute of example really is just one variation of many I use with a single song, and one song among many with a similar rhythmic style, one specific beat and rhythmic composition among many within a general rhythmic style. Imagine trying to demonstrate all the potential sounds and styles of even rhythm guitar in so short a time. Realistically, I am only brushing the surface. I am simply giving people a clear demonstration of the sound of the dulcimer itself within those limits. And give others who might be interested in using the instrument a small but clear view of the part of the audio palette it contains, a taste of the potential in the instrument. I think I succeeded in that. Like a guitar, you start to recognise some distinctive sounds that belong to the dulcimer, its unique attributes, surfacing within all the examples, while seeing that I am just getting started showing you what I can do with it. I have only begun to explore it potential myself, even after over thirty years. Though I pioneered a new world and have covered a lot of ground, I know there is a whole universe beyond the boundries of what I have managed to do in my time.

brian the folksinger

But I hope these demonstrations will convey a bit of the sound I have created, the instrument and the style of playing. As I often tell people, one purpose I have in "doing more" with the music is to try and pass the instrument on to others, but not in the traditional view, but in my modern view, both in design and style. I have played for a living all my life, but I never was able to record much, and in real terms, haven't played for that many people all told. As I said, perhaps someday someone will find these videos and learn from them, be inspired to explore the same potential I first saw so many years ago when I encountered my first traditional hammered dulcimer, relegated to a small corner of traditional music and American musical culture. I have done a lot with it, though I doubt building and playing and electric hammered dulcimer will have the world-changing consequences of the electric guitar. Still, my point is, I am a single artist and, in truth, contained within my self, and can and will do only what I am. I want to pass on the instrument to others who will take it places I will never go, because I am who I am, and the instrument has more potential than I can ever hope or wish to realise. Like any artist and their instrument, or medium, I only realise my small bit of the potential in the instrument, or medium. Being an American musician is great because I have the influences of the world and no tradition to follow unless I choose. I actual broke with what tradition there was for my instrument in America, and was rejected by them, understandably. Still, being influenced by music from Africa, Europe, The Middle East, or Asia, is not the same as being from there. Someone with a different background and culture, and also a different experience and personality, would realise a different potential in the instrument. To put it simply, I may play a wicked samba, but I will never play the dulcimer the way someone who grew up in Rio would.

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