Michael Futreal, musician and multimedia artist

Chromatic Dulcimer

In contrast to "traditional" mountain dulcimers, which have diatonic fretboards, it's also possible to build chromatic dulcimers. I often jokingly call mine Martian Dulcimers, as the chromatic fretboard is sometimes seen as an space invader in the mountain dulcimer world — and also because I first used them on the Twang Darkly album Martian Archaeology. I've built both acoustic and electric chromatic dulcimers; they are used extensively on my various recordings.

Sometimes, folks in the dulcimer community assume that the chromatic dulcimer is best suited for what is termed "chordal playing" — as contrasted with the presumed appropriate "traditional" use of the mountain dulcimer focused on the modes of the major scale (for example, Appalachian/English folk music idioms tend towards Mixolydian, Ionian, Aeolian, and Dorian modes). In my own practice, however, I use the chromatic dulcimer across a full spectrum of modal approaches. This spectrum does include music based upon the modes of the major scale, but it also encompasses the so-called "altered" or "synthetic" modes as well as the delightfully adventurous realm of polymodal chromaticism.

photo of my electric chromatic
electric chromatic dulcimer, aspen wood

That is, you can totally use a chromatic dulcimer to channel your mountain-folk-world modal mojo! In fact, the full fretboard provides access to a wider variety of modal concepts than the the seven "Western modes," an extended palette which I leverage with my trio Twang Darkly.

photo of my acoustic gourd chromatic dulcimer
acoustic gourd chromatic

See Also

My electric gourd is essentially a chromatic dulcimer set up to be played with a slide; check out the other instruments I use as well.