Book Review – Complete Guide to Theory and Mapping for the Hammered Dulcimer – Ken Kolodner and Mary Lynn Michal.

I am afraid this is not going to be a short review, it is a big subject, and a big book. The title sounds very grand, but does it live up to its promise and give a complete guide?  The short answer is yes, I believe it does, and for the long answer here is why.

I have the 4th edition of this book which was called “Chord Theory and Mapping for the Hammered Dulcimer” which was 61 pages of theory but the new book weighs in at 99 pages, so I knew I was in for a major update.  The original book  came out of the Sandbridge Dulcimer Retreats on the Atlantic coast of Virginia, which is in its 17th year, run by Ken and his team, Mary Lynn Michal and Laurie McCarrier.  Originally it started off as notes on the theory concepts explained during the week, and grew from a few sheets of paper to where it is today.

Now, I am not going to try and pretend I understand all this stuff, to be honest, it is a “work in progress”.  But that is where this book wins, it starts at the very beginning.  It shows you all the things you wish you has known when you first started playing, how the instrument is laid out, how it is based on the circle of fifths, how you have duplicate notes and how useful they are.  Its show you some exercises that you know you should do, but don’t, and tells you why you should do them.

It moves on to explain harmonic intervals, and then moves you into triads and arpeggio patterns.  This is all building on the previous things you have read about.  This is the beauty of the book.

You then move into inversion patterns, three note chord patterns, yes it is not about note names, it is all about patterns and how me move them around the dulcimer.  The patterns have names and if you attend Sandbridge or have lessons with Ken or Mary Lynn you will hear these names all the time as they graphically describe the pattern and where you are in the chord progression.  You don’t need to know all the notes, just the chord name, where to start and what the pattern is.

I am sorry if you are flagging at this point, but the book does warn you it is not a good beach read, you need to work though it one page at a time, sat by your dulcimer with hammers in hand.

Then the big one for me, harmonizing a scale.   This is where Laurie McCarrier really comes into her own with her graphics, they are just wonderful.  She lays the pages out superbly and shows each 3 note chord and the issues you will find with great clarity.  This is all about what 3 note chords works with the melody note of the tune.  It then moves on to show you the most likely chord to fit the melody.  I tried to get a grip on this with the previous version of the book and gave up, but with the new graphics and detailed explanation they have, in my view, hit the spot.

We are about half way through the book at this point, and probably as far as most beginners should venture for now.

We then go into some serious chord theory.  We plunge headlong into 7th chords.  Major, minor, dominants, diminished, secondary dominants, and importing a secondary dominants.  We look at full range chords on the dulcimer and inverting 7th chords.  There is a great section on sources of confusion for 7th chords.  To be honest this is a bit mind blowing and took me a while to work through, but that is my head, not the book.

We then go through Secondary Dominants,  then on to what is described as the Chord Palette.  This is slash chords, suspensions, augmented  triads, relative major/minors and parallel major/minors.  This was all new to me but I found it was explained clearly.  Then chord progressions and  getting a descending bassline using all sorts of chord tricks you have just learnt.

Despite all this chord theory being a blind spot for many of us and a fairly dry topic, it is tackled very well with, again, brilliant graphics.  I went through this, a few pages a day and in the end I started to “get it”.  I am sure I will need to keep working on it, each time I review it I find something new, or another light bulb flicks on.  It is a great reference book as it is clearly laid out topic by topic, the sort of book you can dip in and out of.   I would certainly want to refer to it when working on a new tune and working on chord selection and progression in the future.

We are almost done when we get to Modes and probably the best explanation I have seen of how this black magic works.   We finally finish off with the compact backup pattern and universal backup showing us a few tricks on how we can play an accompaniment, simply and effectively.

If you want a book of tunes, you will be disappointed, there are no tunes.  If you want a book showing you all the theory you need to know to support you playing this instrument to an advanced standard, then you will not be disappointed.

If, like me, you have tried other theory courses and given up part way through because it becomes unintelligible then I recommend giving this book a chance.  There is not much “white space”,  it is filled with clear concise text and very good supporting graphics.   However it is well laid out and does not feel overwhelming.  The real plus point for me it is all related to the dulcimer and not the piano or guitar, like every other book I have looked at.

Would I recommend this for a beginner, just starting out?   Yes, like when your Dad bought you that school blazer one size too big, you will grow into it.  We start from basics and work up with no assumed knowledge.  There is so much in the first half of the book I wish I had been shown when I first started playing this instrument.

If you want to buy this book, you have two choices.  You can buy the hardcopy and pay for postage from the USA or buy the PDF version that has two files, a single page version and a book layout version that works well tablets (iPad and the like) and pay for a download.   “You pays you money, you take your choice”.  I went for the PDF version, you can always print the pages you need to work on, but can import it into apps like “ForScore” and browse at your leisure. 

To purchase your preferred option go to his website  and navigate to the “shop”.  The PDF version is $30.  I have not ordered a hardcopy but it looks like its $35 plus shipping plus VAT.

Now, it does it live up to its promise?  As I said at the beginning I believe it does.   However there is much more to playing this instrument than contained in this book, but that’s technique.   Ken and Mary Lynn cover that at their Sandbridge Dulcimer Retreats in Virginia, with individual  “Zoom” lessons, or online with their video lessons. Here you can put all this theory into practice. And that, as they say, is another story…or maybe another review.

Peter Bromwich

October 2020


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