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How to pick a specific pattern of frets for a mountain dulcimer

Which fret pattern to choose?

Back in the early years of the mountain dulcimer, people played mostly "noter/drone" style. They often used a noter (a little stick of wood) to fret the melody strings, and played the middle and bass strings always "open". Open means "not pushing down the string to a fret".

When this style of playing was predominant, the frets were often just (barely) wide enough to go underneath the melody strings. The frets did not cross the fretboard to extend underneath the middle and bass strings.

diatonic dulcimer fretboard partial frets
dulcimer fretboard diatonic pattern diagram
At some point, people started playing more complicated chords, and pressing down the middle and bass strings. So to accommodate this more contemporary "chord/melody" style, frets were extended the full width of the fretboard.

At this point, a lot of different string tunings were in wide use, predominantly CGG or DAA (first note indicating the bass string).

In the 1980s, it became popular to play DAD tuning. But... With the melody string tuned DAD, when playing the first eight notes of the instrument (starting on the open string), it wasn't a major scale. So an extra fret was placed between fret 6 and fret 7. We call that fret 6 1/2 (sometimes written as 6.5, 6*, or 6+). The 6 1/2 fret became more and more popular, and by the 1990s had become standard on nearly every instrument made.

dulcimer fretboard with 6 1/2 fret added
6.5 13.5 fret pattern diagram chart
Fast forward to the 2000s, now. As players became more varied in their repertoire, they wanted to play contemporary songs - popular pieces written after the 1940s. Jazz, blues, rock, country. Another note was needed on the instrument to easily accommodate this new repertoire.

So now we've added a fret between 1 and 2. We're calling it the 1 1/2 fret. It allows us to play (on the D strings) an F natural. 95 percent of the instruments made at Folkcraft have the 1 1/2 fret, and it is getting more popular with every passing year.

dulcimer fretboard with 1 1/2 fret added
1.5 6 1/2 extra dulcimer frets
Many of the "pro" players have the 1 1/2 fret (they pretty much all have the 6 1/2 at this point), and their classes online and at festivals very often incorporate the 1 1 /2 fret. A lot of the books and instructional materials being released also use the 1 1/2 fret. (To be very clear, some of the "pros" haven't embraced the 1 1/2 fret, and a few of them are still resisting the 6 1/2 fret.)

At Folkcraft Instruments, we strongly recommend getting your instrument with the "extra" frets - 1 1/2 and 6 1/2. It is the "standard" these days. If you're not sure about getting the "extra" frets, just do it. It isn't any harder to play the dulcimer, and you're giving yourself more capability for your future playing.

When we build an instrument with a 1 1/2 fret, we automatically include the same note, F, in the upper octaves, with 8 1/2 and 15 1/2 frets. We also include the upper octave fret for the 6 1/2 fret, which is the 13 1/2 fret. We often talk about the 1 1/2 and 6 1/2 frets, but the upper octave "matching" frets are automatically included on our instruments.

Another fret option is to go "fully chromatic". At that point, we're playing the same fret pattern as a guitar, banjo, or ukulele. With the history of the dulcimer starting with "no extra frets", then adding the 6 1/2, then adding the 1 1/2, there seems to be a steady march towards adding more and more frets.

After the 6 1/2 and 1 1/2 frets are added to a diatonic dulcimer, there are only three places more to add a fret (0 1/2, 3 1/2, and 4 1/2), then we're playing a chromatic instrument.

dulcimer fretboard fully chromatic fret pattern
chromatic mountain dulcimer fret pattern
There's no "right" or "wrong" answer. There are plenty of great players, both amateur and professional, that play purely diatonic instruments (without any extra frets at all), diatonic instrument plus an extra fret or two (6 1/2 and/or 1 1/2), or that play chromatic (all possible extra frets added) dulcimers.