I had to go back in time, way back to 1961, to remember how and when I first learned the slap technique. I was a senior at Flushing High School in Queens, NYC, NY. The Beats were the non-conformists back then and we would take the subway in lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village to try to spot Beatniks in their black clothing, weird jewelry and eye makeup.
My friend from high school, Susan Caust, in her first year at Bard College, built the first two dulcimers I ever saw. Joan Baez was our hero then, so when we weren’t playing clarinet or flute in the Flushing High School marching band, or playing the William Tell Overture on the accordion, we were practicing folk songs and protest songs on the guitar. We didn’t learn these songs from our grandparents, uncles, or aunts. We learned them from the radio, TV, traveling performers, and books. I learned the slap technique, or strum, from one of those early folk guitar instruction books put out by Oak Publications
The slap strum was cool. It was rock’n roll. It was the blues. It was snappy, fun, and percussive. You simply muted the strings, after you strummed them, with the fleshy side of your hand. (Read on further for step by step instructions on how to do it.)
When I started building dulcimers in 1967 in Big Sur, California, the only dulcimer player I had ever heard was Richard Farina at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Like many novice dulcimer players who don’t have a teacher, I just put every kind of music I knew onto the dulcimer: My memories of Farina’s concert, nursery rhymes, classical music, folk, rock’n roll, blues, etc.
When I met Joni Mitchell at the Big Sur Folk Festival of 1968 and sold her the Wild Columbine Dulcimer, I showed her the slap technique and she just loved it. She took The Wild Columbine Dulcimer with her to Europe that summer, and wrote four dulcimer songs over there, three of which use the slap.
The cool story behind that meeting is that I decided to make a dulcimer for the festival and told all my friends that either Joni Mitchell or the Incredible String Band was going to buy it. (I was 21. I had a good imagination: and I was a bit cocky!) I went into the woods looking for inspiration for the sound holes and found these beautiful large wild columbine flowers. I had never seen such a magnificent, intricate flower in my life.
Joni and I did meet and she did buy the dulcimer. Now the slap is a world famous dulcimer technique, taken out of a ‘60s folk guitar instruction book and now featured in the Dulcimer Players News 2011.
You can add the slap to almost any song and it gives it bounce, it punches up the rhythm and creates a groove.
The slap can create many different moods. It can make the dulcimer sound like a Ukelele, as in the song “Fall In Love”. It can do the shuffle and give a different spin to a traditional folk song like “Uncle Joe” or “Oh, Susanna” and it can create a mood of longing and sorrow as in Joni’s song “A Case of You”. Its expression possibilities are limitless. YOU create the groove where and how you punch out the accents.
The following instruction should get you doing the slap in no time. However, doing the slap well takes practice, a lot of practice. The following is reprinted from my re-issued dulcimer instruction book LAPIDUS ON DULCIMER 2, pp. 77-78.
The slap is a variation on a simple 4 beat strum where your right hand goes back and forth over the strings. I describe this 4 beat strum with 4 arrows. The up arrow is a strum away from your body and the down arrow is a strum toward your body. There is an accent on the 1st beat.
The slap is exactly like this strum EXCEPT on the 3rd beat, which is an up stroke, you add a slap or mute, which gives a real punch to the rhythm. I indicate a slap or mute with a T.
HOW TO MAKE THE SLAP OR MUTE
Strum an up stroke ↑ and then immediately lower the fleshy part of your strumming hand down on the strings. This will mute or cut off the sound. Try it again. Play an up stroke and stop the sound with the fleshy side of your hand.
At first you may hear two sounds–the up stroke and then the muting of the strings or the slap. Play the up stroke followed by the mute or slap until the two hand movements are smooth enough so that you only hear one sound. That is the hard part! It may take you a month before it feels smooth and natural. Keep at it, its worth it!
Again, the symbol for the mute is: T
Play a series of these muted up strokes:
T T T T T T T T
Now add the slap to the 4 beat strum. I notate the slap strum like this: ↑ ↓ T ↓
Count: 1234, 1234, 1234, 1234.
The slap occurs on the3rd beat, and is immediately followed by the 4th beat, which is a down stroke.
Add the slap to the traditional folk song Tom Dooley (facing page). Tune to the Ionian tuning, DAA.
ADDING THE SLAP TO THE HOE-DOWN STRUM ↑-↑↓ becomes ↑-T↓
Add the slap strum to your regular hoe-down, bum diddy, or front- front/back strum or whatever you call it.
The above three examples show you the tunings, basic chord shape patterns and slap strums that Joni Mitchell uses in three of her dulcimer songs from the Blue Album: Carey, A Case of You, and California.