Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bluegrass Music - the Instruments

A traditional five-piece bluegrass band consisted of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass. A dobro guitar might be added to bring the band to six instruments. Flatt and Scruggs added a dobro guitar and dropped the mandolin. This post will attempt to explain the history and use of these instruments in bluegrass music.

The flat-top acoustic guitar appeared in the 1920s as a backup instrument providing the rhythm behind the lead instruments or an accompaniment for country singers. There are many records available of these early country musicians in which the simple boom-chicka boom-chicka rhythm and strong bass runs can be clearly heard. The style is simple and direct, but perfectly suited to the straight-forward music it accompanies. The Carter Family’s Maybelle Carter was an early example of guitar playing lead or melody. For the most part, the bluegrass guitarists were the indispensable mainstay of the bluegrass band, punching out the rhythm and interspersing bass runs with a few licks, to back up the other lead instruments, especially fiddle, mandolin, and banjo.

Banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs did play lead guitar on several occasions, adapting his three-finger banjo style to the guitar. However, it was not until the sixties that the guitar really came into its own as a lead instrument worthy of a solo in a bluegrass instrumental or song. The most dynamic guitarist to emerge from the country music scene was not a bluegrass musician at all, but a mountain singer and flat-picker from North Carolina named Doc Watson. His influence was immediate, and the youngsters all over America started learning to play lead acoustic guitar with a flatpick.

The Banjo is of African origin and became a popular instrument in Appalachia. It'sAfrican-derived rhythms were incorporated into popular songs by Stephen Foster and other songwriters. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Afro-Americans in the United States, adapted from African instruments of similar design. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of old-time and bluegrass music.

The five-string resonator banjo, played in several common styles, is used almost exclusively in bluegrass music. These include Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs; melodic, or Keith style, named for Bill Keith; and three-finger style with single-string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno. For the most part, Scruggs style banjo is played in bluegrass music. Earl Scrugg's Foggy Mountain Breakdown is considered the National Anthem of Bluegrass Music. This 1949 original recording below was used as the theme song in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. In old-time music, the banjo is played in what is called “clawhammer style.” This is a rhythmic style with the right hand striking or brushing down on the strings.

The mandolin has been a core instrument in bluegrass music from the beginning, along with guitar, fiddle, banjo, upright bass, and sometimes dobro. There are two styles of bluegrass mandolin. Both have flat or nearly flat backs and arched tops. The so-called a-style mandolin has a teardrop-shaped body; the f-style mandolin, played by Bill Monroe and many others, is more stylized, with a spiraled wooden cone on the upper side and a couple of points on the lower side. There are also two types of sound holes, the classic round or oval hole, and the more modern pair of f-holes similar to those found on a violin. Both the shape of the instrument and the shape of the holes affect the tone of the instrument; the f-style, f-hole mandolins have the brightest, most penetrating sound, while the a-style, round holed mandolins generally have a fuller, sweeter tone.

In the performance of bluegrass music, each instrument has a specific part to play. The mandolin fills three roles at different times during a tune. It's used to play a backup rhythm, mostly on the 'off beat' & in playing a break or solo during a song/instrumental or a 'dedicated' mandolin instrumental, where the other bluegrass instruments will take their own solo (break). Bluegrass music is characterized by songs with simple, straightforward verses and choruses, interspersed with showy instrumental improvisations called "breaks", provided by the melody instruments, including the mandolin. A good mandolin break may stick fairly closely to the melody of the tune, or it may be almost all improvisation around the chord progression.

Any Bill Monroe video will give a good example of Bluegrass mandolin but the next video does double duty. The bluegrass band California, playing Goldrush with Bill Monroe, is a great example of bluegrass fiddle playing and at 1:28 Bill comes in with the mandolin.

The Bluegrass Fiddle is an integral part of almost all bluegrass bands. The difference between a fiddle and a violin is the type of music that is played on it. Generally, fiddles play folk/traditional genres and violins play composition-based genres. The original Appalachia fiddle tunes were old-time instrumentals designed for dancing. "Old-time fiddle tunes" derived from European folk dance tunes such as Jig, Reel, Breakdown, Schottische, Waltz, Two Step, and Polka. The fiddle may be accompanied by banjo or other instruments but are nevertheless called "fiddle tunes". It is separate and distinct from traditions which it has influenced, or have evolved from it, such as bluegrass, country blues, western swing and country rock.

In contrast to the happy, danceable sounds of an old-time string band, bluegrass music is often sad music based on themes of hard times. Bluegrass music is mainly a vocal style, where the instruments support the voices and no single instrument dominates. Bluegrass fiddling is a distinctive style of fiddle playing characterized by bold, bluesy improvisation, off-beat "chopping", and sophisticated use of both double-stops and old-time bowing patterns. (I don’t have a clue what any of that means). Bluegrass fiddle style was developed by Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe beginning in 1957. Bluegrass fiddlers combine from many genres and tend to be highly skilled with strong roots in fiddle rather than violin traditions. As such, they can be seen to disregard the rules that violinists follow; they hold the fiddle the "wrong" way and don't necessarily use the chin or shoulder rests.

The dobro guitar is the generic name for any wood-bodied single cone resonator guitar while Dobro is the registered trademark of the Gibson product line. A resonator guitar is an acoustic guitar that produces sound by conducting string vibrations through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones (resonators). The Dobro Manufacturing Company was founded by the Dopyera brothers in 1929. The dobro was developed in the 1920s by Slovak immigrant and instrument repairman/inventor John Dopyera. Dobro is both a contraction of "Dopyera brothers" and 'good' in their native Slovak.

The dobro was first introduced to country music by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys in 1938 when dobro player Beecher (Pete) Kirby joined the group. The dobro guitar was introduced into bluegrass music by Josh Graves who joined Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys in 1955. Graves got together with Earl Scruggs to develop a new style of dobro-picking based on Earl's three-finger banjo style. and it soon became a defining feature of the bluegrass sound.

The four-string upright bass, sometimes referred to as a double bass or doghouse bass, is the most commonly used bass instrument in traditional bluegrass music and is almost always plucked. The bluegrass bassist is part of the rhythm section, and is responsible for keeping a steady beat, whether fast, slow. Most bluegrass bassists use the full-size or three-quarter size bass. Modern bluegrass ensembles have taken to using an electric bass as it is easier to transport but lacks the rich sound of the upright bass. The base player is sort of the odd person out, almost always placed at the back and rarely plays a break or gets close enough to the mic for harmony.

For those who like bluegrass music without the singing here is a 2-hour compilation for your listening enjoyment. InstrumentalBluegrass  https://youtu.be/qw0CE-qaexc

Again, a great deal of information came from Wikipedia, supplemented with the following websites:


  1. Great post! I enjoyed it very much. And thanks to the link to the instrumental bluegrass playlist!

    1. Thank you so much. Glad you appreciate my research. I learned a great deal. And listened to dozens of videos to find one to use. I found the instrumental one just for you, you know.

  2. Wow, I loved this! The instruments are fascinating, but the talent is amazing! That dobro guitar player... wow! Thanks for this. :-)

  3. Diane, the dobro version of Orange Blossom Special blew me away. I was lucky to find it. There is some amazing talent out there. Next post will feature some of the younger talent (and maybe some older folks too) that are not as well known but certainly very good.

  4. I did not know that the banjo was an african instrument

  5. Jackiesue, I didn't either but knew it was played by blacks - O Susanna for example


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