The Bluegrass Way: A Little History

Origins of the tradition enriched music we all know as bluegrass was carried over in the early 1600’s by several immigrants from Ireland. Bluegrass music is a stellar combination of dance music and ballads that has spawned from various countries such as Scotland, England and even African-American blues and gospel. One thing that most probably don’t know is that African slaves were the ones who had designed the banjo, which as we all know is an integral part of the bluegrass sound. Let’s get the guitar picks strumming and discover more about this American musical phenomenon.

It was as far back as the Jamestown settlers who passed on the word of bluegrass throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and also the Virginias. The songs were compositions about the day-to-day existence they had experienced within the new land. Because the vast majority of those people had made their lives in the rural areas, the music was then inspired by the hills and the farms and what they had called that particular type of music was country music and mountain music. With the onset of the phonograph and the radio in the early stages of the 1900’s, this vintage music was taken out of the Southern Mountains and dropped directly into the U.S.

 Country Music Gets a New Touch

A crucial element of bluegrass came later on with great singing, which had been vital to country music. It was the inspiring voices of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and even duet teams like the Monroe Brothers who have contributed a great deal to the cause of enhancing the traditional style of country music.

The Monroe Brothers became one of the most well-known bluegrass figures throughout the 20’s and 30’s and when they disbanded, they both took on different projects which had eventually become notable. It was Bill’s band that pushed the envelope of standard country music and creatively incorporated a predominantly busy style of bluegrass which utilized acoustic instruments and showcased vocal harmonies that were nothing short of a distinction. Monroe had taken all of the best elements of the original bluegrass music and the old string bands of yesteryear. Monroe had tried out various blendings of different styles but he eventually settled on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and the bass to create the perfect concept sound of bluegrass.

Resonator guitarThe Dobro Becomes a Go-To

The bluegrass that we all love today goes as far back as 1939 or so when Monroe put his musical team together but many experts think that the signature bluegrass sound originated in 1945. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt had been apart of Monroe’s band and when they had departed, they decided to create their own band whom they labeled “The Foggy Mountain Boys.” They developed their own take on bluegrass by using the Dobro and the resophonic guitar. The dobro, slowly but surely had made it’s way into the bluegrass sound and it is still very much brought into the mix when applicable.

Later on, in the late 40’s on up, it had been Scruggs and Flatt who became a driving force that brought the down-home bluegrass feel to American television audiences. They also began to fill major venus and that was one of the major key elements that gave bluegrass a little mainstream touch. Earl Scruggs was the brainchild behind a bluegrass instrumental that soared to amazing heights in popularity. The song was titled, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, which was then used in the 1969 Warren Beatty blockbuster “Bonnie and Clyde”. Later that year Scruggs got his three sons and their guitar picks together and formed the band “Earl Scruggs Review”, who found immense popularity almost immediately. 1969 also found Lester Flatt forming his very own band also called “The Nashville Grass”, who found acclaim too, all the way until his death in 1979.

 A New Identity

The recording industry had amped itself up with various technologies, plus indoor and outdoor venues started filling up with bluegrass fans all over the nation. These were the components that really took bluegrass into the mainstream. Bluegrass has now become a pastime that the entire world now enjoys. That classic style birthed in 1945 has become the one that we have fallen in love with and the one that we hold up in high esteem. When these forefathers took their guitar picks and began to jam that incorporated all of these different styles, they made such a valued new face of music that gave generations of people a new identity. Bluegrass has inspired so many different styles of music including Rock n Roll and for that, all of us are forever grateful.


Guitars, Guitar Capos, and Bluegrass Music

Acoustic GuitarBluegrass music is a fairly old American genre of music which originated in the Appalachian region of the country. There is where most European settlers settled and developed Scottish, Welsh, and Irish communities. The fusion of musical history fused together from these backgrounds. The result was the creation of bluegrass music.

This genre is said to be one of the most diverse genre. Drawing from various cultural backgrounds and unconventional combinations of musical instruments, it has become the representation of the diverse nature of the country. In the 18th century, as Irish settlers settled, they introduced their traditional music to the native settlers from other cultures such as the Scottish, English, and Welsh cultures. The music inspired by those cultures also reflected much of these different cultures’ music in terms of melodies and lyrics.

The lyrics generally involved ballads of real life experiences as the settlers attempted to understand the new world while reminiscing about the home country life. Some themes that dominated bluegrass lyrics reflected the modest and quite often difficult lifestyles in the Appalachian Mountains by the immigrants. This often included the themes of love and loss, tensions that arose from sudden changes, the hard life of modest financial resources in the new settlements and so forth. These ballads of hardships and stories became the symbol of bluegrass narratives.

The melody of bluegrass varies today due to added influence of other musical genres. However, the most traditional melodies consist of string instrumentals alternating turns in improvising the melody while accompanying each other at the same time. Unlike the typical instrumental melodies that all play instantaneously, bluegrass’ alternation creates a layering of instrument effects. In addition, melodies of bluegrass melodies are at varied tempos in accompaniment of the main instrument beat.

Bluegrass music is played with stringed acoustic instruments including but not limited to: banjo, guitar, fiddle, resonator guitar, upright bass, as well as some non acoustic instruments including the jaw harp and the harmonica. These string instruments are played variably with different styles such as flat picking, or finger picking. These two picking styles vary from song to song according to preference and history. Each string instrument, however, depending on the bluegrass style in which it is incorporated, is played in different styles. As a result, different types of bluegrass music are formed solely based on the variations on strings.

One of the most prominent string instruments in bluegrass music is the acoustic guitar. This is perhaps one of the characterizing instruments for the genre. As with other strings in this genre, there are quite a few variations of play that differ from one type of bluegrass to another. The guitar eventually made its way of the traditional string instrument dominated genre by the efforts of individual artists who sought to transform and add a bit of twist to the traditional genre. Some of these artists are Gid Tanner, Charlie Poole, The Delmore Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers. These artists incorporated different styles of bluegrass guitar play into the rhythm. Before some changes, the traditional bluegrass music generally did not include the acoustic guitar as the main or lead instrument.

However, it was not until Maybelle Carter guitar picking incorporation to bluegrass began to inspire others to do the same. Guitar picking added more of an instrumental dimension to the music by supplementing the other string instruments such as the banjo. Guitar picking also took different forms and various picking styles. Eventually, guitar picking gained the role of solos in the music, very much different from the traditional bluegrass play. Even though the guitar eventually took lead of the genre, the other strings still remained a part of the other strings.

Another guitar method or style that influenced change in the genre’s instrumentation is the use of the guitar capo which had a significant influence on the music. The guitar capo enabled bluegrass guitar pickers to clamp on different frets of the guitar in order to change the pitch of the open strings. As a result, this allows for easy key changes.  This helps the instruments match a more comfortable range for the singer.  It can also be used sometimes to achieve a high “chiming” effect that ordinarily can’t be done with a standard guitar.  The capo just allowed more flexibility to the guitar which is already one of the most flexible musical instruments ever devised.

Bluegrass Guitar