Bluegrass is music popular in the USA and the UK, which blends elements of other American and British musical traditions. The earliest bluegrass pioneers were heavily influenced by country and gospel music, while their more contemporary, more rock-influenced counterparts drew from roots rock, folk, pop, and rock.
Many bands combine bluegrass with other genres: traditional folk or country music; progressive bluegrass (often also referred to as “world” or “worldgrass”); old-time Appalachian music; soul, blues, and jazz have been added to the mix.
What is Bluegrass?
- It’s a subgenre of country music, taking its name from Bill Monroe and his band The Blue Grass Boys, who were the first to play this style.
- Bluegrass originated in the Appalachian mountains, created as a mix of traditional Irish, Scottish, English, and African-American music.
- Musically speaking, bluegrass is defined by instrumentation: typically banjo, fiddle (the violin), mandolin (similar to a guitar but with eight strings), upright bass (a stand-up bass played with a bow), acoustic guitar, and sometimes harmonica.
- It usually uses a rhythmic style known as the “straight-ahead beat” and vocal harmony that frequently switches between lead singers.
What are the origins of bluegrass music?
Let’s dig a little into the origins of this genre.
Monroe became famous for playing at the Grand Ole Opry radio show in Nashville, and until now, many renowned bluegrass artists have performed at that venue.
While early forms of bluegrass tended to be simple and straightforward with melodies played by violins, banjos, and acoustic guitars, newer forms tend to be more experimental with elements from country music or other genres added in.
How to identify bluegrass music?
Bluegrass music is known for its distinctive repertoire, instrumentation, improvisation, and singing. If you know what to listen for, it’s not hard to distinguish bluegrass from other types of music.
Bluegrass performers use a certain type of repertoire, which can be defined as “the whole body of compositions belonging or appropriate to a particular subject or period.”
In addition to their distinctive repertoire, there are also certain instruments that make up the typical bluegrass band: banjo (with fingerpicks), guitar, mandolin, fiddle/violin and dobro/resonator guitar.
Bluegrass is also known for its improvisational nature—many solos will be improvised or made up on the spot by the performer, rather than following a set melody line or chord progression as written in sheet music.
A unique characteristic about bluegrass music is that unlike other forms of popular American music such as jazz and rock ‘n roll where rhythm typically comes from drums, piano, or an electric bass guitar; the rhythm instruments in bluegrass are acoustic bass played with a bow and plucked banjo while guitars provide chordal accompaniment in both rhythm and lead roles.
As mentioned earlier, there are no drums, but sometimes clogging (percussive dancing) may be used to provide percussion along with rhythmic clapping. This makes for an interesting sound, where “there is not always agreement about whether the lead instruments have the same time feel as that produced by the rhythm instruments”. But this can make playing.
What are main characteristics of bluegrass music?
- Instruments. When Monroe played his music, he used a mix of old instruments like banjos and guitars with new ones like the mandolin. The mixing of these different types of instruments is one way this genre is unique.
- Tempo. Bluegrass musicians play fast! Musicians use phrases to describe how fast a piece is played; bluegrass music can be described as being played between “allegro” and “presto,” which means it’s faster than an average song but not quite at breakneck speed (yet). Each instrument has its moment to solo during a song, too; you’ll hear each person show off their skills for a few moments before returning to the backup role again.
What is the difference between bluegrass music and country music?
Bluegrass music and country music are both descendants of the folk tradition in America. Bluegrass is a blend of multiple styles that came from the British Isles, mostly from England and Scotland. The banjo (a stringed instrument) was first used in these regions, with its five strings helping to create a unique sound for centuries.
In new-world America, as European settlers made their way westward into rural areas, they took this instrument with them, adding it to the fiddles and guitars that were also popular at the time. Eventually, bluegrass gained popularity as an offshoot of country music—but there are certain characteristics that make it unique:
- Bluegrass is faster than country music: while country uses a slower tempo and has its roots in blues—bluegrass is generally characterized by upbeat tunes with lots of syncopation (rhythmic interplay between different instruments).
- Bluegrass uses banjos: this 5-stringed instrument evolved out of African guitars and can be traced back to East Africa. The banjo’s characteristic resonator gives off a twangy sound that helps it stand out among other instruments used in bluegrass such as mandolins, fiddles, acoustic guitars (otherwise known as flat tops), dobros, basses (upright or electric), harmonicas (commonly referred to as harps), dulcimers (commonly referred to as mountain instruments) or piano players.
Bluegrass music is one of the unique musical movements that exist today. It has an extremely fast tempo, which makes it perfect for rock concerts or ballparks, but it can be just as great for a more intimate setting. Bluegrass is also perceived as “simple” because its roots in the country traditions of old have made the style naturally basic.
But, like any art form, the form and structure of bluegrass can become complex and sophisticated over time, through innovation and adaptation. It is an entertaining cultural phenomenon for us to enjoy, and it’s only getting better as time goes on—which is what makes this a genre we should all love more than ever.