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 performers use a specific type of repertoire, which can be defined as “the whole body of compositions belonging to or appropriate to a particular theme or period.
The most common types of songs sung in bluegrass music are:
- Traditional ballads (a narrative song)
- Fiddle tunes (old dance tunes)
- Breakdowns (fast instrumental numbers)
- Original songs (“new” material written today in the bluegrass style)
- Gospel songs (religious numbers)
- Blues numbers
In addition to its distinctive repertoire, there are certain instruments that make up the typical bluegrass band:
- Banjo (with finger picks)
- Guitar, mandolin
- Dobro/resonator guitar
Bluegrass is also known for its improvisational nature-many solos are improvised or made up on the spot by the performer, rather than following a set melody line or chord progression as written in the sheet music.
This is sometimes called soloing, because each musician takes a turn improvising during a performance. Other times, when musicians improvise together, it’s called jamming.
As mentioned, there are no drums, but sometimes clogging (percussive dancing) is used to provide percussion along with rhythmic clapping. This makes for an interesting sound, where “there is not always agreement on whether the lead instruments have the same sense of time as the rhythm instruments. But this can make playing fascinating.
What are the 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?
In the New World of 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-string instrument evolved from African guitars and can be traced back to East Africa. The banjo’s characteristic resonator produces a twangy sound that makes it stand out from other instruments used in bluegrass, such as mandolins, fiddles, acoustic guitars, dobros, basses, harmonicas, dulcimers, or pianists.
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.