The guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass fiddle, fiddle, and dobro come together to produce arguably the most American of music genres, with 17th century roots.
For many, the bluegrass style of music might have established itself in their ears as the banjo and fiddle most prominent from those all-time greats, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. But pull up some of the wonderful videos of their band, The Foggy Mountain Boys 7, on YouTube and you’ll see the other instruments that complete the sound: a standup bass, acoustic guitar, sometimes a mandolin and the dobro.
There’s a lot going on in most bluegrass music: complex syncopation, high energy, the rhythmic foundation pretty much provided by the bass, the switching between instruments to carry the melody within each piece, as well as the stories told with just about every song. And don’t forget the entire genre is an amalgamation of sounds from the earliest settlers of the American South, those who came from Scotland, England, and Ireland in the 1600s, later influenced by instruments credited to African slaves.
Anyone who has ever seen or listened to a bluegrass band for hire knows the instruments are intrinsic to the sound. So why not consider what each brings to it?
Guitar. Never electrically amplified in bluegrass, the acoustic guitar requires the guitarist to strum it just right to achieve the right level of sound.
Mandolin. With six double courses of strings, the bluegrass version looks like a scaled down guitar (not the traditional round-back mandolins found in Renaissance paintings). In addition to occasional soloing, the mandolin provides sharp chords as “offbeats” or “upbeats,” which are on the second and fourth beats in a 4/4 time (and second and third beats in ¾ time).
Banjo. Earl Scruggs’ three-finger picking style is perhaps best-known expression of the banjo in bluegrass. (Side note: the banjo is likely of West African origins in a stringed instrument with a long bamboo neck called a bangoe; the oldest known banjo from the 1770s was from the Creole communities in Surinam).
Bass fiddle. Also known as the upright bass or double bass, it generally is plucked, occasionally bowed, and considered a rhythm instrument that contributes to chord progressions and the harmony of a piece being played. Because of its size, some bluegrass bands use a smaller and sturdier electric bass that travels well to gigs.
Fiddle. Sure, it’s a violin. But the fact a violin can be played so differently in different genres such as classical vs. bluegrass – in technique, sound, even how the instrument is held – speaks to the instrument’s versatility. Notable is the instrument gets a starring role wherever it goes, however it’s played.
Dobro guitar. Dobro is a brand name for a resonator guitar, which is characterized by a cone in the body, typically made of aluminum, which provides an enhanced acoustic amplification. It originated as an Hawaiian style guitar, before the cone was added, with a slide and played flat on a table instead turned vertically on the lap of the guitarist.
None of this is to say that bluegrass itself and the instruments are forever one thing. Resonators such as with the Dobro were added to ancient mandolins, and as mentioned, electrically amplified basses are increasingly common. The 1940s bluegrass ballads were more gospel, modern progressive bluegrass less so. Some say today’s resurgence of bluegrass is driven by political and social sentiments – and is more accepting of openly gay musicians than decades ago. It’s music of the South, but popular now from Berkeley to Brooklyn. Anyone attempting to hire a bluegrass band has many more choices, now that the genre is evolving.
It might be the most American music of all because of this blend it represents. The instruments themselves are derived from history, from different continents, and reinvented to make the kind of music this moment seems to want.