Bluegrass can be thought of as an offspring of country music. Like all country it has it’s roots in European folk music brought by settlers into the U.S. in the 19th century and combined there with an African influence including the use of the banjo. The main instruments in early country music were fiddle, taken from the Scots and Irish traditions, the Spanish guitar and the banjo from Africa, with the music characterised by driving rhythms and songs singing of everyday experiences such as ranching, mining, logging as well as bank robberies, train crashes and desperados on the run.
Bluegrass itself first appeared in its modern form in 1939 with the first performance of Bill Monroe and his blue grass boys, at the grand ole opry, with the band name chosen as the Monroe brothers hailed from Kentucky, the blue grass state. Scruggs band featured mandolin (an instrument originally from Italy), banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass and they sung songs from the country and blues repertoires along with gospel and work songs featuring multiple part harmonies.
The template for the modern bluegrass band sound was completed in 1945 with the addition of Earle Scruggs on 5 string banjo whose 3 finger picking style revolutionised banjo playing. Scruggs and bluegrass boys guitarist and singer, Letter Flatt subsequently left Bill Monroe’s band to set up their own Foggy Mountain Boys, and the rest as they say is history.
The role of the guitar in bluegrass was mostly in playing rhythm in a bass-strum style, driving the music along, connecting the chords together with bass notes at strategic points. Solos on the guitar were rare as the guitar played rhythm for the other, and louder, melody instruments fiddle, banjo and mandolin. One of the first examples of lead guitar playing in country music was a development of the bass strum style by a guitarist in one of country music’s first recording groups, the Carter Family Band. Maybelle Carter played the melody on the bass notes with her right hand thumb, and filling in the rhythm with her fingers, a style now known as carter picking. Lester Flatt further developed the driving bass strum sound with some fills, or licks, connecting the chords including the famous G bass run, but it wasn’t until the 60s that the guitar came into its own in bluegrass, with mountain singer and brilliant guitarist Doc Watson.
Watson knew hundreds of songs, but he could also pick out fiddle tunes at fiddle speeds and play blistering solos in his songs. This influenced a whole generation of new guitarists including Clarence White, who played lead guitar with the Kentucky colonels and helped to bring country and bluegrass into the mainstream as he joined the Byrds with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman.
Many more guitarists have since followed Doc Watson and Clarence White including Tony Rice, Dan Crary, Norman Blake, Bryan Sutton and Dave Grier.
The piece in the video, above, is inspired by the playing of Norman Blake, with a full lesson on bluegrass guitar to follow.
If you’d like to know more about the role of the guitar in bluegrass there are a number of excellent sites, but one I highly recommend is the bluegrass guitar site which I found very helpful when researching the blog post.