What is Bluegrass?

According to Wikipedia, bluegrass is a form of American Roots music and is a sub-category of country music. Bluegrass traditionally contains only acoustic stringed instruments and vocal components.

A conventional bluegrass band consists of banjo, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. These are all classed as "percussion" instruments. Sometimes a fiddle is added to the mix. The fiddle is not a percussion instrument, it is in the class of "stringed" instruments.

Some bands also include a resonator guitar (Dobro.) Less common are the addition of a dulcimer or an autoharp. Even less common is the addition of a harmonica. Pianos and drums are generally frowned upon. Instruments are usually played into a microphone when on stage. Plugged-in instruments are also generally frowned upon although a plugged-in bass is generally OK due to the problems of travelling with a big stand-up bass.

The best way to describe bluegrass music is to hear it.

Videos below from YouTube demonstrate various forms of bluegrass music.

(Read about the history of bluegrass music here: Bluegrass Music History)

Bill Monroe was the "Father of Bluegrass." It evolved from "mountain music" that was played in the hills of Kentucky and Virginia in the 1920's and 1930's.

We were unable to find any videos of Bill Monroe when the banjo player, Earl Scruggs, joined the band in late 1945. Earl developed the "three-finger" style of banjo playing which is now known as "Scruggs style" banjo playing. Earl left Bill monroe's band in 1948. Here is one of "Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys" videos from 1965. The banjo player is not Earl Scruggs but he is playing "Scruggs style" banjo. This song is named "Bluegrass Breakdown." It is similar to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" made famous by the movie "Bonnie and Clyde."

Earl Scruggs is credited with creating the three-finger style of banjo picking. This video is of the "Flatt and Scruggs" bluegrass band which was active from 1948 through 1969. The instruments being played are banjo, fiddle guitar, bass, dobro and harmonica. They are playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" featured in the movie "Bonnie and Clyde", one of the most admired and recognizable Bluegrass instrumental tunes. You can see Earl Scruggs and hear his distinctive banjo style in this video.

Another really influential Bluegrass banjo player and singer was Dr. Ralph Stanley. He was awarded an honorary "Doctor of Bluegrass Music" degree by Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1976. The video below was from after he was unable to play banjo due to arthritis. It features Patty Lovelace and Ralph Stanley doing "Pretty Polly" with great singing, great banjo playing, and great fiddle playing.

The video below is essentialy a jam session and features many truly great musicians with Earl Scruggs at the center. Note Steve Martin on banjo! He is a great banjo player in addition to all of his other talents and accomplishments. This jam session is unique in that some instruments that are almost never seen involved in bluegrass are included such as piano and drums. In this case, everything worked very well. All excellent musicians.

The video below features Ralph Stanley as the high-tenor. This is an example of "a cappella" music which is an accepted form of Bluegrass music. These harmonies were probably learned in little churches in the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago. Listen to the truly great harmony singing... This is the song "I'll Pass Over Thee."

Below is a video of Ricky Skaggs when he was seven years old playing mandolin with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. They are playing "Foggy Mountain Special" one of Earl Scrugg's compositions. Then Ricky sings "Ruby!"

Then, years later, this is Ricky Skaggs and Patty Lovelace doing "Daniel Prayed". Contrast this with the a capella song done in the "I'll Pass Over Thee" video shown earlier.

This video features Ralph and Carter Stanley from their early years. Carter was the older brother and passed away in 1966 leaving Ralph to carry on. Ralph was not sure he could do it without Carter but somehow managed and became one of the most influential Bluegrass banjo players and singers in Bluegrass Music. This is Ralph and Carter doing "Rank Stranger."

This is perhaps an ultimate tribute to fallen world war II soldiers done by Ralph and Carter Stanley. It is called "Searching for a Soldier's Grave." Note the tight harmonies and Carter's unique guitar work on the break.

You are never too young to play bluegrass...  (Robby on fiddle - age 14; Johnny on banjo - age 10; Tommy on Guitar - age 15)

Sonny Osborne, famous banjo player for the "Osborne Brothers" once said "If it ain't got a banjo, it ain't Bluegrass." :-)