Jack Tuttle
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Structure of a Typical Bluegrass Song

Songs generally begin with an instrumental kick-off. Usually it is played over the chord progression to the verse of the song. Pickup (or lead-in) notes are played ahead of the first measure by the kick-off instrument to cue the rest of the band as to the tempo and starting point. These notes would normally start on the 2nd beat of the lead-in measure, (counted: 2+3, 4) prior to the first full measure, or the 8th note before that (+2, 3, 4). All the instruments would join in on the first beat of the first full measure. The kick-off lasts for the 16 measures of the verse, but then additional measures (about 2) are inserted before the singing starts, as the soloing instrument finishes on a run or fill.

The lead singer would then sing the first verse, which consists of 4 vocal lines, (16 measures) in which the first and third lines requently have the same melody. Then the verse would go into the chorus, without extra measures in between, and harmonies would be added, usually a tenor above the melody and perhaps a baritone part below the melody. Very often the last two lines of the chorus would have the same melody as the last two lines of the verse.

Another instrument would then play a verse break in the same fashion as the kick-off break, complete with extra measures, and the lead singer would now sing the second verse (all new words) and a second chorus (same old words) with harmonies.

Now a third break would be played by a third instrument and singing would continue as before, with the third and final verse and last chorus. The last line of the chorus is sometimes sung twice and one or more instruments would play a fill lick to end the song with all instruments ending on the 3rd beat of the last measure of the last line.

There are tons of exceptions to this structure and mental notes should be taken of the exceptions. For example:

Some songs play breaks over the chorus.

Lots of songs have the same melody for the verse and chorus.

Some songs have extra measures built into the melody.

Sometimes on slow songs, only the last line of a verse is played as a break, although that's more common on recordings than in jams.

Another common option for slow songs is to split the break into two lines per instrument.

On some songs the chorus is sung first and then proceeds either to an instrumental break or the first vocal verse.

Sometimes an additional break is played which then leads into one extra chorus, usually to lengthen a short song.

The extra measures after the breaks can vary in length from zero to four.

Songs can have as few as two verses or as many as four or five.

Some songs have no choruses.

And so on....


Updated July 5, 2017