Jack Tuttle
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Bluegrass Instruments

Known for its machine gun like stream of notes that provides much of the "drive" in bluegrass, especially on fast pieces. Lots of open strings surround melody notes made up of hammers, slides and pull-offs. Syncopation is very common. Breaks are occasionally played up the neck. Sometimes duplicates the mandolin offbeat by vamping closed chords during backup, but often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive. Relentlessly puts fills in vocal holes. Earl Scruggs is God.

Lots of blues influences in solos. Sometimes leads are played in a closed chordal position. Often repetitive notes are played with movement on the offbeat. Tremolo is common on slow pieces. Mostly chops on the offbeat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the offbeat. Occasionally fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, but does it more often on slow songs. All essential ideas come from Bill Monroe.

Solos are optional - not regularly done until the 1960’s. Solos are often based less on a melody than the other instruments. Rhythm playing features bass runs and fills, especially G runs at every opportunity. Very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal strumming but very aggressive swells at the end of lines. Some players use highly syncopated bass runs. Tony Rice is the major influence since the 70’s.

Solos are a mix of double-stops, slides and very fast single noting. Traditionally it follows a melody of a song for the first three lines, yet with lots of blues imparted into it, and then departs from the melody on the last line. It fills actively in the vocal holes at times, and sometimes adds a texture right along with vocals. Frequently though, it is silent during backup, or perhaps vamps percussively on the offbeats. No one fiddler has been able to dominate historically, but Stuart Duncan does now.

Good groove for bluegrass usually requires fairly simple bass lines - root, 5th alternating on downbeats. Bass runs connect one chord to another. In the early days, bassists tried way too hard to walk. Now, walking is left for bouncy numbers with a swing feel. Solos are rare but do happen, and usually involve some slapping. There has been some acceptance of electric bass in bluegrass. Rock steady timing is the key for good bass playing. Cedric Rainwater has been anointed "the great one" but this in reality has much to do with his being in the original 1945 bluegrass band with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise.

The least common bluegrass instrument. Generally uses lots of slides, hammers-ons and banjo like rolls. On slow songs it tends to play lots of chordal movements. Fills more actively on slow songs and often vamps on the off-beat or is silent. Josh Graves was the only guy for awhile, but in the 1970’s Jerry Douglas became the man.

Tempos for bluegrass range from slow waltzes to very fast 2/4 time. The slowest speed would be quarter note = 85 bpm and the fastest I've ever measured (2/4) would be quarter note = 195 bpm, but this is unusual and extreme.

Updated June 7, 2008