What makes bluegrass harmony unique?
Haunting, strident, open-sounding
Listen: “Sweetheart of Mine Can't You Hear Me Calling” – Bill Monroe
Smooth singing, tight harmony.
Harmony stack changes depending on how high or low the lead singers voice falls.
Listen: “Little Georgia Rose” Seldom Scene
Usually on Gospel Songs, sometimes acapella.
Listen for the parts (Lead, Tenor, Baritone, Bass). Try to sing along on each part if you can!
Listen: “Goodnight, the Lord's Coming” Nashville Bluegrass Band
Fill-in Licks: A short musical idea played after the singer sings a line to the song.
Singer: “She's my Little Georgia Rose”
Banjo player: “Do do do do do do do.”
Fill in Licks are shared. A mandolin player may fill a certain verse, while the others contribute to the groove of the song. The next verse, maybe the fiddle player takes the fills. The musicians decide this in advance, or sometimes with just a nod.
Break: An instrumental solo taken after the chorus
Kickoff: The instrument that starts the song is playing the kickoff
Tag: When you sing the last line of the song again
Turnaround: A short break, when playing the full break would just be too much. Often on gospel songs.
The Starting Five
Banjo: Three finger playing, using the musical language developed out of North Carolina by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. Syncopated, always in motion, similar sounds, but a pattern never quite emerges. Like listening to a jazz drummer's ride cymbal, a continual flow of rhythms created by a minimum of pitches.
Listen: “You are What I Am” by JD Crowe and the New South
Bass: A steady beat, a strong pull. Walking Bass. Leading the ear to the next chord. An occasional slap bass solo. Never more than once a weekend.
Listen:”Old and in the Way” by Old and In the Way
Mandolin: The Chop. It takes the place of the snare drum in bluegrass. The sole reason mandolin prices drift into the stratosphere depends on the builder's ability to supply this drug. Mandolin is a little instrument that can be played aggressively, or play the sweetest tremolo.
Listen: “Bringing in the Georgia Mail” Sam Bush
“Lonesome River” Here Today (David Grisman with Vince Gill and Herb Pederson)
Guitar: More than just strumming chords, most bluegrass guitarists have several bass runs in his or her repertoire. A bluegrass guitar sounds round, and fills out the meat of the song. It adds a dark color to a group of bright instruments. Sometimes you notice it more when it's gone than when it's there.
Listen:”Old Train” Tony Rice
Fiddle: The fiddle in bluegrass is smooth like a a stream flowing down a hill. Bluegrass fiddlers string together seemingly dozens of notes with each bow stroke. You can hear a good fiddle player weaving in and out of the lyric at just the right time, or playing a long tone underneath the music bed. The fiddle is the only instrument with no natural rhythmic role, so sometimes the fiddle drops out of the music all together.
Listening:”Trainwreck of Emotion” Del McCoury
Dobro: A Hawaiian Slide Guitar that's played on its side found its way into early country and bluegrass music through players like Brother Oswald and Josh Graves. Bluesy, lonesome, a cry. Like the fiddle, it has more of a role of supporting the music with melody instead of rhythm.
Listening:”On my Mind” Flatt and Scruggs