Bluegrass and Americana Buyer's Guide

    Intro

    Bluegrass
    A subgenre of country music, bluegrass officially surfaced in 1939 when the “father of Bluegrass,” native Kentuckian Bill Monroe and his “Blue Grass Boys,” took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, though it’s roots date back quite a bit further. Bluegrass emerged from the traditional Irish and Scottish ballads brought to Appalachia in the 18th century by Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants who incorporated gospel, work songs, country, and blues into what Pete Seeger has described as “folk music on overdrive.”

    Americana Music
    Americana, a word that for years brought to mind needlepoint and rooster-topped weather veins, now comprises a relatively new genre of music defined by the Americana Music Association as "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound.” With a shot in the arm from the Coen brother’s 2000 movie and soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the genre really came into its own in 2010 when the Grammy Awards added a category for Best Americana Album, presenting the first trophy to Levon Helm.

    The common vein running through these two styles is the instrumentation. Let’s take a look at what’s involved in the creation of these two prolific styles.

    Washburn R60BCE Acoustic Electric Resonator Guitar
    Washburn R60BCE Acoustic Electric Resonator Guitar
    Washburn B9 5 String Banjo
    Washburn B9 5 String Banjo
    Washburn M3SWK F Style Mandolin with Case
    Washburn M3SWK F Style Mandolin with Case
    Ibanez AC240 Artwood Acoustic Guitar Open Pore Natural
    Ibanez AC240 Artwood Acoustic Guitar Open Pore Natural
    NS Design NXT4VN Electric Violin Sunburst with Case
    NS Design NXT4VN Electric Violin Sunburst with Case
    Washburn B16K 5-String Banjo
    Washburn B16K 5-String Banjo
    Ibanez PN1 Performance Parlor Acoustic Guitar Natural
    Ibanez PN1 Performance Parlor Acoustic Guitar Natural
    Washburn R314K 125th Anniversary Parlor Acoustic Guitar with Case
    Washburn R314K 125th Anniversary Parlor Acoustic Guitar with Case
    Deering Goodtime Banjo Ukulele
    Deering Goodtime Banjo Ukulele
    Vorson FLSL-220 Pro Lap Steel Guitar Package Natural
    Vorson FLSL-220 Pro Lap Steel Guitar Package Natural
    Vorson SL 100E Straight Lap Steel Guitar Package Natural
    Vorson SL 100E Straight Lap Steel Guitar Package Natural
    Gretsch G5700 Lap Steel Guitar
    Gretsch G5700 Lap Steel Guitar

    Mandolin

    See All Mandolins

    History
    A soprano member of the Lute family, the mandolin, in its current form, first appeared in 15th-century Naples, Italy and was brought to the United States by immigrants from many countries. The frenzy surrounding the 1880 New York landing of the group Estudiantina Figaro, known in the United States as "Spanish Students”, kicked off the US mandolin craze. The fact that this group actually played bandurrias, not mandolins, was just a minor detail. Immigrants took the instruments from their homeland and emulated this new style. From the mandolin orchestras popular at the turn of the century, the instrument has evolved to be a mainstay in many styles, including country, folk, rock, ethnic, jazz, classical, bluegrass and Americana.

    Tuning
    Mandolins usually have four unison pairs, or courses, of strings tuned in fifths. This is the same tuning as a violin with the fourth string tuned to G3, the third to D4, the second to A4, and the first to E5. Other tunings are used but far less common.

    Build
    There are several styles of mandolin, but the one most closely associated with bluegrass and Americana is the carved-top or arched-top mandolin. Most frequently constructed of maple for its back and sides for a bright, loud, focused tone and a spruce carved top for blusterous projection, this pairing produces the tone needed to both drive the rhythm section and cut through the ensemble for melodies.

    A-Style vs. F-Style
    The two varieties of mandolins used in this type of music are the ornate Florentine F-Style, with its exotic scrollwork and, to a lesser extent it’s simpler cousin, the teardrop shaped A-Style. The F-Style produces a bright, strong sound with a lot of punch while the A-Style is known for a rounder, fuller sound.

    Playing Style
    Mandolin players use a flat pick, similar to guitar players, to strum, solo, or drive the beat with a chop.

    Where it fits in the band
    The versatility of the mandolin makes itself obvious in the amount of ground it covers in this genre. When it’s not propelling the band with its chunking snare drum chops on 2 and 4, it’s playing harmonies and counter melodies or taking the lead for the intro, turnaround or ending.

    Washburn M1K Mandolin Package
    Washburn M1K Mandolin Package
    Washburn M3SWK F Style Mandolin with Case
    Washburn M3SWK F Style Mandolin with Case
    Washburn M1SDL Mandolin
    Washburn M1SDL Mandolin
    Epiphone MM50E Professional F Style AE Mandolin Vintage Natural
    Epiphone MM50E Professional F Style AE Mandolin Vintage Natural
    Fender F63S Concert Tone F Style Mandolin Vintage Sunburst
    Fender F63S Concert Tone F Style Mandolin Vintage Sunburst
    Ibanez M522S F Style Mandolin Dark Violin Sunburst
    Ibanez M522S F Style Mandolin Dark Violin Sunburst

    Banjo

    See All Banjos

    History
    Often thought of as a very American instrument, the idea of the banjo is actually hundreds of years old, with its origins tracing back to the Far East and Africa where crude gut stringed instruments were made from gourds and stretched animal skins. The banjo first made it to the US in the 17th century brought to you by none other than the slave trade. By the mid 1800’s the Minstrel show became a popular form of entertainment and it’s here that the banjo was a prevalent feature. At the end of the Civil war, returning soldiers spread the banjo’s popularity to every nook and cranny of the country. The patriotism of the First World War marked an upsurge in the banjos popularity with its incorporation into jazz bands. Today the banjo remains a staple of country, bluegrass and Americana music.

    Banjos can be found in four, five, and occasionally six string versions – with the five string being the most popular for bluegrass. Five string banjos can be found in two iterations, open back and resonator. The lightweight, open back, produces a mellower tone and allows the sound to project forward as well as dissipate out the back, being absorbed by the body. Resonator banjos, popular in bluegrass, have a separate plate on the back of the pot that projects the sound forward with considerably more volume.

    Banjo Styles
    The Four String Plectrum Banjo - With its resonator back and tone ring and a high to low tuning of D G B C, is a full scale instrument with 22 frets that is played with a pick.

    The Four String Tenor Banjo - The shorter scale tenor banjo, popular with Irish musicians, has between 17 and 19 frets and is tuned A D G C or E A D G.

    The Five String Banjo – Able to be tuned to a much higher pitch due to its shorter length (starting at the 5th fret), the fifth string is often the same thickness as the first and usually tuned to a high D in an Open-G tuning, the most common for bluegrass (G4 D3 G3 B3 D4.) Five String Banjos are available in open-back or resonator models with the resonator being the most popular for bluegrass. Similar to the Four String Tenor Banjo, the 22 fret neck has a scale length of between 26 and 28 inches with a fingerboard made of either rosewood or ebony.

    Build
    The heart of the banjo is the body, or pot, made up of a wood rim, a tension hoop, a banjo head (similar to a drum head), a tailpiece and a bridge. There may also be a tone ring (which will add some weight) and, if it’s a resonator, a flange and resonator back plate. At the top of the wood neck is the peghead where the tuners either protrude out the back (planetary style) or out the sides (guitar style.)

    Playing Style
    Playing the banjo is all about the right hand. It’s where your tone and, just as importantly, your rhythm are generated. It’s where rolls or arpeggios drive the pulse of the ensemble. There are a few very different ways to use your right hand to play the banjo.

    Two-finger up-picking style uses the thumb and index finger of the right hand, with the thumb holding down the rhythm while the index finger combines a rolling rhythm with melody.

    Three-finger style is known as the Scruggs Style, named for Earl Scruggs, the first banjoist to truly master and refine three-finger picking. The most common technique in bluegrass, Scruggs Style is comprised of the thumb, index, and middle fingers up-picking in syncopation to create an 1/16 note rhythm, with the emphasis on melody lines shared between the index and middle fingers.

    The “Pete Seeger” picking style is picked in an upward fashion with the fingers drawn in towards the palm, then brushing the nails across the strings, similar to a strum, while the thumb strikes the strings in a downward motion.

    The most popular for American old-time music would be the clawhammer, or frailing, where the strings are struck in a downward motion using the fingernails and the thumb is used to catch the fifth string to create a drone.

    Picks
    The banjo can be played with the fingers and fingernails or with picks, a plastic thumb pick and metal fingerpicks, for more volume and clarity and a sharper, metallic sound.

    Where it fits in the band
    Like rhythmic tom toms, the banjo adds flavor to the rhythm section with it’s pumping 1/16 note drive, fills, melody and solos.

    Washburn B9 5 String Banjo
    Washburn B9 5 String Banjo
    Washburn B6 6-String Banjo
    Washburn B6 6-String Banjo
    Washburn B16K 5-String Banjo
    Washburn B16K 5-String Banjo
    Deering Goodtime 2 5 String Banjo with Resonator
    Deering Goodtime 2 5 String Banjo with Resonator
    Fender Premier Concert Tone 59 Banjo with Case
    Fender Premier Concert Tone 59 Banjo with Case
    Fender Concert Tone 55 Banjo with Brass Tone Ring 3 Color Sunburst
    Fender Concert Tone 55 Banjo with Brass Tone Ring 3 Color Sunburst

    Resonator

    See All Resonators

    History
    In the 1920’s, before the advent of the amplifier, acoustic guitars were having a hard time generating the volume needed to cut through the ensemble and compete with brass instruments. John Dopyera, using the brand name "National", set out to resolve the issue by designing a metal-bodied instrument with a T-shaped aluminum bar under the bridge, connecting three conical aluminum resonators. This was the birth of the Tricone.

    Dopyera left National in 1928 to form the Dobro Manufacturing company with his brothers where they developed a single resonator guitar with an eight-legged aluminum spider straddling a concave “bowl-shaped” resonator with a perforated metal cover. This resulted in National releasing a previous Dopyera design using a wooden biscuit as the bridge support.

    Legal action soon ensued between the two companies and by 1932 the Dopyera brothers had prevailed, merging both companies into the National Dobro Corporation. Owned by Gibson since 1993, Dobro Hound Dogs are currently made by Gibson under the Epiphone label.

    Square neck-Round neck
    There are two styles of resonator guitars, the square neck and the round neck.

    Square neck refers to the shape of the back of the neck, which is shaped like a rectangle block. The square neck is played lap steel style, usually sitting with the instrument across the players lap, though occasionally standing with a strap. Similar to a lap or pedal steel, the square neck is played with a metal bar for it’s “slide” sound.

    The round neck is similar in construction to a standard acoustic guitar neck and is usually played standing up, with a strap, in the same fashion. Slide is played with a bottleneck or metal slide, the same as when slide is played on a standard guitar.

    Stevens Bar/Finger Slide
    Thought of as the second most important piece of the resonator player’s gear, the slide or steel, makes a big contribution to your sound, feel and overall technique. While round-neck players will choose from a variety of bottleneck slides available in several different materials, lap-style players use a “steel”, a “bar”, or a “tone bar.” The two popular shapes of the steel are the round nose, popular with pedal steel players more than bluegrass resonator enthusiasts and a Stevens-style bar, where the top and side grooves allow for easy handling. Materials can be either steel or brass coated in chrome, nickel or stainless steel.

    Tuning
    Resonators used for bluegrass are generally tuned to open-G, G,B,D,G,B,D. Though there are many different tunings used by different players, open-G is the most popular and it’s with this tuning that you’ll find the greatest amount of instructional material.

    Where it fits in the band
    On slow songs the resonator player plays lonesome blues lines around the vocal. On up-tempo tunes it comps on 2 and 4 with occasional fills.

    Washburn R60BCE Acoustic Electric Resonator Guitar
    Washburn R60BCE Acoustic Electric Resonator Guitar
    Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog M14 Metalbody Resonator Guitar
    Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog M14 Metalbody Resonator Guitar
    Gretsch G9240 Alligator Biscuit RoundNeck Resonator Guitar
    Gretsch G9240 Alligator Biscuit RoundNeck Resonator Guitar
    Dobro Hound Dog Round Neck Resonator Guitar Vintage Brown
    Dobro Hound Dog Round Neck Resonator Guitar Vintage Brown
    Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe Round Neck Resonator Guitar Vintage Brown
    Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe Round Neck Resonator Guitar Vintage Brown

    Bass

    See All Basses

    History
    There's some debate whether the double bass is a descendant of the viola or violin family (it's outer appearance resembles a viola while it's interior structure is based on the violin, though its proportions are different), but there's little doubt the double bass' roots date all the way back to the 15th century.

    Evolving from what was originally a three-stringed instrument, the double bass is known by many names - contrabass, string bass, upright bass, acoustic bass, and most relevant to our conversation, bass fiddle.

    Build
    With a height of six feet, the bass is easily the orchestra's largest instrument. Common construction materials consist of solid maple for the back and sides, solid spruce for the top and ebony for the fingerboard and tailpiece. Less expensive models are available with laminated woods for the top, back and sides. The double bass utilizes metal machine heads in its scrolled peg head, as opposed to the friction pegs found in the violin, viola and cello. The precision of the machine heads renders the use of fine tuners on the bridge unnecessary and rare.

    Tuning
    The bass is the only instrument in the string family tuned in fourths, as opposed to fifths. Standard pitches are E, A, D, G, the same as the lowest four strings on a guitar.

    Playing Style
    The bass can be played by either bowing (arco) or plucking, depending on the style of music. Bluegrass players pluck the strings, accenting the first and third beats with the root and fifth. Walking runs are used to connect chords or sections.

    Acoustic or Electric?
    Traditionally you'd find a standup bass as part of a bluegrass group, though the presence of an electric bass won't break the mold. Both would typically be amplified, with the standup needing a pickup to make use of the amplifier.

    Where it fits in the band
    As with most styles of music, the bass holds down the bluegrass/Americana bottom, with its percussive plucking acting as the kick drum driving the whole ensemble.

    Ibanez PCBE12MH Acoustic Electric Bass Open Pore Natural
    Ibanez PCBE12MH Acoustic Electric Bass Open Pore Natural
    Fishman BP100 Upright Bass Pickup
    Fishman BP100 Upright Bass Pickup

    Violin/Fiddle

    See All Violins

    History
    The smallest, and by virtue of its size, the highest pitched instrument in the string family, the modern violin first came into prominence in 16th century Northern Italy, though its roots date back to the Middle East and Byzantine Empire. Originally an instrument of street performers and nobility alike, the violin has been employed by several diverse styles of music, including baroque, classical, jazz, country music, soft rock, folk music, metal, rock and roll, Americana and bluegrass music, where it is commonly referred to as a fiddle.

    You’ve no doubt heard the names of some of the master builders from the golden age of violin making. Instruments built in the 16th century by Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù and Montagnana in Cremona Italy are the most coveted instruments by both collectors and performers due to their legendary tone. Luckily, modern technology being what it is, you can purchase a great sounding instrument for somewhat less than the record $15.9 million paid for a Stradivari violin in 2011.

    Build
    The top (or soundboard, top plate, table, or belly) is made of spruce, taking advantage of its resonant qualities while two F-holes increase the volume and “tune” the sound. The back is made from a billet of solid maple with two book-matched halves glued together. Maple is also used for the ribs, two end blocks, and neck, including the elaborate scroll which houses traditional friction peg tuners. The fingerboard, bridge, tuners and chin rest can be made of ebony.

    The modern violin shape can be traced directly back to Antonio Stradivari who, being the most successful artisan, was the most imitated.

    Tuning
    Tuned in perfect fifths, the violin is tuned by using the tuning pegs in the pegbox (under the scroll) and by adjusting (optional) fine tuners attached to the tailpiece. The tuning, G-D-A-E, is most commonly employed. Other tunings are also occasionally used.

    Playing Style
    The violin can be played by either bowing (arco) or plucking, depending on the style of music. Bluegrass fiddle players most frequently bow, with lots of double-stops (playing two notes simultaneously.) Fiddle players often ignore traditional violin technique and often shed the chin or shoulder rest.

    Sizes
    In addition to the standard or full (4/4) size, violins are available in fractional sizes of 7/8, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, 1/16, 1/32 and even 1/64, for younger students.

    Where it fits in the band
    In bluegrass, the fiddle brings color to the ensemble and aids the rhythm section by adding percussive chops on the offbeat. It contributes melodically by filling in between vocal lines, often with bluesy licks where notes are slid into.

    NS Design NXT5VN Electric Violin Sunburst with Bag
    NS Design NXT5VN Electric Violin Sunburst with Bag
    NS Design Wave Electric Violin with Case
    NS Design Wave Electric Violin with Case

    Acoustic Guitar

    See All Acoustic Electric Guitars

    History
    The acoustic guitar’s ubiquitous presence in music dates back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, though its predecessors bore little resemblance to what we know today. This gut-strung instrument took hold late in the 18th century, after a sixth string was added, with much of its popularity centered in Spain. The steel string acoustic guitar is an American innovation, albeit from European luthiers who immigrated to the US in the early 20th century. Then, as now, there are two iterations, the flat top and the arch top.

    Build
    Acoustic guitars are available in two iterations, flat top and arch top, with flat top being the most prevalent in bluegrass and Americana. More often than not you’ll find the top made of spruce, taking advantage of its lightweight yet strong resonant qualities. The neck back and sides can be constructed of several different woods. Maple gives a bright sound with crisp highs, mahogany provides a focused tight midrange and rosewood emits the deepest, roundest bass response.

    Tuning
    For bluegrass and Americana, most guitarists tune to the standard guitar tuning of E,A,D,G,B,E. When playing in certain keys, particularly D, players sometimes drop the E to D for a “drop D” tuning of D,A,D,G,B,E. Others dabble in open tunings such as open G with a tuning of D,G,D,G,B,D.

    Playing Style
    Carter Style
    Many bluegrass players adopt the Carter style, named after Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family Group who were popular in the 1930’s, where the melody is played on the lower strings with the rhythm filled in on the treble strings. This allows the guitarist to cover the lead and rhythm simultaneously.

    Flat Picking
    This is the standard picking technique employed by most guitarists, used for both strumming and lead or melody work.

    Cross Picking
    Used to emulate fingerpicking, but with a sharper and brighter well defined sound, cross picking is an advanced style of picking similar to a banjo roll where three adjacent strings are picked repeatedly within a four note pulse.

    Sizes
    Acoustic guitars come in full, ¾ and half-sizes as well as the very popular travel size.

    Where it fits in the band
    In a bluegrass band the guitar has several important roles. It can be the timekeeper, rhythmically providing accents on 2 and 4. It often injects the signature bluegrass G-run that finds its way into most tunes of the genre and takes its turn soloing along with the other instruments.

    Washburn WCG25SCE Comfort Series Acoustic Electric Guitar
    Washburn WCG25SCE Comfort Series Acoustic Electric Guitar
    Washburn R314K 125th Anniversary Parlor Acoustic Guitar with Case
    Washburn R314K 125th Anniversary Parlor Acoustic Guitar with Case
    Martin D28 Acoustic Dreadnought Guitar Natural with Case
    Martin D28 Acoustic Dreadnought Guitar Natural with Case
    Arcadia DL41 Acoustic Guitar Pack
    Arcadia DL41 Acoustic Guitar Pack
    Gibson J15 Acoustic Electric Guitar Natural with Case
    Gibson J15 Acoustic Electric Guitar Natural with Case
    Martin D18 Acoustic Guitar Natural with Case
    Martin D18 Acoustic Guitar Natural with Case

    Percussion

    See All Percussion

    Traditionally, the percussive sounds found in bluegrass emanate from the stringed instruments. In the cases where actual percussion is used you might find a snare played with brushes. A washboard (played with thimbles) or a pair of spoons wouldn’t be out of place or even some bongos or a Cajon would blend in nicely.

    Tama LMP1465 SLP Studio Maple Snare Drum Sienna
    Tama LMP1465 SLP Studio Maple Snare Drum Sienna
    Latin Percussion LP 1428NY Black Box Cajon USA
    Latin Percussion LP 1428NY Black Box Cajon USA
    Zildjian Professional Retractable Wire Brushes
    Zildjian Professional Retractable Wire Brushes
    Toca 2100 Synergy Wood Bongos Amber
    Toca 2100 Synergy Wood Bongos Amber
    A Tempo Percussion El Artesano CJELART01 Cajon with free bag
    A Tempo Percussion El Artesano CJELART01 Cajon with free bag
    Latin Percussion LP 446 Session Shaker Large Black
    Latin Percussion LP 446 Session Shaker Large Black

    About the Author - Michael Barberich

    Michael BarberichA New York guitar phenom from a young age, Michael still smiles looking back on playing his first bar gig at the ripe old age of fourteen. By eighteen, his acrobatic guitar style had caught the attention of a popular local band (whose members were all ten years older) and together they quickly conquered the legendary Long Island music scene, playing six nights a week to large audiences. Says Michael of this period, "To fill time, the band would often throw me two solos per song. I did the math recently and realized I was playing about sixty solos a night times six nights a week. That's three hundred and sixty solos per week! That's really where I learned to play, on stage every night in front of lots of people."

    As comfortable playing or producing in the studio as he is on the stage, Michael's varied career has afforded him the opportunity to work with many of his heroes including Steve Vai, Justin Hayward, Gary Brooker, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Howe and Cheap Trick. Always happiest with a guitar in his hand, you can find Michael showing his versatility performing with LI Hall of Fame inductees Barnaby Bye, Macca Nation (a tribute to Paul McCartney & Wings) or his kitschy 70's band, the insanely popular, 45rpm (voted Long Island's best cover band for 2013 and 2014.)

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