Bluegrass Listening Guide
A blind guitarist from North Carolina, Doc Watson is the father of flatpicking guitar. He learned to play fiddle tunes on an electric guitar to play at local square dances. He found success on acoustic guitar during the folk music revival of the 1960’s, and performed well into his eighties.
In addition to his lightning-fast flatpicking runs, Doc was a terrific fingerstyle guitarist, and possessed a rich baritone singing voice. Though he usually performed in a duo or trio instead of a bluegrass band, Doc performed or recorded with Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, David Grisman, and many other bluegrass artists. MerleFest, in Wilkesboro, NC is named in honor of his late son, Merle Watson.
Listen to “Black Mountain Rag” - from “The Essential Doc Watson”
Listen to: “Way Downtown”- from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
Born in Maine, White’s family moved to California when he was ten years old. There, he and his brothers Roland and Eric discovered bluegrass music, and learned to play mandolin, banjo, and guitar, forming a band called the Kentucky Colonels. Known for his highly creative, syncopated guitar playing, Clarence’s sense of timing is just amazing to listen to!
He always keeps the listener guessing where he’s going to go next. Clarence is highly regarded as one of the most talented and influential guitarists of the 20th Century. Besides being a bluegrass legend is known for his electric guitar work with the rock band, The Byrds, and as the co-inventor of the B-Bender, a device that allowed him to play steel guitar licks on a Telecaster.
Listen to: “I am a Pilgrim” -- From the 1964 album “Appalachian Swing” by the Kentucky Colonels
Listen to: “Dark Hollow” -- from the 1973 television appearance by Muleskinner.
Norman Blake came to notoriety in the 1960’s as a Nashville studio musician, touring with Johnny Cash, and playing on Bob Dylan’s album, “Nashville Skyline.” Later, he performed solo and with his wife, Nancy. Equally adept at fingerstyle and flatpicking guitar, Norman’s playing is driving and rhythmic.
Although clearly virtuosic and modern, there is something about his playing that seems to hearken back to an earlier time. As a solo performer on guitar, he has perfected a style that sounds full and complete, using a variety of crosspicking and rhythmic techniques to fill-out the spaces between the melody notes. To me, he sounds like about three or four guitarists playing at once!
Listen to: “Randall Collins” -- from the 1972 album ”Back Home is Sulphur Springs”.
Listen to “Church Street Blues” -- from the album “Whiskey Before Breakfast”
To most bluegrass fans, Tony Rice is the definitive bluegrass guitarist, recording over 3 dozen albums in his career. His style of playing has been widely copied by countless bluegrass guitarists, and his guitar tone is so iconic, it has become the standard by.
Coming to prominence in the mid-1970’s playing with J.D. Crowe and the New South, Tony then moved to California to play in the David Grisman Quintet, a band that combined jazz harmonies and improvisation with bluegrass instrumentation.
In the 1980’s, his projects included both traditional bluegrass with the “Bluegrass Album Band,” acoustic jazz projects with the “Tony Rice Unit,” and many other great acoustic/folk albums. Tony’s bluegrass playing is aggressive, bluesy, and adventurous, with a focus on rhythmic precision and creating the best tone possible out of an acoustic guitar.
Listen to: “Freeborn Man” from the album “Guitar.”
Listen to: “Old Train” from the album “Manzanita”
The son of Lamar Grier, one of Bill Monroe’s early banjo players, David Grier is one of the most influential bluegrass guitarists of the last 30 years. His playing is endlessly inventive, thoughtful, and at times, even humorous, and every note is executed flawlessly. He has several albums recorded under his own name, along with the supergroup “Psychograss.”
Listen to: “Bill Cheatum” from the album “I’ve Got the House to Myself.”
Listen to: “Smith Chapel” from the album “Lone Soldier.”
The Line Between Tradition and Innovation
Going back to the early days of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, bluegrass musicians have walked the line between honoring tradition and expressing themselves in a unique and personal way. Though seemingly very different ideals, these two traits are two sides of the same coin in the bluegrass community.
Bluegrasser’s have a deep respect for tradition, and the musicians who came before them. They are familiar with nuances on old records, and will often pay homage to a classic recording in their performances. On the flip side, individuality is highly prized among bluegrass musicians, and “having your own style” is one of the highest compliments you can get.
Since improvisation, variation, and a personal approach are so important to bluegrass musicians, they often have very different ways to play the same song! Listen to some of these recordings for comparison.
This recording of “Salt Creek” has three of the above guitar players on it: Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson. Each takes a turn on the song that sounds very different from the others two! Doc plays a strong melody, Norman follows with a tasty variation, and Tony explores his bluesier side, still holding on to just enough of the original melody to make it work.
For a comparison of different bluegrass guitar styles, here are three different versions of “Nine Pound Hammer.” In this version by Doc Watson, David Grisman, and Alan O’Bryant, you can clearly hear not only Doc’s fluid lead work, but also how he plays rhythm, and plays tasteful counterpoint to Grisman’s mandolin.
Bryan Sutton’s album “Not Far From the Tree” is a duet album featuring him playing with many of his personal heroes. Here, the legendary George Shuffler, the originator of the guitar style known as “crosspicking,” takes the lead.
In this live video from 2011, bluegrass band Della Mae, an all-female bluegrass band takes on this classic tune. Guitarist Courtney Hartman tears through a Tony Rice-inspired guitar break.
Here are three very different takes on a classic fiddle tune, “Forked Deer” (bluegrass guitarists learn fiddle tunes to play with other musicians and expand their technique):
Dan Crary, from the album “Guitar.” This album was one of the first records to focus on flatpicking guitar, and helped firmly establish the guitar has a lead instrument in bluegrass music. This version holds very strongly to the original melody of the song, with some tasteful crosspicking variations added in.
Acoustic guitar wizard Tyler Grant’s solo version is full of twists and turns, starting with a strong melody, but also exploring every possible way to play that melody: low, high, open position, closed position, and everything in-between. Check it out!
In this version of the tune, David Grier seems intent on fooling the listener. Like a bluegrass version of Thelonius Monk, Grier pushes and pulls on the beat of the song the entire time, starting and finishing phrases in unexpected places, constantly building and releasing tension.
The Importance of Rhythm Guitar in Bluegrass Music
In the early days of bluegrass music, the guitar was primarily a rhythmic instrument, often played by the lead singer. The rhythm guitar in bluegrass fills out the midrange, soaking up the bright sounds of the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin.
More than just keeping good time, the rhythm guitar breathes with the music. Bass runs lead the band and the listener through the chord changes, and the “G-run” punctuates the end of a good phrase.
Sometimes it is very difficult to hear the guitar in the mix among other instruments. One reason for this, is that it actually not supposed to stand out--it’s supposed to blend in! If you can’t hear the guitar right away, just keep listening. I’ve tried to showcase some good examples of rhythm guitar that you can actually hear.
For that reason, three of the five examples below are duet recordings. The last two are from Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, two of the early bluegrass musicians who helped establish the style.
“Bury Me Beneath the Willow” -- Skaggs and Rice
The modern standard for rhythm and lead, the duet record “Skaggs and Rice” is just two voices, guitar, and mandolin. It’s an opportunity to hear Tony’s rhythm guitar style without the other instruments pushing it to the back of the mix.
“New River Train” -- Monroe Brothers
While technically pre-bluegrass, this 1936 recording showcase Charlie Monroe’s rock solid bass runs behind Bill’s “lightning-in-a-bottle” mandolin style.
“Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” -- Del McCoury Band
This song is a perfect example of dynamics in rhythm guitar playing. Del adjusts the volume of the rhythm to hide behind the vocals, and to stand out more in the spaces, or when the mandolinist takes his solo. The best musicians listen to what’s going on and adjust their volume and sound to create the best sound as a band. Del’s powerful G-run punctuates the end of each verse.
“Pain in My Heart” -- Flatt and Scruggs
Lester Flatt played with a thumbpick and a fingerpick with a technique that is rarely done today. Although almost all bluegrass guitarists now play with a pick, Lester’s rhythm guitar playing is a great model for any bluegrass guitarist. On these older recordings, the “mix” happens naturally based on how the musicians move towards or away from the microphone as they sing lead, harmony, or play their solos.
“You Don’t Know My Mind” -- Jimmy Martin
Jimmy Martin is often listed as one of the strongest early bluegrass rhythm guitar players. Listen for the runs that he weaves in behind the banjo solo.