That High, Lonesome Sound: A Guide to the Instruments In Bluegrass

Bluegrass music, a form of North American roots music, has its own roots in Irish, English and Scottish traditional music. Like jazz, bluegrass features each musical instrument playing in turn, performing the melody while the others perform accompaniment. In early 20th century, as the Virginia settlers began to spread out into Tennessee, the Carolinas and Kentucky, they composed songs about routine life experiences. The songs reflected their lives in the hills or on the farm. This type of music, called country music, was popularized into Bluegrass music by the Monroe brothers, who hailed from the “Blue Grass State,” Kentucky.


Bluegrass depends on acoustic stringed instruments, usually the fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright bass, and is sometimes accompanied by the resonator guitar (The Dobro guitar). A bluegrass band includes at least four musicians who play the acoustic guitar, an upright bass and a banjo, though these instruments are not mandatory. The fiddle, the mandolin, and the resonator guitar are the other common instruments used. Other than instrumentation, Bluegrass incorporates vocal harmonies featuring various parts, including a dissonant sound in the highest voice, laying an emphasis on traditional songs with sentimental themes. This singing style has been differentiated as the "high lonesome sound."

The Mandolin:

An instrument from the lute family, the mandolin has six double courses of strings. It is a major component of country music. It is referred to as the defining instrument of Bluegrass music. Bill Monroe, Chris Thile and David Grisman are at the top among accomplished mandolin players.

The Acoustic Guitar:

The acoustic guitar depends on the conventional strumming based acoustic method of sound production. Being a major part of the Bluegrass orchestra, it has earned renowned players like Charlie Monroe and Birch Monroe to its name. As opposed to electronic guitar, which uses electronic amplification to make their sound audible, the acoustic guitar relies on acoustic methods only.

The Banjo:

Another stringed instrument with usually four or five strings with a plastic or animal skin stretched on a circular frame. The banjo has always been a significant part of bluegrass music. Earl Scruggs and Sonny Osborne are well-known bluegrass banjo players. Apart from bluegrass music, banjo is also associated with country and folk music.

The Fiddle:

The fiddle refers to any of the bowed stringed musical instruments like the violin. It is a very integral part of bluegrass music. Alison Krauss, Chubby Wise and Kenny Baker have been few of the most innovative fiddlers ever in Bluegrass music. It is used in all genres (including classical music).

The Resonator Guitar (Dobro):

The resonator is also an acoustic guitar whose sound is produced by spun metal cones instead of the wooden box. It was introduced into bluegrass by Josh Graves. The instrument has ever since had the likes of Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge in its repertoire of renowned performers. Resonator guitars are structured in two styles: square necked guitars and round necked guitars.

The Upright Bass:

The Upright Bass, also called Double Bass, is the lowest-pitched bowed stringed instrument used in Bluegrass and Western classical music. Mark Schatz and Jason Heath are renowned players of the instrument.

General References:

The international bluegrass community now has members throughout the world. Besides the classic style, bluegrass bands today reveal influences from diverse sources including fusion and traditional jazz. Celtic music, contemporary country music, rock & roll, Southern gospel music and old-time music also have influenced its style and structure. The lyrics of bluegrass music have been translated into many languages.