"What kind of guitar do I need to play Bluegrass?" This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get at BluegrassGuitar.com. First, there is no such thing as a standard Bluegrass guitar design. There are traditions, however, and here are some of them.
|Acoustic||Acoustic guitars are the type of guitars used in Bluegrass - not electric. Since Bluegrass has its roots in traditional music, all the instruments in a Bluegrass band are generally acoustic.|
|Six-String Steel||The six-string steel guitar is what you'll find in Bluegrass. Most players use medium gauge strings, either in 80/20 brass or phosphor bronze.|
|Flattop||The flattop guitar is the type used in Bluegrass. Flattops feature a round sound hole and a bridge glued directly to the top of the instrument. This is in contrast to archtop guitars, where there are f-holes, a carved top, and a tailpiece.|
|Body Style||The most common body style seen in Bluegrass is the dreadnought shape, as exemplified by the classic Martin D-28 and D-18 guitars. Smaller-bodied guitars, such as the OM (Orchestra Model) style, are also popular.|
|The "Holy Grail"||Perhaps the Holy Grail of Bluegrass guitars is a 1935 Martin D-28 (serial #58957). This is the guitar originally played by Clarence White and then by Tony Rice. There is a great history of this guitar written by Art Dudley for Fretboard Journal. Click here to read that article.|
|Tone Woods||Tone woods are the woods that make up the back and sides of a guitar. They are called tone woods because they help shape the overall tone of the guitar. The two most common tone woods seen in Bluegrass are rosewood and mahogany.
Rosewood, the tone wood used in D-28's, is very resonant and has a deep bass response that many Bluegrassers prefer. This tone is sometimes described as being "darker" than mahogany. Most guitars today are made from East Indian rosewood. The classic Martin D-28's built before mid-1969 were made from Brazilian rosewood. Artists who play rosewood guitars include Tony Rice, Dan Crary, Steve Kaufman and Jack Lawrence
Mahogany, the tone wood used in D-18s, is lighter than rosewood and produces a sound with less bass response and overtones. Mahogany produces a sound sometimes characterized as being "woody" or warm with an emphasis on clear bright trebles. Artists who play mahogany guitars include Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Kenny Smith and Clarence White (who played a D-18 on the famous "Appalachian Swing" album).
|Top Woods||A guitar's top, or soundboard, influences the instrument's responsiveness, sustain and the strength and quality of the fundamental tone. Spruce is the most common top wood found in Bluegrass guitars.
There are several different varieties of spruce available, with Sitka spruce being the most common. Sitka is quite stiff and relatively light, and this produces a top that performs well in transmitting sound.
Adirondack, or Red Spruce, which was used in the "Golden Age" of 1930's-40's Martin guitars. Adirondack is known for its stiffness, volume and tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels. It is short supply today, and is an expensive option if available.
|Bracing||How a guitar's top is braced on the inside also has a great influence on how the instrument will sound and respond. The bracing pattern found in most steel-string dreadnoughts is the "X" pattern, originally developed by C.F. Martin in the 1850's. The position of the "X" relative to the soundhole, whether the top braces are scalloped or not, and the bracing wood type and thickness all influence how the top will respond.
The "Golden Era" Martins had forward-shifted, scalloped bracing that produced a louder, more responsive top. Many players at that time used heavy gauge strings to get more volume out of their guitars, but that was too much force for these tops to handle. As a result, Martin moved the position of the "X" closer to the bridge in 1939 to give the tops more structural integrity. The top braces went from being scalloped (to maximize top vibration) to non-scalloped in 1944 for the same reason.
Many new guitars are made with the forward-shifted, scalloped bracing like in the "Golden Era" instruments, and this is often a feature that Bluegrassers look for.
|Makers||The most common brand you'll see and hear in Bluegrass is Martin. From the 1930's through the 1960's, Martin was THE brand to have. In those days, there were really only a couple of manufacturers around: Martin and Gibson. In the last 20 years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of manufacturers producing fine acoustic guitars. Many of these, like Collings, Bourgeois, Nashville Guitars and Merrill, are small volume shops that focus on quality rather than quantity. You can find a list these makers on our Guitar Makers page.|