by Happy Traum
From the classic instruction book Bluegrass Guitar
Bluegrass music is a direct descendant of the old-time string band tradition, which in turn developed out of southern mountain dance music and songs. The southern mountains have been a vast repository of traditional music since the 17th century when the hills were first settled by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants who brought with them their incredibly rich ballad and song tradition. Isolated in the hills for generations, the music flourished almost unchanged until the early part of the twentieth century when the mountains became accessible to outside influence, making possible an exchange of musical (and other) ideas. Mountain music held on and grew despite the pressures from more socially acceptable forms of popular music, and although some change did occur, the rural people of the south and other parts of the country clung tenaciously to the music which has become one of the most valuable contributions to American culture.
That chapter was such a good fit with our outline and goals for this webstie that we wanted to reprint it here. We would like to thank Happy Traum for his permission to share this great article with you. Be sure to visit his web site at Homespun Tapes for video, DVD and CD instruction in bluegrass guitar and many other styles by top players in the field.
When it finally emerged from its isolation, the music took on a new character. The Black music of the rural south was the other powerfully influential cultural development, with its blues shouters, guitar pickers, jug bands, minstrel shows, and of course, the new jazz combos of the day. It was at least partly through this influence that the primarily unaccompanied vocal music started to take on the instrumental qualities as we know them today.
Of course, the fiddle and banjo had been used as the basic dance band instruments for years (when allowed by the religious mores of the area) but the guitar only appeared in the 1920's as a backup instrument, providing the rhythm behind the lead instruments or an accompaniment for a singer.
The bluegrass guitar style started to emerge with the first commercial performances of old-time instrumental music. Groups and individual artists such as J .E. Mainer and his Mountaineers, Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and The Delmore Brothers, are all good examples of what is essentially the same style of guitar playing that we know so well today. There are many records available of these early country musicians in which the simple boom-chicka boom-chicka rhythm and strong bass runs can be clearly heard. The style is simple and direct, but perfectly suited to the straight-forward music it accompanies.
Lead guitar on these early recordings was rare, although Maybelle Carter's powerful melody picking (her thumb played lead while her index finger filled out the rhythm in the treble) did a great deal to inspire more ambitious guitar pickers and push the guitar into the foreground. Alton Delmore of the Delmore Brothers was another example of an early lead guitarist, and almost all of their songs features his simple but powerful flat picking solos, played against Rabon's tenor guitar rhythm. These examples are the exception rather than the rule, though, and most country music guitarists were content to back up the other lead instruments, especially fiddle, mandolin and banjo.
The term "bluegrass", which incidentally did not come into popular usage until the early 1950's, was originally used to describe a new kind of country string band music developed by Bill Monroe in the late 1930's. Monroe, who for years has been called "The Daddy of Bluegrass", comes from Kentucky (The Blue Grass State) and chose that name for his band, The Blue Grass Boys. Bill Monroe's main instrument, of course, is the mandolin (for which he has developed a distinctive and very influential style), but he has always played with a guitar back-up. His earliest recordings were with his brother Charlie, and The Monroe Brothers, like other country groups, sang tight harmonies with Bill's mandolin taking the instrumental solos and Charlie's guitar keeping the solid rhythm and bass lines going behind him.
It was Bill's high mountain tenor, though, that was so captivating about their sound. Often called "the high, lonesome sound" when describing the mountain balladeers, Bill Monroe's singing was directly influenced by the mountain church singing and modal harmonies of his youth in western Kentucky. (For comparison, listen to recordings of old time ballad singers such as Roscoe Holcomb, Horton Barker, and Clarence Ashley.) The "high lonesome sound" is also especially prevalent in the bluegrass music of The Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter, from the Mountain region of Virginia .
It was in the late 1940's that Bill Monroe started to break away from the old-time music and formed the bluegrass sound that had such an explosive influence on the country scene. His new group featured a young Earl Scruggs on 5-string banjo, and the unusually complex three-finger picking, combined with Monroe 's driving mandolin, Lester Flatt's guitar, and Chubby Wise's fiddle, gave the group a power and excitement not heard before in country music. This was the group that was to be the model for all bluegrass groups to come.
By the mid-1950's there were several highly professional bluegrass bands traveling the country, recording, and playing on radio programs such as Nashville 's Grand 0l' Opry and WWVA's Jamboree from Wheeling, West Virginia. Included in these groups were many musicians who had served a brief but important apprenticeship with Bill Monroe, notably Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Don Reno, Mac Wiseman, and Sonny Osborn to name a few of the men who started carving a permanent name for bluegrass in the annals of American popular culture.
For the most part, bluegrass guitarists still kept pretty much in the background, punching out the rhythm and interspersing bass runs with a few licks, such as Lester Flatt's famous "G run" that's been played by every bluegrass guitarist in the world. Two notable exceptions are the lead guitar playing of George Shuffler on The Stanley Brothers early albums, and Don Reno, best known as a banjo picker but an excellent flatpicker as well. Both of these men brought a new sophistication and technical expertise to bluegrass guitar playing. Still, as I have said, the guitarist was the indispensable mainstay of the bluegrass band, and Lester Flatt, Charlie Monroe, Red Smiley, Carter Stanley, Charlie Waller, Jimmy Martin, and dozens of other guitar pickers and singers filled the role well.
It was not until the sixties that the guitar really came into its own as a lead instrument worthy of a solo in a bluegrass instrumental or song. The most dynamic guitarist to emerge from the country music scene was not a bluegrass musician at all, but a mountain singer from North Carolina named Doc Watson. Doc, of course, was proficient in nearly every musical field, but it was as a traditional folk musician that he found his first large audiences. He knew hundreds of songs and sang them in a rich, dark baritone voice while picking the guitar and banjo, or blowing his mouth harp, but when he launched into one of his incomparably flatpicked fiddle tunes he just about blew everyone out of the room. His influence was immediate, and the youngsters allover America started learning to play lead acoustic guitar with a flatpick.
One of those who picked up on Doc's style was a young man named Clarence White, who first came to prominence in a bluegrass group called The Kentucky Colonels. Clarence added a more contemporary feeling to the style, and reworked Doc's cross-picking techniques into his own musical trademark. Clarence went on to work as lead guitarist with The Byrds and played on numerous recording sessions. At the time of his tragic death in 1973 he was already considered to be one of the greatest country guitarists ever.
Thanks to the influence of men like Doc Watson, Clarence White, George Shuffler, Don Reno and others, many more guitarists have followed and developed their own lead guitar techniques - Dan Crary, Tony Rice, John Herald, Norman Blake, David Bromberg, and Russ Barenberg among them. In the pages Bluegrass Guitar, I have tried to set down a fairly representative cross section of bluegrass guitar playing, from the simplest back-up strums to the most advanced examples of "newgrass" picking that I could find. My book is by no means complete, since it would be almost impossible to mention everyone and notate all the songs that brought us up to this musical point. It is my hope though, that you will take what you learn here and explore and experiment for yourself, finding new and old songs and joining these ranks of fine bluegrass musicians.